It’s officially draft season at Vikings Territory, making this the perfect time to begin NFL Draft speculation. Who will the Minnesota Vikings select with the 23rd-overall pick in April? Will general manager Rick Spielman trade back for more ammunition? Does the team need to focus on offense or defense in the first round? Without football on Sundays, there’s more than enough time to second guess what the Vikings will do this offseason.
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report‘s premier draft expert, recently spent some time analyzing Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. The 6’3″, 240-pound prospect was a consensus top-10 pick before his gruesome knee injury in last month’s Fiesta Bowl, but may see his stock slip while recovering from a torn ACL and LCL. According to Miller, that makes teams like the Vikings a dark horse landing spot for the Fighting Irish superstar:[quote_box_center]”If Jaylon Smith falls in the draft, I could see a team like the Minnesota Vikings pairing him with young guys like Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Smith could play weak-side linebacker if you want to keep Kendricks in the middle, or, he could play middle linebacker and Kendricks could play that weak-side spot for Mike Zimmer. If you could imagine those three linebackers chasing down Aaron Rodgers, Vikings fans have to be very happy about it.”[/quote_box_center]
It’s unlikely Smith falls that far, but stranger things have happened to the Vikings. In 2013, Minnesota held the same exact pick and was fortunate enough to land defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. The former Florida Gator was labeled the draft’s “No. 1 player on tape” by Greg Cosell, but fell due to concerns over his arm length and injury history. Smith may fall to the Vikings late in the first round, but it would take a miracle from “Trader Rick” to make the dream of a Barr-Kendricks-Smith trio a reality.
All signs point to the Vikings making a change a linebacker. Kendricks and Barr may be the only “sure things” at the position, leaving Mike Zimmer a gaping hole at the weak-side linebacker spot. Current starter and soon-to-be free agent Chad Greenway has made it clear he wants to finish his career in Minnesota, but the team may be ready to move on. At 33 years-old and unable to play as a three-down linebacker, Greenway’s biggest contribution may come in the locker room. His leadership and presence at the head of a young roster helped the Vikings finish 11-5 and as NFC North Champions in 2015.
But it’s that young roster that’s making it difficult for Spielman and Zimmer to keep Greenway in 2016. Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles last season, becoming the first Vikings rookie to do so since 1961. And Barr, in just his second year, was named to Pro Football Focus’s All-Pro team. Truth be told, Zimmer would love to move Kendricks to Greenway’s current spot at weak-side linebacker and bring in a three-down, run-stuffing thumper in the middle.
Enter Smith. As Lance Zierlein of NFL.com writes, “Smith is the rare commodity who is truly hybrid in the sense that he has the athleticism, speed and physical makeup to play any linebacker spot in either the 3-4 or the 4-3.” In his past two seasons as a starter for the Fighting Irish, Smith notched 225 total tackles, including 114 in 2015. Zierlein writes that Smith has “the tools to become an excellent blitzer,” which makes him a logical choice for Zimmer’s aggressive defensive scheme. Imagine Barr and Smith threatening the A-gap and blitzing the quarterback together. Scary, right?
Notre Dame head coach called Smith the “best player” he’s ever coached, and the consensus around draft circles is that Smith remains a top-20 choice despite the injuries. In the aforementioned video, Miller notes that Smith is a sensible selection for the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders, as well. The beauty of a prospect like Smith is that he can thrive in any defensive system, from Mike Nolan’s in New Orleans to Ken Norton Jr.’s in Oakland. He likely won’t be able to play until late into the 2016 season, meaning the Vikings can try to keep Greenway in free agency and make a run for Smith in the upcoming draft. If he’s available at 23, there’s no reason Spielman shouldn’t pull the trigger.