The annual NFL Scouting Combine will prove to be the first test of the vision of the Vikings going forward – whether it remains Rick Spielman's vision as it has been since he was named general manager or new head coach Mike Zimmer's influential input.
As is usually the case at the combine, all eyes are on the "big tickets" at the event. But teams have to grade players throughout the seven rounds of the draft and beyond. Spielman, Zimmer and the Vikings' scouting staff are looking for – independently and collectively – players that show them something that makes them want to draft a prospect.
Believe it or not, there are times when scouts are more excited about the players they hope to glean in the fourth or fifth round as the first and second. It doesn't take too much digging to figure out who will be a first-round pick and, barring trades, what general grouping of players can be expected to remain on the board in each round. What they're looking to find are players they are convinced can start off as role players and developed into starters.
So, who are they looking for? The one variable that can never be overlooked is that a draft pick's value and team need don't always mesh as expected.
As the Vikings descend on Indianapolis, they already have formulated a free agency game plan for players they hope to fill their many needs. As they poke and prod and watch the college prospects whose names will be announced in May in New York City, these would appear to be their needs in descending order.
1. Defensive End. Say what you want about quarterback (it's not far down the list), the Vikings struggled to have a dominant pass rusher for years before trading for Jared Allen. Brian Robison has earned his spot, but are the Vikings planning to move him to right end or draft/sign a pass rusher to replace Allen? With Everson Griffen an unrestricted free agent, if he hits the market, the Vikings will need to land two players, not just one, to make up the difference in Allen and Griffen.
2. Quarterback. As we stand today, Christian Ponder is the only Vikings QB under contract. Clearly that has to change and the two players brought in may both end up ahead of Ponder in the long-term depth chart.
3. Cornerback. Chris Cook has no career interceptions and has been on the team for four years. He's an unrestricted free agent who has started 29 games in four years and missed 30 due to injury. Even if he comes back, he will be need to be replaced.
4. Middle Linebacker. It was supposed to be Erin Henderson and nobody believed it. Henderson put up tackle numbers commensurate with being a middle linebacker, but problems off the field have the Vikings looking for a new starter at middle linebacker for a second straight year. The team has done nothing to replace E.J. Henderson. They did nothing and Jasper Brinkley became the starter by default. They did nothing again and E.J.'s brother was promoted to the job. All they have to show for middle linebacker at the moment are Pick Nos. 210 and 213 in the last two drafts. That is likely to change – by the draft or free agency.
5. Guard. Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson were serviceable, but neither was drawing comparisons to Steve Hutchinson. Johnson is a free agent and the Vikings need to bring, at minimum, competition for the job if not someone to replace Johnson, a free agent.
6. Outside Linebacker. Chad Greenway isn't getting any younger and the other OLB position saw Marvin Mitchell lose his job twice only to have outside influences get him his job back. An impact OLB in the first round could make a huge difference, but the Class of 2014 isn't bedazzled with studs at linebacker, which lowers this priority.
7. Defensive Tackle. Kevin Williams may be back. At this stage in his career, if the Vikings are willing to offer a deal that isn't disrespectful, he might finish his Ring of Honor career with the Vikings. But we may not know that until after the draft. Seeing as Sharrif Floyd was the team's first pick of the 2013 draft, he has to be ready for prime time, but depth and, perhaps even Big Kev, should be considered.
8. Safety. Harrison Smith is a player to build around and the Vikings keep waiting for someone to step forward. They can get by with the current cast, so it's not a front-burner issue, but, adding a partner for Dirty Harry would turn a question into a strength.
9. Running Back. Wait, what? Shouldn't this be higher? Running back is a dying art. When the next Walter Payton or Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson comes along, he'll get drafted in the first round where he should. Until then, specialists can be harvested in the middle rounds. In an offensive boom-bubble (until the postseason), running back is like guard – you can get good ones if you invest in the middle rounds. They're taking at least one, because Toby Gerhart is likely going to get an offer to go to a hard-nosed running team with more of a chance to play than as Peterson's understudy.
The process of evaluation continues this week. These are the needs. Now it's the job of Spielman, Zimmer and the scouting staff to determine who fits best and where for the Vikings.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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