Mock draft selection Jaylon Smith
Image courtesy of Vikings.com
See my entire first 2016 NFL Mock Draft by CLICKING HERE.

I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary at Vikings Territory, and one of my first posts happened to be a mock draft. It wasn’t just my first mock draft for the website, but the first mock draft I’d ever done. Admittedly, I was going in blind, researching prospects, and spending hours at a time reading the analysis of much smarter draft minds than myself.

Fortunately, my “in the dark” guess turned into a jackpot, as the Minnesota Vikings selected Trae Waynes with the 11th-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Waynes ran the fastest time among all cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine, and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller wrote at the time that the Vikings had a first-round grade on the Michigan State corner.

In today’s age of #DraftTwitter, Draft Breakdown, and Draft Season, a fan like me can make educated guesses on what a team will do come the first round. This year, I’ve discovered another tool to help me in the decision-making process — FanSpeak’s Mock Draft Simulator. It’s a fun way to play the role of general manager and pull the trigger on your favorite prospect. In four of the five simulations I ran (using the CBS Big Board), the prospect I wanted was available. And that prospect was…

23rd Pick Overall – Minnesota Vikings Selection
Jaylon Smith, LB — Notre Dame

If the Vikings were to make Smith the 23rd-overall pick, it’d mark general manager Rick Spielman’s third straight year taking a defensive player with the team’s first draft selection. Anthony Barr was the first in 2014, followed by Waynes last year, and possibly, Smith this year.

The general consensus among fans is that the Vikings need to surround Teddy Bridgewater with weapons, and that doing so begins in the first round of the NFL Draft. Many teams, from the New York Giants to the St. Louis Rams, have been fortunate to land players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Todd Gurley. Others, like the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, haven’t been so lucky with busts like Trent Richardson and Justin Blackmon.

It’s a slippery slope, and one the Vikings have been careful to avoid. Spielman’s biggest mistake was reaching for Christian Ponder in 2011. But since then, he’s orchestrated selections of arguably the league’s deepest, most talented draft classes by sticking to a firm draft strategy. In recent years, that strategy has favored defense, and much of that can be attributed to the arrival of head coach Mike Zimmer.

His presence alone is enough to warrant the possible selection of Smith. Of the five mock drafts I conducted, Smith was available in four. My other selection when Smith wasn’t on the board? Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, who many consider a surefire selection in this year’s draft. While I’d love the Vikings to add a triple-threat — catching, running, blocking — talent like Elliott, it’s unlikely unless Adrian Peterson is traded before April.

It is likely, however, that Chad Greenway walks away in free agency or is brought back on a cheap deal this offseason. His limited role in the defense will open the door for Smith, a player NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks described as such:

“Jaylon Smith is an all-time athlete, a guy you absolutely love. He’s a thumper in the middle, he can run from sideline to sideline. He’s very violent in his play, a guy that I believe is a three-down linebacker, very versatile.”

The versatility that Brooks describes gives Smith the ability to play any of the three linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense. Minnesota is set with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, especially in the Nickel alignment, but Zimmer is still missing one impact player in the linebacking corps. Greenway was fine in 2015, but to take the next step, the Vikings needs to add a third playmaking defender at the second level. Smith can be that player, either as the middle linebacker or as Greenway’s eventual replacement.

Despite tearing his ACL and MCL in Notre Dame’s most recent bowl game, CBS Sports analyst Dane Brugler believes Smith is still a first round prospect. “Smith will present an interesting value in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft for a long-term thinking franchise,” he said. And right now, the Vikings are fully focused on their long-term future. That’s why it makes sense for the team to invest in a special player if given the opportunity, no matter the injury history. Wide receivers, running backs, and other offensive players will be available in the later rounds. A player like Smith comes once in a draft.