MINNEAPOLIS (AP)The deterioration of Minnesota’s defense last year weighed heavily on Mike Zimmer, the injuries and inexperience too widespread to be overcome by strategic acumen or sheer will.
”Honestly, at the end of the season, I was kind of down in the dumps when I kept looking at the depth chart and knowing what kind of salary cap space we had,” the Vikings coach said.
General manager Rick Spielman and his money man Rob Brzezinski, the executive vice president of football administration, still found some solutions.
Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Xavier Woods were signed as instant starters. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly and cornerback Mackensie Alexander returned as role players, and linebacker Nick Vigil was picked up. The return from 2020 absences of defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Michael Pierce have also given this once-dominant group a needed boost.
Hey, the head coach is in a better mood, too.
”They’ve gotten me rejuvenated,” Zimmer said.
Now comes the draft – and more limitations.
The Vikings have the 14th overall pick on April 29, but the offense has needs, too. They’re lacking a second-round selection, thanks to the ill-fated trade with Jacksonville for six weeks of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
Last year’s drafting of cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler and defensive end D.J. Wonnum might have to cover for 2021, too, because Spielman only has so many assets available to maneuver his way through the three-day event.
The Vikings made 15 picks in 2020, the most by any team since the seven-round format was initiated in 1994.
Spielman has often made the quest for quantity into sort of a side project for the draft, the undercard to the annual hunt for high-impact quality. This time, the Vikings might need to be more willing to part with lower picks to maximize their return on play-right-away rookies.
Regardless of how their draft plays out, there’s no doubt the defense will be better off this season.
”Last year was an outlier for this team. I saw them in 2017 when they were No. 1 in the league,” said Pierce, who signed in 2020 as a free agent but opted out because of COVID-19 concerns. He added: ”The additions and the health that we’re going to bring to the field this season, I think it’s going to be a lot more reminiscent of what you guys are used to.”
FINDING AN EDGE
The Vikings are high on Weatherly and Wonnum, but they could use another defensive end to play opposite Hunter. Edge rushers who could fit with the No. 14 pick include Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau of Miami.
UP FRONT ABOUT IT
The cap space used for those upgrades on defense came with a cost, most notably the release of left tackle Riley Reiff. They also didn’t do anything in free agency to help the offensive line, other than bringing back Rashod Hill and Dakota Dozier for depth.
USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker is one player who would make plenty of sense with the 14th pick.
”Vera-Tucker, he’s one of my favorite players in the whole draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. ”He can play darned near anywhere. I think he’s going to be an All-Pro guard. He can hold up at tackle if you wanted him to. But you want to get better along that offensive line, I think he’s just one of the cleanest, safest picks in the whole draft.”
With Oregon’s Penei Sewell likely to be long gone, two other heralded tackles could be available to the Vikings at No. 14: Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw. Slater has a random connection to Minnesota: His father, former NBA player Reggie Slater, played for the Timberwolves in parts of two seasons.
The Vikings have their highest slot at No. 14 since 2015, when they took cornerback Trae Waynes at No. 11. Center Garrett Bradbury (No. 18 in 2019) was the only offensive lineman they’ve taken in the first round since Zimmer was hired in 2014.
Only four times in that span have they used any of the first three rounds for that position group, including tackle/guard Ezra Cleveland (second round, 2020), tackle Brian O’Neill (second round, 2018) and guard/center Pat Elflein (third round, 2017).
The Vikings will start the draft with 10 picks: one in the first round (14th overall), two in the third round (78th, 90th), four in the fourth round (119th, 125th, 134th, 143rd), two in the fifth round (157th, 168th) and one in the sixth round (199th). They acquired the additional third-rounder from Baltimore for Ngkaoue.
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