Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman turned eight initial draft selections into an NFL-high 12 through seven trades during last month's draft. The Vikings were able to use some of that draft currency to trade up positions once, sliding into the 12th spot in the fourth round to draft Oklahoma guard Dru Samia. According to Spielman, Minnesota tried to move up again but couldn’t make a trade.
After the trade, the Vikings used the remainder of their capital to pick eight players in Rounds 4-7 (they even traded back again on the final day). They came away with three sixth-round picks and four seventh-rounders.
A group that includes a defensive tackle (Armon Watts), two defensive backs (safety Marcus Epps and cornerback Kris Boyd), a big-bodied offensive tackle (Oli Udoh), two wide receivers (Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson) and a long snapper (Austin Cutting) checks the boxes for a handful of the Vikings' needs.
There are several common threads among these selections. Vikings coaches were familiar with Watts and Udoh after working with both prospects at the East-West Shrine Game. Johnson and Boyd were both around later than they were projected to be and possessed higher value than their place of selection would indicate. As the draft wore on, Vikings’ brass was on the hunt for developmental prospects.
“When we got through the seventh rounds, we were trying to look for as much value as we can,” Spielman said. “… I know when we go through and have this many picks in the later rounds, one thing we are trying to identify with the coaches and with the scouts are traits that these coaches can get in and work with and develop.”
So what do the Vikings have in their sixth- and seventh-round picks? History shows many of these picks have about as much of a shot to make the roster as undrafted free agents. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there were twice as many snaps played from undrafted players (137,598) across the NFL last season as there were from players selected in the sixth and seventh rounds (62,749).
Last season, the Vikings had similar contributions from their undrafted players (4,904 snaps, ninth in the NFL) as they did their sixth- and seventh-rounders (2,425, 10th in the NFL). Players like Adam Thielen, who rose from a college rookie on a tryout to one of the top-paid receivers in the NFL, contribute in a big way to the UDFA figure.
Spielman has found value in players drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds in the past, with some of these picks able to carve out meaningful roles. Stephen Weatherly, a seventh-rounder in 2017, started six games at defensive end in place of Everson Griffen last season and came away with three sacks and a forced fumble. The Vikings found David Morgan, a strong run-blocking tight end, and safety Jayron Kearse, who has emerged as a fit in various sub packages on defense, in that same draft. Former seventh-rounder Shamar Stephen (2014) is slated to start at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Teams don’t often draft players in the later rounds expecting them to become Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl MVPs like Tom Brady, but they also aren’t necessarily selecting players to fill a quota. There’s often some contribution teams are looking for when they choose players in the late rounds of the draft.
Minnesota opted to use its last pick in the seventh round on long snapper Austin Cutting, who could replace veteran Kevin McDermott. The Vikings used a draft pick on Cutting (instead of drafting QB Jake Browning, who signed as a UDFA) because they believed Cutting would have been signed by another team as an undrafted free agent.
Developmental prospects could also make an impact at the No. 3 wide receiver position. Johnson and Mitchell are deep-ball threats, which could set them apart from Laquon Treadwell, Chad Beebe, Jordan Taylor and Brandon Zylstra.
“In those late rounds, (we’re) looking for guys that have tremendous upside because you don't know what you're going to hit on,” Spielman said. “And all these guys I feel are extremely athletic that have potential to be very good football players for us.”
For every sixth- and seventh-rounder who sticks, there’s plenty who never sniff an NFL roster. Though Spielman has more misses than hits at these spots, he has also found success uncovering a handful of UDFAs, from Thielen to former special teams ace Marcus Sherels and fullback CJ Ham.
“We have a lot of guys and a lot of college free agents that come in here and make this football team, and I think that's why -- we drafted a corner in the first round and have two first-round corners and a second-round corner and Holton Hill played for us last year, and he came here,” Spielman said. “We have a pretty good reputation of we're going to get the best 90 guys in here and once they get here we're going to play the best players. We're here to win football games, and we throw draft -- where you (were) drafted or if you come in as a college free agent or if you come in as a rookie tryout guy next weekend -- we're going to try to find the best players that are going to help us win football games, and that's kind of been the philosophy since Coach Zimmer has been here, and I believe in that, too.”
Over the past five seasons, there are four different instances of an undrafted Vikings player starting all 16 games; six different times in that span, a Minnesota player drafted in the sixth of seventh round started all 16 games.
Every NFL franchise will be judged on the players it passed on in the draft. When the Vikings began to trade back in feverish fashion in the third round, they opted to forego several well-regarded prospects in place of acquiring more draft picks.
Whether those picks pan out will be the storyline to follow. For now, Minnesota has a handful of prospects to comb through to see how they fit into the system and whether they can make the team.