Saturday, April 30, 2011

Patriots Twist Knife in Vikings' Wound

Last year, the Minnesota Vikings gifted the New England Patriots a third-round pick for mercurial wide-receiver Randy Moss, a player that the Patriots no longer valued and a player that the Vikings rarely used before cutting him outright. The move was yet another example of the Vikings' front office speaking highly of second-day draft picks and acting conversely--see similar disregard for such picks involving trading up to take Toby Gerhart and trading up to take Tarvaris Jackson, neither of whom was targeted by any other team anywhere near where the Vikings took them.

In the second round of this year's NFL college entry draft, the Patriots added insult to their theft of the Vikings' third-round pick in this year's draft, selecting with that pick University of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet. Mallet, arguably the most physically gifted quarterback in this year's draft, was one of the quarterbacks in whom the Vikings had displayed a clear interest. The Vikings backed off of Mallet, however, due in large part, if not exclusively, to Mallet's tendency toward jackassedness. That the Patriots, a team that rarely misses in its evaluation of players, opted to roll the dice on Mallet in the third round not only suggests that Mallet might be redeemable, but also provides the Patriots with yet another high-caliber talent obtained on the cheap.

Thus, while Minnesota pays first-round money to a player that either will sit for one or two years or learn on the job behind what is now a weak offensive line, the Patriots will have a more physically gifted quarterback learning from one of the best quarterbacks and best coaches in the league and will pay him virtually nothing.

If ever there was a metaphor signaling the difference between where the Vikings' and Patriots' organizations currently stand, it is symbolized by the Patriots' selection of Mallet with the Vikings' pick.

Up Next: Vikings solidify offensive line--kind of.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spielman and Frazier Add Fuel to the Draft Fire

With the seventh overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected University of South Carolina wide-receiver Troy Williamson. Entering the draft, the Vikings' draft wonks insisted that their draft decisions would not be motivated by any desire to replace the recently traded wide-receiver, Randy Moss. They insisted as much in even stronger terms after selecting Williamson. While most fans scoffed at the Vikings' claims--both before and after the draft--many, knowing too little about Williamson, deferred to those drafting as "knowing more than us."

Though the Vikings entered this year's draft clear that they would consider a top quarterback if one were to fall in their laps, when the team subsequently selected the fifth or sixth best quarterback in a thoroughly mediocre class for quarterbacks, most fans rightfully balked, questioning whether the Vikings took a quarterback simply to take a quarterback.

Never one to allay fan fears, Vikings' Director of Pro Personnel, Rick Spielman, commented that the Vikings "had to swing sometime" and absurdly stated that "nobody knows what quarterbacks will be in next year's draft." Setting aside Spielman's clearly erroneous claim, his suggestion that the Vikings swung this year in selecting Christian Ponder certainly smacks of taking a risk at a position in the draft in which risk-taking to fill a need was not required.

Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier did nothing to calm concerns over the Vikings' waste of a high pick or Spielman's oblivious and disconcerting statements, contending that he really liked what he saw from Ponder at the Senior Bowl and at workouts and that, while he did not feel that great about the quarterback spot before the first round of this year's draft, he is excited about the Vikings' options now?

Clearly, Frazier is cut from the Mike Tice mold of being willing to be dazzled by workouts, even when the workouts suggest far greater ability than is warranted from a player's greater body of work. As Tice was wowed by Troy Williamson's speed in workouts, Frazier was wowed by Ponder's workouts.

More disconcerting, however, was Frazier's suggestion that he went from discouraged to excited about the Vikings' 2011 quarterback position with the selection of Ponder--a claim he made in conjunction with the statement that he planned to keep Joe Webb at quarterback.

Never mind that Webb remains the Vikings' best option at quarterback. Barring a grievous injury to Ponder, Ponder's selection makes Webb virtually irrelevant at the position. By drafting Ponder, the Vikings have committed to one of two things. Either Ponder is the starter in 2011 or a veteran is the starter and Ponder is the understudy. Webb is a no longer part of the equation--again, despite the fact that he is a better prospect than Ponder.

