Draft decisions: Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings appear to be improving with young talent developing, but GM Rick Spielman is sure to keep piling on the young picks in hopes of improving both sides of the ball. NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas breaks down the Vikings roster, complete with salary-cap implications and potential draft targets at numerous positions.

Anytime a team hires a new coach, he is usually given a few years to right the ship. Mike Zimmer’s head coaching debut features a 4-5 record, but the team is in the midst of a two-game winning streak, which coincides with Teddy Bridgewater’s return from the injured list to rival Oakland’s Derek Carr for the most impressive rookie performance by a quarterback in 2014.

Since the turn of the century, the Vikings have reached the playoffs just five times, twice losing in the conference title game. The 2012 team was the last to make a playoff appearance, saving Leslie Frazier’s job for at least another season after the Vikings compiled a 10-6 record before losing in the Wild Card round. That team ranked 14th in the league in scoring (379), but the offense was 20th in total offense with 5,385 yards, as the defense ranked 16th, giving up 5,600 yards, along with allowing 28 touchdown passes and 10 more scores on the ground.

Frazier had stepped in as head coach after the Vikings fired Brad Childress when the team stumbled out of the gates with a 3-7 record during the 2010 campaign. Childress left the organization having guided the team to the playoffs twice, after posting a 39-35 record. Frazier was discarded after the 2013 campaign, leaving with a 24-39-1 mark that included a 5-10-1 2013 schedule that saw the team finish 26th in the NFL in total defense (5,508), 27th in scoring (391) and 29th in yards allowed (6,362) as that defense was torched for 51 touchdowns, including 37 aerial strikes.

During the team’s recent slip into mediocrity, the usual offensive leaders featured Adrian Peterson toting the pigskin and Percy Harvin running under passes thrown by the most suspect mediocre crop of quarterbacks to wear an NFL uniform in recent memory. Harvin’s tantrums saw him leave town and be found wanting by the Seahawks, who paid a hefty price to secure his services before dumping him on the hapless Jets recently.

Peterson’s recent off-field issues have many feeling his days wearing the purple uniform are soon to be over. That leaves the team’s hopes for the future in the capable hands of Teddy Bridgewater. Acquired during a draft day trade that saw the Seahawks send their 2014 first round pick (32nd overall) to Vikings for their 2014 fourth round (108th overall, Cassius Marsh) and second-round picks (40th overall subsequently traded, Kyle Van Noy), the Louisville product has started five of the six games he’s appeared in for Minnesota.

Bridgewater does not have the speedy Harvin to get to his deep throws, but in aging veteran Greg Jennings, he has a savvy receiver who leads the team with 35 receptions and has caught at least five passes in four of his nine 2014 appearances. Instead of the power running game featuring Peterson, former college quarterback Jerick McKinnon has picked up the pace of late, leading the running corps with 446 yards, ranking eighth in the league with a 5.0-yard average.

McKinnon has yet to score on the ground and, like his quarterback, he was acquired in a trade with Seattle that sent the Seahawks’ third-round pick (96th overall) in 2014, along with first- (25th overall, Xavier Rhodes) and seventh-round choices (214th overall, Travis Bond) to Minnesota when Seattle took Harvin off Minnesota’s hands prior to the 2013 draft. Sharing time with McKinnon is Matt Asiata, the short-yardage ball carrier with six touchdowns and 277 yards rushing, adding 22 receptions with another score.
Currently, the offense is a work in progress. Even before the Peterson mess, and their recent two-game winning streak, the offense was holding the team back. Limping through a 2-5 record, the team scored 30 points or better just twice, as that unit was held to under 10 points in three of their losses. Minnesota has managed to produce 168 points, as their average of 18.7 points per game is 29th among the 32 teams.

The Vikes have seen three players take snaps under center and that lack of continuity has led to the team completing only 58.3% of their passes, one of seven teams to be under the 60 percent pass completion mark. They’ve only coughed up the ball three times via fumbles, but there is a lot of early-round talent on this team to be struggling in attempts to reach the end zone.

