We've almost made it, people. The 2021 NFL Draft is one week away. Months upon months of speculation are about to come to an end, and we'll finally find out which players will be headed to Minnesota.
Last year, the Vikings had two first-round picks, not to mention a late second-rounder. This year, they have just one first — albeit their highest selection since 2015 — and then don't have any picks until the third round. That puts a lot of pressure on Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer, and company to hit on that first choice, especially with a roster that one could argue is a couple pieces away from being very good.
If you're reading this, you've probably spent plenty of time looking at mock drafts in recent weeks. You have a general idea of some of the prospects that are frequently mocked to the Vikings with the 14th pick. In this article, I'm not just going to discuss those players, I'm going to give my thoughts on every single player I think Minnesota could conceivably select in the first round, whether at 14, higher, or lower. Some are far, far more likely than others.
Realistically, there are probably around ten players the Vikings could draft in round one. But I don't know how things are going to play out, I don't know how aggressive they'll be in trying to make a trade, and I don't know what their internal draft board — or their assessment of their needs — looks like.
So I'm going for a full 25 prospects, broken up into nine different tiers. That way all of my bases are covered. I feel quite confident in saying that the player the Vikings select in the first round will come from within this group. If it doesn't, feel free to call me names on Twitter.
The tiers are roughly ordered by likelihood, but this isn't a ranking of any sorts.
Let's get to it.
The “consensus stay-put picks at OL/DE” tier
- Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/IOL, USC
- Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
- Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
These are my educated guesses as the three players most likely to be the pick if the Vikings remain at 14 and the start of the draft plays out as most expect, with the top five quarterbacks, top four pass-catchers, top two offensive linemen, and two others (probably cornerbacks) coming off the board in the first 13 picks.
I don't think you can go wrong with either Vera-Tucker or Darrisaw. Both are clearly worthy of a top-15 pick based on their film and athletic traits, and each one has a great chance to be an impact starter right away. If the Vikings have to make a decision between the two, it might come down to how they feel about Ezra Cleveland. If they're ready to move him back to left tackle, Vera-Tucker could be the pick. He's an incredibly sound lineman from a technique and athleticism standpoint, but his shorter arms have most analysts projecting him to play guard in the NFL. That would fill a massive need for the Vikings, but there would be some who would question the value of taking a guard that high.
If the Vikings like Cleveland at guard, Darrisaw might be the better pick. He's got just about everything you want from a left tackle prospect, including more length than Vera-Tucker. Darrisaw has the athleticism to make all of the required blocks in a zone running game, but he also has more physicality and tenacity than a lot of the Vikings' recent draft picks on the O-line, and I view that as a good thing. He may not quite be on the level of Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater, but Darrisaw is a stud.
As I've mentioned many times, the Vikings have never drafted an edge rusher in the top two rounds under Rick Spielman. But they've also never needed one as badly as they do this year. Danielle Hunter is coming off a major neck injury and I don't trust Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum, or a combination of the two to hold things down on the other side. Paye seems to be the most likely pick at 14 because of his freakish athleticism — particularly that legendary three-cone time — and his potential to be a three-down menace. He reminds me of Everson Griffen to some extent.
The “slight trade-back or maybe at 14 OL/DE” tier
- Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
- Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
- Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
I still think there's a very strong possibility that the Vikings will end up trading back from 14 (back in February, I went into depth on why that option makes a lot of sense). There's enough depth in the first round, especially at their top two positions of need, that they could move back, acquire another pick, and still land a fantastic player. If the Vikings move back slightly — into the 17-22 range, let's say — and most or all of the players in the previous tier are off the board, these are three names that I would strongly consider.
On talent and athleticism alone, Phillips is my No. 1 EDGE in this class. His upside just excites me more than Paye's does. He has it all: insane physical traits, multiple pass rush moves and counters, and a non-stop motor. He was dominant down the stretch of last season for the Hurricanes. The concern, of course, is with Phillips' medical history. Injuries to his ankle and wrist and a trio of concussions led him to medically retire from football after two seasons at UCLA. There's a level of risk involved with taking Phillips in the first round, but the potential payoff could be enormous.
A safer EDGE pick, albeit a much different one, would be Ojulari. He's got the best first step and bend of any player in this class, and his hand usage and pass rush plan are extremely advanced as well. He simply knows how to get to the quarterback and make things happen. With that said, I'll be somewhat surprised if Ojulari lands with the Vikings. He's undersized at 240 pounds and struggles with power, particularly against the run. He's been compared to Yannick Ngakoue, who didn't really fit what the Vikings want out of their defensive ends (maybe they shouldn't have traded a second-round pick for him, huh?). My guess is Ojulari ends up with a team that can use him as a 3-4 OLB.
After the top four offensive linemen, Jenkins is the guy to keep an eye on. He's an absolute mauler of a tackle whose strength, aggressiveness, and nastiness are up there with the best linemen in this draft. He's excellent in pass protection and can toss linebackers around once he gets to the second level in the run game. Jenkins needs to become more consistent, but the tools are there for him to become a high-level starter pretty quickly. He played some left tackle in college but was primarily on the right side, so the Vikings would have to move some pieces around.
