Mock drafts in March—or any time of year, really—are largely pointless exercises. Some of the most accurate mockers in the business are proud of getting a third of their selections correct, which underscores the difference in evaluation and information mockers have between themselves and 32 NFL teams.
So, why not have fun? As long as we keep within certain parameters (only choosing players when they’re reasonably available) and create particular rules (no drafting quarterbacks—in this scenario, all the QBs the Vikings would be willing to spend a pick on at that time are gone and the rest are undesirable or too poor a value), it’s useful to see how different scenarios can play out.
I’m well known as an advocate of taking a quarterback early—even trading up to do so—but it’s well known that a number of fans would rather not. Signing an average quarterback and fixing the defense would go a long way (although it is unlikely that they’d be able to fix it in one draft class).
In order to make sure that this is closer to a team-specific mock and not a wish list, I’ll use Drafttek and Matt Miller’s 7-round mock draft as an availability model so that I don’t pick players that would have been gone. When the two disagree on a player being gone (they disagree on whether or not Khalil Mack will go by #8, for example), I’ll use my own judgment.
Pick #8 – Kony Ealy, DE Missouri
Ideally, the Vikings would trade down out of this spot if they don’t pick a quarterback; there are a number of prospects that would be tantalizing to others and would be less interesting for the Vikings; players like Taylor Lewan, Mike Evans and Anthony Barr fit other teams far better than they do for Minnesota. This means that despite refusing to pick a quarterback, the Vikings will necessarily “reach,” even though that would be a goal of this exercise.
The most ideal defensive pick here would likely be Khalil Mack, but despite being available in Matt Miller’s mock I don’t think he’ll be there. There’s a good chance, in fact, that he’s gone in the top three. C.J. Mosely would be ideal here too, but linebackers provide poor value in the first round. That alone wouldn’t drop him, but his multiple surgeries and knee issues are enough to keep me from picking him in the first round.
Even greater than their need at linebacker (where there is the possibility that Michael Mauti and Audie Cole could fill in) is their need at defensive end, where it’s entirely possible that the Vikings don’t sign Everson Griffen, who is testing the market to gauge his value and may price himself right out of the Vikings’ range. While they could talk to Michael Johnson, there’s no guarantee they’ll grab an edge rusher in free agency, particularly with the rush to franchise the top pass rushers on the market (both Brian Orakpo and Greg Hardy are off the market at the moment).
Ealy doesn’t have too many weaknesses. He’s very clearly not a 3-4 outside linebacker, but the worst issue for him so far is inconsistent leverage, which is a coaching issue that can be corrected. He otherwise checks all the boxes. He’s strong, athletic, explosive, quick and instinctive. His body type is perfect; his natural playing weight is the heavier type Zimmer has preferred that should allow Ealy to anchor against the run (something he’s had on-and-off issues with because of leverage), but his flexibility and explosiveness, as well as his long arms, has allowed him not just to grab 8.0 sacks this year against SEC left tackles, but consistent quarterback hits and pressures.
Unlike many defensive ends, he’s not content to simply pin his ears back and get to the rusher; he’s savvy enough to read the play and determine exactly what he needs to do to make the most impact. That’s part of the reason he’s been able to bat down six passes this year and also grab a pick-six, all from the line of scrimmage. His 14.0 tackles for loss is not too bad, either.
His measureables have been ignored as of yet, too. Of all defensive linemen, his 3-cone time was the best at 6.83 seconds. What’s more is was better by a whopping .15 seconds! It was the second-best 3-cone time of all players in the combine after adjusting for weight, too.
Should he play with a lower pad level against his competition, he’ll be hard to top. He has experience in the system, smart about gap control, and has a variety of pass-rushing moves, even developing a counter-move partway through the season that has been effective. He needs better anticipation off the snap and plays a little too slow when he’s reading the play, but his agility, length and smarts warrant the pick.
