As the Vikings start the process of contacting free agents in advance of Tuesday's opening of free agency, one of their primary factors may well be the status of the draft crop that is coming to restock the NFL shelves in May. If the Vikings are looking for players to fill in key need areas, they will need to be confident that the talent pool at those positions is deep enough for them to land a player who can help them.
As with free agency, where there are certain areas of significant talent and depth and others that are slimmer from one year to the next, the same is true with the draft. Some positions are deep. Others are very limited in talent.
While free agency is the current focus, the eye on May could decide how the Vikings and other teams proceed in March. Here is a look at the position-by-position early draft grades of the Class of 2014.
QUARTERBACK – The grade has to be lifted because of the three quarterbacks (Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles), but, after those three, who could go in the first four or five picks, the talent pool drops off sharply. There are only two QBs that warrant a late-first or second-round draft grade – Fresno State's Derek Carr and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo – although Carr is gaining momentum toward the top three. If the Vikings are looking to take a QB in the draft, it may have to come early because it may be difficult to find a college quarterback with NFL starting ability after the top five. GRADE: B+.
RUNNING BACK – Running backs don't go in the first round as often anymore and there may only be two or three that go in the second round. Fortunately, the Vikings have Adrian Peterson. GRADE: C-minus.
WIDE RECEIVER – This may be one of the deepest draft classes in years at this position. Depending on how teams assess them, there could be as many as six or seven wide receivers that come off in the first round and a handful that warrant second-round grades. The problem with the wealth of talent (it has happened before), teams see less depth at other positions and, in an unintended way, collude to weaken the position – convinced they can still get a wideout they like in the second round and pass early. If less than five go in the first round, look for a ton to go in the second. GRADE: A.
TIGHT END – There are a pair of first-round TEs in the draft (North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro) and there could be a couple coming off the board in each of the first three rounds. It's not great, but for those in need of a tight end, there is some depth. GRADE: B-minus.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE – There is always a misnomer that follows the tackle position. A lot of college tackles don't have the athleticism to be elite NFL players. As a result, they are often switched to guard. St. Louis free agent Rodger Saffold was a brutal left tackle and a decent but pedestrian right tackle. Moved inside to guard last year, he thrived. The elite depth at the position is solid – there should be four first-round locks (Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin) – and three or four second-round picks. Offensive tackles come off the board throughout the draft, but, when you consider that several of them will be viewed as guard prospects, it bumps up the value of the class. GRADE: B-plus.
GUARD – The position is actually pretty good considering that guard is the flip side of tackle. There are a couple of players with first-round potential (Xavier Su'a-Filo of UCLA and David Yankey of Stanford) and a couple more with second-round grades. Considering the infusion of talent in the late rounds that will be developmental college tackles, this is a pretty solid group. GRADE: B-minus.
CENTER – There are three centers that could come off the board by the end of Round 3 – Colorado State's Weston Richburg, Arkansas' Travis Swanson and Florida State's Bryan Stork. Considering that the Vikings drafted borderline Hall of Famer Matt Birk and current center John Sullivan in the sixth round, that's saying something. Teams only have one center and, barring injuries, they tend to have the same guy for six or seven years. This will be a good feeder crop. GRADE: B-plus.
DEFENSIVE END – This is an interesting group in that there is only one lead-pipe lock first-round pick – South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney – but there are a handful of players with first-round potential but more likely a second-round grade. Players like Missouri's Kony Ealy and Auburn's Dee Ford have first-round potential, but they're not a guarantee. There is good depth here, but, in terms of blue-chip talent, it's Clowney standing alone in the stag line. The second round could be dominated by defensive ends, but the first round will take a long time to start thinning the crop.GRADE: B.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE – Unlike defensive end, there are five players who were college DTs that could come off the board in the first round (Timmy Jernigan, Louis Nix, Ra'shede Hageman, Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Donald) could see selection in the first round. Given the number of teams that play 3-4 defenses, that is a lot of players. The depth thins quickly, but, with that kind of talent at the top end, it makes this one of the more impressive position groups, especially given the lack of top-end talent in recent drafts. GRADE: B-plus.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER – There are only two players guaranteed to go in the first round – Khalil Mack of Buffalo and Anthony Barr of UCLA. For a position of constant need (everybody has four starting OLBs regardless of scheme) this position has decent depth, but it's not a draft of stars. It's a draft of special teams aces. GRADE: C-plus.
INSIDE LINEBACKER – If you want an impact ILB/MLB in the first two rounds of the draft, you have one option – C.J. Mosley of Alabama. There may not be another inside linebacker off the board until midway through the second day of the draft, not the second round. There are some solid mid-round talents, but they won't be going early. GRADE: D-plus.
CORNERBACK – There isn't a pure lockdown corner in this crop, but there is talent, especially high-end talent. A case can be made that four or five cornerbacks will be taken in the first round, but, without the must-have talent at the top, it weakens the group. Just as quarterbacks get inflated talent-wise on draft day, so do those who are brought in to stop them. GRADE: B-minus.
SAFETY – Safety is a position that often ends up including physical cornerbacks that are too slow to keep up with NFL wide receivers and undersized scheme linebackers with the speed to be big-boy safeties. There are some of them that will assimilate into the safety crop. There are two first-round locks – Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor – as well as the expectation of two or three coming off in each of the next two rounds. Two safeties in the first round is the expectation and with both of them expected to go in the first two-thirds of the round, it elevates the group. GRADE: B.
On Tuesday, the 2014 NFL season officially begins for fans still clinging to the memories of 2013. Big-name players start changing teams. But the focus of the draft crop may be the foundation of many of the free agency decisions that will start popping Tuesday.
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.
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