EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings, at 12th overall, have their highest first-round draft pick in seven years.
After making major offseason changes to the front office and the coaching staff, they decided not to start over with the roster.
That's the ideal scenario for a true best-player-available approach. Come next weekend, though, it will be difficult for the new leadership of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell to ignore a particularly persistent need.
The proven cornerbacks that O'Connell's predecessor, Mike Zimmer, often said he could never have enough of remain in short supply after the end of Zimmer's eight-year run.
Bringing back Patrick Peterson for a second season in purple and a 12th year in the NFL was a vital offseason move. Signing former Green Bay Packers slot man Chandon Sullivan was another boost. Nate Hairston, another free agent pickup, added depth. Cameron Dantzler and Kris Boyd are back, the story of their careers not yet written.
Further upgrades in the draft, however, are a must for a team that ranked 28th and 25th the past two seasons in passing yards allowed.
“We wanted to add football players: guys with cover skill sets that can tackle, playing multiple spots,” O'Connell said. “Really, our defense is going to be about finding those pieces that fit.”
This draft is top-heavy with edge rushers, offensive tackles and wide receivers, which could help the Vikings. On the other hand, the consensus top two cornerback prospects — Cincinnati's Ahmad Gardner and LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. — will likely be gone by No. 12.
Washington's Trent McDuffie would make sense, even after a trade to move slightly down. Or if the Vikings are enticed by an edge rusher, Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II — a native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota — could well be available to the Vikings with their first pick on Thursday night.
They won't be focused on the offensive tackles, for once. After using the top of the past four drafts to enhance the offensive line, that unit is no longer the burning platform it once was. Tackles Brian O'Neill and Christian Darrisaw, guard Ezra Cleveland and center Garrett Bradbury were all taken in the first two rounds over the past four seasons.
Bradbury's future is unclear, entering a contract year after losing his starting job for awhile in 2021. Right guard remains wide open, but three veteran free agents — Jesse Davis, Chris Reed and Austin Schlottmann — were brought in to compete with holdovers Oli Udoh and Wyatt Davis.
As O'Connell held court last month during an NFC coaches interview session at the NFL meetings, he spoke confidently about having only one or two positions unsettled going into the summer.
“There's plenty of coaches in this room right now who are talking about two or three or four spots on the offensive line coming together,” he said.
The theme of the beginning of the Adofo-Mensah/O'Connell era has been collaboration, a professed value of theirs that was largely missing from the end of the tenure of their predecessors.
“It’s been a lot of fun. In a lot of ways, we’re just in there talking ball and what our systems require, then taking a look at these prospects and piecing it all together," O'Connell said of the pre-draft meetings with the coaching staff and scouting staff.
PUT A PIN IN IT
When the Vikings extended Kirk Cousins' contract by one year for another $35 million, they effectively took themselves out of the quarterback derby in this draft, which is decidedly light on projected franchise-changers. With 2021 third-round pick Kellen Mond still in the fold and Sean Mannion retained as the primary backup, taking a developmental quarterback on the third day of the draft appears to be unlikely, too.
Wide receiver Justin Jefferson was asked recently whether he follows the draft and made it clear he won't be parked in front of the TV next weekend.
“Just like in my case, it doesn’t really matter where you get picked up at. It all depends on what you do when you get there,” Jefferson said. “The draft, to be honest, I don’t really like to watch it. It’s long. I don’t like it.”
AREAS OF FOCUS
The Vikings have taken cornerbacks with four of their past 12 first-round selections: Xavier Rhodes (2013), Trae Waynes (2015), Mike Hughes (2018) and Jeff Gladney (2020). The only other position accounting for multiple first-rounders since 2013 is wide receivers, with three.
The Vikings are scheduled to pick 46th and 77th overall in the second and third rounds, respectively, on Friday night. For Saturday afternoon, they have one pick in the fifth round (156), three picks in the sixth round (184, 191, 192) and one pick in the seventh round (250).
Their fourth-rounder went to the New York Jets for tight end Chris Herndon, a trade last year that also netted them a sixth-rounder. Herndon caught four passes with one touchdown last season and played about 16% of the snaps on offense. The other additional sixth-round pick was acquired last year from the Kansas City Chiefs for Hughes.
LAST SEASON: The Vikings lost their first two games in crushing fashion to eventual playoff teams Cincinnati and Arizona and never truly recovered, not spending a single week above the .500 mark. They matched the NFL's all-time record with 14 games decided by eight points or fewer, winning only six of those while their late-game defense failed them badly. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had another solid year throwing to star receiver Justin Jefferson, but he missed a crucial game at division champion Green Bay with COVID-19. General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer were both fired the day after the season, paving the way for the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah/Kevin O'Connell regime to begin. O'Connell came with a Super Bowl ring after winning the championship as offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.
FREE AGENCY/TRADES: Signed LB Za'Darius Smith, DT Harrison Phillips, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Chandon Sullivan, G Jesse Davis, G Chris Reed, G/C Austin Schlottmann, CB Nate Hairston and TE Johnny Mundt. Re-signed CB Patrick Peterson, P Jordan Berry, K Greg Joseph and QB Sean Mannion. Signed Cousins to a one-year contract extension. Released DT Michael Pierce. Lost TE Tyler Conklin, S Xavier Woods and C Mason Cole. LB Anthony Barr, DE Everson Griffen, DT Sheldon Richardson, CB Mackensie Alexander and OT Rashod Hill remain free agents.
THEY NEED: CB, DL, interior OL.
THEY DON’T NEED: WR, RB, OT.
POSSIBLE FIRST PICK: LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.; Washington CB Trent McDuffie; Florida State DE Jermaine Johnson II.
OUTLOOK: Bringing back Peterson was a big boost to the secondary, but the Vikings still need more cornerbacks. The defensive line depth also ought to be addressed, though retaining Danielle Hunter and signing Smith gives the Vikings an enviable pair of pass rushers if they're healthy. After prioritizing the offensive line with several early picks over the last four drafts, the Vikings appear to have finally established a viable core to move forward with. Tackles Brian O'Neill and Christian Darrisaw and left guard Ezra Cleveland are set in their spots. Right guard remains a question mark, but the Vikings signed three free agents to compete there. Center Garrett Bradbury, their first-rounder in 2019, enters a pivotal year, with his potential replacement lurking in this draft.