(WCCO) — The Minnesota Vikings moved some pieces around during free agency. The team extended starting quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ contract and franchised Anthony Harris. They added Michael Pierce from the Baltimore Ravens to secure the defensive line. And they parted with wide receiver Stefon Diggs, offensive guard Josh Kline and cornerback Trae Waynes. Rumors about securing estranged Washington Redskins offensive tackle Trent Williams have so far not become anything material.
The free agency period still leaves the Vikings with pressing needs heading into the NFL Draft this week. Based on the partial list above, positions they could focus on with their first-round picks (22nd, from the Buffalo Bills, and 25th) include wide receiver and offensive line. Cornerback also became an even more critical area of need when Mackensie Alexander followed Waynes out the door last month.
How the Vikings try to fill these holes through the draft will become apparent soon enough. And with two first-round picks and a second-round pick, they may just come away with three opening-day starters. Then again, every NFL rookie, even first-rounders, bring with them some risk. So they could be left with one or more holes to be filled in future drafts.
Gauging potential draft candidates is far from a perfect science. A look back at the last decade of first-round picks reveals both scenarios. Harrison Smith, the Vikings’ best first-round pick of the 2010s, has locked down one of the safety spots for most of the decade. Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ worst first-round pick of the decade, bombed out of Minnesota in four seasons and the NFL in two more.
Any cornerbacks the Vikings draft will have one of the NFL’s best safeties backing them up. Smith was selected with the 29th pick of the 2012 draft out of Notre Dame. A converted linebacker, he fit right into Minnesota’s defensive backfield, taking over free safety duties as a rookie. Smith piled up 104 tackles that season and intercepted three passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Already a strong tackler, he’s continued that production over the years. And what were seen as deficiencies in pass coverage coming out of college have grown into strengths. His versatility looks all the more impressive considering before Anthony Harris he seemed to be partnered with a different strong safety every year. Smith, who has 658 career tackles, has made the Pro Bowl the last five seasons and remains a force in the defensive backfield.
While the Vikings have found their starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins, many others have filled the position over the last decade. The list includes Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. But had the Ponder pick panned out in 2011, the merry-go-round under center might have been avoided.
Ponder was selected out of Florida St. with the 12th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. The Vikings soon brought in a fading Donovan McNabb to hold down the starting position until Ponder was ready to step up. That arrangement didn’t last, and Ponder took over in Week 7, completing 13 of 32 passes in a Vikings loss to the Green Bay Packers. He probably wasn’t ready to be the starter, and it’s debatable if he ever would be. Ponder finished his rookie season with 13 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, as the Vikings crawled to a 3-13 finish.
Ponder improved some in his second season, though he doesn’t deserve the bulk of the credit for Vikings’ 10-6 finish and playoff appearance. Having a 2000-yard rusher who wins the NFL MVP, namely Adrian Peterson, will make any quarterback look better. Still, Ponder’s stats improved across the board, as he threw for almost 3,000 yards, completing 62.1% of his passes, including 18 touchdowns. It would prove to be his peak.
The young quarterback tossed three interceptions to open the 2013 season and never seemed to settle back into his role. The Vikings were winless after three games, and Ponder had thrown five interceptions against just two touchdown passes. He lost the starting role in week 4, initially because of a rib injury, but then because of the arrival of Josh Freeman. Ponder returned under center in week 7, but remained somewhat ineffective. His 2-6-1 record as a starter that season did not instill confidence.
The Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, pushing Ponder down the depth chart. Bridgewater was the new hope of the franchise. Ponder saw action in two games that season and became a free agent in the offseason. He would catch on with the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, but didn’t complete any passes. He has been out of the league since 2017.