MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman stayed until the very end of the NFL scouting combine, taking in a day's worth of defensive back workouts before returning home Monday morning to sort out their findings.
The Vikings have several priorities to address in the NFL draft, particularly on defense. The secondary appears to be the Vikings' primary concern -- and rightfully so, given the players who might depart in free agency -- but there are cases to be made to use their first-round pick (No. 25) elsewhere.
"I'm sure we'll have to address it," Zimmer said of the secondary. "We've got a lot of decisions to make there in that back end, but that's part of the process we have to go through. If there's a great pass-rusher there, it doesn't mean we won't take him, or a great offensive guard or something like that. We might take him."
Regardless of how the Vikings choose to solve those needs through free agency or the draft, they have three positions to zero in on: cornerback, safety and the offensive line. Let's look at the case for the Vikings using their first-round pick at each position.
The case for a cornerback
The Vikings need to get through free agency before determining whether they'll use the 25th pick on the likes of LSU's Kristian Fulton, Alabama's Trevon Diggs, Florida's CJ Henderson and Virginia's Bryce Hall -- all of whom could be available. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has the Vikings selecting Diggs in his latest mock draft.
Minnesota likely will want to address this position in the first or second round given Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander might leave during free agency and Xavier Rhodes could be a cap casualty. Cleaning house to make way for a new set of starters might feel unlikely now, but the Vikings know it's important to upgrade this unit. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, opponents completed 68% of their passes against the Vikings when a defensive back was the nearest defender last season.
Minnesota has a history of drafting corners high, having used three first-round picks on the position since Spielman became GM in 2012. Their most recent first-round corner, Mike Hughes (30th in 2018), and undrafted free agent Holton Hill (2018), could earn bigger roles this season.
"They're still a ways away a little bit," Zimmer said of Hughes and Hill. "But one thing that I think, especially those two guys, Hughes and Hill, and [Kris] Boyd, they have the ability to do it. Like, during the season, I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day, and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that's half the battle."
Though the Vikings have several players waiting in the wings, finding a talented cornerback in the draft would be a proactive approach to help fix the pass defense. But expecting a corner to have an immediate impact as a rookie is a tall task, as the Vikings learned with even some of their highest draft picks (Waynes, 11th overall in 2015).
"I think it's one of the hardest positions because of the rules that they're allowed to get away with in college," Spielman said. "And there are specific physical traits in order to play in Zim's defense that you have to have. That eliminates a lot of potential guys for us too, because it's pretty tailored to what he's looking for."
The case for a safety
If Anthony Harris prices himself out of what the Vikings can pay him, Minnesota might choose to draft his replacement. But how high of a pick should the team spend at the position?
"If you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it's probably not going to be safety," Zimmer said.
By that logic, you can infer that using a first-rounder on a safety might be a bit of a reach for a team with many defensive priorities -- especially when Harris' potential replacement will be playing next to Harrison Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler. That would likely mean Alabama's Xavier McKinney and LSU's Grant Delpit would find homes elsewhere in the first round. But the Vikings would need to replace Harris with a versatile safety who could line up in any formation in any spot in the secondary. Those are the traits of safeties projected to go high in the draft. Using a late first-round pick on one might not be a reach after all.
The case for an offensive lineman
Spielman said the Vikings' offensive line is "still a work in progress." That's not breaking news, but it alludes to their desire to continue to bolster the unit. Minnesota drafted Garrett Bradbury 18th overall last year and made him their center from Day 1. Bradbury's rookie campaign was rough at times, but that's expected from offensive linemen who are selected outside of the top 10 -- especially those who have to go through a gauntlet of interior defensive linemen in the NFC North.
Zimmer and Spielman noted that the strength of this year's OL class is at tackle, which bodes well for Minnesota in the long term. Entering the late prime of his career, Riley Reiff, 31, might be embarking on his last season as the Vikings' starting left tackle. Drafting his replacement at No. 25 allows Minnesota to bring in a talented offensive lineman -- potentially Josh Jones from Houston or Austin Jackson from USC, both of whom are projected as middle to late first-rounders -- to develop for a season. It might even allow the Vikings to experiment with moving Reiff inside to left guard, an area that needs shoring up, while Minnesota tries its new first-rounder out at left tackle or moves Brian O'Neill over from right tackle.
Players such as Bradbury and O'Neill are what Spielman refers to as "young cornerstone-type players." The next one of those might very well be available to Minnesota at No. 25.