Whether they choose to pursue a "franchise" quarterback or decide they want to shore up another position of need, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman will have plenty to think about before May 8 rolls around.
Heading into the NFL Scouting Combine, it's time to examine all of the top-tier prospects and take a look at the quintessential Vikings Round 1 big board.
1. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Vikings fans understand that the need to secure a franchise signal-caller is still the most important decision Spielman and his staff will have to make this offseason.
If they choose to go after that player in the upcoming draft, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the name that belongs at the top of their wish list.
Bridgewater is efficient, accurate and has a great understanding for how the game is played. Proving that he can be effective over the course of his collegiate career, Bridgewater completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 9,817 yards and 72 touchdowns.
Though there may be more "polarizing" QB prospects in this year's draft class, Bridgewater's pedigree sets him apart from his peers.
Projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (Insider subscription required) to be a top-five selection, Spielman would have to finagle his way up the draft board if he wants to see Bridgewater in a purple and gold uniform.
2. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
The benefit of adding a premier pass-rusher to a defense can completely change the direction of a franchise.
Not only do they inflict a feverish amount of disruption on opposing offenses, but their presence alone can help take some of the pressure off of a team's secondary.
That’s why South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is one player who belongs on the Vikings Round 1 big board. Clowney's nonpareil skill set and ability to change the course of a football game makes him a "can't miss" NFL prospect.
Bleacher Report's own draft aficionado Matt Miller has Clowney falling to the Atlanta Falcons at pick No. 6. If that projection holds true, attaining the South Carolina quarterback destroyer would have to come by way of a draft-day trade.
3. OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Scanning the draft board, one prospect who always seems to stand out on film is Buffalo's Khalil Mack.
Pegged by B/R’s Matt Miller to fall to the Vikings at pick No. 8, Khalil is a versatile, athletic specimen who has no qualms about making his presence felt all over the field.
Talking about the possibility of seeing Mack in a Vikings uniform next season, Miller said:
With the talent left on the board, the Vikings can fill in a massive hole at right defensive end with the athletic freak Khalil Mack. The Buffalo star was a one-man wrecking crew this season, and his profile as a stand-up or hand-down pass-rusher is exactly what Zimmer needs to attack divisional rivals with quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford.
4. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
While this may be a pipe dream at best, if he fell to the Vikings, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins would be tough to pass on.
On film, Watkins is one of those players who absolutely shines. He's quick, has strong hands and constantly finds way to separate from opposing defenders downfield.
Talking on the Midday 180 radio show, NFL Films producer Greg Cosell praised Watkins. Comparing him to elite NFL wide receivers like Julio Jones and A.J. Green, as Chase Goodbread of NFL.com put it, "It's Sammy Watkins, then everyone else."
Even with Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings on the roster, Watkins' undeniable talent has to be appealing to the Vikings top brass.
5. ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama
A product of Nick Saban's Crimson Tide defense, Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the most underrated talents in this year's draft class.
With all of the defensive talk being shifted to guys like Clowney, Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack, Mosley has managed to stay out of the spotlight this offseason.
Projected by NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah to wind up in Minnesota, Mosley would provide Zimmer's defense with a solid presence at middle linebacker who could help anchor this team into the future.
If you turn on the tape, aside from his physical ability, the one thing you have to love about Mosley is that he plays with a sense of urgency.
Compiling 108 total tackles and nine tackles for loss last season while at Alabama, Mosley constantly has shown great fluidity and instincts when he's out there on the field.
With the recent release of Erin Henderson, it doesn’t take a detective to realize that the Vikings are in the market for a talented inside linebacker.
6. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA
Sticking with the defensive side of the equation, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is another name who needs to be on Spielman's radar this May.
At 6’4”, 248 pounds, Barr is an athletic marvel.
The body of work he's put in on film has been nothing short of spectacular. As B/R’s Matt Miller mentioned in his pro comparison video, Barr is a "human highlight reel."
With so many talented defensive prospects set to hit the 2014 draft, Barr may be the one guy who has the most room to grow.
