Nov. 26—The Vikings’ 34-31 win last Sunday over Green Bay provided an interesting juxtaposition. The star of the game was wide receiver Justin Jefferson, a first-round draft steal. But center Garrett Bradbury was benched, an indication he might end up being another Minnesota misfire in the first round.
Since 2016, the Vikings’ record of drafting in the first round has been shaky under general manager Rick Spielman. That was the year they selected wide receiver Laquon Treadwell with the No. 23 pick. All they got from Treadwell was 65 catches in four years.
The Vikings’ 2017 first-round pick was traded to Philadelphia for quarterback Sam Bradford. In 2018, they landed cornerback Mike Hughes with the No. 30 pick, then dealt him to Kansas City after three injury-riddled seasons. Bradbury went No. 18 overall in 2019.
Then came the hit-and-miss year of 2020, when Jefferson was snagged with the No. 22 pick and cornerback Jeff Gladney was 31st overall. Gladney lasted one season before being released in the wake of a sexual assault charge.
Last spring’s selection, left tackle Christian Darrisaw, has become a starter, but the jury is still out on the No. 23 pick.
“Justin Jefferson, they struck gold with that, but outside of that it has not been really good for them because they’ve been drafting for need in the first round over, I think, taking the best player available on the board,” said ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid. “You get yourself in trouble when you try to pigeonhole yourself into drafting for a specific need.”
Reid also made note of the unforeseen circumstances related to Hughes and Gladney, and the potential of Darrisaw.
Center was a big need when the Vikings selected Bradbury in 2019, but the pick turned some heads because centers aren’t often selected in the first round and good players at that spot often can be found in later rounds. Of Pro Football Focus’ six highest-ranked centers last season, five were selected in the third round or later, and four in the fourth round or beyond.
Bradbury was ranked No. 25 last year by Pro Football Focus among No. 36 NFL centers. This season, he is No. 30 out of 38.
After starting the first 39 games of his career, including seven this season, Bradbury missed two games while on the COVID-19 reserve list. When he returned, the Vikings elected to instead start Mason Cole against the Packers. Cole, a third-round pick by Arizona in 2018, played well during the two games Bradbury was unavailable.
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer declined to say Friday who will start at center Sunday at San Francisco, and there seems to be a chance it could be Bradbury. Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said Wednesday the Vikings could use both Bradbury and Cole at center against the 49ers or in another game.
Nevertheless, last week’s decision sounded an alarm for Bradbury’s future. The Vikings must decide by next May whether to pick up his fifth-year contract option. Salary-cap analyst Jason Fitzgerald of OvertheCap.com projects that option will be for a whopping $12.745 million for 2023, so it seems unlikely it will be picked up. He’s currently in the third year of a four-year, $12.88 million deal.
Reid said one of the issues with the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Bradbury has been difficulty with big nose tackles. Former Minnesota offensive lineman Mike Harris, who evaluated the offensive line during an internship in training camp last August and is the offensive line coach at Macalester College, agreed.
“(Bradbury’s) obviously a great leader, and he’s going to be in the NFL for a long time just off his athletic ability, effort and his intelligence,” Harris said. “But he struggles with the one-on-ones, going up against bigger, stronger, faster defensive linemen, specifically in the pass game when he’s not getting double-team help or if (quarterback) Kirk (Cousins) needs to hold onto that ball for a while. Guys tend to get the edge on him, and he gets on roller skates.”
If the Vikings don’t pick up Bradbury’s fifth-year option, it would mark the third straight time they have declined one on a first-round pick; Treadwell and Hughes were the others.
For the 2020 first round, Gladney is gone, so he obviously won’t have an option to be picked up. Jefferson, however, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and is the most recent NFC Offensive Player of the Week after catching eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers. Had the Vikings not landed Jefferson, Reid said, the Vikings’ recent record in the first round “would be a disaster.”
Spielman at least has done very well in the second round, where the Vikings picked up linebacker Eric Kendricks in 2015, running back Dalvin Cook in 2017, tackle Brian O’Neill in 2018, tight end Irv Smith Jr. in 2019 and guard Ezra Cleveland in 2020.
“(Spielman) really hasn’t missed on a second-round pick to this point, so I’m pretty sure he wished he could reverse the roles as far as the second-round picks with the first-round picks,” Reid said.