Vikings NFL Draft: Three Middle-Round Defensive Ends With Athletic Upside

Will Ragatz

Yesterday, I wrote about why the Vikings aren't going to take a defensive end in the first round of the NFL Draft. Go check that out if you haven't read it, but here's the quick summary:

  • Ifeadi Odenigbo is waiting in the wings as a replacement for Everson Griffen, which is something national experts seem to overlook when they mock AJ Epenesa or Yetur Gross-Matos to the Vikings in the first round.
  • The Vikings have much more pressing needs to address on Day 1, including cornerback, receiver, and offensive line.
  • Above all, it's important to look at Rick Spielman's historical tendencies. He never takes defensive ends in the first round, instead prioritizing raw, athletic players in the middle rounds.

Now, it's time to take a look at a few players who could fit the Danielle Hunter mold. These are three defensive ends who are projected to be available in the third or fourth round, and are bursting with potential and upside because of their athleticism. After the Vikings have addressed major needs with their first few picks, these are guys they should be targeting late on Day 2 or early on Day 3. If anyone can turn these players into NFL stars, it's Vikings D-line coach and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson.

Note: Spider charts are from mockdraftable.com and show historical percentile rankings among all defensive linemen, not just edge rushers 

Jabari Zuniga, Florida

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Zuniga is the definition of a raw, high-upside prospect at defensive end. He posted just 18.5 sacks during four years in Gainesville, with a high of 6.5 as a junior, and had his senior year cut short by a high-ankle sprain. The flashes have been there, but he's never quite put everything together. However, there's no question that he possesses all of the tools to take his game to another level in the NFL, provided he receives the right coaching. At 6-foot-3, 264 pounds, Zuniga ran a 4.64 40-yard dash with a 127-inch broad jump and 29 bench press reps. That's a scary combination of speed, explosiveness, and power. He's got the burst to become a dangerous edge rusher and the strength to move inside in sub packages. If Patterson could help Zuniga improve his counter moves, the sky is the limit.

Alton Robinson, Syracuse

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Robinson, who I took in the fourth round in my most recent seven-round Vikings mock draft, is another project loaded with potential. He's the same size as Zuniga and offers similar speed, having run a 4.69 at the combine. Where Robinson stood out most in Indianapolis was in the vertical jump, where his 35.5-inch jump was second-best among all defensive linemen. He has outstanding burst out of his stance and can dip and bend around the outside of blockers. Robinson regressed with just five sacks last season after recording ten as a junior, but hee has all of the physical gifts and measurables needed to succeed. Like all three of these players, Robinson is a ball of clay that needs to be molded into a consistent pass-rusher.

Alex Highsmith, Charlotte

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Highsmith is yet another defensive end with 4.7 speed and all kinds of explosiveness and agility. He dominated Conference USA competition last year with 15 sacks, but it was a long journey to get to that point. Highsmith wasn't even ranked as a recruit coming out of high school, and began his career at Charlotte as a walk-on. That work ethic and determination shows itself in the nonstop, Jared Allen-like motor that he plays with on every down. Now, the question becomes whether or not he can translate his production to the NFL level. Highsmith has elite burst and acceleration and might have the best hands of the three players listed here, but he could benefit from getting stronger and continuing to develop as a pass rusher.

Honorable mention: Jonathan Garvin, Miami; DJ Wonnum, South Carolina; Derrek Tuszka, North Dakota State, Oluwole Betiku Jr., Illinois

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