Draft needs and prospect fits for the Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2017 NFL Draft with lingering after effects of the injury to QB Teddy Bridgewater before last season still being felt. Their first-round draft pick (No. 14 overall) is sitting in the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles thanks to the trade for Sam Bradford, and the team won’t come on the clock (barring trade) until the 48th overall selection.
Knowing this, the team was an active participant in free agency, addressing several needs with veteran players and at least positioning themselves with a minimum talent level across notable problem positions so that they are not left in desperation mode come draft time.
Need: Defensive tackle
Former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd has flashed the ability to be an excellent disruptive interior presence, but he played just 25 snaps in 2016 and was far less impressive in 2015 than he had been the year before. Now reports suggest that his career may be in jeopardy due to complications from a routine surgery to clean up his knee. At the very least, the Vikings can’t count on him long-term and need another option inside to complement the stout run defense of Linval Joseph.
Early-round target: Caleb Brantley, Florida
There are some parallels between Brantley and Floyd beyond playing college ball in the state of Florida. Brantley is a quick, penetrating defensive tackle that has the skill set to be a perfect foil for Joseph in the middle of that Vikings defensive line. He had at least 23 total pressures and run stops in each of the last two seasons, and did so while never playing more than 434 snaps. That brings with it the questions of whether he could still produce on double that workload in the NFL, but picking as low as the Vikings do, they aren’t going to get a shot at the marquee prospects with far fewer question marks. Brantley has the ability to make an impact from Day 1.
Mid- or late-round target: Daniel Awoleke, USF
Going deep into the draft class, Awoleke is a true sleeper, with a similar issue as Brantley in terms of lack of playing time. He went from a walk-on at USF to earning a scholarship but over the past three seasons has played just 705 snaps, with 449 of them coming in 2016. He has shown freakish strength and quickness in that time, and the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. In 2016, he notched 24 defensive stops, or one more than Brantley.
The Vikings offensive line last season was little short of a disaster, but Alex Boone played at least adequately in his first season in Minnesota. With additions at tackle, the Vikings will be less inclined to go after that position, but in truth the entire offensive line could use an injection of young talent, so no position is out of the question if they find the right player sitting there when they pick. As of now, right guard is the most open starting spot to any rookie playing in year one, so is their biggest need on paper.
Early-round target: Dan Feeney, Indiana
Again, the Vikings are going to miss out on the top prospects at positions of need unless they make some moves via trade, and the best fit that they can reasonably expect to have a shot at is Indiana’s Feeney, who split his time in 2016 at guard and tackle, but was far better a year ago as a full-time guard. In 2015, he allowed just six total pressures and no sacks at guard, and last season allowed only two total pressures at guard, with nine of his 11 pressures coming when playing right tackle. Feeney fits well in the Vikings blocking scheme and could start from Day 1 inside.
Mid- or late-round target: Nico Siragusa, San Diego State
Siragusa was one of PFF’s most productive guards in the nation in 2016. San Diego State averaged 8.2 yards per carry on runs that went immediately either side of his blocks that season, and he allowed just three total pressures all season. He showed some immense strength in gap schemes and the ability to create major movement at the point of attack, and was downgraded on only seven percent of his run blocks last year. The major question mark is strength of competition, and suffering an injury on the first day of Senior Bowl practice won’t help teams dismiss those concerns, but Siragusa dominated at his level, and could prove to be a mid- to late-round steal in the draft.
Need: Running back
The Vikings signed RB Latavius Murray from Oakland during free agency to a deal worth around $15 million over three years. Murray is just 26 years old, but that contract is worth less than one year of Adrian Peterson’s old deal over its entire three-year lifespan, and that is true for a reason. Murray can be a capable runner, and has been solid in pass protection in the NFL (surrendering just 10 total pressures across three seasons), but his work as a receiver is limited and even his rushing makes little happen by itself. He will certainly steer the ship for 2017, but the Vikings should still be looking for a more long-term solution.
Early-round target: Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Hunt forced 98 total missed tackles in 2016, which was the second-best mark in the nation behind only FSU’s Dalvin Cook. Hunt was dynamic with the ball in his hands and far more of a receiving threat than most of the top RB prospects, catching 41 of the 43 passes thrown his way without dropping any, and forcing 22 missed tackles on those 41 receptions. He is excellent at avoiding solid hits and worming his way for extra yardage after shots by defenders, and he had just one fumble on 722 total touches over the past three seasons. He is capable of being an every down back, but may be the ideal player to have waiting in the wings while Murray handles the bigger role in year one.
Mid- or late-round target: James Conner, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s Conner is best known for coming back to play after beating cancer – overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his college career – but that distracts from the fact that at 100 percent he is an excellent running back. He gained 638 of his 1,088 rushing yards this past season after contact, breaking 39 tackles along the way and fumbling just once on 216 carries, but if you go back to his 2014 season – before the cancer diagnosis – he broke 88 tackles and gained 845 yards after contact. Connor has some athletic limitations, but his character and heart are without question, and as a big back he can be an excellent foundation for an offense.