Defensive Prospects for Vikings Fans to Watch on NYE

Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner (1) celebrates a sack of Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune (3) in the second quarter during the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. Houston Cougars At Cincinnati Bearcats Aac Championship Dec 4

The College Football Playoff kicks off this New Year’s Eve with two huge matchups. First, the Alabama Crimson Tide (1) faces off against the Cincinnati Bearcats (4) in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, followed by the Michigan Wolverines (2) and Georgia Bulldogs (3) in the Orange Bowl in Miami. Going into these games, I wanted to highlight a few defensive players that the Vikings might have their eye on in the upcoming draft. Obviously, with the future of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer somewhat in the air right now, it’s tough to nail down exactly what the Vikings will be looking for in the upcoming draft. Regardless of what happens, I would be shocked if the Vikings prioritized anything other than the defense in this draft. I believe that defensive line and cornerback are their two most significant positions of need currently, and luckily for them, there will be some top-tier talent on display in these playoff games.

Cotton Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide (1) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (4)

Cincinnati CB – Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner – Junior

Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is an extremely long and lanky cornerback prospect that has put a high level of play on film consistently over the past three seasons. Since showing up on campus in 2019, “Sauce” has pulled in 3 interceptions in each of those three seasons, showing excellent ball skills and the confidence and aggressiveness in coverage that you love to see from your corners. While he could use more consistency in his tackling technique like most cornerback prospects, he hasn’t shown any truly worrisome habits or an unwillingness to play the run. Gardner appears to be most comfortable playing in Press and Zone coverages, showing great athletic ability and using his long wiry frame to his advantage. One area that he needs to work on at the next level is his tendency to get a little bit grabby at times in coverage which could lead to more pass interference calls early on in his career.

Cincinatti CB – Coby Bryant – RS Senior

On the other side of the Bearcats’ dynamic duo at cornerback, we have Coby Bryant. Coby has great technique, mirroring the receiver exceptionally well off of the line, and is extremely good at playing the ball while it is in the air. He shows the confidence and talent you need from a corner to go with his great height for the position. A bit lean, stronger receivers in the league could give him struggles, especially off of the line, but he appears to have pretty good play strength for his frame, knowing how to use leverage to his advantage.

Alabama DT – Phidarian Mathis – RS Senior

Phidarian Mathis has enjoyed one of the biggest “breakout” performances of the season, in my opinion. He was a great defensive lineman for Alabama last season. However, this year his game has taken another step. Throughout 12 games, Mathis has accrued eight sacks while stripping one ball and recovering two fumbles. He has a terrific first step off the line and great technique when battling offensive lineman with his hands. Listed at 6’4″ 312lbs, Mathis has an ideal frame for an NFL 3-Technique and depending on how this offseason goes for the Vikings, it could be an area of need.

Alabama LB – Christian Harris – Junior

Christian Harris has put some unbelievable play on film this year, Harris has played great over the past three seasons, and some have even gone as far as saying that they expect him to be the best LB of the Saban era, which is saying something, Harris perfectly fits today’s NFL with his ability to run sideline to sideline and track and cover targets out of the backfield. He should be a great weapon for a good defensive mind to utilize in matchups against both running backs and tight ends. With Anthony Barr’s injury issues and current contract, it wouldn’t surprise me if a new regime decided to move on. If that happens, Haris would be a great player to bring in to try and fill that void.

Alabama LB – Henry To’o To’o – Junior

After playing two great seasons at Tennessee, Henry To’o To’o transferred to Alabama this season and became an immediate impact player for the Crimson Tide, leading the team in tackles in his first season with the team. Like his teammate Christian Harris, To’o To’o shows great athletic ability and an ideal skill set for today’s NFL defenses. I will be very curious to see how these two Alabama defenders end up testing and which one NFL teams end up coveting more.