Current Record…4-5 (4-3 vs. the NFC/0-2 vs. the AFC)…168 PF/199 PA

Team 2014 Cap Numbers…$128,566,445 (Top 51: $117,341,107)…Offense: $58,416,449… Defense: $50,173,702…Special: $2,410,531.

Potential 2015 Free Agents (Player/Current Salary)…Unrestricted: quarterback Christian Ponder ($2,539,675); Offensive Center/Guard Joe Berger ($920,000); offensive guard/tackle Vladimir Ducasse ($795,000); defensive tackle Tom Johnson ($845,000); long snapper Cullen Loeffler ($1,140,000); defensive end Corey Wootton ($1,500,000)…Voided: fullback Jerome Felton ($2,500,000)…Restricted: tailback Matt Asiata ($570,000); offensive tackle Michael Harris ($481,167)…Exclusive Rights: linebacker/strong safety Dom DeCicco ($570,000); offensive center Josh Samuda ($495,000).

The Offense

Quarterback…#5-Teddy Bridgewater; #7-Christian Ponder…IR#16-Matt Cassel…Practice Squad#6-Pat Devlin; #8-Chandler Harnish.

The future is now for the Vikings and Bridgewater is seizing that opportunity. While it is unlikely that the Vikings are in a position to make a playoff run, two straight wins with the Louisville first-rounder at the helm has hopes for a bright future sooner rather than later. Anything to spark the offense is sorely needed. After nine games, Minnesota ranks 29th in the league in scoring, as their 182 pass completions place 25th, 312 pass attempt are 21st and their pass completion percentage of .583 is 29th in the NFL.

Minnesota is one of four teams that have yet to reach the 1,800-yard passing level (1,774) and rank last with only six touchdown tosses, three each by Bridgewater and Matt Cassel. They are tied for fifth in throwing the most interceptions (11) and are one of six teams to be on the “south side” of 100 first-down completions (27th at 99). Vikings passers have also struggled with the long ball, as they are tied for 28th with just twenty completions for distances of 20 yards or longer.

Bridgewater boasts a 3-2 record during his five starting assignments, accounting for 1,321 of the team’s 1,968 aerial yards. He’s hit on 119 of 197 attempts (60.7%) and while he has three touchdown tosses, he’s also thrown five interceptions. While Christian Ponder does the Harry Belafonte Limbo Trick (how low can you go) for his career, he’s the “surviving” mediocre quarterback hopeful that the Vikes brass wasted time, money and effort on. He’s still in a purple jersey only because of Matt Cassel’s foot injury that relegated him to the injured reserve.

Ponder will either be unemployed or with another NFL team, begging for a roster spot in 2015, but it is all but certain his Minnesota days will end after this season. Cassel might be able to eke out another season as the veteran sage to help Bridgewater over the rough spots as the rookie develops, but the team can save $4.75 million by letting him walk after the season and there are other less costly veterans that can help tutor the new starting signal caller.

Some current backups that could be a fit next year are Derek Anderson (Carolina), Matt Flynn (Green Bay), Shaun Hill (St. Louis), Colt McCoy (Washington), Matt Moore (Miami) and Matt Schaub (Oakland). Moore might be the perfect fit, as he’s still young enough to step in and play long stretches, if Bridgewater is lost due to injuries, and will likely be seeking a veteran cap-friendly one-year deal.

Receivers…Split End#15-Greg Jennings; #17-Jarius Wright; #12-Charles Johnson… Flanker#84-Cordarrelle Patterson; #19-Adam Thielen…Tight End#85-Rhett Ellison; #86-Chase Ford; #87-MarQueis Gray; #82-Kyle Rudoplh (injured)…Practice Squad WR#13-Kain Colter; TE#81-Rashaun Allen.

There will be several changes to this unit before the 2015 season begins, but in the interim, offensive coordinator Norv Turner needs to figure out a way to kick start 2013 rookie sensation Cordarrelle Patterson, currently tied for second on the team with 26 receptions for 308 yards (11.8 ypc). The second-year flanker has been targeted 56 times, as his catch success rate of 44.83% is one of the worst for any starting receiver in the league. He’s also struggled reaching the end zone, with only one score through nine games.

