Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
When Mike Zimmer said in his pre-draft press conference the Minnesota Vikings’ signings on defense will allow them to draft the best player available, naturally some eyebrows were raised.
Um, what about the pass rush? What about the offensive line?
The Vikings’ signings this offseason appear more like they have backed into a corner of either taking an edge rusher or offensive lineman in the draft rather than freeing themselves from the shackles of drafting for need.
In recent years the Vikings have almost exclusively drafted for need in the first three rounds.
Before they knew Adam Thielen would be a star, they picked Laquon Treadwell with hopes that he could give Teddy Bridgewater more support. After Adrian Peterson left, the Vikings traded up for Dalvin Cook and then drafted Pat Elflein in the third round to start at center to give him a good run blocker (after finishing as the league’s worst running team in 2016).
In 2018 they needed an eventual replacement for Trae Waynes and took Mike Hughes. In 2019 they once again needed a starting center, this time grabbing a reach-block specialist for their new zone blocking scheme. To fully commit to the theme, in the third round of 2019, the Vikings took a running back to replace Latavius Murray. Last year the Vikings picked immediate starters at receiver and cornerback.
Of course, some of these picks worked out really well. Justin Jefferson is a superstar. Brian O’Neill, who was picked to improve the offensive line, has become a solid starter.
In recent years the Vikings needed to draft to fill immediate needs. The roster overall was strong across the board and they were in win-now mode so they chased either the final piece or someone who would help immediately. Even when picks appeared to be made for two years in the future they expected those players to have an instant role like Hughes or Irv Smith Jr.
It’s hard not to wonder how things might have played out if the Vikings picked purely by talent regardless of need. Maybe Treadwell turns into Kenny Clark or Bradbury is Montez Sweat or Jeff Gladney is Antoine Winfield Jr.
The lesson here isn’t that the Vikings botched all their draft picks and that they should have drafted these good players instead of the ones they picked. You can do that with every team when they miss. It’s more to point out that the Vikings may have elected not to pick a safety last year because they were set with Anthony Harris. They might not have picked Clark because they were OK at defensive tackle at the time. They might not have picked Sweat because they felt set at defensive end.
Things change so quickly in the NFL that one year you can have Pro Bowlers on all three levels of the defense and then have Zimmer saying he was “down in the dumps” about how little talent he had on defense the following season.
This year’s draft does happen to be robust along the offensive line, which bodes well for a team that ranked 29th in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. There’s also a handful of projected defensive ends with high upside like Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Miami’s Jaelan Phillips. Best player available might match up with need like it did in 2020 with Jefferson.
There’s also a chance that it doesn’t match up. The Vikings aren’t desperate for a wide receiver but with five quarterbacks expected to be picked in the top 10, one of two elite Alabama prospects DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle might be available.
The first instinct might be to say that the Vikings are set with Adam Thielen and Jefferson. But are they really set for the next few years? Even last year the Vikings targeted Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe and Tajae Sharpe a total of 50 times. Would that 10% of Kirk Cousins’s passes better be served going to an explosive talent? And what if Thielen or Jefferson gets hurt?
That’s the difference between this year and previous years. You can make the case for all sorts of positions because the roster has more weaknesses. Alabama’s Christian Barmore, a defensive tackle, would seem to be off the Vikings’ radar because they signed Dalvin Tomlinson but neither Tomlinson or Michael Pierce is considered an every-down defensive tackle. Who’s playing if either player gets hurt?
Zimmer will be mocked if the Vikings take a cornerback but we’re not sure about Jeff Gladney’s future now and we’ve seen how a shutdown corner can change an entire defense.
The quarterback debate is a whole other monster. If one of the top QBs drops to the Vikings’ No. 14 spot, would they forego a shot at a quarterback on a rookie contract to build for the future because they have a desperate need for an offensive guard? Or should they just pick the QB if he’s the best player available?
No matter how many mock drafts we read and YouTube film we watch, none of us know for sure who the best players in the 2021 draft will ultimately be. Here’s how I know: Because the scouting departments that spend all year on the draft still come up with lots of picks that don’t work out. But teams give themselves the best possible chance by making their aim to get more talent rather than players who fit right away.
So as we debate the direction of the Vikings’ selection on draft night, we should keep in mind that picking only to fill a spot for next season doesn’t always work out and if the player is good, you can trust they’ll find their way to the field on Sundays eventually.