With the 2015 NFL Draft in the books, it’s time for that all-important period of time for over-analysis and general overreaction. That’s right, baby, it’s draft evaluation time!
1st Round Pick
The Minnesota Vikings seemed to surprise everyone in the first round by staying at pick 11 and selecting Cornerback Trae Waynes, the guy that most people actually thought they would draft. Waynes comes in as a lengthy and fast corner that also strives in press coverage. He has the skill set that is sought after for Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme, though in college he played more of a press cover 4 defense at Michigan St. than the press man to man coverage used in Minnesota.
The NFC North is filled with teams that have some great duos of wide receivers, but Waynes will not be asked to line up against the top receiver when he earns his spot in the starting line up because the team already has Xavier Rhodes who is coming off a breakout sophomore season. He may not even begin the season at starting corner as the team has Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Robinson and Terrance Newman for him to edge out if he wants the starting spot.
When Waynes is able to start, Captain Munnerlyn will be moved to nickle corner, a role that better suits his skill set. Josh Robinson could be moved to outside corner when the team goes into dime sets, but is a bit undersized and struggles in the slot. They also signed Terrance Newman in the off-season, so if he is coming on board for anything more than a coach in pads preseason role, Robinson may find himself on the bench for most of the year, and maybe Waynes as well.
Robinson likely will not be resigned after this year, though his athleticism could result in a contract and playing time on another team that will result in a compensation pick for Minnesota. This could be ideal for Minnesota as Robinson is a very fast corner, but has a mismatch of size and skill set for a corner back to excel in the NFC North.
With Waynes providing some more security against teams number 2 wide receivers, Harrison Smith’s unique blitzing ability will be able to be used more, allowing more diversity for quick pressure against some potent passing attacks that Minnesota will be facing each year.
2nd Round Pick
Minnesota addressed another weakness on defense by drafting Linebacker Eric Kendricks. Kendricks won the Jim Butkus award last year as the best linebacker in college, and Minnesota is hoping that he can continue his high level of play against elite competition. Kendricks played middle linebacker at UCLA, and it seems he will be playing the same role in Minnesota.
Kendricks was not asked to rush the passer very much at UCLA, only racking up 4 sacks in his last year at UCLA (10 total in 4 years) but was very impressive against the run and dropping back into coverage. Minnesota did have some struggles against the run game that Kendricks should help to shore up, and his athleticism and ability to drop back into coverage should allow Minnesota to use some of their other weapons to blitz in their nickle formation. Anthony Barr was initially drafted with a “Von Miller type role” where he would be used as a down linesman on passing downs, with Kendricks’ coverage ability this plan may finally a reality.
3rd Round Pick
Minnesota drafted a DE in the third round for the second straight year, selecting Defensive End Danielle Hunter after trading back twice. Hunter’s strongest asset is that he is a great run stuffer as well as solid against screen passes, finishing 2014 with 13 tackles for a loss. He does need work as a pass rusher though, only having 1.5 sacks. He could be ideal for left defensive end in Zimmer’s scheme, a role more reliant on setting the edge and stopping the run more so than racking up sacks, but he played right end in college.
Hunter is an athletic freak; posting great combine numbers including a 4.56 40 yard dash, but may possible red shirt year to get his technique NFL ready. This may sound like deja vu for Minnesota fans, as they drafted Scott Crichton in the 3rd round last year, who also was perceived to need a year to develop and was basically red shirted as a rookie. Zimmer liked to rotate his defensive line when he was with Cincinnati, and last year they were able to do so with their tackles but not their defensive ends (likely due to lack of viable depth on the edge). It will be interesting to see if Crichton is able to earn more playing time next season, and could also be an indication on whether Vikings fans can be optimistic about Hunter’s future, or if maybe Hunter was drafted because the coaching staff realized they had whiffed on the Crichton pick.
With Brian Robison recently turning 32, the Vikings are hoping that they have found a replacement, with a rotation of Crichton and Hunter, or Hunter taking over on early downs and Barr coming in on passing downs. With three months until the Vikings even begin their 5 pre season schedule, all we can do now is speculate and hope for the best.
Minnesota spent their early 2015 draft investments on trying to improve their defense under the guidance of Mike Zimmer. Under Zimmer’s first year, the team made some great improvements and fans are hoping that this trend continues. The team may still need to upgrade their strong safety position next year and likely their linebackers as well because Chad Greenway is nearing the end of his career. Regardless, the team’s defense has become above average under Zimmer, a giant leap forward compared to the “cover no one” scheme used by Leslie Frazier.