Ranking the Minnesota Vikings' Top 5 Draft Needs
This isn't one of those years where the Minnesota Vikings have limited needs.
It's one of those years where the needs list could go on and on (that's what happens after a 5-10-1 season).
But, to ensure I don't take up your entire day, we'll trim this list down to five positions the Vikings should address in the 2014 draft.
The positions are ranked, in descending order, from least need to greatest need.
5. Run-Stuffing Defensive Tackle
In the three years since Pat Williams' departure, the Minnesota Vikings have yet to return to the position of a top-10 rushing defense.
Now, the unit has been close. But being close doesn't count for anything.
From 2006-2010, Williams' time in Minnesota, the Vikings were one of the most revered rush defenses in the NFL.
Williams arrived in Minnesota in 2005 and the unit finished 19th against the run.
But from 2006-2010 the Vikings were always in the top 10: first (61.6 yards per game) in 2006, first in 2007 (74.1 yards per game), first (76.9 ypg) in 2008, second (87.1 ypg) in 2009 and ninth (102.2 ypg) in 2010.
There were plenty of moving parts that contributed to the stellar run defense during that stretch, but Williams was its heart and soul (especially with his size).
This past season the Vikings finished 16th against the run (110.4 yards per game). The Vikings relied on the likes of Letroy Guion (6'4" and 303 pounds) and Fred Evans (6'4" and 305 pounds) to fill the void left by Williams (listed at 6'3" and 319 pounds but who played at a much heavier weight).
This draft presents the opportunity to get a Williams type of player into the defensive line right as the unit is prepping to enter the Sharrif Floyd era.
Louis Nix (6'3" and 340 pounds) of Notre Dame ranks as the 17th best prospect, overall, and top defensive tackle by CBS Sports. He's the cream of the crop. If the Vikings really like him, they're better off trading back into the middle of the first round.
Daniel McCullers (6'7" and 348 pounds) projects as a third-round pick by CBS Sports and is known strictly for his run-stuffing abilities.
Either player, but especially McCullers for when he can be drafted, would be great to pair with Floyd and try to recreate the "Williams Wall."
4. Left Guard
Pro Football Focus rated Charlie Johnson as the weakest link on the Vikings' offensive line that it rated as the sixth best in the NFL in 2013.
In that post, Pro Football Focus said the 29-year-old "might be best served in more of a utility lineman role. There are plenty of worse guards out there and if he’s the worst player on your line, you’re probably doing well."
And rightly so.
Johnson struggled to open holes in the ground game and was one of the frequent visitors to the backfield to pick up his quarterback after a sack.
With Johnson a free agent this offseason, it's the perfect time for the two parties to go their separate ways.
To improve the offensive line, Minnesota should consider drafting the likes of Baylor's Cyril Richardson or Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson.
I wrote about both here.
Jackson projects, by CBS Sports, as a second- or third-round pick.
Richardson projects, by CBS Sports, as a second-round pick.
Richardson at pick No. 8 of the second round would be a home-run selection.
This season confirmed what most of us knew already.
Jamarca Sanford is a talented safety when it comes to supporting against the run.
Sanford finished with 75 tackles and two forced fumbles in 13 games.
But he also finished without an interception for the fourth time in his five-year career. Luckily for him, he has two more interceptions in his career than Chris Cook has.
It still doesn't make up for the fact that Sanford was exposed as a fraud as a pass defender at various points this season.
Harrison Smith returns for 2014 and the Vikings hope he'll be healthy for the full 16 games. He's entrenched as a starter.
The beauty of Smith, is that he's an all-around safety who can play free or strong (although he may be slightly better-suited for free).
So, Minnesota has some options.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama is considered the top safety in this draft and should be on Minnesota's radar should it choose to trade back a few picks. CBS Sports ranks him the No. 1 free safety.
Kenny Ladler of Vanderbilt, the only player in FBS to force five fumbles and five interceptions this past season, would be a great later round pickup. He's projected by CBS Sports to be selected in the fourth or fifth round.
With the poor play at this position in 2013 combined with the pending free agency of Chris Cook and Marcus Sherels, it's safe to say a case can be made for this to be the No. 1 position of need for the Vikings in this draft.
The Vikings rated as the second-worst pass defense in 2013, allowing 287.2 yards per game through the air.
Playing in a division with passers like Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, and wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson, can make things ugly quickly for the best secondaries, let alone a reeling one.
But, it's not all bad for Minnesota. The cupboard isn't bare.
Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, showed stellar growth at the end of the season and with his size (6'1" and 210 pounds) he could develop into a No. 1, shutdown cornerback.
Josh Robinson played out of position throughout the season. He had never played slot before this season. Ever. Slide him back outside and maybe his awful 2013 turns into a more average 2014.
Cook, who started opposite Rhodes toward the season's end, may or may not return in 2014 but my gut tells me he's gone regardless of price.
Expect Sherels back because of his added value as a punt returner; he's a No. 4 cornerback at best, though.
But that still leaves Minnesota down a cornerback. And it should consider not retaining A.J. Jefferson for how useful he was in 2013 (five tackles, one interception in 10 games).
Should no viable quarterback option be on the table with the No. 8 overall pick, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert would be a great selection. He's got size (6'0" and 200 pounds) and playmaking abilities when the ball is in the air (seven interceptions in 2013). I had Minnesota select him in a mock I did last week.
Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State would be a great pick. He specializes in the slot, Minnesota's greatest area of need, and would require a second-round pick, according to CBS Sports.
In today's NFL, it's tough to win without a quarterback.
The Vikings found that out the hard way in 2013 as they averaged 214.2 passing yards per game. It was 23rd best in the NFL.
Now, that doesn't mean the Vikings MUST select a quarterback with the No. 8 overall pick.
If Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater are all gone at No. 8, they should avoid a quarterback at that point (sorry, Derek Carr fans; he's been a hit, per NFL Network's Bucky Brooks, at the Senior Bowl but I can't sip the Kool-Aid at No. 8).
Matt Cassel could have success with that group. Christian Ponder could come into 2014 a new quarterback who's finally ready to lead (hey, more surprising things have happened).
But Cassel/Ponder isn't much more than an option for 2014. Something must be done at some point for 2015 and beyond.
So, if Manziel/Bridgewater/Bortles are unavailable, it's time to consider a later-round quarterback.
Jimmy Garoppolo tops my list. The more I read, the more I like.
Sporting News' Eric Galko called him a "winner" after a Senior Bowl practice earlier this week:
Garoppolo has the quickest set-up and release of all the Senior Bowl quarterbacks, which is actually an advantage and a disadvantage in an all star setting. He doesn’t get ideal depth in his drop backs (a very fixable issue). That affected the timing with his receivers during the first half of practice. However, he adapted and by the time 7-on-7’s were underway, he’d established much better timing with his wideouts.
CBS Sports projects the Eastern Illinois product who threw for 53 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions with a 66 percent completion rate as a second-round pick.
Otherwise, Alabama's AJ McCarron or LSU's Zach Mettenberger are projected to be selected in the third or fourth-round by CBS Sports and Georgia's Aaron Murray earned a fifth-sixth-round projection.