The "only after a deep trade back OL/DE" tier
- Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
- Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
- Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
If the Vikings really want to acquire a second-round pick, they might have to trade back into the mid-to-late 20s of the first round for the value to match up. If they do that and are still looking at the two positions we've been focusing on so far, these guys could come into play.
I know I've talked about the remarkable athleticism of Paye and Phillips on the edge, but the draft's most absurd athlete at that position has to be Oweh, who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at 257 pounds. That's unheard of. He didn't record a single sack last year, but the flashes are there on tape and the tools are out of this world. It wouldn't stun me if the Vikings fell in love with his upside. Putting Oweh in an environment where he could learn from Andre Patterson and Danielle Hunter would be pretty beneficial for his development, one would think.
I don't believe Rousseau or Cosmi should be first-round picks, but you never know. Rousseau was, for much of this offseason, the most popular selection for the Vikings at 14 in mock drafts. He had 15.5 sacks in 2019 before opting out and has remarkable length at 6'7". However, his athletic traits leave at lot to be desired, and a bunch of those sacks came on unblocked pressures or lengthy plays. Cosmi had to be included here simply because he's this year's version of Ezra Cleveland and Brian O'Neill: a tackle who moves like a tight end but has a lot of things to clean up in his game. With all of the technical work he needs, I think Cosmi should be a second-rounder just like those two were. But like with Oweh or Rousseau, it wouldn't shock me to see the Vikings take a chance on his potential late in the first.
The "trade up for an elite offensive lineman" tier
- Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
- Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
The Vikings haven't traded up within the first round since 1987. 34 years ago! And yet, it's going to happen someday. Maybe this is the year. If Spielman wants to address the offensive line with an exclamation point, moving up to grab one of these two — who are the consensus top OL prospects in the draft — would be one way to do it.
I've already written a whole article on this idea, so go check that out if you're interested. The short version is that early runs on QBs, pass-catchers, and defenders could potentially cause one or both of these guys to slide further than most expect. If that happens, the Vikings could look to jump the OL-needy Chargers by moving up to 11 or 12 and securing one of them, most likely Slater. The evidence that it's possible is that Spielman called the 49ers last year looking to move up from 22 to 13, presumably for Tristan Wirfs. That means he's not 100 percent opposed to trading up in the right circumstance. If the Vikings aren't completely sold on Vera-Tucker or Darrisaw, a move like this could be worth it.
Sewell doesn't need much explaining as a prospect. Only 20 years, he has a chance to be a Hall of Fame type of tackle. Given that context, it tells you a lot about Slater that some teams and respected analysts have him ranked even higher than Sewell. Slater is a pro-ready beast who shut down Chase Young in 2019 and has very few flaws as a player. Some project him to play guard due to his arm length — and he'd be fantastic on the interior — but I think he might just stick at tackle.
The "holy ****, they took a quarterback" tier
- Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
- Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
In a recent mock draft I did with all of the SI team site publishers, both Fields and Lance were available for me at 14. I was quite surprised, but I wasn't complaining. I took Fields, giving the Vikings their quarterback of the future.
It's important to point out that our mock didn't have any trades. Real life has trades, particularly when quarterback prospects with elite potential start to slide in the draft. With all of the QB-needy teams behind the Vikings who could be interested in moving up (the Patriots, Washington, and the Bears, to name a few big ones), not to mention teams in the top ten like the Lions and Broncos who aren't set at QB, there's just no realistic way both of these guys fall to 14. Then there's the buzz that Mac Jones might not actually be the 49ers' pick at No. 3, which would mean it's one of these two instead.
Still, I don't think it's that crazy to suggest that one of them could fall, especially if Jones does go third. Maybe that's all the way to 14, or maybe the Vikings would have to move up slightly to get them. This franchise hopes and expects to be picking in the 20s again next year, so maybe this is the time to go all-in on finding Kirk Cousins' successor if the opportunity presents itself. It's highly unlikely, but it's worth mentioning. (For the record, I don't think the Vikings would take Jones at 14 if he's available. He doesn't have the same kind of upside as the other two).
The "Mike Zimmer gets another cornerback" tier
- Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
- Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
- Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
- Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
The idea of the Vikings drafting a first-round cornerback for the third time in four years seemed pretty far-fetched at the end of March. They had just signed Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander in free agency to pair with rising second-year players Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. With perpetually injured 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes still around for one more year as well, Minnesota appeared to be pretty set at the position.
Then came April 5th and the news of Gladney's arrest for felony domestic violence. All of sudden, with his future in question, cornerback was back in the realm of possibility. Considering that Peterson, Alexander, and Hughes will all be free agents in 2022, perhaps it should've never left. Hughes, Gladney, and even Trae Waynes — to some extent — haven't worked out for Zimmer and the Vikings, but that doesn't mean they'll give up on the idea of landing a star corner in the first round. It's hard to overstate how important the position is in the modern game.
