File-This Dec. 20, 2020, file photo shows Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer reacting on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, in Minneapolis. Zimmer was discouraged by the state of his defense and the limited opportunity to improve it this offseason, but a handful of free-agent additions gave him fresh hope. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File)
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EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings were rewarded for their calculated gamble Thursday night, landing offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw after a nine-spot slide down the NFL draft board.

Now they're banking on blocking for Kirk Cousins being a less risky proposition.

The Vikings took Darrisaw out of Virginia Tech with the 23rd overall selection on Thursday night, bolstering an uncertain offensive line after a familiar draft-night move to stockpile more picks.

Darrisaw, a late-blooming, long-armed athletic blocker at 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, was a second team All-American in 2020. He can fill a significant opening at left tackle after Riley Reiff was released for salary cap savings. He also checks a box for the Vikings by adding size to a group that has been plenty mobile but sometimes outmanned by bigger defensive lines.

“He's got really good strength. He's a good kid. He's a hard worker and really athletic,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I don't know that there was a priority. It was find the guy who we thought would come in and fit the best.”

The Vikings had the No. 14 spot on the board, which would have been their highest in six years. They sent the pick to the New York Jets with one of their four choices in the fourth round (No. 143 overall) to settle at No. 23 — which originally came from Seattle in the deal for safety Jamal Adams — and add two third-round selections (No. 66 and No. 86).

“We were a little tight in the draft room,” general manager Rick Spielman said.

Quipped Zimmer: “I told him, ‘Don’t answer the phones anymore.’”

After stocking up on defense in free agency, it was time to bolster the blocking in front of Cousins. After years of draft neglect on the offensive line, the Vikings have hustled to catch up recently by using a first- or second-round pick for their front in each of the last three offseasons. Guard/tackle Ezra Cleveland went 58th overall in 2020, center Garrett Bradbury was the 18th selection in 2019 and tackle Brian O’Neill was the No. 62 overall choice in 2018.

Bradbury, tackle Matt Kalil (No. 4 overall in 2012) and tackle Bryant McKinnie (No. 7 in 2002) are the only offensive linemen the Vikings have taken in the first round in the last 25 drafts.

With Darrisaw's arrival, O'Neill can stay at right tackle and Cleveland can remain at right guard. Darrisaw, a Maryland native who played three seasons for the Hokies, was the fourth offensive tackle taken this year.

“I’ve always been an underdog, and there’s always been questions about me. But I know the heart and belief I have in myself and the confidence,” Darrisaw said. “I feel like I’m able to accomplish anything if I put my mind to it.”

The Vikings prepared scenarios for one of the consensus top five quarterbacks falling to them. That’s exactly what happened with Alabama’s Mac Jones available, but with Cousins under contract for two more years at $66 million such a move would only have been for the future.

Though Spielman and Zimmer have contracts through 2023, the status of the two leaders is far from secure after a 7-9 finish in 2020. They have won only two playoff games since Zimmer was hired in 2014.

Thus, the need for an instant-impact player or two from this draft was as strong as ever for the Vikings, who have watched Green Bay win the last two NFC North titles while going 13-3 each time. The Vikings have also finished behind Chicago twice in the last three years.

The Vikings don't have a second-round selection, due to the ill-fated trade with Jacksonville for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, but they now have four picks in the third round. That includes choices No. 78 and No. 90, which came from Baltimore for Ngakoue.

They currently have three choices in the fourth round, two fifth-rounders and one sixth-rounder, a lineup that's sure to be shuffled more times over the weekend as Spielman tries to maximize the return on 2021 rookie investment.

Whichever prospect the Vikings picked, replicating the mood from last year's all-virtual dtaft experience was going to be nearly impossible given the gift of wide receiver Justin Jefferson landing in their laptops at No. 22. Jefferson made a major impact on an offense that finished fourth in the league in yards and 11th in points.

Because all their key evaluators have been vaccinated for COVID-19, the Vikings were allowed by the NFL to assemble them all in the same room this time at team headquarters.

“Just watching Dalvin Cook hit the hole and break for like 60 yards,” Darrisaw said, “you’re saying to yourself, ‘I’m going to be blocking for a guy like that.’”


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