Tuesday, April 25, 2006

2006 NFL Draft: What do the Vikings need?

Picture it: 2000.

The Vikings start 7-0 and cruise to the NFC Central title and #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. There was a bit too much cruising, though, as the Vikes blew a golden opportunity to secure the top seed.

Nonetheless, first-year starting QB Daunte Culpepper accounted for nearly 4,000 passing yards and 40 total TDs, and star WR Randy Moss approached 1,500 receiving yards and scored 15 TDs. Even though the Vikings lost a 41-0 heartbreaker to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game that year, the future looked bright for the Vikings. They had budding young superstars at the skill positions, and when Robert Smith retired after the season, they appeared to be simply a #1 running back and a little bit better play on defense away from being an unstoppable force.

At this point (January 2001), the odds are in favor of the Vikings making a Super Bowl within a couple years, and certainly not of the organization practically turning itself upside down within 40 months.

But the defense never rounded into any kind of form, and the Vikings suffered some key injuries on offense while also never finding a reliable top running back. Dennis Green was fired didn't return as the Vikings' coach after a disastrous 2001 season, and Mike Tice took over. With a cheap owner demanding that Tice hire assistant coaches on the cheap, and said cheap owner refusing to spend any serious money on free agents, the team really had issues. Tice had trouble getting his young players to turn the corner, but they got close. The 2003 Vikings started 6-0 before crumbling and missing the playoffs after Arizona Cardinal Nate Poole's acrobatic catch in the end zone on the final play of the final game. The 2004 team started 5-1 before finishing 8-8 and backing into the playoffs.

Then the organization tired of Moss' antics and dealt him to Oakland in March 2005. The first-round pick the Vikings got for Moss was used on South Carolina WR Troy Williamson in the 2005 draft, but Williamson wasn't able to even approach Moss' impact as a rookie. With new owner Zygi Wilf opening the checkbook, the Vikings spent more freely than ever before on free agents, with mixed results. The Vikings got off to a horrible start, with Culpepper turning the ball over left and right, and seemingly regressing after posting MVP-caliber numbers in 2004. The Vikings' bye week was marred by a story detailing bad behavior on a Lake Minnetonka boat cruise that was chartered by members of the team. Culpepper, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, and cornerback Fred Smoot were among those implicated. Culpepper blew out his knee in a loss to Carolina, and the Vikings finished the season 7-2 with Brad Johnson as the starter. It wasn't enough for the team to make the playoffs, and Tice was fired after the Vikings' final game.

Wilf hired Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress as the new head coach shortly after Tice was fired, and Childress immediately had a falling-out with Culpepper, who refused to rehab his surgically-repaired knee in Minnesota, and then demanded more money be put into his contract for 2006, despite a statistically wretched 2005 season that followed Culpepper forcing the team to guarantee him $8 million during training camp (Culpepper even went so far as to stage a one-day walkout from camp to get the money he wanted). With Culpepper practically begging to be traded from Minnesota for some strange reason, the Vikings ultimately decided to deal their disgruntled franchise QB to Miami for a second-round pick.

So here are the Vikings. No franchise QB. No franchise WR. No franchise RB. Holes on defense. New coaching staff.

Let's look at the team as the Vikings finish off preparation for the 2006 NFL Draft.

1st round (17) - 17th overall
2nd round (16) - 48th overall
2nd round (19) - 51st overall
3rd round (19) - 83rd overall
4th round (18) - 115th overall
5th round (17) - 149th overall
6th round (16) - 185th overall

LB --> There are a couple options for the Vikings now that Sam Cowart has signed on with Houston. Cowart was a capable player in the middle, and his presence will be missed if the Vikings can't find a replacement. E.J. Henderson could move back inside, where he played during his college career at Maryland. The Vikings could then draft a player to play Henderson's strong-side position, and this is a pretty good draft for outside linebackers. The Vikings also need to solidify their situation at weak-side linebacker, where Dontarrious Thomas has not come close to developing as the team hoped. So the team is in a position where they can draft the best linebacker on the board and configure the lineup from there to benefit everyone's strengths. Expect the Vikings to look at Florida State's Ernie Sims and perhaps Alabama's DeMeco Ryans in the first round, or they could look at an insider player such as Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson or Virginia's Kai Parham later in the first day.

QB --> This isn't rocket surgery, people. The Vikings traded Culpepper last month for 35 cents on the dollar (assuming he comes back healthy off this devastating knee injury), and they didn't sign any free agent quarterbacks (sorry, Mike McMahon doesn't legally qualify as a "quarterback"). The teams knows that they need to come out of this draft with a quality prospect who could step in if Johnson can't hold up for 16 games, unless they want McMahon and his career completion percentage of 44.5 (gaudy 15-21 TD-INT ratio) to take over. While it's not a certainty that the Vikings would take a QB in the first round (even if Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler becomes available), they should plan on taking a QB during the first day of the draft. Outside of Cutler in the first round, the Vikings could look at Alabama's Brodie Croyle, Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, or perhaps Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green.

CB --> Even though the Vikings have spent big recently on free-agent acquisitions Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield, they know they have to upgrade the depth at this position. Nickel back Brian Williams started the second half of last season after Smoot struggled and then was injured, but Williams went to Jacksonville as a free agent. With the need for depth, I expect the Vikings to potentially draft two corners in this draft, as the pool of developmental prospects is quite deep. Prospects like Miami's Devin Hester, Richard Marshall of Fresno State, Will Blackmon of Boston College, and Kansas' Charles Gordon could be available late in the first day or early in the second.

WR --> The Vikings have talent at this position, and they have some depth. However, they don't have anyone who is a solid #1 receiver at this point. Koren Robinson has the most upside, but there are questions about his consistency and his character. Travis Taylor has hands of stone, Marcus Robinson is no longer a spring chicken, and Troy Williamson showed only flashes of ability in his rookie year, and that was only after he spent some time in former coach Tice's doghouse for reported poor practice habits. There aren't any blue-chip receivers in this draft, but the Vikings may look for a developmental prospect with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

I think the Vikings will be aggressive at the quarterback position and look for Cutler, who is likely to fall to the Vikings' pick at #17, barring a team below the Vikings trading up to get Cutler. The depth at linebacker is better than the depth at quarterback, so the Vikings can get a linebacker later in the draft. The chance to get a legitimate blue-chip quarterback in the middle of the first round isn't going to come around every year.

Here's my read on the Vikings' first-round selection, listed in order of likelihood:

1. Cutler
2. LB Ernie Sims (Florida State)
3. Trade up - perhaps for Cutler or Iowa LB Chad Greenway
4. Trade down and stock up on picks for later in the draft
5. CB Tye Hill (Clemson) or Antonio Cromartie (Florida State)

Tomorrow, we'll keep looking at the draft with some news and notes, including the very latest on the OMG REGGIE BUSH CHEATED "controversy".

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