A former high school running back, B/R's Brandon Oliver mentioned that his "lack of success" playing tailback at UCLA forced head coach Jim Mora Jr. to transition him over to the defensive side of the football.
Since undergoing that defensive metamorphosis, Barr has racked up 149 total tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss, 23.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. It's safe to say that Barr will be sending his former head coach a thank you letter on draft day.
If he winds up in Minnesota, Barr would supply this defense with a quality edge-rusher who can use his outstanding athleticism to disrupt the rhythm of opposing offenses.
Coming from Cincinnati, where he coached athletic defensive ends like Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, it's not much of a reach to think that Zimmer would enjoy having Barr around.
7. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
If you stray away from the defensive end and linebacker positions for a second, another huge need the Vikings have to find a way to address this offseason is their underwhelming secondary.
Finishing the 2013 season as the 31st-ranked pass defense in the National Football League, the Vikings were constantly abused through the air.
Adding Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard would be a good way for Spielman and Zimmer to address the team's defensive woes.
Throughout the entire draft process, Dennard has generated a nice buzz for himself.
Ranked by NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock as the best cornerback in this year's class, the Michigan State star would be able to come in from Day 1 and create a formidable tandem lining up alongside Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
8. CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Another young man who could help Minnesota’s ailing secondary is Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Watching him on tape, Gilbert’s instinctual ball-skills and impressive downfield speed make him an enticing NFL prospect.
For the Vikings, playing in a division that boasts quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and of course, Aaron Rodgers, makes the decision to pursue a quality cornerback in this year’s draft that much easier.
9. DE Kony Ealy, Missouri
If you haven’t noticed by now, a common theme throughout Minnesota’s entire big board has been talented edge-rushers.
As we trek on, one name that would make a lot of sense for the Vikings is Missouri’s Kony Ealy.
Talking about Ealy in his scouting notes, Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBSSports.com) said:
Ealy's athleticism jumps off the tape. Operating at LDE for the Tigers, Ealy showed good initial quickness off the snap to force right tackles into respecting his speed rush. He also has a quick spin move back to the inside to complement his speed. Perhaps best of all, when he gets a lane, Ealy closes quickly on the ball-carrier.
Finishing his 2013 campaign with eight sacks, 14 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, the 6’5” Ealy repeatedly flashed all of the qualities you’d want in an NFL pass-rusher.
10. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
Figuring out a way to help solidify Minnesota’s secondary doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around the cornerback position.
Aside from safety Harrison Smith, the Vikings have a desperate need to infuse another playmaker into their secondary.
Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a player who could work wonders for Coach Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards.
Clinton-Dix is a big-bodied safety who possesses solid ball-skills and considerable range.
Projected by B/R’s Michael Schottey to be taken late in the first round, if Spielman was interested in Clinton-Dix, he could move down, acquire some more drafts picks in the process and snag the effective Alabama safety.
11. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
The most polarizing player in this year’s draft class winds up ranked No. 11 on Spielman’s big board for a host of reasons.
First off, trying to project how Manziel’s skill set will transition over to the NFL is a difficult task. One of the most intuitive quarterbacks you’ll ever see play when he’s on the field, Manziel’s instincts and football IQ are second to none.
On the other side of the coin, because of his bouts with inconsistent NFL-like play, NFL Films producer Greg Cosell said on the Midday 180 radio show, at times Manziel looked “undraftable. “
Scouting aside, the driving force behind Manziel’s placement on this big board comes down to Spielman. As ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling mentioned, “Spielman’s fate could hang on the QB decision.”
With so much turmoil and uncertainty brewing in Minnesota, finding a franchise-caliber QB has to be toward the top of Spielman’s to-do list.
12. DT Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
Notre Dame's big man Louis Nix III is an absolute bruiser at the defensive tackle position.
At 345 pounds, Nix has a unique ability to wear down opposing offenses with his profound strength and quality of play in the trenches.
Capable of fitting into a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, Nix demonstrates good footwork and surprising agility for a 345-pound man.
With Kevin Williams set to hit free agency, adding a huge body like Nix to Minnesota's defensive line would instantly help this team's run defense get better.
