Barring a trade, the Vikings will pick 12th overall in the first round of this year’s draft. The consensus is that quarterback, offensive line and secondary are the team’s biggest needs. So which position should the Vikings address with their pick? Should they go for that possible franchise quarterback? Start rebuilding the O-line with a stud tackle? Bolster an aging secondary with a dynamic cornerback? Or is there another option out there that no one’s talking about? Let’s go through the possibilities:
Brett Favre is not coming back next year, and I’m not sure many sane people would want him at this point anyway. You can also cross Tarvaris Jackson off the Vikings’ list now that his would-be mentor Brad Childress has been shown the exit. Joe Webb is now the #1 quarterback by default, but I don’t know many people who think he’s truly ready to take over. The Vikings also picked up Rhett Bomar last year so he’s in the mix, at least theoretically. Numerous free agent signing and trade scenarios have been bandied about so far this off-season, but even those who advocate picking up an established veteran believe it’s necessary for the Vikings to also address the long-term future of the position by drafting a quarterback, preferably with a high pick.
So who are the candidates? Cam Newton is the biggest name, and is certainly a big talent, but it’s unlikely he would still be available at 12 especially now that Andrew Luck has elected to return to college. Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert is also getting a lot of buzz, despite his allegedly horrendous work ethic and the fact that he played in the spread, but for the Vikings to get him they would probably have to trade up a couple of spots. The best QB likely to still be on the board at 12 is Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, a guy who’s been steadily climbing in all the mock drafts. However, taking Kaepernick at 12 looks like more than a bit of a reach. A month ago Ryan Mallett might’ve looked like a good choice at 12 but he’s been falling faster than Lindsay Lohan‘s career prospects. Jake Locker is another guy who at one point was hovering around the middle of the first round in mocks but he has also been downgraded.
At this point, it looks like the Vikings will get caught in-between: the only QBs worth taking will be gone, and the only interesting guys left will be available in later rounds. For now it seems the Vikings’ best move will be to spend their first rounder on something other than a quarterback. If they love Cam Newton they will have to pull off some major wheeling-and-dealing to get him, unless there’s a huge draft day surprise.
To call the Vikings’ offensive line inconsistent in 2010 would be a charitable assessment. At times it was flat-out terrible. Bryant McKinnie was his usual unmotivated self, Steve Hutchinson got hurt early then got even more hurt, John Sullivan forgot how to snap the ball, Anthony Herrera missed a big chunk of the season with injury and Phil Loadholt…well, let’s just say, Phil Loadholt has officially taken over for Ryan Cook as the offensive lineman Viking fans would most like to run over with a dumptruck. In a perfect world you’d love to wipe the slate and start over but obviously that’s not feasible. One might hope that new coaching voices could help turn around young guys like Loadholt and Sullivan, but even if you believe in this possibility, you still have to add at least one solid new prospect to the mix.
Among tackles, Nate Solder is the name getting the most attention from draft wonks, though most agree that Solder’s prominence on draft boards is largely a symptom of a weak class at the position. It looks like Solder will be there at 12 if the Vikes want him, but does he make the most sense for a team looking to quickly retool? In fact, the Vikings’ worst issue might be at center, where John Sullivan appears to be regressing. Penn State’s Stefen Wisniewski is the highest-rated center on people’s boards, but he is considered a 1st/2nd round tweener. The most intriguing prospect here might be Florida’s Mike Pouncey who is very athletic and could play guard or center. Pouncey would represent a talent upgrade over either Sullivan or right guard Anthony Herrera. The mocks all seem to have Pouncey lower in the first round, so 12 might be a stretch. But I think if you like a guy you take him, and there are reasons to like Pouncey (beyond the fact that his brother is already a Pro Bowler).
