EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings entered the first round of the draft on Thursday night with glaring needs at quarterback and linebacker.
When they went on the clock at No. 8, and again at No. 9, they had both options sitting right there in front of them. With the crowd at the team’s draft party hollering, “Johnny Football! Johnny Football!” the Vikings went another direction.
Minnesota selected UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr with the ninth overall pick, prioritizing upgrading the pass rush over finding a long-term solution at quarterback. Barr had 10 sacks for the Bruins last season, and 23½ over his final two years in college.
SLIDESHOW: Inside The 2014 NFL Draft
With long-time leaders Jared Allen and Kevin Williams departing, the Vikings chose to address their biggest need on defense rather than go for the more popular pick, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Vikings started the night with the eighth overall pick, but traded down one spot with Cleveland, picking up a fifth-round pick to do it. The Browns took Oklahoma State defensive back Justin Gilbert, another player the Vikings were believed to have been interested in, and Minnesota pounced on Barr the next pick.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said he loves Barr’s athleticism and long-term potential to develop into a playmaker on the edge of the defense.
“You just don’t pass up these athletic-type players because they’re too rare and too hard to find,” Spielman said.
The Vikings have been searching for a young franchise quarterback ever since Daunte Culpepper went down with an injury in 2005. But this year’s class has no sure thing at the position, with questions surrounding even the top prospects like Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater.
The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Bortles at No. 3 and the Vikings decided to pass on Manziel to address a defense that ranked 31st in the league last season.
Spielman already has a pretty big miss on his resume when he took Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011 and it became apparent as the Vikings went on the clock that they weren’t ready to reach for a player they didn’t feel deserved to be taken at No. 9.
That doesn’t mean the Vikings won’t take a quarterback at some point, and maybe soon. Spielman has earned a reputation as a wheeler and a dealer on draft day, and he could try to trade back up into the first round if one of the quarterbacks they do like continues to fall, or wait until their pick at No. 40 overall in the second round on Friday.
And with veteran Matt Cassel re-signed for another two years in the offseason, the Vikings could feel comfortable addressing a defense that needed major upgrading after finishing 31st in the league last year. The struggles with that unit were as much to blame as the lack of consistent quarterback play, and the Vikings signed defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in free agency to start addressing areas of need on that side of the ball for defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer.
With Allen and Williams gone and Zimmer installing a new, more aggressive system from the Cover-2 style that Leslie Frazier employed, the defense is going through a bit of an identity shift. The unit had to get younger and they gave up-and-coming defensive end Everson Griffen $20 million to team with hard-hitting safety Harrison Smith and former Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Greenway as the new faces of the defense.
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