On Tuesday, Eric Smith gave Vikings fans a breakdown of Minnesota's roster status at running back ahead of free agency, which opens with the new league year on March 18.
NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman also recently delved into the position group but did so by ranking all 32 teams according to their strength at running back entering free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.
Bergman called the strongest group "Stay Gold, Ponyboy" – referencing one of my favorite childhood books – and included the Vikings. Bergman wrote:
Entering his fourth season, Dalvin Cook has established himself as one of the hardest runners and most successful young backs in the league. His first two campaigns were interrupted by injury, but Cook broke out in 2019 with a 1,654-scrimmmage yard, 13-score season that validated Minnesota's second-round selection of him two years prior.
Behind Cook is a reliable (and cheap) second-year player in Alexander Mattison, a stellar second-stringer. Minnesota should be OK for the 2020 season, but depending on how they approach Cook's contract, the Vikings might want to explore cheap alternatives just in case.
Joining Minnesota in Bergman's top category were the Ravens, Panthers, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Packers, Raiders, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Seahawks and Redskins.
The only NFC North team not in that category, the Lions instead were placed in a grouping Bergman called "Much to Think About."
Kerryon Johnson can carry the Lions out of the backfield like no RB has since Barry Sanders. But Johnson has yet to prove he can stay on the field for a full season. He's logged just 273 touches in 18 games over his first two seasons; Johnson's draftmate, Saquon Barkley, tallied 269 touches in 13 games in 2019 alone. The 22-year-old Johnson's injury woes have exposed Detroit's lack of depth at the position. … The Lions should be players for a bona fide backup or 1A in free agency and the later rounds of the draft.
View photos from workouts at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday in Indianapolis that included defensive backs.
Vikings at No. 25: Cronin makes cases for CB, S, OL
The NFL Draft will kick off on Thursday, April 23, in Las Vegas, and the Vikings are slated to have the 25th overall pick.
Which position will Minnesota target with its first-round selection? We shared some experts' opinions on the subject last week, and ESPN's Courtney Cronin made cases for cornerback, safety and offensive line. She wrote:
The Vikings have several priorities to address in the NFL draft, particularly on defense. The secondary appears to be the Vikings primary concern – and rightfully so, given the players who might depart in free agency – but there are cases to be made to use their first-round pick (No. 25) elsewhere.
Cronin wrote the following about cornerback:
The Vikings need to get through free agency before determining whether they'll use the 25th pick on the likes of LSU's Kristian Fulton, Alabama's Trevon Diggs, Florida's CJ Henderson and Virginia's Bryce Hall – all of whom could be available. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has the Vikings selecting Diggs in his latest mock draft.
Cleaning house to make way for a new set of starters might feel unlikely now, but the Vikings know it's important to upgrade this unit. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, opponents completed 68 [percent] of their passes against the Vikings when a defensive back was the nearest defender last season.
Cronin added that two of the Vikings younger corners, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, "could earn bigger roles" this season, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer also speaks highly of Kris Boyd, whom Minnesota signed as an undrafted rookie last spring.
Though the Vikings have several players waiting in the wings, finding a talented cornerback in the draft would be a proactive approach to help fix the pass defense. But expecting a corner to have an immediate impact as a rookie is a tall task, as the Vikings learned with even some of their highest draft picks ([Trae] Waynes, 11th overall in 2015).
View photos from workouts at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine on Friday in Indianapolis that included running backs and offensive line.
'Combine risers' who could be options for Minnesota
In the wake of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Matthew Coller of SKOR North put together a list of 10 "combine risers who could intrigue the Vikings" in the upcoming draft.
Included on the list was a pair of offensive linemen, Tristan Wirfs (Iowa) and Ezra Cleveland, who helped block for Mattison at Boise State. Coller wrote:
The freak of the NFL Combine, Wirfs jumped higher than most receivers and ran about as fast as you'd expect for a tight end. At 320 pounds, he tore up the Lucas Oil Field turf to the tune of a 4.85 40-yard dash and jumped 36 inches. His combine showing might have pushed his draft stock up to the top 15 or higher with teams always looking for athletes that can match up to the deep crop of talent along NFL defensive lines.
There is some question over whether he's a guard or tackle. If Wirfs isn't considered a tackle, he could end up being available in the mid-to-late first round. At tackle he probably goes at the top of the draft, far before the Vikings would have a shot at him.
Coller said that Cleveland could be an option after Day 1.
According to Mockdraftable, Cleveland has an athletic profile that is similar to Vikings tackle Brian O'Neill. He isn't the heaviest at 311 pounds and has small hands, but his 4.93 40-yard dash and 30 reps on the bench were eye-catching. At Boise State, he only allowed 12 pressures last season (three sacks) and posted impressive zone blocking grades from PFF.
If the Vikings pick a defensive player in the first round, a player like Cleveland could be on their radar in Round 2. His athletic profile fits their scheme and provides for some growth potential. Asking any tackle to fill in immediately would be difficult, so the Vikings could look at ceiling over all else.