Vikings betting on player development

May, 10, 2014
May 10
1:25
AM ET
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings made four picks on the first two days of the NFL draft. Their first one was a running back who posted 13.5 sacks in just his second year as a defensive end, and their last one was a cornerback-turned-triple-option-quarterback who will try his hand at running back in the NFL. Their third pick of the draft added a versatile, energetic pass rusher to a defensive line that already has several of those, and their second pick staked the future of their franchise on a 22-year-old quarterback who slid from the top of the first round to the bottom of it.

If the Vikings had entered the 2014 draft merely with the idea of patching holes on their roster after a 5-10-1 season, this wouldn't necessarily have been the way to go about it. But what has been clear in the first two days of the draft is that the Vikings are after something else: a group full of young, athletically-gifted players who only need a coaching staff to unlock the potential. This draft has been a bet on the ability of Mike Zimmer's coaching staff to develop talent, as much as defensive end Everson Griffen's contract represented a $20 million wager on the same idea, and the Vikings seem plenty confident in what their new coaches will be able to get out of the group.

"That kind of really excites me anyway," Zimmer said. "I love taking guys with talent and coaching that, because those kind of guys you can take them a lot further. The guys who don’t have as much talent and are good you can make them better players. But these kind of guys [like first-round pick Anthony Barr], you know, he played two years at running back and then moved over to linebacker and had a really good year the year before and then a good year again this year. He is still learning a lot of different things and we will be able to teach him a lot."

The shift has been particularly evident on defense, where Zimmer has had the biggest impact and where the Vikings plan to shift to a more aggressive style of play. But it hasn't been confined to that side of the ball. Third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, the Georgia Southern quarterback, wowed teams at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.41 40-yard dash, a 40 1/2-inch vertical and 32 bench press repetitions at 225 pounds (or more than twice as many as Barr did). Then he performed what Spielman called one of the longest and most interesting workouts he'd ever seen, working as a running back, a punt returner and a cornerback at Georgia Southern. Spielman said offensive coordinator Norv Turner compared the 5-foot-9 McKinnon to dynamos like Brian Mitchell and Darren Sproles, and while the Vikings certainly aren't looking for someone to supplant Adrian Peterson, McKinnon could give them something they haven't had in a long time.

The Vikings' draft strategy so far has been full of gambles -- and as impressive as Teddy Bridgewater's college resume is, taking a quarterback in the first round always carries considerable risk. But on the first two days of the draft, the Vikings haven't been confined by position or convention, and the payoff could be a roster full of unique players.

"I get really intrigued if they are great kids and hard workers, but if they have athletic ability and if they're great athletes, that just intrigues me," Spielman said. "And I know it intrigues the coaches, because they love to work with guys like that."

Ben Goessling

ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter

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