If there were any questions as to what the Vikings' plans were for changing the team under new head coach Mike Zimmer heading into the 2014 draft, there isn't much of a doubt where the team is heading and the type of players they're looking for.
While Rick Spielman was making the picks, it was clear that Zimmer had an influential hand in formulating the defensive draft plan and Norv Turner was heavily involved in the offensive side of the draft.
It can be argued that the only pick the Vikings made that was obvious was taking Stanford guard David Yankey in the fifth round. A prospect who some scouts had ranked as a second- or third-round pick fell all the way into the fifth round and Spielman said that he was the highest player on their board as they waited the 51 picks from the third-round choice to their next selection in the fifth round.
In all, the Vikings used seven of their 10 draft picks on defense, including all five choices made in the final two rounds. The common theme among them was that they all have superior athleticism and are extremely aggressive in their styles. While athleticism is always a front-burner issue when it comes to drafting players, the defenders the Vikings chose were all players that have the look of those who would be in the sights of Zimmer when he was with the Bengals defense.
Fans can expect to see a lot of differences in the Vikings defense when the 2014 season gets underway. For years, the Vikings ran a Tampa-2 style of defense. When Mike Tomlin was the defensive coordinator, the Vikings played the Tampa-2 with a very aggressive style. After Tomlin left for Pittsburgh, things changed. While calling it "passive" might be generalizing too much, it seemed the Vikings had a habit of drafting defenders that weren't accustomed to the defensive philosophy and often struggled to make it work.
In short, the Tampa-2 is predicated on getting a pass rush almost exclusively from the front four and didn't require or ask for much in the way of blitzing. The back seven was assigned a quadrant of the field and ask to patrol those zones. If the front four didn't get a consistent pass rush, quarterbacks could pick it apart. Considering the other three teams in the NFC North have accomplished veteran quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford), if the Vikings couldn't generate a consistent push from the front four, the defense was in trouble.
The new-look Vikings defense is going to be a far cry from that. Zimmer has promoted much more aggressiveness, especially from the back seven. The selection of Anthony Barr with ninth pick spoke volumes to that new defensive mindset. Having played linebacker for just two seasons – including high school – Barr was viewed by some as an athletic freak, but a raw prospect who would need to be in the right defense to succeed. With long arms, incredible production in his two seasons as a starter at UCLA and natural athletic ability that can't be taught, Barr is a lump of clay that Zimmer hopes to mold in his image. The fact he maintains that both Barr and veteran Chad Greenway will be on the field at the same time leads one to believe that those two could be the nickel linebackers, and that Greenway's role will change – his title has already, as he is now considered a weakside linebacker in Zimmer's defense.
The team also addressed the defensive line, where third-round defensive end Scott Crichton and seventh-round DT Shamar Stephen were selected. Crichton is a strong pass rusher and could see time on the field in his rookie season because Zimmer promotes a wave technique on defense that shuttles linemen in and out to keep them all fresh. That may require keeping an extra D-lineman or two at the expense of other positions. That also means if Stephen can raise some eyebrows during the offseason practices and in training camp, he may have a better chance of making the roster than most seventh-rounders.
Three of the final five picks went on defense, where sixth-rounders Antone Exum and Kendall James and seventh-rounder Jabari Price all have speed and versatility and play with an aggressive risk-taking style.
Of the three offensive picks, none are guaranteed to be starters, but all of them could end up being critical component pieces. The initial plan is to give Teddy Bridgewater time to learn behind Matt Cassel and possibly Christian Ponder. He won't start until it becomes obvious to the coaching staff that he will give the offense the best chance to succeed in Turner's scheme, which may come in August, may come at midseason or may not come until 2015.
Third-round running back Jerek McKinnon won't be a starter, but will be a scat back that has many of the same qualities that made Gio Bernard a rookie sensation in Cincinnati last year in part-time duties. He likely won't cut into Adrian Peterson's time any more than Toby Gerhart did. If A.P. is healthy, he will get 20 carries a game. But McKinnon is going to get the opportunity to be a third-down, change-of-pace back who might get similar duty to what Percy Harvin did when he lined up in the backfield – take sweeps and bubble screens in space and make a play. Nobody else on the roster has his skill set – an undersized speed back with receiver potential – so he will have the chance to carve his own niche.
As for Yankey, he has the ability to be a dominant guard, which likely will give him the chance to battle with left guard Charlie Johnson or right guard Brandon Fusco for a starting job in training camp. While he may not win the job outright early, he will be given every chance to win the job in the future.
The reality is that all 10 of the Vikings draft picks could end up making the roster. When a new coaching staff comes in, there is the propensity to fill the roster with "his guys." When Brad Childress had his first season as head coach, he only had six draft picks, but they all made the team. In Leslie Frazier's first season, nine of the 10 rookies he helped draft made the final roster. Why should Zimmer be any different?
The reviews have been mixed on the success or failure of the Vikings' 2014 draft, but one thing that seems certain is the coaching staff is very happy with the players they drafted and carryover players at those positions had better be ready to step up their play or they could end up being cut-down casualties in September.
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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