EAGAN, Minn. -- No pro days. No opportunities for prospects to visit team facilities. A lack of physicals on players who did not attend the scouting combine.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be challenges for every team in the April 23-25 NFL draft. However, an argument could be made that there might be more of an impact on the Vikings than most teams.
With the salary cap-challenged team having lost so many key players since free agency got underway, that increases the pressure on general manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings to find guys who end up contributing immediately.
Minnesota will have two picks in the first round and 12 overall. That ties New England for the second-most selections in the draft, trailing only Miami, which has 14. Whether having so many picks increases the pressure on the Vikings or gives them more room to have some misses remains to be seen.
“They’re going to have to get at least three rookies in this draft class that really do have to make an impact, if you’re going to stay on the same trajectory that you have been on, which is getting to the postseason, winning divisions and potentially going to a Super Bowl,’’ said Solomon Wilcots, an analyst for Pro Football Focus and SiriusXM NFL Radio and a former Minnesota safety.
The Vikings have come up very big in the draft before under Spielman, most notably in 2015. They got cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round, linebacker Eric Kendricks in the second, defensive end Danielle Hunter in the third and wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth. While Waynes didn’t make an immediate impact, the other three did.
But then there was the 2016 draft, when the Vikings didn’t select any players who would become regular starters. If free-agent reserve linebacker Kentrell Brothers doesn’t end up re-signing, all eight players from that draft will be gone from Minnesota.
That draft featured wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, taken No. 23 in the first round, becoming a colossal bust. The Vikings also took receiver Moritz Bohringer in the fifth round, and he’s never played in a regular-season game for any team.
That draft had depth at receiver but three players taken at that position in first round became busts (No. 15 Corey Coleman, No. 22 Josh Doctson and Treadwell). No. 21 Will Fuller turned out OK for Houston. The best receiver by far selected in the 2016 draft was New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, who was the sixth one taken at that position, going No. 47 in the second round.
Next month’s draft is considered extremely deep at wide receiver. But the Vikings, who traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, will face plenty of pressure to land one who makes an immediate impact. More than likely, they will select multiple receivers.
The Diggs trade brought back multiple draft picks, including No. 22 in the first round. The Vikings could use that selection or their No. 25 selection in the first round on a receiver.
“They let Diggs go and now they have to stick the landing,’’ Wilcots said. “There are some phenomenal receivers in this draft.’’
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said there are “30 to 35 receivers with second- or third-round grades.’’ Because there is such depth at the position, Kiper said “that’s always a possibility” the Vikings might not take a receiver in the first round and instead go with players at positions that don’t have as much depth.
Many observers believe three position groups are most in play for Minnesota’s first-round picks: wide receiver, cornerback and defensive end. The Vikings also need help on the offensive line, and it’s possible they could address that in the first round. But tackles with first-round grades they really like could be gone by No. 22 and it would be a surprise if they took a guard in the first round.
The Vikings have had 12 players from last year’s team depart in March, including six starters. Starters gone include Diggs, guard Josh Kline (released), defensive end Everson Griffen (free agent), nose tackle Linval Joseph (released) and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes (released) and Waynes (free agent). Also gone of note are defensive end Stephen Weatherly (free agent) and cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who was their primary nickelback.
Minnesota has brought in just four outside free agents. Among them, Michael Pierce will step in for Joseph at nose tackle and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and defensive end Anthony Zettel could challenge to start.
The Vikings have about $12 million of cap room, and will need about $4.5 million of that to sign their draft picks. They still could land an impact cornerback in free agency but most of their key remaining offseason roster additions will come in the draft.
Against the backdrop of all the players who have departed, the Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a two-year, $66 million contract extension, taking him through the 2022 season. They were able to drop Cousins’ cap number from $31 million to $21 million for 2020, but he is on the books for cap numbers of $31 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022.
In other words, the Vikings are trying to rebuild while at the same time remaining competitive.
“That’s always a difficult proposition, but I don’t think the Vikings have any choice,’’ said Charles Davis, a Fox game and NFL Network draft analyst. “They re-signed Kirk Cousins for a reason. He was supposed to get them to the Super Bowl in the beginning and now they have gotten older and have to change some pieces.’’
Cousins initially signed a three-year, $84 million contract in 2018, a year after the Vikings made the NFC Championship Game. They failed to earn a postseason berth in 2018 but did go 10-6 last season and won a playoff game as a wild-card team.
“(Cousins) still has got to be that guy and you’re still building around him,’’ Davis said. “I think they’re still a very good team. … There’s no reason they can’t compete (to make the playoffs) again. I think the offensive side of the ball is still essentially the same as last year, although you don’t have Diggs. But the defensive side, which has been their bread and butter, has some parts that have to be filled.’’
One is at defensive end. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who had seven sacks last season, is a candidate to replace Griffen, as is Zettel, who had 6 1/2 sacks as a starter for Detroit in 2017. If the Vikings are looking for a potential starting defensive end in the draft, they might want to use a first-round pick on one.
It’s not a deep draft for edge rushers. Ohio State’s Chase Young will be one of the top few picks and LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson likely also will be gone by No. 22. Candidates at No. 22 or No. 25 could be Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa.
At cornerback, there is more depth in the draft. Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah will be long gone when the Vikings pick and so should Florida’s C.J. Henderson. But possibilities still around in the first round could be Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, LSU’s Kristian Fulton and Ohio State’s Damon Arnette.
But what about Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs, the brother of receiver who was disgruntled and wanted out of Minnesota before being granted his wish? He’s expected to be selected in the range of where the Vikings pick in the first round.
“Likely, Minnesota is going to go, ‘I don’t think we’re going to do that,’ ’’ Davis said. “More than likely, he’s not under consideration for Minnesota.’’
If the Vikings want to replace Stefon Diggs with a first-round pick, they should have some intriguing options. The top three receivers — Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III — also should be gone. But receivers who could be available include Clemson’s Tee Higgins, LSU’s Justin Jefferson and Baylor’s Denzel Mims.
Regardless of whether the Vikings take a receiver in the first round, they could gobble up some in later rounds. They have a pick in the second round, two in the third, one in the fourth, one in the fifth, two in the sixth and three in the seventh.
Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson should be among the many talented receivers available after the first round.
“They’re going to be some fifth-round receivers out of this group,’’ Kiper said of the nearly three dozen receivers with second- or third-round grades. “And you’re going to see some really good players drop to points where you never thought was possible.’’
Speaking of the fifth round, that’s where the Vikings got Stefon Diggs in 2015. He became a starter as a rookie and ended up being a key piece in perhaps the best Minnesota class Spielman has had since overseeing his first draft in 2007.
Now, Spielman, despite challenges faced during the coronavirus pandemic, will be looking for a repeat of the 2015 draft. He certainly doesn’t want a repeat of 2016, perhaps the worst draft he has had.