Eden Prairie, Minn. • The Minnesota Vikings have two picks in the first round of the NFL draft and one big hole in the middle of their defense.
The Vikings have vowed to find their starting middle linebacker in this year’s draft, and the famous-for-more-than-football Manti Te’o could be still on the board when they’re on the clock with the 23rd and 25th selections Thursday night.
The Heisman Trophy runner-up from Notre Dame, whose school-record seven interceptions last season made him a national story well before the hoax began about his fake girlfriend, could be a good fit in Minnesota. The Vikings, after all, took three of his former Fighting Irish teammates over the last two drafts and have five guys from Notre Dame on their roster.
“It would be perfect for what they do there,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, comparing Te’o’s skill set to that of former NFL middle linebacker Chris Spielman, the brother of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.
But while many mock drafts have Te’o pegged in purple, Kiper said on a recent conference call with reporters that he doesn’t believe Te’o will be available at No. 23. Georgia’s Alec Olgetree is another prime linebacker prospect carrying an off-the-field concern; he was arrested for drunken driving earlier this year and also suspended for four games last season.
If the Vikings can’t get, or pass on, Te’o and Olgetree, they could find Kevin Minter of LSU or Arthur Brown of Kansas State to their liking in the second round.
“If you want Te’o, you have to probably move up a little bit,” Kiper said, adding: “It’s really whether they want to roll the dice or not.”
Spielman has suggested he’s not worried about whatever risk Te’o might bring. It’s a unique set of obstacles to navigate.
After becoming one of the most celebrated college players in the country, in part because of the supposed relationship with a woman who was said to have died during the season and inspired him to play his best, Te’o has had to deal with the ensuing embarrassment from the revelation that this girlfriend did not exist.
Spielman said he didn’t see the due diligence required to research Te’o any different than that for other players.
“In the end, you’ll sit there and discuss all that,” Spielman said recently. “Every team will make their own determination. How do you compare what happened, because he’s an extremely talented football player, against a guy who may have a drug issue or may have an arrest record or may have some other off-field issue?”
The Vikings have an extra first-rounder from Seattle for trading wide receiver Percy Harvin. They have 11 selections in the seven-round draft, including six of the first 120 picks, with needs at wide receiver, cornerback and defensive tackle.
After their surprising 10-6 finish and spot in the playoffs last season, the Vikings traded the multi-skilled Percy Harvin to Seattle and also lost cornerback Antoine Winfield, one of their most respected players, to the Seahawks in free agency. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, in the final year of his contract, will be 33 before the season starts.
“It will be a very exciting draft, because I think there’s going to be a lot of depth and a lot of value throughout the draft that you’re going to be able to get some pretty good players that can come in and help your ballclub,” Spielman said.
That certainly was the case last year. The Vikings found potential future stars in the first round with left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith, and sixth-round selection Blair Walsh made the Pro Bowl as a kicker. They also picked cornerback Josh Robinson, fullback Rhett Ellison and wide receiver Jarius Wright, who made significant contributions as rookies.
That productivity ramped up the team’s timeline to return to competitor status in the stacked NFC North, so much so that Spielman uncharacteristically splurged in free agency to sign wide receiver Greg Jennings away from rival Green Bay to help withstand the loss of Harvin.
At wide receiver, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is a lot like Harvin, but he will probably require the Vikings to trade up to get him. This draft is considered to be deep at this position, which might be the team’s greatest need even after signing Jennings and bringing back Jerome Simpson on another one-year contract.
So the Vikings could wait until the second or third round and likely still find a ready-made prospect. Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee, Keenan Allen of Cal and Robert Woods of USC are three options.
“There’s a lot of guys that are athletic guys that can stretch the field,” Spielman said. “There’s some guys that are smaller but very unique. There’s some guys that are maybe not as fast but have some unique catching skills that make them good players.”