At this point, it’s well known that general manager Rick Spielman loves to draft in pairs. Getting players from the same school eases the transition in training camp and allows players to feel comfortable in a completely new environment—which translates into focus and effectiveness. Last year, Spielman selected two players from Florida State (Xavier Rhodes and Everett Dawkins), UCLA (Jeff Baca and Jeff Locke) and Penn State (Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges). The year before it was USC (Matt Kalil and Rhett Ellison), Notre Dame (Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton) and Arkansas (Greg Childs and Jarius Wright).
In a rare moment of clarity, Spielman even told gathered reporters that this was a goal every year and later signed a number of undrafted free agents from like schools (Rodney Smith and Anthony McCloud from Florida State, Erik Highsmith from North Carolina to pair with Travis Bond the draftee, Colin Anderson and Jerodis Williams from Furman, and so on).
That in mind, it creates some very specific potential targets for the Vikings; they drafted a player from UCLA and a player from Louisville. The Vikings currently have UCLA alum on their roster so it may not be as important (both Baca and Locke), but it still deserves a look. Who are the potential prospects from those schools? I’ve listed them below, ranked in order of importance (most to least) for the Vikings (a combination of talent and need).
- Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG UCLAThis isn’t going to happen. Su’a-Filo is a top-tier guard that many projected to go in the first round, and figures to go to an offensive-line needy team. Tampa Bay at 38 may figure to be a good spot because they cannot continue with Jamon Meredith, though with a quarterback they don’t like to have on their roster may instead opt for Derek Carr. They also need a slot corner, tight end or linebackers. Jacksonville at 39 needs massive help on their line, and Blake Bortles would appreciate the move. On down the line, the Ravens, Dolphins (still), Panthers, Chiefs and so on all need interior linemen and Su’a-Filo won’t fall far enough to make a trade worth it.
That said a brief scouting report would tell you he’s one of the strongest linemen in the draft with quick feet and a natural intution for angles and run blocking. He has a good anchor and adjusts his body quickly, whether it’s when pulling or staying put. He needs better leverage, but his raw power has been overwhelming at times. He’s clearly the best of the potential school-pairs the Vikings could pursue.
- Jordan Zumwalt, ER/MB UCLAOften, the Vikings won’t just draft team pairs but position pairs as well (Hodges/Mauti, Childs/Wright and sort of Smith/Blanton) and that could be the case with Zumwalt and Barr. Zumwalt hadn’t received much press until two weeks ago when a soft undercurrent about his potential rise hit the internet draft community.
His first, most obvious, attribute is his mentality. Coaches at the Senior Bowl had to tell him to reel it in because he was too intense during practices and he plays with the same reckless abandon on the field. Zumwalt is a bit light at 235 pounds, but he plays with much more weight and force than his measureable mass implies.
Further, his frame has room to add much more weight, and he could even be a middle linebacker prospect, primarily with run-plugging duties. He’s decisive and instinctive and despite his average agility and speed uses a great first step to get an advantage against the offense and usually plays intelligently in terms of reading keys and playing his responsibility. His aggressiveness will cause him to overrun pursuit and I’m not sure that will ever be fixed. His length and height are positives, but he has a lot of work ahead of him: he’s been easily tricked and does not use his hands very well.
- Preston Brown, MB LouisvilleThe Vikings have merely addressed linebacker, not solved it. Michael Mauti could turn into a starting-caliber linebacker very soon, but that still leaves the question of Chad Greenway and the linebacker depth. Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole very likely provide the Vikings with a good linebacker backup corps, but I’m not sure we should count our chickens before they hatch—we don’t know what we have in Hodges, and Brown could be better. Moreover, Brown could take over for Chad.
Well, I doubt it. Brown fills out athletically, and plays decisively, but his ability to play in coverage is suspect and he doesn’t hit blocks with good enough technique. He doesn’t shift his weight quickly enough or change direction well enough to be a starting linebacker in pass coverage. He is an extremely good run defender, with excellent instincts, power and form but he’s not a complete package.
Notably, Preston Brown was one of the Vikings’ thirty players invited to the Top 30 event in the run-up to the draft.
