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Safety isn’t Vikings’ top draft need, but one prospect may be too good to pass up at 48

If the Minnesota Vikings don’t come away from this year’s NFL Draft with at least one decent offensive line prospect, fans might march to Winter Park demanding answers. But with urgency to get back to the playoffs in 2017, the Vikings would have a good case to take whichever player could help them the most right away. That player could be Washington safety Budda Baker.

Before we get into Baker’s breakdown and measurables, the argument for a defensive back starts with the state of the NFL. There are currently two ways to win: Pass or stop the pass (or both). There is no better example than the 2015 Denver Broncos, whose defense led the NFL in Total Pass Yards, Net Yards per Attempt and ranked fourth in QB Rating Against. In the playoffs, they matched up with Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton and came out on top.

Of course, Denver’s Super Bowl victory was a historical anomaly because of their very poor offense, but teams who can shut down opponents’ passing games often overcome so-so offensive attacks. Last year the New York Giants and Houston Texans were among the NFL’s worst offenses and still made the playoffs because of their top-notch pass defenses. Kansas City reached the playoffs in the NFL’s toughest division in large part because they gave up a 79.8 QB rating against, third best in the NFL.

The Broncos, who had the NFL’s best pass defense, missed the postseason, but still won nine games while only gaining 5.1 Yards Per Play, good for 25th in the league. Minnesota was close behind Denver in pass defense and won eight games while ranking 28th in Yards Per Play. And, any Vikings fan will tell you that there were plenty of games (Washington, Dallas, Detroit twice) that they were in position to win.

So bottom line: Great pass defense gives a team a chance to be competitive, even if their offense is bad. Great pass defense with a decent offense has a chance to win a division and maybe more. Great pass defense with an elite quarterback is a recipe for a Super Bowl.

It’s pretty unlikely that the Vikings will have one of the NFL’s best passing offenses next season, but they could get into category No. 2 on the list now that they have improved both tackle positions and Pat Shurmur has taken over as full-time offensive coordinator. But in order to truly be competitive, the Vikings must maintain (or even improve) their pass defense.

This is where Budda Baker comes in.

The Huskies’ defensive back has been compared to former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders because he is an instinctual player and great athlete, but lacks ideal size at just 5-foot-10, 195-pounds. He could drop to the second round because teams are concerned that his frame might not hold up under the punishment of playing safety or be very effective against the run.

But Baker’s NFL.com draft profile reads like Mike Zimmer created him on Madden.

“Undersized free safety with the heart of a linebacker. Baker plays with a competitive desire that leaps off the field when you watch him thanks to elite football character and above-average explosiveness. While he is undersized, he makes up for it with his football instincts and plus play speed. Baker has the talent to become a play-making safety with Pro Bowl potential if he can sustain his health.”

There is versatility in his game. With a 4.46 40-yard dash and top scores in the 3-Cone and 20-yard shuttle at the Combine, he is a good enough athlete to cover wide receivers 1-on-1 and play a slot role. According to Pro Football Focus, throws in his direction this year resulted in a 61.0 QB rating against (1 TD, 2 INT, 58% Completion Percentage). PFF’s scouting report compares him to Tyrann Mathieu.

So you might be saying: “OK he’s great, but aren’t the Vikings well stocked in the secondary already?”

Yes. However, if they want to maintain an elite pass defense, more depth and versatility could help immensely. While Terence Newman is returning for a 73rd season, the Vikings lost their nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn and have not signed a replacement, leaving last year’s second-round pick Mackensie Alexander to compete for the job – though he doesn’t currently have any competition for the position unless Newman ends up there.

 

At the safety spot, Harrison Smith is absolutely magnificent and Andrew Sendejo had his best year in 2016. But when either one of them got hurt, the Vikings’ pass defense suffered badly. You don’t have to look any farther than losses to the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts.

The Vikings might be planning on signing a player like Corey Graham, a free agent who could provide some depth. In that scenario, there is no upside or chance of future stardom as there would be with Baker.

A pair of third and fourth-round picks could be used for the Vikings’ top needs on the offensive line, defensive tackle and wide receiver.

Timeline should be a factor in the decision at 48. If the Vikings were a rebuilding team, whichever player was the best prospect would be the right pick. This team is in win-now mode though, which should point them toward getting players who can make an impact right away. No second-round pick is a guarantee to be an immediate starter, but Baker’s background and skill set gives him a pretty good chance to at least fill a role or step in more admirably than Alexander or Jayron Kearse did last year when called upon.

Still, if you had to put money on the Vikings’ decision, you’d guess they select a lineman. At the moment, there isn’t a clear-cut right guard and the future at tackle is still up in the air. But whether it’s with a free agent, Baker or another draft pick, the Vikings also need to keep in mind their best chance to win in 2017: Shutting down opponents’ passing games.





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