Cincinatti EDGE – Myjai Sanders -Senior

Myjai Sanders is a fun twitched-up pass rusher to watch for Cincinnati. He has great overall length, including phenomenal reach, to go along with his electric burst off of the line. Sanders hasn’t had quite as productive of a year this season as last year. However, I think he is best suited for a complementary pass-rushing situation where he wouldn’t get quite as much attention as he has received throughout this season. With Danielle Hunter coming back, along with some of the young developing pass-rushers that the Vikings have, I think that Sanders would be a great addition to this defense, especially if they could get him with a late second or third-round pick. I think his performance in the playoff, as well as the athletic testing, will have a considerable impact on where his stock ends up.

Cincinatti LB – Darrian Beavers – RS Senior

Darrian Beavers has taken an interesting journey to the NFL Draft. Originally committed to UConn, Beavers played 18 games over his first two seasons before transferring to Cincinnati for the 2019 season. Since showing up on campus, Beavers has steadily increased his role and is used as a swiss army knife on defense. Beavers’ Football IQ is easy to see just by the variety of ways that he gets used by Cincinnati and his tendency to be around the ball when big plays happen.

Alabama CB – Josh Jobe – Senior

Josh Jobe is an extremely physical cornerback for the Crimson Tide. There are few players in this year’s draft class that are better at utilizing the sideline throughout coverage than Josh Jobe. He can redirect most receivers at the line, and if he can get them to the boundary, he has great technique in using that sideline in his coverage. Unsurprisingly, being a physical cornerback, Jobe’s play does tend to lead to some unnecessary pass interference calls. He struggles a little bit more with shifty receivers who he can’t track as well athletically. He has adequate speed, but his hips aren’t as fluid as I’d like from my corners. Another area that Jobe really excels in outside of physical boundary coverage is his ability in the run game. He breaks down and tackles much more like a safety than a corner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some teams look at him as a safety. Due to his physical nature and ability in the run game, if Zimmer is retained, I could easily see him having an eye for Josh Jobe.

Alabama S – Jordan Battle – Junior

Jordan Battle has been one of my favorite players to watch over the past two seasons. The latest example in a long line of great safety play under Nick Saban, Battle is one of those players whose name just comes up a lot when watching Alabama. A versatile defender that can play in a variety of different roles, lining up at both safety positions, as well as inside at nickel on occasion. With the current roster at safety, I’m not sure that the Vikings will be interested in Battle. However, if he started to slide for some reason, I could see him being a player that certain scouts/coaches try to pound the table for with a later pick.

Orange Bowl: Michigan Wolverines (2) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (3)

Michigan EDGE – Aidan Hutchinson – Senior

Aidan Hutchinson has pretty much everything that you look for in a strongside edge defender; Stature, power, athleticism, technique, motor, even the ever-coveted “bloodlines.” He would be an absolute dream player to line up across from Danielle Hunter. Unfortunately, a dream is all it will ever be. Hutchinson is almost guaranteed to go Top-3 in the draft. I still put him on the list because if you want to see what a top-tier classic EDGE prospect looks like, Hutchinson is setting the standard this season.

Georgia DT – Jordan Davis – Senior

Jordan Davis has been an absolute monster on that Georgia defensive line throughout the entire season. He’s impossible to miss when watching the Bulldogs play, just bulldozing his way through the opposing offensive line play after play. When I watch him, he reminds me of current Vikings DT Michael Pierce. While they are built a bit differently, the play style and strength that they play with are eerily similar to my eye. Like many players on this list, I think that the Vikings’ interest in the mauler from Georgia will largely depend on how the off-season plays out. Between the decisions around Spielman and Zimmer, as well as the players currently signed for the defensive line, they may or may not be interested in Jordan Davis. I can tell you one thing, Mike Zimmer is going to be drooling watching Jordan Davis do his thing throughout this playoffs, regardless of what that means for the Vikings.