13. DE Dee Ford, Auburn
Auburn edge-rusher Dee Ford is a guy who's been soaring up draft boards as of late.
Putting in work at this year's Senior Bowl, B/R's Matt Miller broke down what he saw from the Auburn Tiger in his scouting notebook:
The flashiest performer of Senior Bowl week was, without question, Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford. The smooth, sleek, explosive edge-defender was all over the field making plays. And his raw speed was undeniable from the stands.
Ford is a guy who's fun to watch operate on film. He generates a great burst off the line of scrimmage and displays fantastic closing speed whenever he gets around the ball.
At 6'2", Ford has been criticized for being a bit undersized. Still, because of his rapid motor and knack for getting after opposing quarterbacks, Ford would be a fantastic addition to this roster.
14. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
A word that I've thrown around a lot when talking about Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald is "disruptive."
Anytime you get the chance to watch Donald on tape, his unique ability to collapse a pocket and change the complexion of a defense leaps off the screen.
Like All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals, Donald is perceived to be "small" for his position. Thankfully, that logic doesn't match Donald's first-rate skill set.
Serving as an Edgar Allen Poe-like terror in the trenches, Donald would fit beautifully into the maniacal scheme Zimmer and Edwards are bringing with them to Minnesota.
15. TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina
You might be scratching your head wondering why North Carolina's Eric Ebron made this list.
Well, despite having a talented tight end in Kyle Rudolph, Ebron has shown on film that he's a completely different animal.
At 6'4", Ebron has the ability to line up anywhere on the field. Talking with NFL.com's Mike Huguenin, the North Carolina star said that the combination of size and speed he possesses should be "illegal."
A player who would provide a spark to the scheme Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner is implementing, the significant amount of talent Ebron brings with him to the table makes him an intriguing option for the Vikings.
16. QB Blake Bortles, UCF
Another quarterback whose name belongs on this list is UCF’s Blake Bortles.
Like Manziel, the jury is still out on whether Bortles can help propel a franchise to the next level. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Bortles has the size needed to succeed at the position.
But when asked if Bortles was a "franchise-caliber" guy, his college coach George O’Leary pointed out on MaD Radio (h/t Chase Goodbread of NFL.com), “I think a franchise quarterback comes out once every 10 years, and he came out last year in (Andrew) Luck.”
Though he went on to talk about Bortles in a positive manner, comments like that are definitely concerning.
For Spielman, minimizing the risk around the QB position is key. The last thing he can afford to do is draft another quarterback like Christian Ponder in the first round.
17. DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
There may not be a defensive tackle in this year's draft class with a bigger upside than Florida State's Timmy Jernigan.
Displaying his talents on the national stage, Jernigan repeatedly found his way into Auburn's backfield during the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
With so much room to improve and grow as a player, the 21-year-old defensive tackle could be a great long-term solution for the Vikings.
18. CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Outside of Dennard and Gilbert, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller is a player who would thrive in Minnesota.
Fuller is a player who always gets physical with opposing wide receivers. Throwing his body around and making theatrical plays in the process, the Virginia Tech defensive back has shown everyone that he is a complete prospect on film.
So why is he ranked No. 18 on the big board? The biggest question mark that encompassed Fuller over his collegiate career has always been can he stay healthy.
After sustaining a core muscle injury late in 2013, Fuller had to undergo surgery to correct the problem.
If he can find a way to stay on the field, there's a good chance Fuller could end up becoming the best cornerback in this year's draft class.
The ball-skills, athletic ability and intangibles are all there. Now, it's up to Spielman to do his homework and figure out if Fuller is worth the risk.
19. DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
Ra’Shede Hageman out of the University of Minnesota would be a “hometown” guy who could help make an impact on the Vikings defensive line.
Analyzing his game, Hageman is a raw prospect with a high ceiling. Talking about his skill set in further detail, Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBSSports.com) said:
They don't come much more physically imposing than Hageman, whose broad shoulders, long arms and trim waist have generated comparisons from J.J. Watt to John Henderson.
