Could this be the year the Vikings draft an edge rusher in the first two rounds for the first time in the Rick Spielman era? Minnesota could greatly benefit from adding a high-end talent to play opposite Danielle Hunter, which would allow Stephen Weatherly and D.J. Wonnum to have rotational roles.
We'll find out in a month. I remain skeptical, simply because it's a trend that spans Spielman's entire 15-year tenure (the last time the Vikings drafted a DE prior to the third round was Erasmus James in 2005, the year before Spielman arrived). But for now, the Vikings' GM is doing his homework. His tour of pro days across the country continued on Monday at the University of Miami, where the premium attractions were two of the top defensive end prospects in this year's draft: Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau.
Earlier in the draft cycle, Rousseau was a name that came up time and time again when looking at mock draft selections for the Vikings at No. 14 overall. In January and into February, he was the clear consensus selection for Minnesota, with nearly a quarter of all mocks making that prediction. Rousseau's remarkable 6'6" frame and his 15.5-sack season as a true sophomore suggest he has the upside to be a difference-maker in the NFL.
In recent weeks, Rousseau has slipped down draft boards a bit. He's still second behind Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye among the prospects most frequently mocked to the Vikings, but some of the buzz is fading. There are legitimate concerns about Rousseau's pass rushing plan against tackles — he did a lot of his damage in 2019 when lined up against guards on the interior and didn't grade particularly well from the edge (per PFF) — and his small sample size of production, given that he missed all of his freshman year with an injury and opted out of the 2020 season.
I think it's safe to say that Rousseau's pro day performance didn't help those concerns. His athletic testing was nothing special, including poor results in the bench press, vertical jump, and three-cone drill. For a prospect that's a raw as Rousseau is from a technical standpoint, not having that elite athleticism could be a problem. I'm starting to see more and more takes like these:
Rousseau's flashes on film and his incredible length may still result in him being a first-round pick next month. But the rawness and lack of elite athleticism should scare away the Vikings, particularly at No. 14 overall. They need an instant contributor with their first-round pick, and I think Rousseau is too risky. If he falls into the third round, I'd be much more intrigued in seeing what Andre Patterson could turn him into, but I'd imagine that's unlikely.
Phillips has been on the opposite trajectory. He's gone from being a presumptive Day 2 pick to working his way firmly into the first round conversation, and is someone I like a lot more for the Vikings.
Phillips is a fascinating prospect. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the country in the class of 2017, generating a ton of hype when he committed to UCLA. However, his two seasons with the Bruins were ravaged by injuries, and he medically retired from football following his sophomore season. Injuries to his wrist and ankle cost him time, but what caused Phillips to retire — and what's most concerning to NFL teams — was that he suffered three concussions.
He wound up deciding to give football another shot, transferring to Miami and putting it all together in 2020. Phillips was absolutely dominant over the Canes' final seven games, putting up nine sacks and 36 pressures during that span (per PFF).
What separates Phillips from Rousseau is his tape against offensive tackles, specifically when it comes to his powerful hands and variety of pass rushing moves.
And then there's his athleticism. Phillips was the overwhelming winner of Miami's pro day on Monday, demonstrating elite speed, quickness, and explosiveness. His 40-yard dash, short shuttle, three cone, and broad jumps were all above the 90th percentile among edge rushers.
Phillips' 2020 tape showed a first-round talent, but the medical concerns were very real — and still are. Combine that tape with his pro day numbers and you can make a very compelling argument that he should be the top edge rusher off the board and a potential top-ten pick. It's all going to come down to teams' medical evaluations and how much of a risk they're willing to take that he stays healthy in the NFL.
If Phillips is available at 14 or after a trade-back by the Vikings, I'd have to imagine Spielman will think long and hard about the possibility of pairing him with Hunter, which would essentially be the last piece of the puzzle of their 2021 defense. If Spielman is going to finally break his tendency and take an EDGE in round one, it should be Phillips or Paye or perhaps Azeez Ojulari — not Rousseau.
Other notable prospects at Miami's pro day included a third edge rusher, Quincy Roche, who is viewed as a Day 3 pick; tight end Brevin Jordan (not a need for the Vikings); and kicker Jose Borregales.
This was the eighth pro day Spielman has attended, following Northwestern, North Dakota State, Georgia, TCU, Alabama, USC, and BYU.
He'll reportedly be back at Alabama on Tuesday for the Crimson Tide's second pro day of the year.
LSU on Wednesday, Minnesota on Thursday, and Oregon on Friday would be three others that could make sense for Spielman to attend.
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