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Draft Day decisions will be key for MN Vikings

The marquee bastion of blame for the failure of last year’s Minnesota Vikings usually had a big flashing arrow directed towards their quarterback, named Christian Ponder.

There definitely was plenty blame which should have been hoisted by Ponder, but the reason for the 5-10-1 record wasn’t directly because of him.

Yes, Ponder could not take advantage of the eight to nine players in the box on defense to stop Adrian Peterson and yes, Ponder could not make a second or third read to save his life.

But there was a much bigger problem, which resulted in up to four late-game collapses, and that was the defensive unit.

The defensive line was churning along with some old engines, while defensive calls were usually on the pathetic side.

Linebacker play was dreadful in the Tampa Two zone scheme, since none of them could cover, while the players who were paid to cover — namely the cornerbacks and safeties — couldn’t.

The defensive players were a square peg trying to be forced into the round hole of the Tampa Two scheme, which of course was then head coach Leslie Frazier’s expertise.

That scheme alone is outdated and thankfully for the Vikings, it will now be back where it started, in Tampa Bay, where Frazier is now the defensive coordinator.

With head coach Mike Zimmer’s aggressive, press coverage style of defense being implemented, the players who ran the porous Tampa Two defense are actually better suited to run the new scheme.

Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson are press, man-to-man kind of players, who can use their size to stay with the larger wide receivers.

Safety Harrison Smith will be a dude in Zimmer’s defense, while he awaits a competent partner in the defensive backfield.

Which brings the Vikings to the NFL Draft, which starts May 8.

There is much talk of the Vikings selecting one of the top QBs in the draft — Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr.

But the tides are changing once again, with plenty of talk of those QBs’ draft stock dropping, while the top defensive talent is surging.

With not much of a gap separating the top three or four quarterbacks from the next level of QB draftees, all the teams which need a quarterback drafting in the top 10 may address that need in the second or third rounds.

Cleveland has two first round picks, at No. 4 and No. 26. They can easily opt to take the best player available, like wide receiver Sammy Watkins to pair up with stud Josh Gordon, then still get one of the top five QBs at No. 26.

The Vikings can take a similar path, by taking one of the falling defensive studs, then either try and trade back up in the late first round or stay put in the early second and select a Zach Mettenberger, or one of the falling QBs like Carr or Bridgewater.

That would be the best scenario Viking GM Rick Spielman could face.

The top two players in the draft play defense and unfortunately, more than likely will not be available come No. 8.

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Khalil Mack will be top five picks, but there will plenty to help bolster the Vikings’ improving defense at eight.

If there is a God-send and Mack does tumble to eight, there shouldn’t be any hesitation of getting the selection in. He’s a beast who can cover sideline to sideline and hits like a Mack truck.

But with the top five solidified, just not the positions they will go in, the Vikings will find themselves with the opportunity to take the best safety or the top two cornerbacks in the draft.

The NFL is a copycat league and with Seattle showing what can be done with a pair of top-notch, big safeties and secondary, the Vikings are in position to copy that model.

With Rhodes already being a big, physical corner and Smith patrolling in the backfield, the Vikings’ selection of Alabama’s HaSean “Ha-Ha” Clinton-Dix makes sense.

Safeties are usually not selected in the top 10, unless they can resemble an Ed Reed type of contributor.

Clinton-Dix has that potential with his 6-1, 208-pound frame and his 4.55 40 speed.

He is a ball hawk who can hit and is compared to Seattle’s free safety Earl Thomas, who is one of the best in the business.

He would make a super combo with Smith, along with Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn, to form quite a strong secondary.

If Clinton-Dix isn’t selected, the Vikings can go for another linebacker who has a very high upside in UCLA’s Anthony Barr.

Barr is the Manziel of the defense, meaning he has a very high ceiling, but also a bust factor, because he started playing linebacker late in his collegiate career after entering as a running back.            

He is powerful and athletic and can rush the passer with the best of them.

By trading down, Spielman could add Barr around picks 12 through 15, or opt for another tackling machine in Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, who isn’t necessarily a top 10 pick, but would be a  solid top 20.

Strengthening the secondary could be the option, with Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert probably available. Both meet the qualities of being physical and would pair very nicely with Rhodes as bookend CBs.

There has been talk of Zimmer wanting Pitt’s defensive tackle, Aaron Donald, who has Geno Atkins’ qualities to him.

But with the signing of Linval Joseph and first round pick of 2013 Shariff Floyd ready to start, that would not be a pick worthy of a top 10 selection.

Other players who would be nice additions if the Vikings were to trade down include middle linebacker CJ Mosley of Alabama, Louisville’s hitman safety Calvin Pryor and UCLA’s road grader offensive guard Xavier Su’Filo.

The Vikings need to address middle linebacker, with Wisconsin’s Chris Borland being a potential second or third round pick, or they can wait until later and take Florida State’s Christian Jones or U-Conn’s Yawin Smallwood, who both would be starters on this Minnesota unit.

Outside linebacker Jordan Tripp of Montana also would be a steal in the fifth round, and instantly would be a key special teams player and a bright future starter with his 6-3, 237 frame and mighty tackle.

When it’s all said and done and No. 8 comes up with no trades and two of the top three QBs available, while Mack being gone, the most intriguing pick will be Clinton-Dix.

Then, having enough ammo to potentially move up in the late first round and take Carr would make for a very productive draft.

With Clinton-Dix and Smith in the defensive backfield, it would give the makings for the Vikings to actually hold up against a North Division which is all but pass happy.

And the belief not to take a safety in the top 10 shouldn’t hold the Vikings back. Just ask the Ravens, the winners of two Super Bowls, with Reed being a very big reason for that.

Instead, the Vikings will have two potential stellar safeties to anchor an already improving secondary for many years to come.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.