The Minnesota Vikings made one of the more dramatic trades in recent history leading up to the 2008 NFL draft, dealing the No. 17 overall pick and two third-rounders – plus swapping sixth-rounders – to the Kansas City Chiefs for defensive end Jared Allen.
The trade has worked out well for Minnesota, and there was little argument about the cost to acquire Allen, who had already established himself as one of the premier pass-rushing ends in the NFL. Allen has had at least 11 sacks in each of his four seasons with Minnesota and threatened the NFL’s single-season record last year.
In truth, though, the Vikings’ own failures in filling that type of void likely resulted in the need to acquire Allen. Defensive ends have been some of Minnesota’s biggest misses in the first round over the years.
A ranking of the five worst Vikings first-round picks of the past 25 years leans dramatically toward defensive ends.
1. DIMITRIUS UNDERWOOD, DE, 1998, 29th overall
On the draft board: Previous busts while trying to find a defensive end might have led the Vikings to one of the worst first-round picks of all-time. At Michigan State, Underwood missed the entire 1998 season due to an ankle injury and reportedly wasn’t committed to football. But that didn’t stop Minnesota and coach Denny Green from selecting him with the second of two-first round picks, a massive reach even at the time.
As a rookie: There wasn’t much of a rookie season to speak of. Underwood showed up to his first training camp wearing fatigues and stating he was ready for battle. He went AWOL after his first day of camp and never played a down for the Vikings.
From there: Minnesota ended up formally releasing Underwood later in camp. While the second player on this list could take this top spot, too, the fact that Underwood lasted only a day with the Vikings gives him the nod. Underwood later spent parts of four seasons with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, playing in just 19 career games. His “best” season came when he played 15 games in 2000 with the Cowboys and tallied the only four sacks of his career.
2. TROY WILLIAMSON, WR, 2005, seventh overall
On the draft board: Minnesota had just traded Randy Moss and fell in love with the deep speed Williamson could provide, though his hands were questioned even at the time of the draft. The 2005 draft had busts all over the first round, but the Atlanta Falcons took a wide receiver 20 spots after Williamson, and Roddy White has turned into a three-time Pro Bowler. Sadly enough for the Vikings, they had another first-round selection in the 2005 draft, the third player on this dubious list.
As a rookie: Drops were a problem for Williamson from the very beginning. He played 14 games in his first season, starting three. But he tallied only 24 catches for 372 yards and two touchdowns.
From there: The speed was there, but Williamson wasn’t able to hold onto the ball when he was open. He played three years in Minnesota and had 79 total catches for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns. His best season was his second, with 37 catches for 455 yards. After leaving the Vikings, he managed just eight catches in two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars and is now out of the league.
3. ERASMUS JAMES, DE, 2005, 18th overall
On the draft board: After the Vikings whiffed on the Williamson pick, they had another chance in the first round in 2005 and again tried to find a pass-rushing defensive end. At the time, James was considered a strong pick, coming off an All-American senior season at Wisconsin. He even ran a 4.75 40-yard dash at the Combine.
As a rookie: James didn’t have a terrible rookie year, but he never lived up to being the 18th pick. He played in 15 games, started nine and had his career-high with four sacks.
From there: Instead of building on his rookie season, James saw his career decimated by injuries. He played only eight more games over two seasons for Minnesota and finished his career a year later playing five games in Washington. After four sacks in his first season, he had only one more the next three years and his career was over.
4. D.J. DOZIER, RB, 1987, 14th overall
On the draft board: Dozier was an consensus first-team All-American at Penn State in 1986 as the Nittany Lions won the national championship. Minnesota was trying to find a workhorse back and was so enamored with Dozier’s talents that it traded up two spots to ensure it would get the chance to select him.
As a rookie: Dozier’s first season was his best but still underwhelming by first-round pick standards. He had 69 carries, 257 yards rushing and seven total touchdowns. He played in nine games, starting three, but Darrin Nelson continued to lead the Vikings’ rushing attack.
From there: Spending three more seasons in Minnesota, Dozier never was able to get a strong hold on an every-down spot and he finished his four years with the Vikings with just 643 total rushing yards. After Dozier failed, Minnesota tried again to find a franchise running back by completing the ill-fated Herschel Walker trade with Dallas. Dozier played one more season, with the Detroit Lions, before leaving the NFL and trying a short-lived career in pro baseball.
5. DERRICK ALEXANDER, DE, 1995, 11th overall
On the draft board: The final spot on this list came down to two defensive ends, Alexander and Duane Clemons. There was little separation between the two (Clemons had one more sacks with the Vikings and was picked five spots later), but Alexander will always be remembered by Vikings fans because of the person he wasn’t, namely potential Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who was selected by Tampa Bay with the next pick. Alexander was another attempt at a pass-rushing defensive end that didn’t work out, perhaps causing Minnesota to try for Clemons a year later.
As a rookie: Alexander started 12 of the 15 games he played in as a rookie. He had just two sacks his first season, while adding two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
From there: Things didn’t get much better for Alexander, but his final season in Minnesota was his best. In 1998, he started all 16 games and had a career-high 7.5 sacks. He finished with 17.5 sacks in his four years with the Vikings. He had one more year left, starting all 16 games for the Cleveland Browns in 1999, and was then out of the league.
Brian Hall writes about the Vikings for Fox Sports North.