The defensive backfield fell apart in 2010. Antoine Winfield played at a Pro Bowl-alternate level, but beyond that it was a disaster. Cedric Griffin returned from an ACL tear only to tear his ACL. Chris Cook struggled when he was in, but it didn’t matter much because he kept hurting his knees and was almost never in. Asher Allen demonstrated why he was considered barely a nickelback in preasason by playing terribly. Benny Sapp would’ve been a good guy to plug in here but unfortunately he was traded in the preseason for 4th receiver/slow punt returner Greg Camarillo. Veteran corners Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker took turns getting torched. At safety, Madieu Williams was brutal everywhere but in his humanitarian activities. Husain Abdullah and Jamarca Sanford showed flashes, but not enough of them. Tyrell Johnson regressed from starter to healthy scratch. It soon became apparent that, without a dominating defensive line taking pressure off, this secondary was barely mediocre.
Asking kids to come in and fix the mess in the secondary might be a bit much, so surely the Vikings will try to address their issues back there via free agency. Still, there are some DBs worth taking a look at in this draft. At the top end you’ll find CBs Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara, but neither of those guys is expected to be on the board at 12. Miami’s Brandon Harris should be around at 12, and at least on the surface, he would look like a great fit for the Vikings’ Cover-2 scheme with its emphasis on run support and tackling. Some have even suggested that the small-but-physical Harris has the makings of a new Antoine Winfield, but I personally would never put that much pressure on a kid. Colorado’s Jimmy Smith is also a nice prospect with great size. Safety-wise, nobody really jumps out – maybe UCLA’s Rahim Moore.
Like I indicated before, I think it would behoove the Vikings to look at free agency as the best route for fixing what ails them in the secondary. You can add depth in later rounds of the draft. Harris is the only guy among those I looked at who genuinely intrigues me.
D-line looked like possibly the team’s greatest strength going into 2010, but by season’s end, it was obvious that age and inconsistency were taking their toll. 2011 figures to be a big transitional year for the front-four. Jared Allen we know will be his usual fearsome self (let’s hope this year he gets off to a faster start), and we expect Kevin Williams to still perform at a high level, but after that? Pat Williams is old and probably will be gone. Ray Edwards will almost certainly leave as a free agent. Brian Robison will be easier to re-sign than Edwards but to me he will never be more than a solid back-up. Everson Griffen has the talent to do things at defensive end but, as we’ve learned this off-season, he has issues between the ears. Letroy Guion, Fred Evans and Jimmy Kennedy are in the mix at defensive tackle, but it seems highly unlikely that any of those three guys will ever develop into a dominating player.
You want first-round-worthy defensive ends? We’ve got first-round-worthy defensive ends. Once you clear out the guys who will be gone at 12 and the guys who are considered 3-4 players, you’re still left with a ton of interesting options. North Carolina’s Robert Quinn is a potential top 10 pick who could drop a couple of spots into the Vikings’ lap, giving them a speed rusher to line up opposite Jared (albeit one with potential between-the-ears issues of his own). Cal’s Cameron Jordan (son of former Viking TE Steve Jordan) is another big league talent who could help the front-four get back to its 2009 form in short order. Ditto Aldon Smith. Adrian Clayborn has skills too, but there is reason to be wary after an incident two years ago where he punched a cab driver (knucklehead defensive ends again). J.J. Watt made everyone fall in love with him in Wisconsin for his pluck but may be more of a 3-4 guy. Ryan Kerrigan is getting mentions as a potential first rounder but is a notch below the previously-outlined individuals. The defensive tackle position is not as rich in prospects as defensive end, except at the very top where Nick Fairley and Marcel Dareus are, so it’s unlikely the Vikes would look at that position at 12.
There are solid arguments for and against taking a defensive lineman at 12. The best argument against is that, in the grand scheme of things, the Vikings have bigger needs, and already have potential starters in guys like Griffen and Kennedy. The best argument for is simply this: In 2009 the Vikings had a championship-level defense because of their front-four play. In 2010 the front-four took a big step back – Pat Williams got old, Kevin Williams dropped a half-step in his play, Ray Edwards was mostly just lousy, Jared Allen got off to a slow start – and the other inadequacies in the defense got exposed. In the Cover-2, as we’ve learned, it’s all about the front-four. Sure, you could try to upgrade the defense by picking up a bunch of secondary guys, but to me the fastest way back to a 2009 level of defense is through addressing the D-line. Find a great pass rusher to line up on the other side of Jared Allen and watch havoc ensue.