Pick #40—LaMarcus Joyner, S/CB Florida State
Available in both mocks, Joyner solves a significant problem for the Vikings at slot cornerback and backup safety. While the Vikings are probably good when it comes to safety and safety depth (Jamarca Sanford is critically undervalued and Andrew Sendejo can come into his own), it never hurts to be deep at a position the Vikings have had issue with for some time.
Josh Robinson in the slot was a disaster, and while he may be an average corner on the outside with sideline help, he’s at a disadvantage when it comes to the unique problems in the slot. No corner gave up more yards per snap in coverage than Robinson and ranked second-worst in passer rating given up.
Joyner has been excellent in slot work with Florida State.
The best comparison for him may be Tyrann Mathieu, but evaluators comparing him to Antoine Winfield aren’t too far off, either. He’s fearless and plays with plus instincts. The biggest advantage that Mathieu has on Joyner is Mathieu’s preternatural awareness, but Joyner is no slouch there.
Aside from that, Joyner is even more physical, technically sound and faster. His run support is closer to Winfield’s than Mathieu’s and his feel for the game is top-notch. With elite agility and excellent explosiveness, Joyner doesn’t just have the tools to compete at the next level, but star. He’s won his one-on-one matchups and excels in both man and zone coverage, with next-level footwork and an understanding of how to play in complex defenses.
The biggest issue for him is size. At the combine, he measured in at a tiny 5’7 6/8”. Mathieu measured in exactly an inch taller, and Winfield was the same. It’s good that Joyner has long arms for his size (31 1/2”) that will help, but it’s clearly a concern. He has the bulk (184 pounds, same as both the compared players), but it’s a serious concern that isn’t easy to overlook. With that, he will occasionally bite on play-action and lacks the long speed to take receivers downfield.
Pick #72—Chris Borland, ILB Wisconsin
While Borland goes in the late second-round of Matt Miller’s mock, he doesn’t go for some time in Drafttek’s mock. It makes sense that he should fall after the Combine, in fact, given that his arm length raises serious concerns and that he’s not nearly as athletic as some evaluators had hoped he be.
But Borland’s timing is fantastic, and he certainly shows up faster on film than in shorts.
He’s an extremely smart player in more than one facet of the game and is always found around the ball. Aside from excellent drops in zone coverage, he has an instinctive approach to taking tackling angles far better than anyone on the current Minnesota roster, aside from the developmental players we haven’t seen much of.
He quickly diagnoses plays and gets into the proper running lane or jumps the route. Aside from simply wrapping up well, Borland does a great job shedding blocks and driving through contact to make the play. He’s agile in coverage, a disciplined player and rarely bites on play fakes.
His average athleticism limits his upside, but it’s difficult to find players both with on-field intelligence and technical soundness, and Borland clearly has that.
Pick #96—Caraun Reid, NT Princeton
The Vikings sorely need a nose tackle, and while it is unlikely they’ll be able to find a starter in the third round, they could pick up a potential gem in Ivy League nose tackle Caraun Reid. Because of his level of competition, Reid is one of the most underappreciated players at his position in the draft.
Reid’s play at the Senior Bowl certainly goes some way into alleviating those concerns. Many project him as a 3-tech-only player at the next level, but his ability to consistently take on double teams, sustainably add to his frame and anchor the run means he can play 1-tech in the NFL as well.
Unlike many nose tackle prospects, Reid isn’t just characterized by his strength or his size, but also his quickness. Reid can shoot upfield quickly or move extremely well laterally, whether attacking screens or on stunts at the line. His snap anticipation is average, but his get-off is fantastic, and he’s usually the first into the backfield.
At the Combine, he replicated this burst with a great 1.69-ten yard split, and besides Aaron Donald had the best weight/split ratio of every defensive tackle at the Combine. To go along with that, he’s been extremely intelligent on the field, playing with excellent play recognition and he can adjusted from the pass to the run during the play with fluidity.
Reid has an excellent backstory and he’s another high-character player that can come in and help lead a young locker room. His negatives seem artificial at times. CBS lists two, and neither raise serious red flags for a third-round pick (they are the fact that he played against weak competition and that he is “Intelligent and well-rounded off the field, which some suggests mean that he could be a player who may not love or need the game as much as preferred”).
