Vikings

Three Potential Draft Picks That Could Define Minnesota’s Future

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The initial wave of free agency is in the rearview and the Minnesota Vikings addressed some of their more immediate needs to defend the NFC North in 2023. Byron Murphy appears to be filling Patrick Peterson‘s shoes as Brian Flores‘ CB1. Is Marcus Davenport the Za’Darius Smith replacement? Or just another pass-rushing maestro for Minnesota’s front? Josh Oliver should help Kevin O’Connell‘s running game while creating more advantageous looks from opposing secondaries for Justin Jefferson. Dean Lowry is an upgrade over Dalvin Tomlinson from an interior pass-rush standpoint, and at a far more cost-effective rate.

Teams that view themselves as legitimate contenders never want to be pigeonholed when the NFL draft rolls around in late April. They don’t want to feel forced to take a particular position because of need. The Vikings’ front office helped alleviate some of those concerns last week in free agency. However, obvious holes remain — and none larger than at WR2.

No two words have defined the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell era more than “competitive rebuild.” And that intentional philosophical approach rang true throughout the first handful of free-agent signings. Aside from Lowry, Minnesota’s three marquee free-agent signings all entered the league no later than in 2018. By prioritizing youth, the hope is that these additions can help both in the short term and for years to come — especially if Murphy and Davenport “prove it” based on the duration of their contracts.

Last year’s decision to trade down and select Lewis Cine at the end of the first round certainly checked the “rebuild” box. With a roster that is still plenty capable of being a serious threat in the NFC, does the front office lean into the “competitive” half of their mantra this time around in the draft? Or stay the course and look to address tomorrow’s problems by spending a premium pick on a position to help brighten a murky future? What about a first-round selection that singlehandedly defines competitive rebuild?

In the spirit of this regime’s core identity, let’s take a look at three different avenues the Vikings could venture down in next month’s draft.

Competitive: Zay Flowers, WR (Boston College)

As it stands now, WR2 has a spotlight on it so bright it’s visible from 500 miles away. With O’Connell’s arrival last season, the expectations were properly set at Adam Thielen being the beneficiary of single coverage and providing a plus-option for the Vikings’ passing game. Unfortunately, the Detroit Lakes native couldn’t sieze the opportunity, and the front office decided to release one of the fanbase’s favorite son with two years remaining on his contract.

While undersized at 5’9″, 182 lbs., Flowers possess pristine route-running capabilities and is dynamic in the open field. His 4.42 40-yard dash won’t necessarily wow anybody for a player of his size, but Flowers can exploit one-on-one coverage with his ability to create separation on double moves. The obvious flaw with relying on a receiver that specializes in double moves is that it requires the offensive line to hold up long enough due to the sheer time it takes for the play to develop. And only Justin Herbert experienced more dropbacks under pressure than Kirk Cousins last season, per Pro Football Focus.

But luckily for Flowers’ potential fit with the Vikings, he’s proven to be effective in the quick-hitting short-to-intermediate game, while also being fairly reliable as the first read on vertical concepts. If Flowers can enter the fray as Minnesota’s No. 3 option in its passing game, he could provide an instant boost and give both O’Connell and Cousins some additional peace of mind if/when defenses load up on Jefferson.

Rebuild: Will Levis, QB (Kentucky)

It’s no secret that the Vikings appear to be content with allowing Cousins to play out the final year of his contract in 2023 and reassessing their future at the most important position in sports. Levis entered the Combine puffing his chest by proclaiming that he wanted to show off his cannon, even though the general consensus of his workout was “meh.” Although Levis is extremely polarizing, with clunky mechanics at times and an underwhelming senior season at Kentucky, the intrigue around Levis is simply different for the Vikings than it is for essentially every other team in the first round.

Why? Because Levis has already played in a version of O’Connell’s offensive scheme. Former Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Cohen was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 2021. Coen was O’Connell’s and Sean McVay‘s assistant quarterbacks coach for the Rams in 2020 and brought LA’s scheme with him to Lexington, Ky. for Levis. This past season, Coen replaced O’Connell as the Rams’ offensive coordinator before deciding to return as Kentucky’s OC in January.

Considering Levis’ familiarity with his scheme, O’Connell could be pounding the table to move up on draft night if the former Kentucky quarterback experiences a bit of a slide. That way, the Vikings can live in both today and tomorrow, with Cousins at quarterback this coming season before handing the keys to the offense over to Levis in 2024. That would create a four-year runway for Adofo-Mensah and the front office to capitalize on a rookie quarterback contract and solidify the rest of the roster.

It’s not hard to find lowlights of Levis. However, this three-play sequence from Levis in 2021 (while playing in Coen’s scheme) is the ceiling that all interested parties are chasing with the dual-threat quarterback.

 

Competitive Rebuild: Nolan Smith, Edge (Georgia)

Although I personally envision the former Georgia Bulldog being selected prior to the 23rd-overall pick, it’d be mighty tough for Adofo-Mensah and Flores to pass on Smith if he’s staring back at them when the Vikings are on the clock. Even if Minnesota moves on from Za’Darius Smith over the coming weeks, edge rusher isn’t necessarily an immediate need after the Davenport signing. However, the former 14th-overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft has yet to prove that he’s capable of being an every-down player and inserting Smith to the Vikings’ edge rusher room would provide depth and assurances for Davenport’s snap share concerns.

At 6’2″ and 238 lbs., Smith is considerably smaller than a majority of the league’s premier edge rushers. But after watching Philadelphia Eagles edge rusher Haason Reddick dominate this past season with an eerily similar build, teams in need of more from their pass rush are hoping that Smith can eventually win as a pass rusher with his unique burst and speed. Speaking of which, Smith’s 4.39 40-yard dash and 1.52 10-yard split were better than Micah Parsons‘ from his 2021 Pro Day at Penn State.

For the sake of dream-building, let’s just say the Vikings and Za’Darius Smith work out their standoff and the 2022 Pro Bowler returns for 2023. In that case, Smith and Davenport could theoretically reduce Smith’s 70% snap share workload from last season and help allow him to be as fresh as possible for when games mean considerably more in December and January. Think of it like it like the Buffalo Bills’ plan for Von Miller this past season. Before losing the two-time Super Bowl champion to a torn ACL, Miller was playing on just 61% of Buffalo’s defensive snaps.

In the ideal scenario, Minnesota’s NASCAR front — which is reserved for strictly obvious passing situations — could be Davenport and Smith inside with Danielle Hunter and Smith out on the edge. With health permitting, that’s as tantalizing of a front four on third-and-longs as Flores could ever realistically dream of for the Vikings.

Regardless of which direction the Vikings decide to go in next month’s draft, there will be no shortage of captivating options.

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