Patterson seems too soft to compete for the ball in a crowd, a big concern of scouts who witnessed this often during his days at Tennessee. He will rarely make an effort to tackle when an opponent intercepts the ball in front of him. While there is no denying his pull-away speed, burst and excellent leaping ability, a trip to the courage center is in order. They also need to amp up his tutoring, as he seems to have a very poor conception for how to run routes precisely.

Greg Jennings leads the Vikings with 35 receptions (targeted 58 times) for 459 yards (13.1 ypc) and two touchdowns, but that was hardly what the coaches expected from a receiver pulling down $7 million in salary and bonuses this year. Next season, his $11.0 million price tag is second-highest among current Vikings (Adrian Peterson is scheduled to make $15.4 million). Minnesota would take a $6 million hit, but save $5.0 million if they put Jennings back out on the market after the season and it is highly doubtful than any team would give him even a fraction of what he’s making this year, much less realizing anything close to his projected 2015 income.

Jarius Wright has shown enough playing in the slot to make the coaches comfortable in slotting him into Jennings’ spot next season. He is tied with Patterson for second on the team with 26 grabs for 315 yards, but like the rest of the receiving unit, he’s not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, as he’s yet to score this season. The rest of the wide receivers have a total of 10 catches this year, obviously making this a position that will require attention from more than just one 2015 draft pick.

The team’s starting trio has combined for 87 of the team’s 182 receptions, as the team total is 25th in the league. They are dead last in the NFL with six scoring snatches and the unit’s average of 10.8 yards per reception is 27th in the league, while their average of 218.7 yards per game is 29th.

Sooner or later, the Vikings may come to the conclusion that tight end Kyle Rudolph might be too fragile for NFL competition. The team keeps hoping that the oft-injured former Notre Dame product can stay on the field for at least 60 minutes. His latest ailment, a groin injury/sports hernia, took him out for two months. He recorded one of the team’s six touchdown receptions and has 10 grabs for 96 yards, but has been on the field for just three of the team’s first nine games. Injuries also had him on the sidelines for half of the 2013 season, when he caught 30 balls.

Without Rudolph, Rhett Ellison has had to step into the breach. Ellison lacks any semblance of the receiving skills that Minnesota has seen from Rudolph, but when he’s healthy, Chase Ford has better short-area skills, making 19 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown, with Ellison chipping in with 111 yards on nine grabs, but neither can be counted on to stretch a defense or be a reliable safety valve for the long haul.
With a nice crop of tight ends about to enter the NFL through the draft next year, a nice third-round find could be residing at Iowa State in E.J. Bibbs or a later round choice could bring Southern Illinois’ MyCole Pruitt on board. Rudolph’s extensive time in the training room has to be strongly considered by team brass on draft day.

Running Backs…#31-Jerick McKinnon; #44-MattAsiata; #23-Joe Banyard; SUS#28-Adrian Peterson
Fullbacks…#42-Jerome Felton; #48-Zach Line.

No matter what the outcome in regards to Adrian Peterson, the All-Pro back’s Vikings tenure is on borrowed time. Along with a cap salary figure of $15.4 million for the 2015 season, unleashing the beast will save the team $13.0 million.

In seven-plus seasons with the team, Peterson has rushed for 10,190 yards and 82 touch-downs on 2,054 carries (5.0 ypc) while starting 97 of 104 games. Since the 2012 record-breaking campaign that saw him tally 2,097 yards and score 12 times on the ground, the former Sooner dropped to 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. With sponsors dropping the tailback like a hot potato, their might be 13 million reasons for the front office to do the same.

You just don’t replace an Adrian Peterson in the lineup, though. Converted Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon, has been a pleasant surprise this year, leading the Vikes with 446 yards on 90 attempts (5.0 ypc) and 20 catches for 106 yards, but he has not had an opportunity to put his first football (first career touchdown) in his trophy case, yet.
As part of the one-two-punch the Vikings have used since Peterson left to deal with legal issues, Matt Asiata has split starting assignments with McKinnon. He leads the team and is tied for fourth in the league with six touchdowns on 84 attempts for 277 yards, but has produced at just a 3.3-yard average clip. He also added a score and 199 yards on 22 catches, fourth-best on the team and tops among the running corps.