A third-round pick that can start on Day One is rare, but Reid can be one of those players despite how often he gets pushed down boards.
Pick #104—E.J. Gaines, CB Missouri
Drafttek has E.J. Gaines go at the bottom of the third round to San Francisco, but they also note that Gaines is a more than 20-pick reach at that spot. Picking Gaines would accomplish a few goals. The first is that the Vikings don’t have a clear answer at starting outside corner even with drafting Joyner, and may need to find some solutions either this year or next—Gaines has that ability.
The second goal that the Vikings accomplish by drafting Gaines is their ability to retain the tradition of drafting two rookies from the same school; something Rick Spielman has been explicit about having as a goal whenever possible, and one he’s replicated in past drafts, with prospects from Notre Dame, USC, Florida State, UCLA, Penn State and Arkansas pairing up in drafts.
This isn’t to say E.J. Gaines is a token; he’s a legitimate prospect in his own right.
Ethan Hammerman with Draft Mecca thinks Gaines is a first-round pick, though the trend of preferring lengthy corners will drop him. At 5’10” and with 30 1/8” arms, he doesn’t seem like a lock to play outside, but his film against tall receivers and with a sideline has been fantastic.
He has excellent footwork and is scheme-versatile, playing with good burst in zone coverage and tracks well in man coverage. His instincts when reading the quarterback and anticipating the throw are as good as anybody in the draft, and he combines his excellent route recognition with on-field speed.
He’s a smart player that makes sure to close windows against quarterbacks, and he usually wasn’t thrown to at Missouri. His positioning is consistently there, though his hands haven’t been the greatest and he doesn’t turn deflections into interceptions as often as he should.
Pick #136—Telvin Smith, OLB Florida State
Doubling up once more, the Vikings select an outside linebacker/strong safety “tweener” that’s looking for a true position but may not have the size to have a “true” position. If nothing else, however, Smith can be an excellent sub-package player in nickel or dime sets.
Smith is an active, high-energy player that has a great feel for the game, particularly in pass coverage. He’s a player that has packed together instinctive play with on-field athleticism, and his 4.52 40-yard dash is representative to what he brings. He’s one of the fastest linebackers in the country (though again, in due no small part to his size). With that, he has agility, flexibility and nearly every other physical attribute you want in a fast player.
His footwork when navigating traffic or working through a route progression are top-tier and his speed allows him to appear anywhere on the field, potentially with the ability to cut under any pass. He excels in zone coverage, where his click-and-close ability can really limit YAC for receivers.
Smith’s technique is far better than nearly any other linebacker in the draft, including the well-touted C.J. Mosely and the earlier pick in this mock, Chris Borland. He even has subtle techniques down.
Aside from good hand-fighting techniques to stay off blocks, he aligns pre- and post-snap with precision, strafes well, keeps his eyes up even during blocks and maintains gap discipline (and force responsibilities) while still attacking. He’ll move laterally, backpedal or attack based on the situation, and he’s rarely wrong.
The issue is that at 218 pounds, Telvin Smith could simply be a rich man’s Larry Dean, the current Vikings special-teamer who really never has a shot to start but does what he’s asked to extremely well. Smith doesn’t have unusual strength for his size—he’s about as strong as you’d expect him to be, and that’s an issue.
If the defensive line hasn’t cleared way for him, guards and centers can do whatever they want, and he can’t really protest. Against bigger fullbacks or running backs, he struggles, and he’s not a particularly adept pass-rusher. He did do a much better job shedding blocks and making plays in Senior Bowl practices (he was perhaps better than any other off-ball linebacker there), but his film speaks more than the Senior Bowl will.
Regardless, getting a naturally talented football player isn’t easy and having a subpackage star is not bad, particularly with how pass-happy the NFL is, and the NFC North in particular.
Pick #168—Isaiah Crowell, RB Alabama State
Crowell goes undrafted in both mocks, but I would be surprised if he even lasted to the top of the sixth round. Despite his small-school pedigree, he could easily be the best pure running back in the draft.