- Damian Copeland, WR Louisville
If you can’t get the same position in a school-pair, you might be able to get a familiar partner-in-crime. Damian Copeland played second fiddle to Devante Parker, the more well-known Louisville pass-catcher, but provided consistent, reliable production. Copeland is a good hands-catcher that extends outside of his frame, but lets concentration get the better of him from time to time. He is a quick, fluid athlete that runs good routes, but hasn’t incorporated deception into his game. He also needs to gain strength to be a contributor in the NFL.His toughness is good, and he’s willing to lay himself out for difficult catches. The reason Copeland will fall is twofold: 1) his consistency rarely led to highlight reel plays and big splashes, and 2) players his size (5’11” 184) usually need to be exceptional in other areas and Copeland was merely “good.”
- Shaquelle Evans, WR UCLAShaquelle Evans has led UCLA in receiving yards for the past two years—his only years at the school after transferring from Notre Dame. Evans is generally a technically sound receiver with good size and average athleticism, but has inconsistencies holding on to the ball.
The offense doesn’t really have a big possession receiver, for all the weapons they sport and Evans can be that guy. He’s well-built for a receiver, but needs to learn how to use his frame to his advantage and leverage natural strength. A fluid athlete, Evans can run routes well, but not with the kind of adjustment and intelligence that make up top receivers.
His role in any offense will likely be to create outlet passes for the quarterback to allow the team to move the chains when providing relief to the other receivers. He’s an excellent special teams player and should make those coaches happy enough while he provides that kind of reserve capability.
- Cassius Marsh, DL UCLAOccasionally playing opposite Barr, and sometimes kicking inside, the 252-pound Cassius Marsh is a versatile player with a clear passion for the game. He has incredible energy on the field and a non-stop motor, but is willing to give up taking the statistic in order to encourage solid team play by playing backside spill responsibility or flushing the running back into other teammates.
That said, he’s still perhaps too emotional. He was kicked out of one game for punching a member of the opposing team and has a history of getting into fights with teammates at practices. He was suspended for two games earlier in his career for his role in a bench-clearing brawl and the team suspended him for one game following his 2013 ejection for throwing a punch.
There are a bunch of things that are average about him aside from his motor and personality and nothing that really stands out. He doesn’t have the kind of strength you’d expect from someone who played all over the line like he did, but doesn’t have the speed of a classic edge rusher, making him a player without a position. His first step and initial quickness are good, but his general speed isn’t great and he gets slowed down more than most by well-anchored linemen.
He’s definitely the kind of player that will spice up a practice and make things interesting, but without a lot of athleticism or technique, seems destined to be a backup unless he turns some things around.
- Hakeem Smith, S LouisvilleNot nearly as well known as his backfield partner Calvin Pryor, Hakeem Smith was a team leader at Louisville and had a lot of responsibility within the defense. Smith has surprising closing speed that makes him excellent option as a center-fielder in deep zones, which was his primary responsibility in Louisville.He often rotated with Pryor and has experience with both spots, but is seen largely as a free safety by the NFL. Smith’s build bothers evaluators, as it comes in light for a safety at 194 pounds. He was a willing and able run defender with an ability to delivery a pop on contact. He navigates his lanes well, keeps discipline and understands the different kind of backside responsibilities come with being a safety.
In some ways, Smith is too willing to play what seems obvious, meaning he’s susceptible to play fakes from the quarterback or head nods/route fakes from receivers. Smith seems like a fairly good prospect, but his biggest weakness is a safety’s primary responsibility and if he needs help keeping the play in front of him, he’s not a great next-level prospect.
Only one of the players listed above should go on Day 2, and that’s Xavier Su’a-Filo, who also happens to fit a need for the Vikings, unlike the other players—though again Zumwalt may project as a downhill run-thumping linebacker than an edge rusher.
Should the Vikings get within striking range of Su’a-Filo, expect them to pounce. Not only does he meet a positional need and meet Spielman’s desire to pair up schools, he’s clearly one of the best—if not THE best—guard in the class.
These names will be interesting to look out for on Day 3, but I doubt the Vikings will come away with anything regarding them today.