EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Mike Zimmer talked to reporters on Thursday and said his first NFL Draft as a head coach went smoothly as he sat back and watched as Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman maneuvered around and got Minnesota’s new coach a pass-rushing linebacker and possible franchise quarterback.
Saturday’s third day of the draft created some anxious moments for Zimmer.
The Vikings entered the day with four spots to add more talent before Spielman went into action. After taking Stanford guard David Yankey in the fifth round at 145th overall, Spielman traded back twice in the fifth round, eventually ending up with two choices in the sixth and three in the seventh.
Of the 10 picks Minnesota ended with, only three came from a position the Vikings originally owned.
Meanwhile, Zimmer waited and watched as defensive players went off the board.
"Cincinnati is not very big on moving around in a draft, trading up, trading down, trading sideways," Spielman said. "This was a little bit of an experience for coach Zimmer. I said, ‘We’ll be fine. There are going to be guys up there, and we’ll get good players in here.’"
Spielman trusted in the depth of the draft. Zimmer had to trust in Spielman and Minnesota’s scouts.
"I would just tell him, ‘This is what we are going to do" and we would just say ‘OK,’" Spielman said. "There is not a lot of discussion. I just know it is a bit of a new experience for him and I would promise him that we would get him players to work with. ‘We will get you a big bunch of guys so you can go ahead and start weeding them out. We will have enough options that you will feel comfortable.’"
Once the Vikings started adding players, they focused on athletes for Zimmer’s defense with speed as the main trait.
Minnesota selected Virginia Tech safety Antone Exum and Maine cornerback Kendall James in the sixth round. Connecticut defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was the team’s first pick in the seventh round, followed by Georgia Tech linebacker Brandon Watts and North Carolina cornerback Jabari Price.
"The theme here was going with defense, was going with a lot of athletic traits and the speed that these coaches are looking for to develop and work with," Spielman said.
Of the 10 picks, the Vikings selected 10 defensive players starting with UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr at No. 9 overall on Thursday night. Two defensive linemen, a linebacker and three defensive backs will add depth and competition to Minnesota’s league-worst scoring defense last year.
Zimmer said he wants smart, fast players for his defense. Spielman said the defense will be faster than last year.
"At least in the forty," Spielman said. "All these guys are very athletic when you watch them on tape and they all can run. When we sat down there with our coaching staff we noticed and went through key traits at each position. I think by the type of players that we drafted we were hitting on the traits that the coaches were looking for and what they wanted to work with."
Exum (6-foot, 213 pounds) played safety and cornerback at Virginia Tech, but Spielman said he will come in as a safety for the Vikings. Exum played only three games last year after returning from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and then sustaining a high ankle sprain.
"What is intriguing about him as we sit there and talk with our coaches is that they also want guys at the safety position that can be cover guys," Spielman said. "This was kind of a unique player for us because he is physical on support. He has played corner, but because of his size and his physicality in the run game we feel he can maybe transition to safety."
James and Price aren’t tall cornerbacks (both are 5-foot-10), but they can run. James ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 4.44 seconds and Price crossed the line in 4.45 seconds.
James and Price both talked about their physical play to go with their speed.
"I can bring that toughness to them," James said. "I could help them on special teams. I’m just an all-around great cover corner, so I think I can help a lot to help this defense."
James weighed in at 180 pounds at the combine. Price was bigger at 200 pounds.
"As my tape shows, I am very physical and a fierce competitor," Price said. "I don’t believe in corners that don’t know how to tackle. I like to step out of my comfort zone and go above and beyond expectations."
Watts isn’t a big linebacker at 225 pounds, but he’s as fast as they come. Watts didn’t perform at the combine, but Spielman said he ran a 4.41-second, 40-yard dash at the Georgia Tech Pro Day. Stephen is a big, strong player who can play both tackle spots, according to Spielman.
Versatility was also a key in selecting Yankey, who profiles as a guard but also has the body type of a tackle and has played some right tackle.
A smiling Spielman stood at the podium after the seventh round on Saturday, excited about his haul of prospects. He might have made his new coach a little anxious, but he enjoyed playing the draft game on Saturday.
"This is why I love the draft," Spielman said. "I love manipulating and moving around. You take gambles. ‘If we do this, we may lose this guy’ and you kind of hold your breath until you come back around. And when your guy is still sitting there, you can tell your scouts, ‘I told you so.’ But they can tell you the same thing if he is not still there."