A 5-star recruit out of Georgia, Crowell was often compared to Georgia’s best running back, Herschel Walker. So long as the comparison doesn’t scare Vikings fans specifically, it’s high praise indeed.
Crowell earned the starting job as a freshman at the University of Georgia and had a fairly spectacular year, especially for a freshman. But after failing a drug test and being charged with two felonies for illegal firearm possession (since dismissed), he was excused from UGA.
The running back transferred to Alabama State, where he’s been excellent. He exhibits uncommon patience at the line, which is hard to find for such a physically dominant running back. With a fantastic blend of power and speed, Crowell could be the rare feature back in the NFL.
Crowell has upper body and lower body strength, and uses both to break tackles, sometimes stiff-arming defensive linemen and at other times punching through gang tackles with consistent foot drive and push.
He has an average official time at the NFL Combine, but his unofficial times of 4.50 (twice) seem more consistent with his film. A high vertical leap (38”) and quick ten-yard splits (1.55 and 1.60) speak to his explosiveness. He also has been fluid and capable as a pass-catcher and is fairly versatile as a three-down running back.
The character questions are still an issue, and he has come under heavy fire for his work ethic at Alabama State.
But with footwork, physical ability and an intuitive sense of where to run and how, he’s hard to ignore.
Pick #200—Ryan Groy, OG Wisconsin
Drafted fairly early in Drafttek’s mock but not at all in Matt Miller’s it seems more like he would be available in the seventh round based on big boards around the web. Aside from fulfilling the traditions of pairing up schools, it also allows the Vikings to continue their trend of late-round interior linemen.
Wisconsin typically produces strong offensive linemen and are generally well-regarded. This year, however, they haven’t proven their worth to evaluators in the same way, and none of those coming out have a Day One or Day Two grade by most scouts. Ryan Groy is certainly the best of the bunch and has a certain degree of upside as a guard.
Groy played is 2012 season as a guard, but slid out to tackle at the beginning of 2013. Eventually, he moved back to guard as Tyler Marz took over and played much better. His greatest attribute is his strength, though he’s not quite ready to use that to his advantage at the next level yet.
While stronger than most of his competition, there are worries about his lateral agility and balance, and his 2012 film looks far better than 2013. He did improve over the season and earn accolades as a Big Ten first-team guard from the coaches poll and second-team in the media poll, but his showing against quicker interior lineman leaves something to be desired.
His issue isn’t so much lateral agility or speed, which he certainly has enough of (his three-cone and short shuttle scores, for example, were better than average for guards at the combine). Generally speaking, linemen with a lot of strength and average agility do very well in the NFL, but Groy hasn’t shown much balance this year as a guard.
He’s played every position on the line, and can kick out as tackle depth if need be, and has much more upside than he’s given credit for. A very, very smart football player who has an intuitive understanding of the opposing defense’s assignments, he can be an asset on the line and even be a long-term guard. When locked onto his block, he’s extremely tough to disengage from.
Two issues he can fix in order to improve as a long-term offensive line prospect are his flexibility (in particular at the waist) and his hand placement, both of which will hide his balance issues.
In all honesty, there’s not a world of difference between what Groy is coming out as a prospect and what Brandon Fusco was: smart, tough, well-sized linemen who were strong but not balanced and could play every interior position. That is enough to take a late-round flyer on him, with the school-pairing to boot.
Overall, it might end up being too easy to pair mid- and late-round picks with a Vikings needs profile, given that mid- and late-round picks rarely start in the first or even second year. But here, the Vikings can grab players that fit a mid- and late-round BPA philosophy while matching some of their tendencies, including the desire to grab late-round linemen and pair schools.
It might be tempting to give Norv Turner more weapons (and Crowell can do that), but aside from the fact that the only weapon the Vikings truly need on offense is a quarterback, some of the best school-pairs and pure players in the draft are on the defensive side of the ball. The deepest classes in the draft are at the skill positions of receiver and cornerback, but the very real likelihood that even a mid-round WR may not make the roster is well worth the strategy of choosing defensive players.