Why The Vikings Won't Take a Defensive End in the First Round of the 2020 NFL Draft
If history is any indication, the Vikings are not going to select a defensive end in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. They're not going to take one in the second round, either.
Because the Vikings lost Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly this offseason, plenty of national draft analysts have moved EDGE up near the top of Minnesota's list of needs, often trailing only cornerback and wide receiver. Ever since Griffen announced he wouldn't be returning to Minnesota, there have been a great deal of mock drafts that have the Vikings taking a defensive end – specifically, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa or Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos – with one of their two first-round picks.
There are three reasons why that's highly unlikely.
The first is the presence of Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 2017 seventh-round pick who shined in a reserve role last year. National writers see the loss of Griffen and assume he must be replaced through the draft. People who follow the Vikings closely know that Odenigbo had seven sacks and 18 pressures in just 348 snaps last year, and appears ready to seize Griffen's old job starting across from Danielle Hunter.
The second reason is that the Vikings have a bunch of other needs to address early in the draft: corner, receiver, offensive line (both tackle and guard), and three-technique defensive tackle. If Anthony Harris is traded, you can add safety to that list.
The third and most important reason, as mentioned earlier, is history. The Vikings haven't taken a defensive end in the first two rounds since using a top-20 selection on the position in back-to-back years in 2004 and 2005. Those picks were Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James, who combined for 16 career sacks and were both out of the NFL after four years (though injuries and illness played a role in that).
The only thing close to a first-round pass-rusher in the Rick Spielman era is Anthony Barr, who was taken ninth overall in 2014 after posting 23.5 sacks during his last two years at UCLA. But Barr has been more of a typical do-it-all linebacker than an edge rusher during his NFL career; he had 7.5 sacks in his first two seasons and has just 7.5 sacks over the past four.
The Vikings do need to add a defensive end or two after losing Griffen and Weatherly. But instead of using a first or second-round pick on an edge rusher, expect the Vikings to do what they've done in the past: wait until at least the third or fourth round and target someone with elite athletic traits and untapped potential.
The best example of that is Hunter, who had a grand total of 4.5 sacks in three years at LSU. Hunter posted ridiculous numbers at the 2015 combine, and the Vikings took a chance on his athletic upside by selecting him 88th overall. Renowned defensive line coach (and current co-defensive coordinator) Andre Patterson went to work developing Hunter's technique, and the results have been incredible. Five years later, Hunter has 29 sacks over the past two seasons as one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.
The selection of Hunter was a notable shift from one year earlier, when the Vikings took Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton with the 72nd overall pick. Crichton had 23.5 sacks in his three-year college career, but didn't test particularly well at the combine. He was out of the league after two seasons, never recording a single sack.
Looking back even further, the Vikings' best pass-rushers have all been mid-round picks. Griffen was taken in the fourth round in 2010. Brian Robison was a fourth-rounder in 2007. Ray Edwards, who briefly looked like an ascending star, was a fourth-round pick in 2006. What do all of those players – as well as Hunter and Odenigbo – have in common? They all tested extremely well at the combine.
Even Jared Allen, who the Vikings acquired from the Chiefs in 2008, was a fourth-round pick in 2004.
Epenesa and Gross-Matos are talented players and intriguing prospects. But neither will "wow" you athletically, and that was confirmed at the combine. Based on the Vikings' history of prioritizing athletic upside and waiting to draft defensive ends, it's safe to say neither of them will end up in Minnesota.
Stay tuned: On Wednesday, I'll be taking a look at three athletic, developmental pass-rushers the Vikings could target in the middle rounds this year.
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