If Peterson is let go, the Vikings will likely use their first-round selection to get a young stud for the backfield. Todd Gurley (Georgia) and Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin) are the logical choices for Minnesota to consider. If a blue-chip linebacker becomes a more pressing need, Round 2 could bring a Chris Johnson-like speedster on board in Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, or equally athletic powerhouse Karlos Williams (Florida State), whose own domestic issues cloud his chances to earn first-round status.

My money is on Langford, as the team has two big runners in place with Asiata and McKinnon. Whoever is the starting tailback next season, that ball carrier might not have one of the league’s best blocking fullbacks to widen rushing lanes for him. Jerome Felton has run afoul of the league’s substance abuse program in the past and while Minnesota is still one of the few teams that use the traditional fullback in the backfield, cutting Felton would mean a $2.5 million cap savings next year. That decision to let Felton walk could be hastened if Zach Line ($585K in 2015) shows that he is capable of being a smash-mouth blocking option.

Offensive Line…Left Tackle#75-Matt Kalil…Left Guard#74-Charlie Johnson; #66-David Yankey…Center#65-John Sullivan…Right Guard#61-Joe Berger; #62-Vladimir Ducasse; #72-Austin Wentworth…Right Tackle#71-Phil Loadholt…#79-Michael Harris…IR Offensive guards #63-Brandon Fusco; OG#64-Josh Samuda…OT #78-Antonio Richardson …Practice Squad Center #67-Zac Kerin.

The Vikings are coming off a solid 2013 campaign by their starting offensive line unit, but the results in 2014 have been on a steady downward spiral. Last season, that unit had the second-best power ranking for run blocking, as the ball carriers combined to average 4.78 yards in short-yardage situations, the best figure for all 32 teams.

The dominance on the ground was tempered by their struggles protecting the pocket, though. The front wall saw their quarterbacks get sacked 44 times, ranking 23rd in the NFL, as their adjusted sack rate of 7.8% was above the league average of 7.0%.

This season, the offensive line ranks 29th, as their 30 sacks allowed are surpassed by only San Francisco (31 sacks) and Jacksonville (39). Without Peterson carrying the pigskin, the Vikes did not expect that they would again average 4.78 yards per attempt, but a drop to 4.16 yards is good for 24th in the league. They are eighth-best with nine touchdown runs, but only 17th with 52 carries for first downs.

Perhaps the biggest mystery on the team is the inconsistent performance of left tackle Matt Kalil. An All-Pro-like season two years ago saw Kalil pave the way for Vikings runners to average 4.63 yards per carry over his territory, eighth-best among left tackles. Last season, that number slipped to 3.18 yards, 26th among starters at his position. While he has improved a bit as this year has progressed, with Minnesota averaging 3.79 yards around left tackle, that is good for 18th among the 32 blind-side blockers.

Among current Vikings, Kalil is scheduled to count $6.29 million towards the salary cap next year. Unless they find a suitor, the former Trojan appears safe to return next season, as his entire contract will count towards the cap if he is deemed wanting.

Guard Charlie Johnson lines up next to Kalil on the left side. The left guard position was responsible for the team gaining 4.18 yards over that area last season, eighth-best in the league. This year, that average has been reduced to 4.04 yards, 15th in the NFL. Johnson has a $2.5 million cap figure that the team can save if they let him go after the season. That could become a reality if rookie David Yankey convinces the coaches he can step into the first-unit picture next year, especially with his $561K salary.

John Sullivan has been the mainstay up front and comes with a total payout of $5.75 million next season. He’s one of the more consistent pivot men in the game and appears safe in returning next season, even though the team can save all but a million bucks if they let him walk.

Brandon Fusco was playing at an All-Pro pace before joining the legion on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Joe Berger has stepped into the breach and while he’s doing an adequate job, he was the team’s “first man in” if anything happened at either of the guard positions and center, taking away a valuable component from the second unit. With his ability to fill in at a variety of spots, the Vikings will have to “up the ante” if they want to bring back the pending free agent next season, as it will likely cost them double the $920K they are paying him this year.

