A heartbreaking loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday did enough to rile up the Minnesota Vikings fanbase. On Tuesday, Mike Renner from Pro Football Focus did his part to throw gasoline on the fire.
Now, to judge a draft class after two games is the definition of a knee-jerk reaction. While it is mildly concerning that no rookies played snaps from scrimmage, it’s not enough to say that the class is a disaster. However, the 2021 draft class has pressure to produce results soon because of the failures and misses of previous classes.
This isn’t the players’ fault. It comes from the miscalculations from a front office that has its fair share of hits but also a good chunk of misses. Even at other times, decent picks pale in comparison to home-run selections by other teams following Minnesota’s selections. It would be unfair to judge Rick Spielman and Co. on later-round picks when future Pro Bowlers were on the board. But for this exercise, I decided to look back at the first two rounds in each draft since head coach Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014. What I found were plenty of good, bad, and downright ugly picks that have influenced this year’s Vikings roster.
The first draft selection of the Zimmer Era was linebacker Anthony Barr at No. 9-overall. Barr splashed as a rookie, hitting the trifecta with a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and touchdown all in the same play when he walked off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in overtime. He made the Pro Bowl every year from 2014-18. Early in the 2019 free-agency period, it appeared as if Barr would sign with the New York Jets. However, he got cold feet and returned to Minnesota on a 5-year, $67.5 million contract. Although many fans are sour on him, the Vikings hit on Barr, and the Vikings defense is suffocating when he is at his best.
Minnesota traded back into the first round and got the 32nd-overall pick later in the night. They selected Teddy Bridgewater, who became one of the most popular players in the Vikings’ locker room. Although he didn’t put up crazy stats (28 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in two seasons), he complemented the Minnesota defense. Unfortunately, a knee injury in 2016 derailed his career. More on that later.
The 2015 draft was a home run for the Vikings, although many may question their first pick. Like Barr, 2015 first-round selection Trae Waynes never seemed to win over fans. But he was a solid CB2 as a bookend to stud (stud?) cornerback Xavier Rhodes during his five-year tenure. However, seven picks later, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Marcus Peters.
While Peters has had the more successful NFL career (his eight interceptions as a rookie are more than Waynes has in his whole career), he only lasted three seasons in Kansas City. He also played (and still plays) very aggressively, enough to call into question whether he and Zimmer could ever co-exist. Still, three years of Peters would have put him on the two strongest Vikings teams of the Zimmer Era.
Minnesota’s second-round pick was linebacker Eric Kendricks. The selection has been an absolute slam dunk. Although he doesn’t receive the national recognition he deserves, Kendricks may be the heart and soul of the Vikings’ defense. This may be the best selection of this entire exercise. Minnesota would add Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs in later rounds to bolster the class.
The Zimmer era started with two strong drafts, but that changed in 2016. At pick 23, the Vikings selected wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. The pick was a disaster from the beginning. Treadwell only caught one pass as a rookie. He eventually found a role as a backup wide receiver, but that’s not what you’re looking for in the first round. In four seasons with the Vikings, Treadwell caught 65 passes for 701 yards and two touchdowns. Players still on the board when Treadwell was picked included DT Chris Jones, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Myles Jack, RB Derrick Henry, and, wait for it, WR Michael Thomas. Uffda.
In the second round, the Vikings once again selected a player who was more than serviceable but never fully embraced. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander took a full year before embracing his transition to nickelback. He was never a rock star, but he became one of the better slot defenders in the league. Unfortunately, Tyler Boyd, Vonn Bell, and Kevin Byard were players that were still on the board.
Back to Bridgewater. Because the Vikings failed to address the backup quarterback spot in 2016, they panicked when Bridgewater tore his ACL less than two weeks before the regular season began. Minnesota sent its first-round and fourth-round picks in 2017 to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for quarterback Sam Bradford. After a strong start, things went south for Bradford and the Vikings in 2016. He threw for 20 touchdowns and five interceptions but lacked explosion. He would only play two games in 2017 before a knee injury sidelined him. Had the Vikings kept their first-round pick (14th-overall in 2017), they would have been in striking distance of a guy named Patrick Mahomes.
