The Minnesota Vikings’ 2020 draft class has the potential to go down as one of the best in franchise history. With Justin Jefferson, Ezra Cleveland, and Cameron Dantzler seizing starting roles in their rookie year, the Vikings have the foundation for a team that can make a deep playoff run.
Pro Football Focus recently gave the 2020 class an A+, but there’s a chance it can get even better next year. With several players who could take a leap forward this season, it could give the 2015 class a run for Rick Spielman’s best ever.
The Vikings kicked off the 2015 draft by selecting Trae Waynes with the 11th-overall pick. It took Waynes a couple of seasons to become a starting cornerback, but it didn’t matter. What Minnesota did in the later rounds to set them apart.
They took Eric Kendricks in the second round and Danielle Hunter in the third. Both players went on to become two of the best players at their positions and key cogs of the Vikings’ No. 1-ranked defense in 2017.
Although Minnesota whiffed on T.J. Clemmings, and MyCole Pruitt’s career didn’t take off until he landed with the Tennessee Titans, they selected Stefon Diggs in the fifth round. Diggs became part of a dynamic receiver duo with Adam Thielen and will forever be etched in Vikings’ lore after converting the Minneapolis Miracle.
Add it all up and the Vikings acquired four starters and two All-Pros in the 2015 class. It would be hard for the 2020 class to top this haul, but they already have some of the pieces that could make it better.
Jefferson’s rookie season was special but came after he was used sparingly in the first two weeks. After making his first career start in Week 3, Jefferson put up 1,330 yards and seven touchdowns in the final 14 games. It’s not hard to imagine that the Vikings’ coaching staff would like to feature Jefferson more. He may not post 1,400 yards again, but he’ll at least get the volume to make a bigger impact.
The same could be said for Ezra Cleveland. The Vikings didn’t use Cleveland for the first five games of the season but inserted him into the starting lineup at right guard. Although he didn’t have a seamless transition from left tackle, Cleveland performed admirably and will have a full offseason to learn the nuances of playing guard. He’ll also return to his natural side with the addition of Wyatt Davis.
Cameron Dantzler also made an impact in his rookie year and got better as the season went on. According to Pro Football Focus, Dantzler ranked fourth with a 41.9 passer rating allowed in his final seven games. With most corners needing a couple of years to learn Mike Zimmer’s system, Dantzler will be in a starting role entering training camp and should be helped out with the signing of Patrick Peterson.
Heading into this season, the Vikings have already added three players who should become long-term starters. But it’s in the later rounds where the 2020 class could go over the top.
D.J. Wonnum was a surprise pick among analysts, and the Vikings even admitted he was more of a project coming out of South Carolina. Like the trio mentioned above, Wonnum was thrust into action and performed well. While the Vikings would like to see an improvement in his pass rushing, he wasn’t even supposed to see the field last year.
If the Vikings were disappointed in Wonnum’s progress, they would have added competition in the draft or free agency. While they were in on Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson, the only addition was Stephen Weatherly and a stable of late-round projects in the draft. With a full offseason to prepare, there’s a chance that he could have a breakout season next year.
The same goes for Harrison Hand. The Vikings needed to use Hand due to injuries in the secondary and he performed admirably with a 90.8 passer rating allowed. While that would put him 51st among qualifying cornerbacks, it’s not unreasonable to expect improvement in a larger role.
While the Vikings added Mackensie Alexander and Peterson during free agency, both are signed to one-year deals. If Hand can make a jump, he could climb the depth chart and be a key contributor in 2022.
Then there’s the slew of late-round picks the Vikings made. While Rick Spielman stated it was a way to jump the line in college free agency, they took a pair of projects who could provide value.
Kenny Wiliekes was a prospect who many considered to be a steal in the seventh round but suffered a torn ACL in the later weeks of training camp. With athleticism to spare, he could carve out a rotational role this season if his knee holds up.
Kyle Hinton is another name to keep an eye on as an intriguing backup. A fellow workout warrior, Hinton’s path to starting is blocked by the addition of Wyatt Davis, but he could provide depth at a position that hasn’t had any over the past decade.
Although there may not be as many elite players in the 2020 class, the Vikings have a chance to have four to six contributors. That is the hit rate Minnesota needed coming out of last spring’s overhaul and could put this class over the gold standard in 2015.