Berger is backed up by former New York Jets castoff, Vladimir Ducasse, who is making $795K this year, but even at that figure, the front office is not expected to pursue him when he hits the free agent market after the season. Steady Phil Loadholt might lack the feet to handle speedy edge rushers, but consistently grades high in all areas of blocking. He is scheduled to be a $6.75 million salary cap occupant next year ($3.5 million in dead money, if let loose).

Minnesota likes big bodies up front. While the offensive line is not a draft priority requiring an early-round selection, a mid/late round pick or two would help add to the depth. Some that fit the mold are Oklahoma’s tandem of Adam Shead and Tyrus Thompson, but the front office has a strong liking for Notre Dame guys, with Christian Lombard fitting the mold they want from interior blockers. Florida’s Trenton Brown and Jarvis Harrison (Texas A&M) are another pair with the quick feet that offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes in his front wall blockers.

The Defense

The defensive squad ranks 20th in the NFL, allowing 199 points, but rank ninth, limiting their opponents to an average of 326.3 yards per game. Their 30 sacks recorded rank second in the league behind the 34 generated by Buffalo. They are one of just four teams to hold the competition to under 2,000 yards passing (fourth-best at 1,922 yards) and only four teams allowed fewer first downs than the Vikings defense (105).

Defensive Line…Left End #96-Brian Robison; #99-Corey Wootton…Nose Guard #98-Linval Joseph; #93-Shamar Stephen…Right Tackle #73-Sharrif Floyd; #92-Tom Johnson…Right End #97-Everson Griffen; #95-Scott Crichton…Practice squad NG #76-Isame Faciane; DE #94-Justin Trattou.

While Minnesota might add depth to challenge the current defensive line, it is not considered to be a priority. The team let former Pro Bowlers Kevin Williams and Jared Allen leave in recent years, but have hardly missed a beat with their replacements. Everson Griffen became the new “hombre” up front and has put together his finest season since turning pro in 2010. Maturity issues saw him last until the fourth round of the 2010 draft and continued until next season. A breakout performance in 2013 earned him a new deal, as the team let Allen walk. Through nine games, he’s posted 36 tackles (29 solos) and his nine sacks not only lead the team, but ranks fourth in the league.

Backing Griffen up at right end is 2014 third-rounder Scott Crichton, who might mount a challenge for left end duties next year. He’s only appeared briefly in three games this year, but with starting left end Brian Robison having produced just 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks through nine starting assignments, Robison might not be worth the $5.45 million he counts towards the cap next year.

Cutting him would save the team $2.45 million and with Crichton known more as a run stuffer (played inside at tackle in college), perhaps finding an edge rusher to join that unit might be needed. One name that come to mind in the middle rounds is Ivy League standout Zach Hodges, who plays much stronger than his 240-pound frame indicates. Some other edge rushers who could be available during the draft’s third-day proceedings are small-college standouts Lynden Trail (Norfolk State) and Zack Wagenmann (Montana).
A Rick Spielman “special” has begun to emerge at West Virginia, where Gardner-Webb graduate Shaquille Riddick transferred for his final season. He barely got on the field until a mid-October encounter with Baylor, as he recorded three sacks and four stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Nose guard Linval Joseph has been steady, adding 2.5 sacks and 26 tackles while providing a steadying influence for right tackle Sharrif Floyd. The 2013 first-rounder has not had the big impact the Vikes had hoped for, perhaps due to early-season elbow and ankle woes, but recently he’s done a workmanlike job with 29 tackles and 3.5 sacks while starting eight times in 2014. Tom Johnson is the top reserve on the front wall, ranking second on the team with 5.5 sacks, but has just 13 other tackles. Shamar Stephen has shown flashes and as a seventh-rounder, even getting 11 tackles from him is a bonus.

