Vikings draft: Top need for the team? It’s upgrading the defensive line

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Andrew Krammer, Star Tribune
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Pro days this month at several college football programs will serve as the de facto NFL scouting combine, which was canceled amid the pandemic.

These trips are where the Vikings personnel department will get the bulk of data from measurements, athletic testing and position drills for 2021 draft prospects. Medical evaluations, often called the most important piece of the combine, are expected to be scheduled regionally later. Minnesota has the 14th pick in the first round on April 29.

The Vikings' roster needs will further crystallize through free agency, beginning soon with decisions coming on the current roster. We've already got our list of the team's five biggest needs to begin March, and five prospects you should know as pro days get underway.

Need No. 5: Receivers

Need No. 4: Cornerbacks

Need No. 3: Safeties

Need. No. 2: Offensive line

Need No. 1: Defensive line

Returning Danielle Hunter and finally plugging Michael Pierce into the defensive line goes a long way toward restoring a once-vaunted front. But there's the other half, too. D.J. Wonnum developed nicely so far as a rookie, and Stephen Weatherly gives them another option at end. But they'll need more pass rush, including next to Pierce at defensive tackle where the Vikings regressed with last year's rotation. After a disappointing year, Shamar Stephen is among the veterans who may get released. Armon Watts and James Lynch are the other current defensive tackle options, making an early draft pick an intriguing possibility.

PROSPECTS TO KNOW

DT Christian BarmoreAlabama

Barmore (6-5, 310 pounds) might be the most gifted DT prospect in this year's class, making for a high ceiling and intriguing target with an early draft pick. He overcame a slow start last fall to finish with six sacks in his last six games, including against strong offensive lines in Notre Dame and Ohio State. "Good quickness and flashes the power to push the pocket," NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote. "Overall, Barmore is young, raw and talented. There is a boom/bust aspect to his evaluation, but he has all the tools." Alabama's pro day is March 23.

DT Daviyon NixonIowa

Nixon (6-3, 305 pounds) might be more of an athletic freak than Barmore, but he isn't as big. The former Hawkeyes star showed off his range last fall with a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown against Penn St., pairing with his Big Ten-leading 13.5 tackles for losses in eight games. It was a small sample size as Nixon, a former junior college transfer, started just nine games for the Hawkeyes. But they were some productive games. Iowa's pro day is March 22.

DE Gregory RousseauMiami

If the Vikings trade back from No. 14, perhaps to collect a lost second-round pick, an intriguing target in the late first or second round is Rousseau (6-6, 260 pounds). Analysts see potential written all over the try-hard Hurricanes star who had 15.5 sacks in 2019 — Rousseau's only season as a contributor before opting out last fall. He also thrived as an interior rusher, giving him some position flexibility. His college teammate, DE Jaelan Phillips (6-5, 255 pounds), is another prospect to know. Miami's pro day is March 29.

DT Levi OnwuzurikeWashington

Onwuzurike (6-2, 290 pounds) is a polarizing prospect among analysts who say he could rise in a relatively thin DT draft class or fall because of mixed reviews at the Senior Bowl after opting out and not playing last fall. He was very disruptive, even while being labeled "undersized," with 16 tackles for losses and seven sacks from 2017-2019. ESPN analyst Todd McShay wondered if there's some rust to remove: "On tape in 2019, this guy is one of the most dominant defensive tackles," McShay said. "I thought he was going to come in and dominate [Senior Bowl] week," but Onwuzurike did not. Washington's pro day is March 30.

DE Jayson OwehPenn St.

Oweh (6-5, 252 pounds) is the kind of long and lean athlete that fits the Vikings' mold for defensive ends. Vikings coaches will overlook a lack of college production (Oweh had zero sacks in seven games last fall) if there are premiere athletic traits. Oweh has the rare combination of size, acceleration and speed to potentially become Andre Patterson's next project on the defensive line. A possible Day 2 gem. Penn St.'s pro day is March 25.