One could say the Vikings made up for it with the selection of Dalvin Cook in the second round. However, decent teams make up for a draft bust by selecting a good player later on. Great teams stack great picks on top of other great picks. Cook also missed most of 2017 with an ACL injury, the same season the Vikings made it to the NFC Championship.
Aching from a 38-7 thrashing in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings selected cornerback Mike Hughes with the 30th-overall pick. Hughes could never avoid the injury bug, playing only 24 games in purple. Other players on the board included RB Nick Chubb, LB Darius Leonard, WR Courtland Sutton, and WR Christian Kirk.
Once again, the Vikings made up for the miss on Hughes with a home run in the second round with right tackle Brian O’Neill. Just before the 2021 season, he was signed to a 5-year, $92.5 million contract and is one of the better right tackles in football.
This may be the most controversial pick on here. Center Garrett Bradbury was selected with the 18th-overall pick. Depending on who you ask, the undersized center is either a bust or, at best, not as bad as you think he is. PFF has graded him as the 28th-best center as a rookie. In both 2020 and this young season, he has been graded as the 25th, ahem, best (?) center in the league. He was selected one spot in front of game-wrecking DT Jeffery Simmons, a position the Vikings possibly still need (and at a cheaper price than Dalvin Tomlinson). WR Marquise Brown, DE Montez Sweat, and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting were all on the board as well and positions that needed to be filled going into the 2020 draft.
Once again, we get controversial here. In the second round, the Vikings selected tight end Irv Smith, Jr. with the 50th-overall pick. In two seasons, Smith caught 66 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. This year, he was primed for a breakout but then suffered a meniscus injury and underwent surgery that most likely ends his season. This is bad luck, but with almost 25 years invested in this team, I’m not one to play the sympathy card when judging players. One pick after Smith, the Tennessee Titans took WR A.J. Brown. Minnesota had Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but more talent on a roster is never a bad thing. Brown has 129 catches for 2,218 yards and 20 touchdowns in 32 career games. Also on the board as pass-catching options were wide receivers Mecole Hardman and D.K. Metcalf.
Minnesota hit their first pick out of the park with the selection of wideout Justin Jefferson. He made second-team All-Pro as a rookie and broke the rookie record with 1,400 yards receiving. No arguments here.
With the 31st-overall pick, the Vikings took cornerback Jeff Gladney. Although he didn’t intercept any passes, fans and coaches alike were high on him. However, he was involved in a domestic dispute following the season, and the Vikings released him during training camp. People can give the Vikings a pass on this one as instances like this are hard to foresee. However, when a stud safety like Antoine Winfield Jr. is in your backyard and his dad played for your team, you can’t miss on them. The Vikings did, though, and Winfield won a Super Bowl as a rookie in Tampa Bay.
Now to the present day. The Vikings traded down from the 14th-overall pick to draft left tackle Christian Darrisaw. He has yet to play as he underwent core/groin surgery prior to the season. Minnesota hopes to get him back soon, but conditioning could be an issue that keeps him out of the starting lineup for most of the year.
Because Minnesota never found a suitable replacement for defensive end Everson Griffen last year, they traded away their 2021 second-round pick for Yannick Ngakoue weeks before the regular season. After six games, the Vikings traded Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for a third-round pick.
Years of mediocre drafting has led the Vikings to where they are now. After two strong classes built a solid foundation for Zimmer, too many disappointments and a lack of picks in general caused the Vikings to chase missed opportunities. Selecting Michael Thomas would have given the team three legitimate receivers.
Guys like Waynes and Alexander were far from misses but not game-changers like players selected behind them. One could question selecting a linebacker in 2018, but Darius Leonard would have allowed the Vikings to move on from Barr with no hesitation following the season. That would also give the team more cap space and somebody who has seen the field in the past two seasons.
Is it nitpicky? Is 20/20 hindsight always fair? Maybe not. But Super Bowl-winning teams figure out a way to maximize their most precious draft picks. The Vikings haven’t, and they are paying for it after a 0-2 start to the 2021 season.