Unusual, Difficult Draft for Vikings
Going into this draft, the Vikings had starters at the vast majority of positions that are better than even the top prospects in this draft. QB, RB, WR, S, CB, DE, DT, NT, and LB are all positions this draft class would be unlikely to provide any immediate improvement over the current roster. Especially considering the Vikings didn’t own every first-round pick.
So from a need-for-an-immediate-upgrade-at-starter standpoint, there were few holes to fill. Most of those were offensive line spots, and while the interior line was considered deep this year, the offensive tackle position was not, nor were even the top tackle prospects considered particularly good ones compared to other years.
Lastly, the Vikings were drafting at the end of every round- the worst spot they’ve had in almost ten years.
All of the above factors added degrees of difficulty for the Vikings and Rick Spielman to get the best player available, good value, and fill positions of need at the same time.
And so it was a difficult draft for the Vikings.
What didn’t break right for the Vikings, more than anything else, was the fact that both Frank Ragnow and Billy Price were taken ahead of the Vikings at #20 and #21 respectively. The Vikings had visited with both prospects multiple times, and probably had figured Ragnow would be there at #30, and if not, Price could be had later on in the second round. After all, Pat Elflein, who the Vikings got in the third-round last year, was a very similar prospect as Price and pegged about the same place in this draft. This was a deep draft for interior offensive linemen, so no need to overdraft someone because it’s a thin class. And yet that’s what happened.
Vikings Stuck with Best Player Available
And, when the Vikings got on the clock at #30, there were no trade offers, leaving them to make their pick. So rather than draft an offensive lineman that was either not a scheme fit (Hernandez), or was not a good value (the remaining offensive tackles), the Vikings went with the best player available on their board - CB Mike Hughes.
Hughes is not going to displace Xavier Rhodes or Trae Waynes as outside starting corner anytime soon, but he will compete with MacKenzie Alexander for the nickel CB spot, and could develop into a quality backup at any of the CB positions. That depth is important, as seldom do CBs go the whole season without injury. Quality rotation can also help keep them fresh without sacrificing play on the field.
Hughes will likely displace CB Marcus Sherels- who turned 30 this year, as he will likely take over the return duties on special teams, and contribute as perhaps both the kick and punt returner this season. That improves the roster, just not the offensive line. Hughes was the top-ranked returner in the draft this year according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Day Two: Early Starter or High Ceiling? Vikings Take the Latter
Day Two of the draft began with all the teams picking early in the second round getting inundated with trade offers from teams wanting to trade up. That meant any trade up for the Vikings- picking at the bottom of the round- would be expensive and leave them with no picks before the end of the sixth round, unless they wanted to leverage next year’s picks at a discount, which Spielman said he was not willing to do.
Instead, they stood on pick #62, and picked the best offensive lineman available on their board- offensive tackle Brian O’Neill.
When evaluating prospects, particularly second-day or third-day prospects, Spielman talked about the difference between perhaps more ready starters with lower ceilings, and more raw prospects with higher ceilings. In general, the Vikings prefer the latter, which gives their coaching staff more to work with and develop.
For many of the top tackle prospects in this year’s draft, there were some known flaws and/or perception of lower ceilings. With Brian O’Neill, he checked all the boxes in terms of prototypical traits and athleticism for a left tackle, and has shown good, if inconsistent, technique over three years playing tackle (both right and left) at Pittsburgh. But he lacks the desired strength, and could use more work developing areas of his technique. And so he’s likely to be a player the Vikings spend a year developing before he’s ready to compete for the starting left tackle job.
Looking across the Vikings offensive line, left tackle is probably the thinnest of all the offensive line spots. Behind Riley Reiff, there’s former UDFA Rashod Hill who, while serviceable as a swing tackle last year, may be near his ceiling as a left tackle. Drafting Brian O’Neill should help shore up the depth at left tackle, and provide a viable alternative to Riley Reiff at some point in the next year or so, that could allow the Vikings to move on from his rather hefty contract. Having that competition may also help light a fire under Reiff, who had the worst year of his career by far in 2017 according to PFF.
The Vikings chose the same approach- high ceiling over early starter- in picking Jayln Holmes after trading back into the 2nd pick of the fourth round. Holmes was a DE at Ohio State, but Spielman mentioned that they look to use Holmes as a 3-technique DT. This makes a lot of sense as Holmes has the size and length to play 3-tech, and may have more pass rush ability in that role than as a defensive end.
Day 3 - Searching for the Best
While the first three picks need to materialize into quality contributors to justify where they were drafted- particularly Hughes and O’Neill- it may be the rest of the Day 3 picks that make or break this draft for the Vikings. Particularly the next three picks.
