Now that the major deals in free-agency are pretty much done, and draft speculation is just starting to heat up a little, let's take another look at how the Vikings can best improve their roster through this year's draft.
Let's start out by examining a few things from the existing roster and free-agency, and their impact on the draft.
First, with the free-agent acquisitions of Alex Boone and Andre Smith, and re-signing Mike Harris, along with all the other offensive linemen currently on the roster, I think there are enough bodies competing at every position along the offensive line where it isn't going to be a big draft area. There are also plenty of younger players competing, where drafting another one isn't going to add much to the competition. The Vikings don't need anymore projects along the offensive line, they need to solidify and develop what they have. Hopefully new offensive line coach Tony Sparano will be able to do a better job in that regard than his predecessor, Jeff Davidson.
Defense shouldn't be a focus in the draft this year, other than mid-to-late round picks to bolster depth at DE, CB and LB.
I'd also rather see the Vikings upgrade the backup QB spot by either having Taylor Heinicke prove he is worthy, or picking up a more capable veteran than Shaun Hill, who I don't think is worthy of the backup spot.
WR remains the biggest need to fill in the draft, which should be the focus of the first-round pick.
Beyond that, the Vikings are deeper and with fewer holes to fill than has been the case for many years, so a best-player-available approach makes even more sense this year.
With all that in mind, here are some realistic picks that could provide the most improvement for the Vikings roster at this point in time.
First Round Pick: Everybody thinks WR here, and for good reason as it is a top need. I'm not super enamored with the WR draft class this year, but picking at #23 would have put any once-in-a-generation guys out of reach anyway. That said, I think Josh Doctson brings something to the Vikings offense that has been missing since Sidney Rice left, but really since Randy Moss left- a guy that can jump and win contested balls.
Looking at Doctson's highlight reel, you see time and again his ability to time his leap very well, excellent body control, and ability to come down with the ball. His 41" vertical leap, 6' 2" height and 32" arm length will enable him to high point the ball and come down with it against just about any CB in the league. His speed is not overwhelming by any means at 4.5" 40, but then again there are a lot of sub-4.4" guys out there and we're still waiting for them to, "take the lid off the defense" - something that rarely happens except in blown coverage or the occasional mismatch.
No, the more valuable trait in a WR, particularly a #1 WR, is being able to go up and win a jump ball or at least prevent an interception. A QB will go back time and again to a receiver that can make a play on the ball and come down with it, especially if he's able to bail a QB out of a poorly thrown ball too.
The Vikings haven't had that type of receiver for a long time, and it shows in their passing production through several QBs. Sidney Rice was able to do it for a season with Favre, but that excepted, it's been a a long drought in the passing game for most of the 21st century.
Having a receiver that excels at the jump-ball throws adds so much to the passing game. At any moment a QB can identify single coverage and audible a shot downfield. And in the red zone having a guy that can out leap the coverage in the end zone is invaluable- and leads to a lot more passing TDs- something the Vikings lack, along with a potent passing attack.
Even otherwise good corners (think Rhodes) can have trouble against a good jump ball receiver, and smaller ones without a big vertical will need help consistently or get burned often. That opens up the field for guys like Diggs and Wright, and TEs as well.
The downside on Doctson is that he hasn't faced much press coverage, and hasn't run a full route tree at TCU, and could improve his route running. Both of those, particularly not being tested or adept against press coverage, is a pretty standard ding against just about every receiver coming out in the draft. Doctson has more of a lanky frame, and could use a few more pounds of muscle to help beat press coverage, but a lot of that is technique, and either you pick it up or you don't (see Patterson, Cordarrelle).
No doubt the Vikings will work Doctson out privately if they are truly interested in him (the Vikings have shown interest in him at the Combine) to get a feel for his ability to improve his route running and beat press coverage. But compared to other potential 1st round WR picks like Treadwell (only 33" vertical), Corey Coleman (40.5" vertical, but only 5'11" and 30" arms) or Will Fuller (33.5" vertical), Doctson looks best suited to be that outside jump-ball threat that is so difficult to defend.
2nd Round: While there may be other considerations here, there is a chance that the top TE in the draft, Hunter Henry, may still be available for the Vikings here. If so, I'd take him. TE is an important position in the Vikings offensive scheme, particularly as the Vikings often have two on the field. Kyle Rudolph has been underwhelming the past few years, in part due to injury, and could use some legitimate competition. In any case, having two good pass catching TEs in the mix that can also block would give Bridgewater more legitimate targets and likely improve production out of the TE position.
3rd Round: This may be where the Vikings can pick up a safety that can develop into a longer-term solution opposite Harrison Smith. Jeremy Cash, SS, Duke could be available here, as could TJ Green, FS, Clemson. Which is the better pick depends on how Mike Zimmer wants to use Harrison Smith. Cash is more of an in-the-box run-stuffing, hard hitting physical guy, whereas Green is a fast and rangy cover safety who has played a lot of single-high safety. Personally I think Smith may be better suited as more of a SS/Rover type player who can line up anywhere and disrupt plays rather than being more focused on defending the back end. Given that, Green may be the better pick to complement Smith.
4th Round: The Vikings need to build depth at CB, as virtually every team, particularly at slot corner where Captain Munnerlyn is the only decent player there. DJ White, CB, Georgia Tech, could be available here and could become a more capable backup than Jabari Price at this point.
Late Round (5/6/7) Picks:
Hard to say where later round players may be available, but here are some developmental and niche players that could add or upgrade depth at several positions:
Matt Judon, DE, Grand Valley St. Division II man-among-boys with all the traits you want at the NFL level. Raw and needs coaching (think Danielle Hunter), and had an ACL tear that caused him to miss the 2013 season.
Scooby Wright III, ILB, Arizona. Gets higher ratings than you'd expect for a 2-down ILB because of his elite instincts, but at the end of the day not a lot of teams are willing to spend even a mid-round pick for a 2-down LB. Could be a nice pick-up in the 6th round
Mike Thomas WR, Southern Miss My 'Next Stefon Diggs' pick for a late round receiver that could turn out big for the Vikings.
Dan Vitale, FB, Northwestern. A FB with a 38.5" vertical? Okay, maybe that isn't the biggest consideration in a FB, but this guy is the Jerick McKinnon of FBs- athletic and versatile, can block, run routes and catch well, can even rush a little too. His only ding is that he can be seen as a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none type FB, but with a little coaching- and he's regarded as a highly coachable, team-oriented leader- he could easily prove to be a very versatile and capable addition to the backfield. Instant upgrade over Zach Line, and a guy that could also fill Rhett Ellison's role if he does not come back 100%.
I didn't include any trade scenarios here, as I think the Vikings have needs at each level and these picks represent good values in the rounds selected. But, there are always surprises during the draft, which create the opportunities to trade up or down, if only a few spots. There could be a few high-rated safeties on the board when the Vikings pick in the third round, and an opportunity to trade down and pick up another late round pick. Or, on the other hand a certain position may start going off the board in a later round that the Vikings need to fill, which could result in a trade up.
But overall, these picks fill the obvious hole in the Vikings starting line-up (WR), while adding depth and development players at a number of positions, with most of them having future starter potential.