As the Vikings continue to work through their first offseason under the dubious “rebuilding” label, there’s growing optimism that the team has improved itself through some key draft picks. Guys like Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, and Josh Robinson should provide some solid cornerstones for the future along with Christian Ponder.
However, it’s important to note that the other three teams in the division also added new talent in April, with 22 players drafted by the Bears, Lions, and Packers combined. And while some won’t make their respective teams and others are destined to ride the bench for a couple of years, there’s always a chance that a small handful will step up right away. That could mean an already-tough division may get stronger. That being said, here are the top 5 NFC North draft picks that could give the Vikings trouble this season.
1. WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Yes, I know the Bears’ biggest offseason splash was the free agent acquisition of Brandon Marshall, reuniting the blue chip receiver with former Bronco teammate Jay Cutler. And although you would think that having a bona fide No. 1 receiving threat would diminish the importance of second receiver, the Vikings actually tend to do pretty well against the big name wideouts. Unfortunately, that usually results in big games for everyone else catching the ball. Here are a few examples from last season:
- Week 1 vs. Chargers: Right off the bat in the regular season opener, the Vikings held Vincent Jackson to just 31 yards. Jackson was just the 5th best receiver for the Chargers that day, behind Antonio Gates, Ryan Matthews, Mike Tolbert, and Malcom Floyd.
- Week 5 vs. Cardinals: Was Larry Fitzgerald the stud offensive player this game? Nope, that honor went to Early Doucet. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was held to 66 yards and no touchdowns.
- Week 6 vs. Bears: Before Johnny Knox suffered his horrific back injury, he was arguably the closest thing to a No.1 receiver the Bears had. However, in Chicago’s first game against the Vikings, Knox was kept out of the end zone and only had 41 yards receiving.
- Week 14 vs. Lions: Calvin Johnson only had 29 yards in this game, as rookie Titus Young went on to outshine Megatron and dagger the Vikings for 87 yards and a touchdown to help Detroit escape with a victory (a missed facemask penalty against Joe Webb also helped).
- Week 17 vs. Bears: By the time the last game of the year rolled around, the Vikings were practically begging for the season to end. Devin Hester had established himself as the Bears’ main receiving threat in the wake of Knox’s injury, but was kept to a measly 14 yards as Roy Williams went on to lead the Bears in receiving yards.
Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee Jeffery will have a huge rookie season, but he has the potential to tear apart a Vikings’ secondary that is patching itself up after a terrible 2011 season.
2. OLB Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers
While some analysts questioned DE/OLB Nick Perry’s fit in a 3-4 scheme leading up to the draft, there’s no doubt the former USC Trojan has a knack for getting to the quarterback. For the Packers, this should help with their dreadful pass rush. Perry will also benefit from being lined up opposite of Clay Matthews, getting more 1-on-1 looks from the Vikings’ offensive line.
It will be very interesting to see how the Vikings handle the pass-rushing duo of Matthews and Perry, considering that Minnesota wants to move away from always leaving a tight end in the backfield to block, and get their athletic tight ends like Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson down the field.
3. DE Shea McClellin, Chicago Bears
Just like Nick Perry in Green Bay, McClellin will be getting more 1-on-1 looks opposite Julius Peppers, and should have every opportunity to make an impact. On the other hand, most analysts had him ranked lower than Nick Perry, and many had him lower than other defensive ends, like Whitney Mercilus and Chandler Jones, who were available when Chicago selected him with the 19th pick.
4. DT Jerel Worthy, Green Bay Packers
The Packers had a historically bad pass defense last year. Injuries and a lack of depth at the secondary positions didn’t help, but another reason for the lack of pass defense was that Green Bay had little to no inside presence last year. This gave opposing quarterbacks a lot of time to pick apart a depleted secondary. Jerel Worthy should instantly upgrade this interior group. Despite the concerns about his motor, Worthy is a beast when the effort is there.
5. OT Riley Reiff, Detroit Lions
Riley Reiff was widely considered the best offensive tackle outside of Matt Kalil. Reiff is a definite upgrade to Detroit’s offensive line, the Vikings still have Jared Allen. And if Allen is burning Kalil, then I have no doubt that he will be doing the same to Reiff two games per year.
You can follow Steve Retka on Twitter @steveretka.