One simple statistic has essentially driven an entire offseason strategy for the Minnesota Vikings.
After watching the Vikings allow more points than any other team in the NFL last year, general manager Rick Spielman engineered an exhaustive improvement project to improve his defense.
"We're going to create some great competition for our football team," Spielman said after the conclusion of the NFL draft.
Hours after the Vikings finished last season 5-10-1, Spielman fired coach Leslie Frazier and later hired former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to replace him. With nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn leading the list, nine of the 12 players added from other teams during free agency were on defense. Over the three days of the draft, seven of their 10 selections were on that side of the ball.
"The theme here was going defense, was going with guys with a lot of the athletic traits," Spielman said.
The Vikings waited until the sixth round to supplement a secondary that was the most glaring problem area last season, taking Virginia Tech's Antone Exum and Maine cornerback Kendall James with the 182nd and 184th overall selection. Exum played some cornerback, but he'll start as a safety here.
In the seventh round, Connecticut defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, Georgia Tech linebacker Brandon Watts and North Carolina cornerback Jabari Price were picked.
True to form, Spielman maneuvered his way into more picks after making two trades during the first round on Thursday. The Vikings struck two more deals on Saturday to bring their final-day total to six selections, after using their first four picks on a linebacker (Anthony Barr), a quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater), a defensive end (Scott Crichton) and a running back (Jerick McKinnon).
The Vikings took Stanford guard David Yankey in the fifth round with the 145th pick, which came from came from Cleveland, when the Vikings and Browns swapped the eighth and ninth spots in the first round Thursday. The Vikings traded their original 148th pick to Carolina for the 168th selection and an extra seventh-rounder (Price). Then they dealt the 168th pick to Atlanta for a sixth (James) and a seventh-round selection (Stephen). Exum and Watts were taken with their original picks in those rounds.
Zimmer wasn't used to all the activity.
"I just told him, ‘Relax. We'll get you some players,'" Spielman said, laughing. He added: "That's why I love the draft. I love manipulating. I love moving around."
Exum tore the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus in his right knee in January 2013 and was limited to three games last season. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Exum had five interceptions and 16 pass breakups as a junior.
The Vikings gave up 37 touchdowns passing last season, the most in the NFL. They signed Munnerlyn and cornerback Derek Cox and have high hopes for Xavier Rhodes, one of three first-round draft picks last year. Harrison Smith is entrenched at one safety spot. But more depth was badly needed.
The only offensive player taken Saturday was the 6-foot-4, 314-pound Yankey, who played his junior year at left tackle, where his size could be a better fit. Stanford coach David Shaw, serving as a guest analyst on NFL Network, said he'd prefer Yankey at right tackle. But with Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt as the bookends on a line that's been intact for two straight seasons, Yankey is more likely to challenge incumbent Charlie Johnson at left guard.
The unanimous first-team All-American became in 2010 the first true freshman offensive lineman to play for Stanford in 10 years. He was part of a dominant Cardinal front five that yielded only 11 sacks in 14 games.
"I think it's huge. I think it's a big focus on technique and having that technical emphasis, and running an offense that is really pro-style gets you really well prepared for the NFL," said Yankey, a native of Roswell, Georgia, whose father is from Ghana and mother is from Slovakia.
Highlighting the list of undrafted players who agreed to terms on contracts late Saturday was ex-Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who finished his four-year career with 2,180 yards rushing, an average of 4.9 yards per attempt, but is likely to be a wide receiver in the NFL. Colter has become the face of the union movement among college athletes, arguing for more basic rights like guaranteed medical coverage and the prevention of scholarships being revoked through coaching changes.
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Vikings draft proved definitively defense
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