MINNEAPOLIS - The NFL Draft is less than a month away. It will look very different this year, with all public events in Las Vegas planned for April 23-25 canceled.
The draft will be done virtually, with teams being limited on how many personnel can be in a draft room and selections being made via conference calls. A lot has changed for the Minnesota Vikings since just before the start of NFL free agency, and it will change how they approach the draft.
Before the league’s legal tampering period began, the Vikings cut Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph. Then, they traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for four draft picks, including the No. 22 overall pick this year. They’ve parted ways with Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes, Andrew Sendejo, Stephen Weatherly and Jayron Kearse. That’s eight defensive players in total that contributed during the 2019 season, now no longer with Minnesota. They also cut offensive lineman Josh Kline in a surprise move.
The Vikings have added defensive tackle Michael Pierce and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe in free agency, and brought back Kirk Cousins, Britton Colquitt, Dan Bailey, Ameer Abdullah, Brett Jones, Dakota Dozier, C.J. Ham, Rashod Hill and Eric Wilson on either contract extensions or new deals.
We still don’t know the futures for safety Anthony Harris and Dalvin Cook. Harris got the team’s franchise tag, but could be traded. If a contract extension is not worked out for Cook, he could hold out or even walk after next season.
So now that the Vikings have two first-round picks, what will they do on April 23? Here is a look at six names to keep an eye on.
Minnesota Gophers fans know the name well. The defensive end made life miserable for quarterbacks in the Big Ten. In 13 starts last season, he finished with 49 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks. He also forced four fumbles. He was named First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American.
As a freshman, he had 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in 13 games. Epeneza could be a future defensive end for the Vikings at No. 22 or No. 25.
If the Vikings take LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson with one of their two first-round picks, it means there’s an open competition for the No. 2 receiver job behind Adam Thielen. The Vikings added Tajae Sharpe last week, and he’ll get the chance to earn that job. But Jefferson’s skill can’t be denied.
The LSU star helped lead the Tigers to the national title. He led LSU with 111 catches, which also tied for the FBS lead. He finished with 1,540 yards, 13.9 yards per catch and 18 touchdowns in 13 starts. He was second in the nation in receiving touchdowns to his own teammate, Ja’Marr Chase.
Former Penn State star Yetur Gross-Mantos could be an appealing option for the Vikings in the first round, if he’s still available. The edge rusher is 6-5, 266 pounds and was a First Team All-Big Ten pick with 40 tackles, including 15 tackles for a loss and 9.5 tackles. Two seasons ago, Gross-Mantos had 54 tackles, 20 for a loss, eight sacks and forced two fumbles. He had two tackles in Penn State’s 31-26 loss to the Gophers this past fall.
NFL teams will be intrigued by his overall athleticism. He had 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press and a 120-inch broad jump at the NFL Combine.
Auburn star defensive back Noah Igbonighene has the versatility to help the Vikings in multiple ways if he’s available later in the first round. He started all 13 games for the Tigers last season and finished with 42 tackles, one for a loss and had seven pass break-ups. He was also one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in college football last season, returning one for a touchdown and finishing the season averaging more than 35 yards on nine returns this past season.
Ibonighene could step into one of the three open defensive back spots, and make an immediate impact on special teams. He ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He had four tackles, one for a loss, in Auburn’s Outback Bowl loss to the Gophers.
Trevon Diggs is a name that should sound familiar in Minnesota. The Vikings traded his older brother, Stefon Diggs, to Buffalo before the start of NFL free agency. There’s a real chance Minnesota could take the Alabama cornerback with the first-round pick the Vikings got in the trade with Buffalo.
Diggs started 12 games last year for the Crimson Tide, earning Second Team All-SEC and Third Team All-American honors. He had three interceptions and tied for the team lead with eight pass break-ups. Diggs had 37 tackles, forced two fumbles and returned one of them 100 yards for a touchdown.
Antoine Winfield Jr.
The Vikings may not have to look very far for secondary help in the first round of the NFL Draft if the chips fall right. A few mock drafts have them taking former Gophers star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. He was an All-American in his only fully-healthy season at Minnesota, and his father played his last nine NFL seasons with the Vikings.
Antoine Winfield Jr. led the Gophers with 88 tackles, and was in the top five in college football with seven interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown. He had two of those seven interceptions in a historic 31-26 win over Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium. Winfield finished the season with 3.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and forced two fumbles. He was always around the football and splashed at the NFL Combine with a 4.45 40-yard dash.
The Vikings have options with two first-round picks in the NFL Draft. It will be interesting to see what they prioritize with two choices in the top 25. Will it be secondary help, defensive line, a wide receiver or more stability on the offensive line? We’ll find out in a few weeks.