This year's draft features a quartet of exciting corners that are a tier above the rest of their class. Due to Farley's medical situation (he had the second back surgery of his career in March), Horn and Surtain are the top two. Both guys are big, physical, extremely talented press-man corners that I'm sure Zimmer would love to add to his secondary. It's entirely possible neither one makes it to 14. With Surtain, it's worth noting that his position coach for all three years at Alabama was Karl Scott, who is now the Vikings' DBs coach.
Newsome played more zone in college, but he can do both and was utterly dominant last season (though he has some injury concerns as well). He has phenomenal footwork and instincts. Lastly, if the Vikings trade back and feel okay with Farley's medicals, he could provide major value. Prior to the back surgery, he was CB1 on most big boards. However, after watching injuries derail Hughes's NFL career, it's possible Farley is off Minnesota's board entirely.
The "let's find Anthony Barr's 2022 replacement" tier
- Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
- Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
The Vikings restructured Barr's deal this offseason, making him a free agent next year. With Barr likely gone in 2022, Eric Kendricks approaching 30 years old, and Eric Wilson departing in free agency this offseason, a linebacker could be in play for Minnesota in round one. It would certainly surprise me, but that's why this tier is all the way down here.
Parsons is the alpha dog in this linebacker class. He's a rare size/speed/explosiveness specimen who blows up blocks and plays like he's been shot out of a cannon. Parsons would be an incredible chess piece for Zimmer as a blitzer and run defender who has the athleticism to become an asset in coverage. If he's there at 14 and the Vikings are serious about taking a 'best player available' approach, he could be the pick. There are some off-the-field concerns that they'd need to feel comfortable with, particularly after the Gladney incident, but Parsons is special.
The other two guys are outstanding prospects in their own right. Owusu-Koramoah is a linebacker/safety/nickelback hybrid with incredible coverage ability and quickness. He can do everything from stick with a slot receiver in man coverage to burst through a gap for a run stop. Meanwhile, Collins might be the closest thing to Barr in this year's draft perspective. He's the size of an EDGE at 6'4", 270, yet still has a ton of quickness and fluidity in his movement and can do a little bit of everything. His ceiling is Barr with more sacks and more of an impact in coverage. 14 is too high, but JOK and Collins could absolutely be worth considering after a trade back.
The "Three Deep 2.0" tier
- Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
- DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
- Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Taking a wide receiver in the first round worked out pretty well for the Vikings last year, so why not do it again? Adam Thielen turns 31 this summer and Minnesota's current WR3 is Chad Beebe, who is little more than a replacement-level player. Adding another big-time receiver would give Kirk Cousins one of the best trios in the NFL, and the Vikings would have their best trio since Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed. If doing so encourages Klint Kubiak — and Zimmer, who has the final say — to utilize 11 personnel more frequently, that's even more of a win.
I definitely don't think the Vikings should trade up for a receiver, but if one of the Alabama speedsters makes it to 14, it would be awfully tempting. Waddle is a game-breaker as a deep threat, return specialist, and gadget player; his ability to switch gears and accelerate past defenders is special. He's only 5'10", but it doesn't really matter because of his athleticism. Then there's Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy after a jaw-dropping 2020 campaign. The big discussion with him is that he's just 166 pounds, but after watching him dominate everyone he faced last season, I'm not too concerned about that. Smith's release package, route-running chops, body control, and hands are all traits that might make him an eventual All-Pro in the NFL.
If the Vikings trade back and target a receiver, Bateman should be the guy. He reminds me a lot of Justin Jefferson last year in that he's considered to be a tier below the top three WRs in his class but has a chance to be really good right away. Bateman has all of the skills to become a big playmaker at the next level, and concerns about his athleticism are overblown, in my opinion. He knows how to get open and make plays.
The "trade back wild card" tier
- Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
- Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
Last but not least, I want to mention two players at other positions on defense that were considered serious needs for the Vikings prior to free agency. Even though Minnesota added Dalvin Tomlinson at defensive tackle and Xavier Woods at safety, both of those rooms could benefit from the addition of a talented young prospect with a chance to develop into a star. To be clear, I wouldn't take either of these players at 14, but a BPA approach could bring them into consideration in the 20s.
Barmore is head and shoulders above the rest of a weak DT class. He was dominant in Bama's two College Football Playoff victories, penetrating into the backfield at will and wreaking havoc on Notre Dame and Ohio State's offenses. He would give the Vikings a true three-technique who could shine on passing downs and expand into more of an every-down role once Tomlinson or Michael Pierce depart in 2023.
Moehrig is the top safety in the class. He's a big, physical player who had six interceptions and 20 total passes defended over the past two seasons. The Vikings are set at safety for now, but Woods is on a one-year deal and Harrison Smith is 32. They could find creative ways to use Moehrig as a rookie and hand him a starting job in his second season.
Honorable mentions (AKA me trying to save face a little bit if one of these is the pick, even though I would look dumb):
- Landon Dickerson, IOL, Alabama
- Creed Humphrey, IOL, Oklahoma
- Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
- Joe Tryon, EDGE, Washington
- Carlos Basham Jr., EDGE, Wake Forest
- Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
- Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU
- Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
- Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
- Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia
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