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NFL Draft: Zimmer senses Vikings are close

INDIANAPOLIS -- Close. Head coach Mike Zimmer said that is a suitable description for the Minnesota Vikings."I really like my football team right now. I like the way they work, the way they do things," Zimmer said Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium on...

INDIANAPOLIS - Close. Head coach Mike Zimmer said that is a suitable description for the Minnesota Vikings.
“I really like my football team right now. I like the way they work, the way they do things,” Zimmer said Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium on the second day of the NFL Combine.
The Vikings claimed the NFC North but lost in the wild-card playoffs to the Seattle Seahawks when kicker Blair Walsh pulled a 29-yard field goal that would have won the game.
Zimmer entered the offseason with heightened confidence based on the core of the roster being in place. Last season, there was more uncertainty because of running back Adrian Peterson’s suspension and holes at skill positions. The process entering free agency on March 9 is different in that pressing needs are not as plentiful.
One area Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings will address is the offensive line, which allowed a total of 89 sacks of Teddy Bridgewater his first two seasons.
“He got hit way too much,” Zimmer said Thursday, but backed off the thought that Bridgewater would be more of a passer this season.
“Each game is going to determine how we play. We want to win games. I don’t have a problem winning a game 13-10 and running the ball a bunch of times. ... I don’t know that he’ll be throwing the ball more. When I come back here next year - if I’m still here - what I want to say is ‘man Teddy took charge.’ It’s going to be his baby eventually.”
The Vikings are planning to be shopping in the offensive line aisle but not necessarily in free agency. Other options could include wide receiver and safety, though Zimmer sounds more certain and comfortable with the talent level on defense.
“We have a good nucleus of defensive guys but not anywhere near where I want to be yet,” Zimmer said.
To add to that nucleus, Zimmer said developing or drafting a sidekick to Pro Bowl free safety Harrison Smith would change the Vikings’ defense. Smith, a 2012 first-round pick and one of five first-round picks used on defense in the past four years.
“If Harrison Smith was paired with a guy that had some other qualities, we could allow Harrison to be more of an impactful player,” Zimmer said. “I think Harrison can be more impactful if he had the right kind of guy next to him.”
Zimmer did not say he would dip back into the well of former players he coached in Cincinnati, where he helped develop Reggie Nelson into a standout. But he didn’t rule it out.
“When you are messing around in free agency, the more you know a player, the better chance you have of being correct,” Zimmer said.
The team’s latest first-round defender, cornerback Trae Waynes, played primarily special teams as a rookie. Zimmer said Waynes, the 11th overall pick in 2015, will be a different player this season.
“It was good for him to play special teams,” Zimmer said. “It’s not about athletic ability. It’s about learning to be a professional football player.”
Vikes looking at offensive linemen
Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman joked that he’s been following media coverage to identify which area of the team needs the biggest chunk of his attention this offseason.
“I know what’s been written, where, you know, we want to play more consistent up front on the offensive line,” he said.
And he, or whoever is writing that information for him, would be absolutely correct.
The Vikings didn’t list offensive line as their No. 1 priority. They didn’t have to. Their first move of the offseason, which came within 24 hours of the wild-card playoff loss to Seattle, was to fire offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. A day after that, head coach Mike Zimmer put all of his starting linemen on notice that nobody’s job is safe.
Within weeks, Zimmer had replaced Davidson with 54-year-old former NFL head coach Tony Sparano, an offensive line expert who has reshaped the team’s blocking schemes and parameters for what it’s looking for in offensive linemen. All of this is in response to a 29th-ranked offense that struggled to protect quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and keep defenders from consistently hitting running back Adrian Peterson behind the line of scrimmage.
Spielman is generally conservative, so upgrades are likely to come from the draft rather than free agency. In free agency, the Vikings will focus mainly on their own unrestricted players. They have 14 of them. Linebacker Chad Greenway, cornerback Terence Newman, running back Matt Asiata, punt returner Marcus Sherels, tight end Rhett Ellison and right guard Mike Harris are the top priorities to speak to at this point.
“The draft has always been our focal point; that’s how we’ve built this football team,” Spielman said of a team that’s coming off an 11-5 season and an NFC North title. “I think building through the draft, you can maintain consistency year in and year out. Not saying we won’t dabble in the free-agent market, but I don’t have a big history of that.”
The Vikings have the 23rd pick overall and eight picks overall. Spielman said his goal every year is to make 10 selections, so he is a candidate to trade down for more picks.
The offensive line isn’t the only area to keep an eye on in the draft and free agency. Bridgewater needs a prototypical No. 1 receiver who can create size and speed mismatches down the field. And the annual search for a safety to pair with Harrison Smith is on once again.
But for Bridgewater and this offense to take the next step and not hold Zimmer’s defense back, the offensive line may need a major overhaul.
Center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt are over 30 and coming off significant injuries that wiped out their 2015 seasons. Right tackle T.J. Clemmings started 17 games as a rookie and never did gain a foothold on the job. Harris is a free agent. Left guard Brandon Fusco struggled in his switch from right guard. Left tackle Matt Kalil remains inconsistent and now has a tricky contract situation that includes a fifth-year option that’s too expensive relative to his production.
The Vikings drafted three offensive linemen last year, but none higher than Clemmings in the fourth round. Sixth-rounder Tyrus Thompson didn’t make the team, while seventh-rounder Austin Shepherd became the extra tackle in short-yardage situations.
Spielman said this year’s draft is “pretty deep” at offensive line. That could mean he waits again until later rounds.
Spielman said offensive line might be the hardest to project to the next level. He insists he won’t reach for a player based on need, but don’t be surprised if one of the next steps in the evolution of the offensive line includes a significant draft pick or free-agent signing.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
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