EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Their defense fortified with the first three rounds of the NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings turned Saturday to other side of the ball.
The crux of their objective was depth for the offensive line.
Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt struggled last year, and by the end of the 2016 season both of their contracts will be expired. Opportunity looms for T.J. Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd, the linemen the Vikings drafted in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.
“The best thing you can do is continue to add players at every position, and the best guys are going to come out and surface at the top,” said general manager Rick Spielman, who traded down three times during the draft for extra selections and a total of 10 picks.
Clemmings was a right tackle at Pittsburgh. Thompson was a left tackle at Oklahoma. Shepherd was a right tackle at Alabama, allowing two sacks in 27 games as a starter his last two seasons.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Clemmings will be considered for either tackle spot. The 6-5, 336-pound Thompson will get the same treatment, plus potentially a look at guard. The 6-5, 320-pound Shepherd already moved to guard, during practice for the Senior Bowl after realizing the interest of several NFL teams.
Clemmings was taken 110th overall, the first of six picks the Vikings took into Saturday. Clemmings, a first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection at Pittsburgh, was the first offensive player drafted by the Vikings. He started all 26 games at right tackle the last two seasons.
Clemmings was a defensive end, until his junior year. Widely projected as a higher pick, he said he thought he might even go late in the first round. His shaky performance the week of the Senior Bowl game didn’t help, though, and there were concerns by teams about a stress fracture in his foot.
“It’s an old injury and an old issue, but I’ve never had any problems,” Clemmings said. “I have no concerns with it and I’m not worried about it. I’m ready to work.”
The position switch at Pittsburgh came when Clemmings sensed a better opportunity for success on the other side of the ball. Opportunity was what steered him toward the sport in the first place, actually.
He was a basketball star at Paterson Catholic High School in New Jersey, with scholarship offers from Providence and Seton Hall. He played only two seasons of prep football, his participation prohibited by his mother, Fay, and her fear that it was too dangerous.
“She changed her mind my junior year when I asked. My dad said, ‘Hey, let him play,’ and they allowed me to,” Clemmings said.
His size and athleticism triggered more interest from major football programs than basketball. Duke would’ve given him the chance to play both, but Pittsburgh was his choice. That’s where Clemmings began grasping the intricacies of blocking. He said he gained a “nastiness” he never had playing defense, though the learning curve was steep.