Hageman's physical tools are exciting and his rise from a tough childhood is inspirational, but best of all is his DL versatility. Hagemen looks more like a modern day offensive tackle, possessing broad shoulders, long arms and a relatively trim waist. He remains a bit raw but possesses first round traits.
With a defensive minded head coach now running the show, a playmaker like Hagemen has to be considered a riveting prospect.
20. OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
The 25th-ranked player on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s big board (Insider subscription required), Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier can be a versatile defensive asset for the Vikings.
A proficient tackler who has the range needed to make plays all over the field, Shazier’s presence would help shore up a jittery Vikings linebacking corps.
As Kiper pointed out, Shazier reminds him of Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David. Needless to say, if that turns out to be the case, Spielman would be thrilled to have Shazier in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.
21. CB/S Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
The final Seminole to land on Minnesota’s big board is cornerback/safety Lamarcus Joyner.
At 5’8”, Joyner is a “tweener” prospect whose play on the field more than makes up for what he’s lacking in height.
Considered to be a Tyrann Mathieu-like player by ESPN’s Todd McShay (Insider subscription required), Joyner’s ability to go out and continually make plays sets him apart from some of the other defensive back prospects in this year’s class.
22. OLB/ DE Kyle Van Noy, BYU
The quest to find a dynamic edge-rusher could lead the Vikings down an interesting path during the upcoming draft.
If they trade back and try to accumulate more picks, a guy who could hear his name get called is BYU pass-rusher Kyle Van Noy.
More then anything else, Van Noy is a player who can find his way to the quarterback. Blessed with a keen understanding for how to knife his way into opposing backfields, the BYU product is a versatile weapon.
Currently projected to be an outside linebacker, NFL.com’s Dan Greenspan mentioned that Van Noy could also be a “Leo” or stand-up defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
For Van Noy, the position he ends up playing is immaterial at this point. Right now, all we know is that this young man is a rangy defender who has proven to be effective whenever he’s asked to rush the quarterback.
23. CB, Jason Verrett, TCU
TCU’s Jason Verrett is another cornerback prospect who has displayed impressive technique and ball-skills on film.
At 5’11”, Verrett isn’t the tallest defensive back in this year’s class, but despite his height, the kid from TCU looks like an all-around solid NFL prospect.
Verrett’s overall football mannerisms and the ability he possesses to make a big tackle bring back memories of former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield.
While he displays all of the traits you’d want in a No. 1 cornerback, Verrett’s skill set may be best suited for covering wide receivers in the slot.
24. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State
Dipping back into the well of quarterbacks, Fresno State gunslinger Derek Carr finds his name toward the back end of this list.
Even though he has the best arm in this year’s class by a country mile, watching Carr on film raises some major red flags.
Struggling to deal with pressure, more times than not, Carr gets flustered in the pocket. In the NFL, one thing you can guarantee is that defenses will be sending constant barrages of pressure whenever they get the chance.
If Carr can’t figure out a way to improve that aspect of his game, the whole “franchise” QB conversation is going to dissipate rather quickly.
Looking at the glass as half full, Carr has the size, maturity and football IQ required to make every throw at the next level. When he isn’t being bombarded by pressure, Carr looks every bit the part of an NFL-caliber QB.
25. S Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater isn't the only NFL prospect out of Louisville drawing rave reviews this year.
Safety Calvin Pryor is currently enjoying a meteoric rise to the top of many draft boards. Ranked as the No. 1 safety prospect by NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock, Pryor is another safety who has managed to find his way over to the Vikings’ big board.
On film, there’s no doubt that Pryor shines at times. He can maneuver around the field with ease and has the ability to detract opposing offensive players away with his ferocious style of play.
Some of the areas Pryor needs to improve on are the poor technique he displays when making tackles and his reckless style of play. Though he manages to lay down huge hits at times, the way he propels his body at oncoming offensive players isn’t always a good thing.
Putting the hyperbole aside for a second, when push comes to shove, Pryor is a raw safety prospect who dazzles on film in spurts.
All CFB stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com unless noted otherwise.