Draft season is heating up, which means it is Mel Kiper, Jr.'s time to shine.
The ESPN draft analyst held a conference call with national reporters Wednesday morning, during which he touched on a variety of topics relating to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine and the 2020 NFL Draft.
Kiper had the Vikings taking a local kid with the 25th overall pick in his most-recent mock draft, as he projected Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. would stay in-state. Winfield, Jr. is the son of former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Vikings.com was on the call with Kiper and asked the longtime draft expert to give his thoughts on why he projected Winfield, Jr. to Minnesota late in the first round.
"His father was a great player at Ohio State and then in the NFL," Kiper said. "This kid has that 'it factor' and feel for the game, the instincts of game … that's Antoine Winfield, Jr. I have him going to Minnesota … he plays like a first-rounder, put it that way."
Winfield, Jr. was a unanimous All-American in 2019, as he was also an All-Big Ten First-Team selection. The defensive back additionally earned the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year award and was one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Kiper said he came away impressed by watching tape of Winfield, Jr.'s senior season with the Golden Gophers in which he tied a single-season record with seven interceptions.
"Well, first of all, he's a great tackler. He led them in tackles, he gets sacks … they put him almost in a linebacker role, but he can play the centerfield role," Kiper said. "I loved, on tape, the versatility. He has the seven interceptions, and I believe he returned one of them for a touchdown.
"He had three or four games with at least 10 tackles … he was dominant in that Penn State game with a couple picks and 10-plus tackles," Kiper added. "He saved the Fresno State game in overtime when he showed great range and hands coming through with that interception in the end zone. He had nine career interceptions."
Kiper did note that he has some reservations about the defensive back's health, as Winfield, Jr. played in just eight combined games his sophomore and junior seasons due to injuries.
"He had the injuries, though, and that's the issue. He has two separate injuries — the hamstring in 2017 and the foot injury in 2018," Kiper said. "So 2016, he's healthy and does a great job … and 2019, does a great job. Two years of great play and two years of injury is the reason why there's some hesitancy about moving him up too far."
Antoine Winfield started 115 games and had 21 career interceptions in nine seasons with the Vikings from 2004-2012.
Here are four other takeaways from Kiper's conference call:
1. Defensive tackle depth
A decent number of recent mock draft projections have the Vikings tabbing a defensive tackle to help provide depth and talent in the trenches.
Kiper highlighted a handful of players that could intrigue the Vikings in the first two rounds, including Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore.
"Gallimore is a guy who, right now … that's a pretty good defensive tackle group from a second- or third-round area. I moved Justin Madubuike from Texas A&M into that first round to Seattle. Gallimore was a possibility, I think he's a solid second-round pick. He gets penetration, and Ross Blacklock of TCU is in that mix [along with] Jordan Elliott of Missouri, James Lynch of Baylor, Raekwon Davis of Alabama, Davon Hamilton of Ohio State.
"I think out of all those guys, who is the best at getting into the backfield and being disruptive? After Derrick Brown from Auburn and [Javon] Kinlaw from South Carolina, I think Madubuike would be next, and then you're looking at Lynch and Gallimore," Kiper added. "Gallimore with his strength … he was a guy I thought really popped in some games. He really impressed me, so I would think second round for Gallimore."
Kiper also later mentioned Marlon Davidson of Auburn as a potential player who could be an option for Minnesota in the early rounds.
"The versatility with him is going to help him, and Senior Bowl week obviously did … he got better this year with technique and pass-rush moves and all that," Kiper said. "I think he's a second-round pick. Some say first, I say second round."
2. Looking at the cornerbacks
Cornerback has also been a popular projection for the Vikings with the 25th overall pick, and Kiper said Auburn's Noah Igbinoghene is someone who could come onto Minnesota's radar in the coming months.
"He's a guy who is a former receiver who played well at corner, and he has kickoff return experience where he's been dynamic," Kiper said. "The improvement he showed … his tackling ability got better, his overall awareness in coverage improved.
"He's one of the faster, if not the fastest, corners in this draft and I think he's a first-round pick," Kiper added. "When you look at teams in the late first round … Minnesota could be a possibility there."
Some early mock drafts had Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall landing in Minnesota, but he missed the majority of the season after suffering an ankle injury in early October.
Kiper said Hall has the talent to go in the early rounds but opined that some teams might hold back and see how he fares with medical evaluations.
"With Hall, the injury is unfortunate because I think he could have been in that second-round mix," Kiper said. "Now you're looking in the third, fourth or fifth-round area for him. I would say Hall, even despite the injury, is [Virginia's] first player drafted."
3. Combine to see changes, but goals remain in place | By Craig Peters
There are numerous changes to the combine, including the scheduling of workouts so that more can air in the afternoon and in prime time, as well as the types of drills.
Sports Illustrated's Kalyn Kahler has a comprehensive report on the changes that are in order, including the replacement of multiple on-field drills and the decision to add a timing element. Receivers will be clocked as they proceed through "the gauntlet" for the first time. The schedule change also means that teams will have a maximum of 45 formal interview spots with combine participants this year, which is down from 60.
Kiper was asked what he had heard from teams about the changes. He instead provided an overlay of what teams want to accomplish regardless of time.
"Some teams are keeping some of their coaches back to evaluate film and spend their time more wisely because you're going to get all the numbers," Kiper said. "Now, the interviews are important, and they have their numbers and who they're bringing in to interview. And then, the medical is key to all of this. You get those medical reports. … The interview is something that we can't get into, but it's huge for some of these teams. Watching them work out, watching them throw against air, watching them do all of the drills, you don't glean a lot from that, but it's good to be there, it's a good atmosphere. It's great to watch football any time you can, so we'll be there all next week.
"In terms of night as opposed to when it was … you're there watching it and covering it," Kiper added. "I don't think the time change matters to me or anybody in the league, but like I said, I think just getting all of the numbers are important."
4. Assessing a QB with 'rocket arm' | By Craig Peters
CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson recently mocked Washington QB Jacob Eason to the Vikings at the No. 25 overall spot in the Mock Draft Tracker: Version 2.0, but Kiper has him heading to the Patriots.
What does Kiper think of the QB?
"He has a rocket arm and imposing size at 6-5, 235 pounds," Kiper said. "He had some strong performances. Now, he did not have consistency, necessarily against elite teams from the first quarter to the fourth.
"By that, I mean there's some throws that he needed to be more accurate with, some things he needed to do, in terms of play-making in the fourth quarter that didn't happen," Kiper added. "That's why they lost leads to Oregon and Utah and lost four of their five games by 6 points [or fewer]. So, he's not perfect and needs to improve in some areas, but you can't teach the kind of size and arm that he has."
Kiper also pointed out that he wouldn't be surprised to see some trade activity from picks 23 to 32, particularly if teams are interested in securing a fifth-year option that is exclusive to first-round pick.
"That's what usually happens in the 23 to 32 range where a team will trade in there to get a quarterback, especially later in the first round," Kiper said. "We've seen that, so I think that's a possibility where that pick could be dealt to somebody, could be a chance for somebody to jump in and get Eason."