Sid Hartman
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The Vikings’ decision to select North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury with the No. 18 overall pick on Thursday night at the NFL draft was the first step in what should be a key couple of days as the team tries to build out their depth with just $1.8 million remaining in free agent money.

And while the Vikings drafted center Pat Elflein in the third round of the 2017 draft — and Elflein started 27 out of a possible 32 games at center over the past two seasons — General Manager Rick Spielman has said that with a new offensive coaching staff, and a new offensive line coach in Rick Dennison, linemen could be moved around.

So it could be that Elflein moves to guard while Bradbury starts at center or it could be that Bradbury, a tremendous all-around athlete who excelled at baseball in high school before focusing on football, plays guard.

Bradbury was recruited to N.C. State as a tight end, redshirted his freshman year, switched to defensive line, then played offensive guard before moving to center, where he started for three seasons. He won the Rimington Trophy this year as the nation’s best center, the same award Elflein won in 2016, and was named a consensus All-America.

Yes, no matter where Bradbury ends up on the line, the key for the Vikings not only with their first-round selection but through the rest of the draft, is that they find players who can step in and contribute.

Lost key contributors

There have been few offseasons in recent memory that saw the Vikings lose so many key pieces to their roster, especially the kind of free agents that really provided a lot of depth to the team over the past few years.

They lost center Nick Easton (four years, $22.5 million), running back Latavius Murray (four years, $14.4 million) and cornerback and special teams ace Marcus Sherels (one year, $1 million) to New Orleans; safety Andrew Sendejo (one year, $1.3 million) to Philadelphia; and guard Tom Compton (one year, $1.6 million) and quarterback Trevor Siemian (one year, $2 million) to the New York Jets.

On top of the players they lost, the Vikings have put themselves in an unusual position with so many long-term contracts handed out to key members of their roster, which is an organizational philosophy at this point.

In all likelihood, this is what the Vikings’ future will look like for the next few seasons. They will need to draft as well as they have over the past decade if they are going to continue to compete with this core group of players.

The odds point to the fact that the Vikings will continue to lose midlevel players who become too expensive, and they will need cheap draft picks under contract to fill in at those spots.

To give an idea of how their long-term contracts might affect them down the road, consider that the Vikings currently have $196 million handed out to 67 players for the 2019 season.

In 2020, they have $192 million allocated to only 40 players.

In 2021, they have $155 million for 19 players. In 2022, it’s $113 million for eight players. And in 2023, it’s $67 million for five players.

That $113 million total for eight players in 2022 is really telling about the organizations plan.

And yes, this being the NFL this is unlikely, but if all of the salaries are paid out, the numbers look like this in 2022: Anthony Barr $15.6 million, Everson Griffen $15.5 million, Stefon Diggs $15 million, Danielle Hunter $15 million, Adam Thielen $14.4 million, Xavier Rhodes $13.9 million, Linval Joseph $12.5 million and Eric Kendricks $11.6 million.

Griffen’s contract is the lone deal with a club option stipulated in the contract, so that would be easy enough to get out of, and several of the deals have escape clauses where that money is not guaranteed.

Stars have to perform

But still, there’s no question that under Spielman, this is the Vikings’ plan:

Draft well, and then sign those players to major extensions to form the core of the roster.

“We’ve always put a point of emphasis on that,” Spielman said at his news conference before the draft. “I know with how top-heavy our roster is right now with the contracts we have out there, these players that we’re bringing in have to come in and contribute. All these players that do have these big contracts were basically brought in, developed, and then received it.

“I think the process we have in place and us working hand in hand with the coaches, which I think is vital. In fact, the coaches were back in again, and we were bringing them in position by position with the coordinators, going through everything one more time because of the importance of the draft classes that are coming in being able to contribute.”

Draft injuries add up

The past two seasons have seen the Vikings take truly exciting players with their first selections.

In 2017 they didn’t have a first-round pick, but they grabbed running back Dalvin Cook out of Florida State with the No. 41 overall pick in the second round.

Cook immediately looked like a steal. He rushed for 354 yards and two scores while catching 16 passes for 90 yards in his first four contests, but a knee injury in Week 4 against Detroit sidelined him for the rest of his rookie season.

In 2018 it was a similar story. The Vikings drafted cornerback Mike Hughes out of Central Florida with the No. 30 overall pick, which was a surprise to many pundits.

Hughes immediately showed his value with 22 tackles, an interception return for a touchdown, a forced fumble and four kickoff returns for 107 yards in six games.

A torn anterior cruciate ligament ended Hughes’ rookie season, just like with Cook, and there still is no clear picture on whether Hughes will be ready for the 2019 season opener.

Cook was able to return for last year’s season opener following his ACL tear, but he really didn’t look like himself. After playing in the first two games he missed Week 3 and then, after playing in Week 4, was sidelined for the next four games.

He returned in Week 9 and averaged 64.6 rushing yards per game and 24.8 receiving yards per game while scoring four total touchdowns and looking much like the same explosive player the team saw in his rookie season.

There’s no doubt that with the loss of Murray, Sendejo and Sherels, the Vikings are hoping that Cook and Hughes can fill in some of their roles.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com