MOBILE, Ala. — Arguably the most important period of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell’s tenure with the Minnesota Vikings begins this week. The Senior Bowl is the first of several spring events staged to prepare NFL teams for their futures.
The Vikings’ coaching staff has been intentional this year about its pre-draft scouting plans. Defensive pass game coordinator Daronte Jones, assistant defensive backs coach Michael Hutchings and defensive assistant Imarjaye Albury are all coaching at the Senior Bowl. Meanwhile, assistant defensive line coach Patrick Hill worked with linemen this week at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Texas.
The goal? To develop as staffers — but also to accumulate as much data as possible on potential draftees.
On that point, here are five players in Mobile likely to pique the Vikings’ interest.
The Vikings took a long look at last year’s quarterback class. Scouts and coaches attended pro days. The staff interviewed multiple high-profile prospects. Minnesota was genuinely interested. Expect them to operate similarly this spring.
Nix is confounding. That’s why some NFL draft analysts project him as a Day 3 selection, while others are suggesting he could be selected in the top half of the first round.
Nix played three topsy-turvy seasons at Auburn, then transferred to Oregon. Thrust into a spread-heavy, zone-read offense behind a better offensive line, Nix thrived. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, leading the FBS in total touchdowns (51).
Will that production translate? How much room for growth is there for an experienced signal caller who will soon turn 24? These are the questions NFL teams, the Vikings included, will be asking this week.
Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft analyst, opined recently that Nix “is outstanding finding and attacking voids in zone coverage and is at his best throwing on the move or when creating plays.” However, Brugler added that Nix “gets in trouble when he plays loose with his technique and his eyes speed up on him.”
The Senior Bowl integrates players into a streamlined NFL-style playbook. Players must absorb the language and concepts on the fly and showcase their comprehension and application abilities on the grass. It should be a valuable data point on Nix for teams like the Vikings.
Key Senior Bowl storylines this week:
– You can bet the Bo Nix buzz will grow (maybe into the top-10)
– Underrated pass rushers will be a theme
– Which WRs shine?
– First defensive player drafted from the Senior Bowl will be…
Full Senior Bowl primer 👇https://t.co/AlVXN7X0A1
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 29, 2024
The Vikings will have more eyes on the cornerbacks in the Senior Bowl than most, especially with Jones and Hutchings both working with players on the field at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
Among the corners, Mitchell might have the highest upside of them all. Brugler ranked him 35th in his top 50 draft prospects in November. The Toledo cornerback stands 6 feet, weighs 195 pounds and is comfortable operating on an island.
Minnesota needs cornerbacks. Mekhi Blackmon played admirably throughout the year, particularly while navigating a lingering shoulder injury. Akayleb Evans showed flashes but tailed off down the stretch. Still, the Vikings drafted Andrew Booth Jr. two years ago with the hope that he could be a starting-level option on the outside. But the Vikings still don’t have one. They’ll be looking for one this week, and Mitchell will be in their crosshairs.
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If it weren’t for the Vikings’ uncertainty at quarterback, their needs on the defensive line would dominate the conversation. Even if Minnesota extends Danielle Hunter or re-signs D.J. Wonnum, the team desperately needs impactful youth on the front.
The 2024 draft class of edge rushers is widely considered underwhelming. Alabama’s Dallas Turner, UCLA’s Laiatu Latu and Florida State’s Jared Verse will vie to be the first selected at the position. One of the hidden gems, though, could be Kneeland, who Brugler said, “had one of the most dominant tapes of any pass rusher in this class.”
Kneeland’s raw statistics don’t stand out. He only recorded 4.5 sacks this season. His pressure rate in 2023 (13.7 percent), however, was well above average (9.3 percent), according to TruMedia. Facing off against a vaunted group of tackles at the Senior Bowl should allow Kneeland to prove he is, as Brugler describes him, “long and powerful.” No matter where Kneeland fits in, be it on the edge or as a traditional defensive end, his skill set as a pass rusher would add a dimension Minnesota has not had.
Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores is always in pursuit of versatile players with a high football IQ. Think, for a second, about how Flores used Josh Metellus this season. Metellus not only had the bandwidth to familiarize himself with multiple defensive positions, but his body type also allowed him to hold up at safety, linebacker and against wide receivers in the slot.
Positionless players don’t grow on trees, but Vaki might be one of them. Most see Vaki as a top-100 talent, but Brugler thinks he could slide. “He’ll fly around,” Brugler wrote, “but (there are) wasted steps. Not sure what he is seeing all the time.”
The Vikings should get a look this week at why Vaki’s tape looks the way it does — and if those drawbacks can be eliminated.
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We started at quarterback, and we’ll end with another. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Tulane’s Michael Pratt offer intriguing skills — Penix’s deep-ball accuracy and Pratt’s field vision — but neither has more to prove this week than Rattler.
The 6-foot, 219-pounder started the last two college seasons at South Carolina. In 2023, he threw for more than 3,000 yards with a 19-to-8 touchdown to interception ratio. His name rarely is discussed among the elite crop of QBs in this class (USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Nix, Penix, etc.), but Rattler offers intrigue.
He has, to use Brugler’s words, “NFL-level arm strength with a natural feel for touch and poise in his process.” The questions lie in his decision-making and inconsistency, both of which should be contextualized through interviews this week.
(Photo of Bo Nix: John E. Moore III / Getty Images)