Linebacker…Strong-side Outside #55-Anthony Barr; #50-Gerald Hodges…Middle #54-Jasper Brinkley; #57-Audie Cole…Weakside Outside #52-Chad Greenway; #58-Brandon Watts; #56-Michael Mauti…Practice Squad OLB #51-Josh Kaddu…IR OLB #49-Dom DeCicco.

Minnesota struck gold with both of their first-round selections. While Teddy Bridgewater has been deemed their franchise quarterback, the future of the defense shines brightly with Anthony Barr in the fold. The strongside outside linebacker is making a very serious challenge for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. A starter since the season opener, he leads the team with 58 tackles (47 solos), tied for 38th overall in the NFL and the most for any first-year player. He’s also tied for the league lead with three fumble recoveries and has also sacked the quarterback four times.

While Barr has a bright future in Minnesota, the same might not be said for fellow outside linebacker Chad Greenway. The team has not been enamored with the “bang for the buck” they’ve gotten from the former Iowa All-American in recent years. He’s been limited to six appearances through the Vikes’ first nine games, but has recovered from early-season hand and rib injuries to record 45 tackles from the weak side.

While he was sidelined, 2013 rookie draft pick Gerald Hodges posted 28 tackles. Now, the team has to weigh Greenway’s production, or lack of (just one sack in 2014) against a projected 2015 cap that has an $8.8 million price tag next year. Cutting Greenway will save the team $7.1 million from that payout while Hodges is on the books for $690K. Fellow backup Audie Cole counts $660K towards the cap in 2015, but getting another impact type to team for the next decade with Barr might be the better route for Minnesota.

If they do decide to cut ties with Greenway, Missouri’s Shane Ray is the most athletic of a slew of pass-rushing linebacker types on the draft board. Vic Beasley (Clemson) might also draw serious consideration, but with 21 tackles in nine games and his recent benching the Tiger might be an “all flash, no substance” type. If Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney decides to leave school early, his ability to play all linebacker positions makes him highly coveted. For lightning to go with Barr’s thunder, the team could go back to the Pac-12 Conference for Washington’s Shaq Thompson.

The team has to be pleasantly surprised with the high tackle totals that Jasper Brinkley brings from the middle linebacker position, but that won’t stop them from giving early-round consideration to finding a replacement. Brinkley was found wanting by several teams last season, but has put together a campaign that includes 47 tackles while starting seven of nine games.

Still, McKinley looms as a grand prize on draft day and some feel that playing the “mike” position is ideally suited for the Bulldog. No other college player at middle linebacker is considered first-round material. Undersized Denzel Perryman (Miami) and California’s Eric Kendricks are the best from the senior class, but will still be around in the late second-round picture.

Secondary…Left Cornerback #24-Captain Munnerlyn; #21-Josh Robinson; #35-Marcus Sherels…Strong Safety #36-Robert Blanton; #32-Antone Exum…Free Safety #22-Harrison Smith; #34-Andrew Sendejo…Right Cornerback #29-Xavier Rhodes; #39-Jabari Price; #27-Shaun Prater…Practice Squad CB #25-Chris Greenwood.

You would think that “Chicken Little” was a Vikings fan, the way that base was crying for a strong safety throughout 2014 camp. Former cornerback Robert Blanton has done more than enough to quiet his doubters, as he paces the team with 61 tackles playing alongside his college buddy, free safety Harrison Smith, who has added 48 tackles with six pass deflections, in addition to returning one of his three interceptions for a touchdown.
Both might get a few flags tossed their way, but they are physical and imposing tacklers who have all the talent to start for Minnesota until the next decade. Injured throughout the 2013 season at Virginia Tech, key safety backup Antone Exum was hobbled by ankle and shoulder woes.

His recent injury history could see the team look to add third-day draft help, with Stanford’s Jordan Richards and Virginia Tech’s Kyshoen Jarrett appearing to be available in the later rounds. Both have extensive experience at the free and strong safety spots. If the team opts to go in the first few rounds for safety help, they may not find a better one in round two than Sam Ford’s hard-hitting Darren Woodson clone, Jaquiski Tartt.

