MINNEAPOLIS -- The foundation the Minnesota Vikings have built, through an aggressive strategy centered around accumulating first-round picks, has been on display through the first four games of the season. Harrison Smith -- the first of three players to be acquired with trades back into the first round -- has blossomed into one of the best safeties in the league. Xavier Rhodes was acquired with the first-round pick obtained in the 2013 Percy Harvin trade, and he's been asked to shadow Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas so far this season.
The Vikings' first pick in the 2014 draft (linebacker Anthony Barr) has been a force against the run and as a pass-rusher, and stepped in front of a Peyton Manning pass for his first career interception last week. The second pick in 2014 (quarterback Teddy Bridgewater) played one of his finest quarters at the end of the Denver game, directing a Vikings comeback that ultimately crumbled behind shoddy pass protection.
All told, the Vikings are starting six first-round picks acquired in their last four drafts and another two players they acquired with second-round picks since 2011. Two more first-rounders (Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson) are in the lineup as veterans leading a young nucleus of top picks that figures to be in Minnesota for years.
"Now that we're into the second year (with coach Mike Zimmer), the personnel side [is] in step with the coaching side on the specifics we're looking for," general manager Rick Spielman said. "Just like I talked to you about when we talked about Barr -- how's he going to fit in this defense? It's the same thing when we drafted Trae Waynes (in the first round this year), and when we drafted [Eric] Kendricks. We drafted a lot of these guys over the last two years on the defensive side; they fit specific traits we're looking for to fit this scheme."
There is, of course, an outlier in the group, and it's the player the Vikings gave up the most to get during their run of first-round deals: wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Vikings selected 29th overall in 2013 after sending four picks to the New England Patriots. Two of those picks became linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive back Logan Ryan, who played pivotal roles on New England's Super Bowl team last year. Patterson, meanwhile, has played just 33 snaps this year with nearly two-thirds of them coming as a run-blocker. He's run just 11 routes this year and caught two passes for 10 yards.
Patterson still is important as a kick-return man, but in a wide receiver group that Spielman called the Vikings' deepest since he joined the team in 2007, Patterson has been marginalized. With Charles Johnson out and Jarius Wright sidelined for all but one snap Sunday, the Vikings turned to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (who was playing his first NFL game) before they went to Patterson. The issue is well-documented by now; the Vikings want Patterson to be more of a traditional receiver than he was when he scored seven touchdowns as a rookie, and he hasn't run routes consistently enough to build collateral for himself in the passing game. While the Vikings could pick up Patterson's fifth-year option next May, it's questionable whether they'd do so for a player who's effectively only a kick returner at this point.
"He’s made so many strides since a year ago and he continues to make strides," Spielman said. "As these coaches evaluated our personnel, the one thing Zim always preaches is team comes first before any stats. As our guys are learning these players, they have a pretty good feel but they’re still, you know, ‘What are we?’ Because now you have an Adrian Peterson in your backfield. With Cordarrelle, you can’t ask for a kid that’s working as hard as he can. And there are specific packages that he may be involved with. These guys are trying to put personnel together with specific packages.”
After the Vikings traded starting middle linebacker Gerald Hodges this week, the question has been raised whether they'd think about dealing Patterson. It's harder to imagine the Vikings moving on from Patterson before they're forced to make a decision, given how dynamic he was as a rookie, but if the Vikings found the right price before the Oct. 28 trade deadline, they might have to consider it. At the very least, he certainly doesn't seem to be the same kind of building block the Vikings have found with frequency in the last few drafts.