EAGAN, Minn. — Mock drafts are aplenty these days as the 2021 NFL Draft is less than four weeks away, with many pundits projecting the Vikings to take an offensive lineman with the 14th overall pick.
That includes ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, who recently projected Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater to Minnesota in his most-recent mock draft.
McShay held an hour-long conference call Monday morning with reporters across the country and was asked by Vikings.com if he thought offensive line would be Minnesota's first choice in the first round.
The longtime draft guru said while he expects it, he also wouldn't be surprised by an edge rusher. But McShay then highlighted three options that could be available to the Vikings near the middle of the first round.
"I think it's likely," McShay said. "But I also think they could take an edge rusher, too. Kwity Paye would be an option there out of Michigan. Gregory Rousseau [and] Jaelan Phillips from Miami, as well. Those guys would be options where Minnesota is picking.
"But these offensive tackles are really good. I'm not saying they're going to be the best in the league, but I think with Penei Sewell of Oregon, and Rashawn Slater from Northwestern and Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC … I think they're all plug-and-play starters right away," McShay continued. "I think they're going to be really good pros and probably three of the safest picks in the first round, to be honest with you.
"We've talked so much about the quarterbacks and the receivers, but these guys are ready to play in the NFL, and I'm excited to see them at the next level," McShay added.
McShay also had some praise for Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, and noted that the Vikings could be a candidate to trade back based on what happens. Minnesota currently has 10 draft picks, but does not have a second-round selection.
"Rick Spielman always does a really good job of drafting and moving around," McShay said. "I could see them moving around a little bit and taking advantage of a team trying to move up, especially if a team like New England wanted to move up for a quarterback, or a team like Chicago or something like that.
"But ultimately, I think offensive line is probably the safest spot for them there," McShay added. "And if it's not offensive line, I would go edge defender."
Here are three other topics McShay discussed Monday:
1. Edge rushers get pushed down the board
While McShay said the Vikings could be in the mix for a pass rusher, his mock draft doesn't have one off the board until Paye to the Colts at No. 21.
McShay said an abundance of skill position players — including a handful of highly-ranked quarterbacks — could be a little bit of a wait for players who do their best work getting to those signal callers.
"The tricky part is, to be honest, is that I have five quarterbacks going in the top 11, and then four pass catchers also going in the top 11," McShay said. "It kind of pushes back everyone in terms of the defensive side.
"I had two corners going, then it went to offensive linemen and then the pass rushers," McShay added. "I think because of all the quarterbacks and pass catchers, there's a good chance [edge rushers] get pushed back a little bit."
McShay had five overall pass rushers go in his first-round mock. Beyond Paye, McShay also projected Rousseau to Cleveland at No. 26, Phillips to Buffalo at No. 30, Georgia's Azeez Ojulari to Kansas City at No. 31 and Tulsa's Zaven Collins to Tampa Bay with the final pick in the first round.
2. Looking at Day 3 tackles
Besides the offensive line and edge rusher, adding depth at safety, wide receiver and linebacker could also be possibilities for the Vikings in the final four rounds.
McShay on Monday highlighted BYU's Brady Christensen and Northern Iowa's Spencer Brown as a pair of lesser-hyped offensive linemen to keep an eye on as the draft rolls on.
"I like Brady. As a Day 3 pick, he has a chance to come in and be a backup early in his career," McShay said. "He could wind up being a starter at some point down the line.
"You look at what he has physically … he's 6-foot-6, 300 pounds," McShay added. "he plays with good balance, he's sturdy. He's not the best athlete but he moves well enough in pass protection, and he brings an edge to the game in terms of his run blocking and finishing ability."
Christensen played in 38 career games with the Cougars over the past three seasons.
Brown did not play this past fall as Northern Iowa's games were moved to the spring. But McShay said a strong showing at the Reese's Senior Bowl in late January helped Brown's stock.
"I've got a fourth-round grade on him," McShay said. "He's 6-foot-7 and 319 pounds, but he had a really good week at the Senior Bowl. You see the physicality, the length that he has and he's relatively mobile, as well.
"Everyone I've talked to in the league has him kind of in that mid-round range … third or fourth round," McShay said. "This year, without the Combine and everything being so different, he had to show up and have a great week at the Senior Bowl and that's exactly what he did. He impressed a lot of evaluators there."
3. Adapting on the fly
As McShay mentioned above, the annual NFL Scouting Combine was not held in 2021. While a medical-only portion will be held later this month, teams have had to alter their usual draft evaluations in recent months.
"There's been a lot of challenges. I think the biggest thing is that scouts and general managers and coordinators and head coaches … they just haven't had the personal time with these individuals that they normally have," McShay said. "The Senior Bowl was the only time you could — as a scout or GM or a coach — actually sit down and talk to these guys.
"I think Jim Nagy [the Executive Director of the Reese's Senior Bowl] said he spent $12,000 on partitions just to make sure it was socially distant and safe. But that's the only time teams have had to talk to the prospects," McShay continued.
And with no combine, teams have had to focus heavily on college pro days, which are have been happening on campuses around the country.
"I have a database that gets filled up every day from the pro days, but the numbers are just ridiculous," McShay said. "You can't compare them to the combine, and that's what we've always had. If you run a 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash] at the combine, you can compare that to receivers from previous years. This year, guys are running 4.25 and 4.36, and you can't compare them."
But even with skepticism on some numbers, McShay said that pro days are as important as ever this year because it's the lone chance to see a player on the field in person.
"I talked to a general manager the other day — and I'm not going to say his name — and he said he's never been to more pro days in his entire career and he's been doing this for 20-plus years," McShay said. "Everyone that is evaluating is going out and spending more time on the road, trying to at least be around the players … because they're not getting as much information as they have in the past."
The 2021 NFL Draft is slated to be held from April 29 to May 1.