Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Provided By NC State/Minnesota Vikings
For the first time in 26 years, the Minnesota Vikings used their first three picks on offensive players.
Back in 1993, they took an offensive lineman in John Gerak, a pass-catcher in Qadry Ismail and a running back in Robert Smith.
They duplicated that formula in 2019 with center Garrett Bradbury in Round 1, pass-catching tight end Irv Smith Jr. in Round 2 and running back Alexander Mattison in Round 3.
It’s a shift in philosophy for the typically defensive-minded Vikings that have devoted countless high draft picks uner Mike Zimmer to form one of the league’s most feared defenses. But that defense carried a heavy burden in 2018 as the offense deflated late in the season. Now the offense has three new pieces that should make an impact in Week 1: Bradbury as a starting lineman; Smith and Mattison as useful backups in their respective spots.
“Coach Zimmer was actually very happy we got the offense going,” Spielman said, before conceding the head coach didn’t love all the trading back.
The sixth-year coach and his loyal defensive coaching staff may actually enjoy the challenge of working with a bevy of Day 3 defensive picks to mold as they have so many highly-regarded prospects over the past five years. Not to mention the front office vacuumed up five defensive castoffs from the defunct AAF — essentially equivalent to Day 3 picks.
Meanwhile, the new-look offensive staff gets equipped with more weapons to help enact their vision meant to rejuvenate the Kirk Cousins-led unit.
The Smith pick in the second round filled one of the team’s biggest needs: an additional pass-catcher to join Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph (and maybe one day usurping Rudolph).
The son of a former first-round tight end of the same first name, Smith gives the Vikings the best athletic option at tight end in quite some time, and he’s only 20 years old. The Alabama product stood out for two years with the Crimson Tide and tied for the third-fastest 40-yard dash at his position in the NFL Combine.
“I believe no linebacker or safety one-on-one can stay with me,” Smith said on a conference call, “and I’m going to keep proving to people [why] that’s how I feel.”
Minnesota has tried to find a tight end of Smith’s ilk in later rounds or undrafted free agency — A.C. Leonard, MyCole Pruitt, Bucky Hodges — but those attempts have come up empty. Unlike current backup David Morgan, Smith may not possess elite run-blocking talent, but the field-stretching component of his game overshadows what flaws he may possess at the moment. Take last season’s game against Arkansas, where Smith had receptions of 76 and 47 yards in an Alabama win.
The Vikings have two expiring tight end contracts with Rudolph and Morgan. Having Smith around provides a cost-effective option with explosive capability. He tied for the highest yards per route run in college football last season and was fifth-best in terms of slot yards, where modern tight ends typically thrive.
“We wanted to be more explosive on offense,” said Jamaal Stephenson, the Vikings’ director of college scouting. “We want to move the ball and keep our offense on the field. We feel like Irv can do that for us. A guy who caught 44 balls for Alabama last year, and I believe 20 went for first downs. He is a guy that is going to help us move the chains.”
Mattison’s selection came as a greater surprise since it filled a presumably less important need, but the Vikings were essentially playing with house money after an avalanche of trade-backs netted them four additional Day 3 picks, including a fifth-rounder. With nine selections on the final day of the draft, Spielman and Co. will be empowered to move up and grab mid-round talent they desire, which gave them the freedom to use their third-round pick on a Latavius Murray replacement.
“I [like] his in-line vision, I know his ability to go forward on contact, a lot like Latavius did for us,” Spielman said. “I know his ability to catch the ball. I know his ability in pass protection, and I know we have to have multiple backs in this offense.”
The running back position has been devalued in recent years as countless late-round and undrafted backs have stepped up to win jobs or take platoon roles. But the Vikings have never been shy about taking ball-carriers on Friday of the draft. This was their third running back selected in the third round or higher in the last five years.
If Mattison is able to win the backup job over challengers Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah and Roc Thomas, Mattison can work in concert with Dalvin Cook as the power back of the two. The Vikings had the second-worst first-down percentage on short-yardage runs a season ago — in their eyes making running back a bigger need than some might have supposed.
“All last season I played with the mindset of playing fast and physical,” Mattison said on a conference call. “That is the first thing you’ll hear come out of my mouth after any game is if I played fast and physical or not. That is the kind of style I look to play and hopefully I can come and bring that to Minnesota.”
That ’93 team that drafted Smith, Ismail and Gerak? It went 9-7 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Giants. A similar result would be disappointing to the team 26 years in the future. The Vikings have now poured high-end resources into an offense that lacked offensive line and skill-position depth.
There shouldn’t be any excuses remaining for a team that believes it’s within a Super Bowl window.