With the final four NFL teams gearing up for a run at the Super Bowl, the Vikings and the other 27 teams are already starting to make their plans for free agency and the draft. While the two often go hand in hand, it is easier for Vikings fans to predict where their favorite team will go in the early rounds of the draft than other organizations.
In a topic that will surely be discussed at much greater length in the three months until the draft, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman authors a draft board that ranks players horizontally rather than vertically – allowing for players at different positions to receive identical grades and factor in need along with talent. If two players have similar grades, the Spielman system allows for need to be factored in.
As things currently stand, the Vikings have only a couple of targeted areas of primary need in the first two rounds of the draft. Through the process of elimination, fans can already start focusing on players at a few key positions because of the Vikings’ need at some positions and lack of immediate need at others. Here is a quick breakdown of the needs assessment at the different positions and where the likely focus will emerge as the clock winds down to draft weekend this spring:
Quarterback – Like it or not, the Vikings are almost certain to stick it out with Christian Ponder in 2013. While the position will surely be addressed at some point – whether in free agency or a mid- to late-round pick on a project QB, it doesn’t appear to be a hot-button position in the first two days of the draft.
Running Back – With Adrian Peterson vowing another assault on Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record and Toby Gerhart as a healthy backup, the need here is marginal. The team is expected to re-sign fullback Jerome Felton and may not look at this position until the final rounds.
Wide Receiver – Hold your cards, we have a Bingo. With questions swirling about the future of Percy Harvin with the organization and the lack of elite talent beyond him, if Bill Musgrave’s offense is going to flourish, the Vikings need to draft a big speed receiver who can take the heat off Harvin in the pass offense (if Harvin stays) or become Ponder’s long-term go-to guy (if Percy leaves). The Vikings used a couple of mid-round picks last year to draft Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, but elite receivers don’t always take three years to develop as seemed to be the case for years. This may be the No. 1 position on the Vikings’ wish list with their first-round draft pick and, even if they make a free-agent signing here, it may still be one of the top potential landing spots with their first pick.
Tight End – Kyle Rudolph is becoming one of the league’s top tight ends. John Carlson was an epic disappointment in his first season, but he is convinced he is coming back next year (his contract was weighed heavily in the early portion, which makes his staying another year more likely unless the Vikings want to admit failure). The team had two of the league’s premier blocking TEs in Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe and tried to address that with drafting of Rhett Ellison. Big blocking TEs are often available deep into the draft. If Carlson stays, the need here drops.
Offensive Line – A lot here depends on whether the Vikings re-sign Phil Loadholt, which is currently expected to happen. If that happens, the need on the O-line drops somewhat. With Matt Kalil entrenched at left tackle, Loadholt dialed in at RT if he is re-signed and John Sullivan a fixture at center, the only possible area for a high draft pick would be at guard. However, many of the best guards in the NFL are plodding offensive tackles from the college game deemed not to have the foot quickness to transition to tackle in the NFL. While not out of the realm of possibility for the first or second round, guards can be found throughout the draft and are often groomed in the image of their O-line coach (see Brandon Fusco).
Defensive Line – One of the frontrunner positions, at least at defensive tackle. The Vikings appear set at defensive end, with Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen all under contract and playing at a high level. Defensive tackle is another question altogether. Kevin Williams still sees himself playing two or three more years, but, at his age, contract numbers are as important as tackles or sacks. Fred Evans and Letroy Guion are both serviceable tackles, but neither has the kind of electricity to dominate games. Expect the Vikings to take a long, hard look at the DT class of 2013 when making their draft list and checking it twice.
Linebacker – Given the combination of Chad Greenway being the only starter currently under contract and depth at the position already being razor thin, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings go linebacker early in the draft even if they bring back both Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. At a time when linebackers have to have linemen size and safety speed, it will be one of the “hot positions” on draft weekend and the Vikings will likely be one of the teams looking to join the party.
Cornerback – An interesting position. Antoine Winfield is expected back for another season (likely his last) and the team has young talent in Chris Cook and Josh Robinson. Cook’s health has been the biggest concern – he has missed more games than he has played – and Robinson is still learning. The Vikings may not have cornerback as a front-burner need heading into the draft, but, if a corner they covet is available, it would shock nobody if the Vikings go in this direction.
Safety – With the emergence of Harrison Smith as a heavy hitting playmaker and the improvement of Jamarca Sanford (who is expected to get signed to a long-term deal), the Vikings are exponentially better at this position now than they were a year ago. Anything is possible, but this doesn’t look to be a red-letter screaming need like it was last year.
Free agency is sure to change the level of need at different positions for the Vikings, but, if someone is to set the early betting line as to where the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft will go, it would appear that the early clubhouse leaders are wide receiver, linebacker, defensive tackle and cornerback. We’ll see how the roster changes once the free-agent period begins, but, at first blush, those look to be the positions the team (and draftniks) will target for the Vikings.
Former Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is emerging as a frontrunner for the vacant Chicago head coaching position. Bevell, who is currently the offensive coordinator in Seattle, is going to have a second interview with the Bears this week. Chicago fired head coach Lovie Smith following the end of the 2012 season, despite posting a 10-6 record.
If you happen to be in a doctor’s office over the next couple of weeks, Peter King hopes you go for a magazine other than Sports Illustrated. In last week’s issue of SI, King made his Super Bowl predictions – opting to go with Green Bay beating Denver in the Super Bowl. The only team he still had playing this week that remains alive are the Patriots, who pretty much everyone predicted to beat the Houston Texans.
The boys in Vegas have an awful lot of faith in the Patriots and almost none in the Falcons. New England has been installed as a 9½-point favorite over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game and the visiting 49ers are a 3½-point favorite against the host Falcons in the NFC title game.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.