After taking 12 players in the 2019 draft, the Vikings put together a class over the weekend that makes last year’s group seem quaint by comparison. They turned their pre-draft supply of 12 choices into 17 picks, trading two for picks in next year’s draft and landing a 15-player class that became the NFL’s largest since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994.
The Vikings’ work with their 2020 rookies, though, has only begun: They could count on the group to fill a handful of starting spots on the roster, and do so after coronavirus concerns forced NFL teams to substitute spring practices for a “virtual offseason” program with solo drills and online meetings.
Whenever the Vikings are able to let players and coaches back into their practice facility, they could be forced to make up for lost time with a young roster.
After a busy draft weekend, here is a look at the five biggest questions still facing the 2020 Vikings:
1. What can the rookies bring to the secondary?
The roster “evolution” that General Manager Rick Spielman discussed last week has its most vivid expression in the defensive backfield, where Mike Hughes is the team’s most experienced cornerback with Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander all on other teams. The Vikings took three corners this weekend; first-rounder Jeff Gladney and third-round pick Cameron Dantzler could both push for significant roles this season if they are able to grasp the particulars of Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme.
Safety Anthony Harris has until July 15 to sign his franchise tag or work out a new deal with the team, but as Spielman discussed last week, keeping Harris on the field next to Harrison Smith could help the Vikings solidify an otherwise young secondary.
2. When will Ezra Cleveland be ready?
Spielman said Sunday that Riley Reiff will “hold down the fort” at left tackle until the Vikings see what they have in Cleveland, their second-round pick from Boise State. But it stands to reason the Vikings would like the transition to happen sooner than later. Reiff is due to make $10.9 million this season, when he will be 32, and the Vikings had targeted Cleveland on Day 2 of the draft in part because of how well he will fit in their outside zone running scheme.
The team is optimistic about the progress of second-year tackle Oli Udoh, as well, but Cleveland’s progress figures to be the variable that will most affect Reiff’s future in Minnesota.
3. Who will start at guard?
Though the Vikings took a pair of guards Saturday in Oregon State’s Blake Brandel (who figures to move inside after playing tackle in college) and Washburn’s Kyle Hinton, it’s tough to expect either one to go from the final 52 picks of the draft to a starting spot, especially without a normal offseason. Spielman said Saturday there will be competition at both guard spots, which means nothing is guaranteed for Pat Elflein after a rough 2019 season.
The Vikings are optimistic about Dru Samia in his second year. They brought back Dakota Dozier and could hope for a jump from Aviante Collins if he’s healthy all year. They could also look to bring back Josh Kline, who kept the door open to a return after he was released in a cost-saving move in March.
4. Will Justin Jefferson help make Vikings fans forget Stefon Diggs?
The Vikings used the first-round pick they acquired from Buffalo for Diggs to draft his replacement. It’s a strategy that doesn’t always pan out, but the Vikings had to be pleasantly surprised the LSU product was available to them at No. 22 overall. They had done quite a bit of work on Jefferson and TCU’s Jalen Reagor, and took Jefferson a pick after the Eagles grabbed Reagor. Jefferson’s most natural fit might be in the slot, which is where Adam Thielen also does much of his work, but both players have the size and versatility to line up in other places.
Jefferson won’t be able to work with Kirk Cousins immediately, and until he develops a sense of timing with his quarterback, the Vikings might have to scheme some quick throws to get the ball in his hands.
5. Should this team be expected to win now?
We’ve now got a fairly complete picture of the 2020 Vikings roster, and it’s striking to step back and look at just how different it will be than recent editions of the team. Assuming the Vikings fill their final 15 roster spots with undrafted free agents, they’ll have a 90-man roster where 53 players are in their first or second seasons, with 10 entering their third year.
The Vikings made it an offseason goal to get younger, and they will carry as much youth into the 2020 season as they have in years. That approach can infuse a team with speed and energy, but it can also lead to growing pains. It all makes for an interesting mix for a team that seems to be trying to keep its contending window open while refreshing its defense; the Vikings signed Cousins to a new contract and still have high-priced veterans in Thielen, Smith, Harris, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. Zimmer and Spielman are in contract years; a source pointed to a post-draft time frame where the GM could get a longer deal, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings give some kind of extension to both before the season.
Still, much of the team’s infrastructure is built toward winning right now, which means the Vikings will have to pull off an artful turnaround to do so with a young roster. Zimmer last week likened it to college, where programs get new players all the time; he will get his chance at a new kind of challenge this season.