The cornerback spot is expected to get more attention than safety, as Captain Munnerlyn has proven to be a nice fill-in at left corner, with the former Carolina Panther proving to be a steady presence, recording 37 tackles with a pair of pass thefts and three breakups. The team brass recognize that he has just average athletic ability, is shorter than they want at the spot and even though he can “sky” and go up for the ball, their safeties are often overworked because of Munnerlyn’s noticeable hip tightness that lets speedy receivers easily eat up his cushion.

Right cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota’s 2013 first-rounder, has deflected eight passes and collected 27 tackles (20 solos), but finding him a long-term mate on the other side of the field will cost the team an early round pick. 2012 third-round choice Josh Robinson failed to beat out Munnerlyn for the left corner spot, but he’s earned two starts this year and has delivered 18 tackles with two interceptions as a result.

Keep an eye on Marcus Peters as a potential first-round target at cornerback. Peters has had issues with the new Huskies’ coaching staff and they booted him off the team, but he’s universally considered to be the best cornerback eligible for the draft and with his recent dismissal, the top-10 talent might still be available in the mid-to-late first round.

Special Teams…Punter #18-Jeff Locke…Placekicker #3-Blair Walsh…Kickoff Returner #84-Cordarrelle Patterson; #35-Marcus Sherels…Punt Returner #35-Marcus Sherels; #17-Jarius Wright.

Jeff Locke is averaging 44.3 gross yards on 50 punts, placing 11 of his attempts inside the 20-yard line, while five other kicks have been ruled touchbacks. Opponents have returned 26 of those kicks for a 7.2-yard average. Locke’s gross mark of 44.3 yards ranks 25th in the league. He is currently placed 26th with a net average of 38.6 yards, as opponents have returned more of his kicks (26) than any other punter in the league, outside of Bryan Anger-Jacksonville.
While most teams bring in free agent competition to compete with special teams performers, Minnesota might opt to use a sixth/seventh-round pick to take one of two elite punters in college – Michigan State’s Mike Sadler and Baylor’s Spencer Roth.

Placekicker Blair Walsh has made all 14 extra point attempts and hit on 16 of 19 field goals, including 9 of 12 from 40 yards or longer, including making 3 of 4 from 50-yard range. Only 10 of his kickoffs have been returned.

Marcus Sherels is adequate as the punt returner, handling all 20 chances for an 8.4-yard average. Six different players have returned kickoffs, led by Patterson, with 22 runbacks, averaging 24.5 yards per pop, but the former Volunteer continues with his sophomore slump, both on special teams and offense.

Capping The Future…The current roster is projected to have a cap figure of $128,566,445 in 2015, with the offense earning $58,416,449, the defense checking in at $50,173,702 and special team players costing $2,410,531.

“Dead Pool” money for 2015 currently sits at $264,728. The big chunk is by outside linebacker Larry Dean ($100K), with Kendall James Still on the books for $85,059 and center Jeff Baca checking in at $48.3K. A total of 17 players make up the total dead pool, but only the above mentioned trio reach five figures.

If the Draft Was Held Today…The Vikings’ current record would give them the 12th or 13th spot in the first round. The team will probably consider the blue-chip edge rushers, especially if one can convert to weakside linebacker, but do not be surprised if they hedge their bets on the offensive line by taking an offensive tackle with guard-playing ability. Two that come to mind are Stanford’s Andrus Peat and Iowa’s Brandon Scherff. Peat has not dominated like he did last year and that could see him drop out of the top-10 picture. Scherff is a versatile blocker who could be another Logan Mankins if some team converts him to guard.

Defensively, Shane Ray (Missouri) is the perfect mate opposite Anthony Barr, but if the team goes bigger, Florida’s Dante Fowler could be an option to team with Everson Griffen as a two-headed demon coming off the flanks. If they find a need to get bigger at wide receiver, tight end-turned-split end Devin Funchess (Michigan) is certainly an intriguing option.

If I Was Drafting For Minnesota in Round One…I doubt that Peat and Scherff will make it into the mid-first round area, and the way Ray is playing, he’s positioned to join those two linemen in the top 10 players selected in the 2015 draft. Fowler is one player I’d seriously consider, but only if I could not have Ray, instead.

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