Michigan EDGE – David Ojabo – RS Sophomore

I feel like there is a good chance that David Ojabo ends up being the EDGE prospect that the Vikings are going to covet most in this year’s draft. Especially if the current regime, or at least Andre Patterson, is retained. After only seeing action in one game in 2020, Ojabo burst onto the scene in 2021 while playing across from Heisman runner-up Aidan Hutchinson. Ojabo is the definition of an exciting raw pass-rushing prospect. Despite not playing his first game of organized football until his Junior year of high school, Ojabo has put some fantastic flashes of talent and potential on film this year while taking down opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 11 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, as well as three pass deflections and grabbing a fumble. Regardless of how much attention his counterpart may have garnered on the other end of the line, the production from Ojabo this season has been truly eye-opening. I am incredibly excited to watch him perform in these playoff games, as well as throughout the entire draft process.

Georgia LB – Nakobe Dean – Junior

As I discussed with the two dynamic Alabama linebackers, Nakobe Dean is a perfect fit for the modern NFL game. Nakobe absolutely jumps off of the film when watching the Bulldogs over the past couple of seasons. This year Dean really came into his own, playing with relentless energy and supreme confidence. He is unbelievably fast for a linebacker, especially when attacking downhill. While Nakobe’s specialty is definitely the downhill run and pass-rushing game, he is more than adequate in coverage and has all of the physical skills needed to excel there in the future. If there is a concern with Dean’s game translating to the NFL, it’s his size. Slightly undersized for an NFL linebacker, Dean is listed at 225 by Georgia, which would lead me to believe he probably plays lighter than that. However, in today’s league, I just don’t worry about that quite as much.

Georgia EDGE – Travon Walker – Junior

Travon Walker is a very large, toolsy pass rusher that has enjoyed a bit of a breakout season for the vaunted Bulldogs defense this year. Walker was a 5-star recruit out of high school, and the tools that led the scouts to that conclusion haven’t diminished over the past three years. While his production isn’t insane, he has shown steady technical improvement from year-to-year, and his physical talent frequently flashes on film, routinely converting speed to power and creating pressure. One of the things about Walker that I think many NFL teams will covet is his ability and familiarity with moving inside on obvious passing downs and rushing the passer from the interior of Georgia’s defensive line. Once again, it will depend on what happens in the off-season, but Travon Walker seems to be a great example of the type of player that Andre Patterson loves to develop.

Georgia LB – Quay Walker – Senior

Quay Walker is another exciting player for the Georgia Bulldogs this season. Starting primarily at inside linebacker for the Bulldogs, Quay is a supremely athletic talent at linebacker, playing all over the field. Some of his best plays came when asked to attack downhill and use his athletic ability to create mismatches with blockers. He still needs to refine his technique, but he can develop into a very good coverage player at the next level. Depending on the decisions around Anthony Barr and others, Walker could be an intriguing option for the Vikings.

Georgia EDGE – Nolan Smith – Junior

The Vikings should probably send a lot of scouts to the Orange Bowl this year. I could easily see them drafting any of these talented Georgia defenders. Next up is EDGE Nolan Smith, A three-year player at Georgia, Nolan Smith is a good EDGE defender with solid pass-rushing ability that also plays the run well. Although he doesn’t have huge sack numbers, he has created a fair amount of pressure. I think his draft stock will be somewhat limited by his athleticism, which could cause him to fall into the later rounds where the Vikings may be looking for additional depth at EDGE.

Michigan Safety – Daxton Hill – Junior

An extremely feisty and versatile defender, I expect Daxton Hill to grab some attention this playoff with some big-time plays. Hill lines up in multiple positions for Michigan and is always playing with extremely high energy, which his teammates seem to feed off of. I don’t expect the Vikings to have a ton of interest in safety in this year’s class, but much like Jordan Battle for Alabama, I could easily see a scout or coach falling in love with Hill’s game.

Georgia CB – Derion Kendrick – Senior

In his third full season as a starter, 2021 was Kendrick’s first season playing with the Bulldogs after three years at Clemson. Kendrick has played well this season for Georgia, although he has definitely benefitted from playing behind the stellar front end of that Georgia defense. He plays the run well and is very willing to make a tackle. In coverage, he can get a little grabby, and his hips don’t move nearly as well as I’d like. I could see Kendrick being a later-round target for the Vikings, depending on the decisions they make at the position this off-season.