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Their defense fortified with the first three rounds of the NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings turned Saturday to other side of the ball.
The crux of their objective was depth for the offensive line.
Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt struggled last year, and by the end of the 2016 season both of their contracts could be expired (they have to make a decision on a fifth-year option for Kalil by the end of Sunday). Left guard Charlie Johnson wasn’t re-signed. Opportunity looms for T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd, the linemen the Vikings drafted in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.
“The best thing you can do is continue to add players at every position, and the best guys are going to come out and surface at the top,” said general manager Rick Spielman, who traded down three times during the draft for extra selections and a total of 10 picks.
Clemmings was a right tackle at Pittsburgh. Thompson was a left tackle at Oklahoma. Shepherd was a right tackle at Alabama, allowing two sacks in 27 games as a starter his last two seasons.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Clemmings will be considered for either tackle spot. The 6-5, 336-pound Thompson will get the same treatment, plus potentially a look at guard. The 6-5, 320-pound Shepherd already moved to guard during practice for the Senior Bowl after realizing the interest of several NFL teams.
Versatile veteran Joe Berger returned for another season. David Yankey, a fifth-round draft pick last year, will be expected to make strides. One of the above will likely be the new starting left guard.
“We’re very excited about how David came back,” Spielman said, referring to his strength and conditioning.
Clemmings was a defensive end, until his junior year. Widely projected as a higher pick, he said he thought he might even go late in the first round. His shaky performance the week of the Senior Bowl game didn’t help, though, and there were concerns by teams about a stress fracture in his foot.
“It’s an old injury and an old issue, but I’ve never had any problems,” Clemmings said. “I have no concerns with it and I’m not worried about it. I’m ready to work.”
The position switch at Pittsburgh came when Clemmings sensed a better opportunity for success on the other side of the ball. Opportunity was what steered him toward the sport in the first place, actually.
He was a basketball star at Paterson Catholic High School in New Jersey, with scholarship offers from Providence and Seton Hall. He played only two seasons of prep football, his participation prohibited by his mother, Fay, and her fear that it was too dangerous.
“She changed her mind my junior year when I asked. My dad said, ‘Hey, let him play,’ and they allowed me to,” Clemmings said.
His size and athleticism triggered more interest from major football programs than basketball. Duke would’ve given him the chance to play both, but Pittsburgh was his choice. That’s where Clemmings began grasping the intricacies of blocking. He said he gained a “nastiness” he never had playing defense, though the learning curve was steep.
Thompson has had a steep learning curve, off the field. He’s been married for almost three years, and he and his wife have two children.
“It makes you really grateful for getting to play football and not having to be there when my wife is changing diapers and I can go to practice,” said Thompson, who met Sooners alums Loadholt and Adrian Peterson while playing there.
The Vikings didn’t add any running backs during a deep draft for that position, yet another sign of their expectation that Peterson will return. They also didn’t take any safeties, with the spot opposite Harrison Smith still unsettled. Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo are back. Antone Exum, a sixth-round draft pick last year who spent his rookie season transitioning from cornerback, will get a long look.
The Vikings also added a couple of pass-catchers in 6-3, 255-pound Southern Illinois tight end MyCole Pruitt and 6-foot, 190-pound Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round.
In the sixth round, the Vikings took 6-foot-5, 258-pound defensive end B.J. Dubose from Louisville, where he played all four positions on the line. In the seventh round, the Vikings drafted 6-foot-3, 245-pound outside linebacker Edmond Robinson from Division II Newberry College. Robinson was the first Newberry player drafted since 1974.