Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Minnesota Vikings Killing Themselves With Reaches, Passes, and Retentions

In 2004-2005, the Minnesota Vikings had what can only generously be regarded as two of the worst drafts in NFL history. In those two drafts, the Vikings selected 15 players and traded away three draft positions (one, a first-round swap, the other two later round picks). Only one of those 15 players, 2005 seventh-round selection Jeff Dugan, currently resides on the Vikings' roster and only one other of those 15 players, Mewelde Moore, is even in the NFL.

Since joining the Vikings in 2006, Minnesota's head of player personnel, Rick Spielman, has turned around those dismal draft results, adding several players to the Vikings' roster that were worthy of their selection and slot in the NFL draft. Among these players are Chad Greenway, Sidney Rice, Cedric Griffin, Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Chris Cook. But Spielman, like his predecessor (whomever that might have been during the Red McCombs era), has, too, had his share of misses. And nowhere has that problem been more evident for Spielman than in the second round of the draft, where, past the clear blue-chip talent of the first round, talent scouts truly make or break their careers.

In 2006, Spielman added Cedric Griffin, a clear upgrade over whomever the Vikings had been putting on the field prior to Griffin's arrival. But Spielman also reached on center Ryan Cook and traded up to take Tarvaris Jackson. The Vikings have been unsuccessful in their attempts to convert Cook to a solid NFL tackle and equally unsuccessful attempting to use Cook as a center. At this point there can be little doubt but that Cook and Jackson were reaches, at best, and probably more worthy of being picked up as free agents. Other players that the Vikings could have selected in the second round rather than Cook include Greg Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Devin Hester.

In 2007, Spielman selected Sidney Rice in the second round. For two seasons, this looked like another wasted pick. But, after teaming with Brett Favre in 2009, Rice resurrected his career, giving him the opportunity to delay surgery in 2010 and waste what could have and should have been a career-changing contract year. The selection of Rice in round two stands out as one of Spielman's better second-round drafts in what was otherwise a fairly unimpressive second-round crop of talent.

In 2008, Spielman selected safety Tyrell Johnson from Arkansas State. The move surprised few who knew of the Vikings' need for a safety and love affair with small school talent, but the reviews since Johnson first took the field for the Vikings have been forgettable. In week one of this season, Johnson was a healthy inactive. In week two, he did little to suggest that week one's decision was off-base. Among the players that the Vikings passed on in taking Johnson were DeSean Jackson, Ray Rice, and Matt Forte.

In 2009, the Vikings selected offensive tackle Phil Loadholt in the second round of the draft after taking Percy Harvin late in the first round. On balance, these appear to be two sound picks going forward, with Loadholt expected to progress from where he is now and Harvin a solid offensive player, health issues notwithstanding, and it's not clear that there were any players more worthy of being selected after Loadholt was taken than Loadholt was of being taken where he was.

This year, perhaps in keeping with an every-other-year theme, Spielman returned to the mistakes of 2006 and 2008, ceding the Vikings' second- and third-round picks to Houston to move up to take fullback Toby Gerhart. Drafting Chris Cook earlier in the second round off-set some of the sting of the Gerhart move, but that, too, came at a cost. Rather than taking Jahvid Best in round one, the Vikings traded down and took Cook. It now seems apparent that the Vikings were competing with themselves in taking Cook early in round two when they probably could have selected him later in the round in the slot in which they took Gerhart. By maneuvering as they did in rounds one and two of the 2010 draft, the Vikings cost themselves a running back, in Best, who would have been far superior to the back that they lost in Chester Taylor, and an opportunity to have both Best and Cook.

The jury remains out on the 2010 second-round and how it played out for the Vikings, but, at first and second blush, it appears that the Vikings made one two mistakes in selecting Gerhart, another in how they dealt with the selection of Cook, and another in by-passing Best. Compounding the angst is the fact that most insiders and even most Vikings' fans felt at the time of the draft that the Vikings were making these very mistakes.

Missing every other year on second-round talent will not break a team as quickly as would the Vikings' former modus operandi of missing on first-round talent, but it does distinguish the perennial contenders from the mere playoff teams. What also distinguishes these two groups of teams in the NFL, and what threatens playoff teams with relegation to non-playoff status, is poor evaluation of talent already on the squad. In 2010, the Vikings face this very crisis.

The Vikings have already made several head-scratching personnel decisions in 2010, including the still inexplicable trade of Darius Reynaud to the New York Giants. That trade, of course, was part of the more inept decision to deal a still young Sage Rosenfels for a bag of beans, all to satiate the ego of the Vikings' head coach who continues his attempts to paper over his reach for Jackson in 2006. The result of that trade was to leave the Vikings with no viable punt- or kick-returner and a back-up quarterback whose staunchest supporter appears intent on pushing Jackson to the back even as he does all he can to keep him in the fold.

The sole explanation for moving Reynaud was that he was going to "get caught up in a numbers game." "Why?" One might rightfully ask. Because, the head coach has explained, there were too many good players.

Those "good players" presumably include fourth tight end Mickey Shuler, a player who has yet to see the black side of the inactive list, Bernard Berrian, who has hauled in three passes for 27 yards as the number one receiver in 2010, Toby Gerhart, who was supposed to be Chester Taylor's replacement but who has played like a suitable substitute for Naufahu Tahi with the apparent upside of an undersized Jim Kleinsasser, Ryan Cook, who plays only when all other offensive linemen have been exhausted, and Greg Lewis, who rarely sees the field, despite the Vikings' clear depth issues at receiver. Surely the ninth-ranked return man in the NFL in 2009 would have been a better keep than any of these players. And, just as surely, roster space had little to do with the Vikings' decision to move Reynaud. What the real reason was, we may never know.

The Vikings routinely preach the value of draft picks and roster decisions. Unquestionably, the team is accurate in assigning such value. But the Vikings do not practice what they preach when they too often make unnecessary moves that lead to misses in round two of the draft or when they make roster moves that go beyond the inexplicable. At some point, the team has to address these issues or fail for the short-coming.

Up Next: Making Better Use of Existing Talent.

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