Football at just about every level is determined by three units on the field: quarterback, offensive line, and defensive line. Notice the last four teams remaining in last year’s playoffs: the four best teams at the line of scrimmage. Take it a step further and look at the Super Bowl: New England was the best coached team on the offensive and defensive line, and the Rams had arguably the highest level of talent on both sides as well.
Now, look at the Vikings comparatively to both teams. Other than Aaron Donald, neither team has close to the level of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but neither were undone by poor offensive line play either. This is where the Vikings fell flat, and as deep as the 2019 draft class is for offensive linemen, more times than not, rookie offensive linemen do not make the impact expected coming in.
That being said, there are other ways to protect the quarterback that go beyond the offensive line. For starters, running the ball effectively makes the quarterback less prone to hits even from a mathematical standpoint alone. It also helps to utilize multiple tight ends, and proceed to let the quarterback dictate if they are protecting, or going out for a pass. Thus, my top choice falls there, and let’s get to it:
1: T.J. Hockenson, Tight End, Iowa
It’s not THAT often that a tight end is seen in the regard of Hockenson. There are analysts who firmly believe he could go in the top 10 picks of this draft, and more than likely could be the first skill position player off the board. Running back and wide receiver is not particularly impressive in this draft, which is quietly a major factor to Hockenson’s massive ascent up draft boards. His combine numbers were good as well, posting a 4.7 40 yard dash and a 37.5 inch vertical. He should put on some weight however, as 251 pounds is probably a little under what an NFL tight end should be playing at. His blocking however was outstanding in college, and that will go a long way to beef up the protection for Minnesota’s $84 million dollar quarterback. As a route runner, he’s one of the best as a tight end to have ever entered the NFL Draft. His tape shows tremendous fluidity moving laterally. I know the top need for the Vikings should be offensive line, but Hockenson would be too good to pass up on, and could have greater returns as far as immediate impact goes.
2: Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
Like Hockenson, it’s a massive stretch to believe that Williams will fall this far. However, the number of pass rushers and defensive linemen, as well as teams who will reach for quarterbacks could perpetuate a drop for offensive linemen in what happens to be an excellent class for them. Per NFL.com, Williams allowed zero sacks and missed only 3 assignments on 920 snaps during the 2018 campaign. On tape, he’s not a mauler, but his footwork and quick hands make him difficult for defensive linemen to beat. What’s more, coming into the NFL with championship pedigree is something that can’t be coached, or quantified in contract negotiations. As per the CBA, the value of first round picks drops for the latter half of the first round. So, if he were to fall to the Vikings, the value would be as good as any, at least from a speculative standpoint.
3: Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Heading into the 2018 season, there was a raging debate as to whether Oliver or Nick Bosa would be the first pick taken in the draft. But a year where Oliver had some durability issues that have seen his draft stock slide a bit, in some mocks to as far as pick 21 (Seattle). Nonetheless, there are scouts and executives who believe that Oliver is an Aaron Donald type player. A bit undersized with tremendous upper body strength and even better quickness. He also has a strong understanding of how offensive linemen are trying to block him from one play to the next, which is something that takes most defensive tackles in the NFL 3 years to properly understand (Linval Joseph is actually a good example of this). This pick definitely would be getting away from the Vikings greatest need of protecting Cousins, but it’d be so tough to justify not taking a player who could be an all-pro talent on an already very good defensive line.
If two of these players are available when the Vikings are on the clock, it could be their toughest 1st round decision in quite some time. Whatever Rick Spielman chooses, this pick could define the rest of his and Mike Zimmer’s tenure in the Twin Cities.