The first of these is TE Tyler Conklin out of Central Michigan. Conklin is a little shorter and more compact than Kyle Rudolph, but at this stage more athletic and with better body control and movement for bringing down difficult and contested catches. Conklin should also serve a utilitarian backfield role, functioning as a legitimate TE/FB/H-back that can line up anywhere in the backfield or in-line, and run, block or catch. Compared to a couple other guys the Vikings had been looking at for this role- Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines - Conklin maybe the better fit for the Vikings as a bigger, better blocking back and legitimate pass catching TE down the field. This is becoming a more important position for NFL offenses these days, and particularly for OC John DeFilippo’s scheme. How productive Conklin can be in this role could have a significant impact on offensive production in DeFilippo’s offense if he is able to take focus away from other players, make them more effective, and/or make some key plays himself. This is a position the Vikings needed to draft this year, and getting Conklin late in the 5th round could be a nice pickup.
Following the Conklin pick, the Vikings had another late fifth-round pick that went for K Daniel Carlson. Anytime a kicker is drafted, he is expected to be the starter, so barring some melt down for Carlson in training camp, I expect him to get the nod over Kai Forbath. Carlson has a big leg, and has made 70-yard field goals. I imagine he should be good for touch-backs on pretty much every kick-off, but we’ll have to see how accurate he is. But getting a kicker with better range and more automatic touch-backs than Forbath was able to deliver is a key upgrade for special teams. The Vikings had the top-ranked special teams unit last year, according to PFF, but that had more to do with good return coverage than Forbath, and the Vikings are looking to be more competitive in the kicking game- and return game with Hughes.
After the Carlson pick, the Vikings had to wait until the end of the sixth-round to make another one. Once again, the Vikings went offensive line- picking G/T Colby Gossett out of Appalachian State. This pick could make what seems an average draft into a much better one for the Vikings. Gossett has starting potential for the Vikings this year, potentially at right tackle, allowing Mike Remmers, who doesn’t have Gossett’s length and probably not his athleticism either, to move inside to guard. That could result in two positions on the OL improving this season.
The Vikings rounded-out the sixth-round with Ade Aruna, a long and athletic project at defensive end. He is a prospect that if he has the mentality and motivation to compete at a high level in the NFL, Vikings DL coach Andre Patterson can coach him there. Aruna is a rawer version of Danielle Hunter when he was drafted.
Lastly, with their 7th round pick, the Vikings drafted ILB Davonte Downs out of Cal, who figures to compete for a backup LB spot and special teams duty.
UDFAs - At Least One Could Make the Team
After the draft concluded, the Vikings were successful in signing at least one UDFA with a real shot at making the team: CB Holton Hill out of Texas. Hill was seen as a mid-round prospect with early round measurables and talent. He could also fit at safety. The reason Hill went undrafted was because he was suspended for violating team rules last year, and is seen to have maturity issues. If Hill can benefit from a solid secondary room and coaches that can get him on track, he could be an absolute steal as a UDFA. The fact that he chose to sign with the Vikings was a bit of a coup for Spielman as well.
Another UDFA the Vikings signed that could fit an ancillary role is WR Jake Wieneke from South Dakota State. Wieneke is a big WR (6’4”, 220lbs.) that could find a role as a red zone threat if he can play special teams as well. He doesn’t have the speed to be a threat outside the red zone in all likelihood, but he does have the high-point skill and timing, along with his height and length, to be effective in the red zone on corner and fade routes.
Draft was not to Script
Clearly the draft did not unfold as the Vikings had hoped - with best player available coinciding with need and value - particularly in the early rounds. Prospects the Vikings had spent a lot of time with went elsewhere. Only one guy the Vikings hosted at their Top 30 event (Mike Hughes), was drafted by the Vikings- although a few others were signed as UDFAs.
But Spielman and company were able to roll with the punches, and fulfill some current and future needs with quality prospects like Mike Hughes and Brian O’Neill, some DL projects with high ceilings like Jayln Holmes and Ade Aruna, and four guys that could make this draft go from around average to excellent: Colby Gossett, Tyler Conklin, Daniel Carlson and Holton Hill. It’s these Day 3 picks that could really add value to a difficult draft for the Vikings, considering their needs, draft position and how the draft unfolded.
The talent is there, now it’s up to the players and coaches to develop it into quality starters over the next couple years.
For those looking for immediate OL help, keep an eye on Colby Gossett. And don’t sleep on Danny Isidora and Aviante Collins from last year either. Those two needed some time to develop, but could be in position to compete for a starting job this year. We’ll see.
Bottom line, this draft does not give a sense of immediate gratification in terms of drafting a number of immediate starters, but the Vikings roster doesn’t have room for many of those anymore.
And that’s a good thing.