Up Next: More Rounds.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Much to the Misfortune of Vikings' Fans, Vikings Competing at Different Level in Draft

On Thursday night, the Minnesota Vikings continued their long tradition of torturing their fans with inexplicable draft day decisions. Such inexplicabilities are far-ranging and numerous.

Last year, the Vikings traded out of the first round and used the return on that trade to trade up in the second round to take superbust fullback Toby Gerhart. In 2005, the year that the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rogers at the end of the first round, the Vikings used two first-round selections to take Troy Williamson and Erasmus James. In 1997, the team used its first three picks on Dwayne Rudd, Torrian Gray, and Stalin Colinet. In 1996, the Vikings used their number one pick on Duane Clemons, in 1995 on Derrick Alexander. And, of course, in 1999, they burned a first-round pick on Dimitrius Underwood, a player that Michigan State's own coaching staff warned the Vikings was, unfortunately, mentally ill and ill-suited for the NFL.

Of course, the Vikings have had their share of solid first-round selections, including Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Kevin Williams, Randy Moss, Robert Smith, Randall McDaniel, Chris Doleman, Joey Browner, Chuck Foreman, Ron Yary, Jeff Siemon, Alan Page, and Carl Eller, to name the most prominent. But all of these great Vikings' first-round picks had one very common thread--all were great college players and all came without any questions about whether they would succeed in the NFL. The same cannot be said of this year's first-round pick.

Selecting a quarterback rated sixth or seventh best in the draft on most draft boards with the number twelve selection in the draft defies all logic. Either the Vikings know something about Christian Ponder that nobody else knows, or the team simply does not understand the drafting game at the same level as the contenders in the league.

Entering the draft, the Vikings had numerous needs. Nowhere on that list was there an entry for an unpolished, rookie quarterback. The Vikings already have Joe Webb. Conventional wisdom, if there is such a thing at Winter Park, dictated that the Vikings shore up Webb's surroundings or at least make the offense less harried by shoring up a weakness on defense. Either route was defensible.

Rather than making a defensible, logical move, however, the Vikings opted for the inexplicable. How inexplicable? So inexplicable, so oblivious, that the Vikings' own draft day cheerleaders were dumbstruck, forced to take a commercial break to come up with a rational explanation for drafting Ponder. Alas, even after the break, no such revelations were forthcoming.

What Ponder's drafting means is that Minnesota is content in passing on the best college cornerback in the draft, confident, apparently, that Chris Cook, Antoine Winfield, and Cedric Griffin all will be healthy and good enough to mask the weaknesses in both defensive scheme and safety play, that offensive line issues can be addressed through free-agency, that a veteran quarterback capable of starting in the NFL can be found in free agency, and that the pending suspension of Kevin Williams somehow can be papered over.

Ponder's selection also suggests that Leslie Frazier has stolen one of Brad Childress' most ill-conceived schemes, that the Vikings think that it is more about the scheme than the players, and that the Vikings think they have in Bill Musgrave what nobody else thinks they have in Bill Musgrave.

In short, if, as appears to be the case, the Vikings are intent on beginning the season with Ponder at quarterback--or anyone at quarterback without the athleticism of someone like Joe Webb--the Vikings almost certainly are staring at an NFC North cellar finish yet again in 2011. For a team with so many high caliber players, that truly would be a waste of talent and yet another sign that the Vikings are critically behind their competitive brethren where it most matters--in the planning stages.

Up Next: Picking Up the Pieces.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trading Down Not An Option for Vikings; Ingram in Mix?

The last time the Minnesota Vikings traded down in the NFL college entry draft, they landed Chris Cook rather than the player most presumed that they would have taken had they not traded down, running back Jahvid Best. When not injured last season, Cook looked every bit as lost as he apparently was as an academic. Best, meanwhile, despite his own injuries, provided the Lions everything that the Vikings lost when they cut ties with Adrian Peterson's former security blanket, Chester Taylor.

Now, it appears, the Vikings are preparing to mine the same unsavory waters that resulted in last year's unsatisfying yield, but with a far worse plan. Rather than targeting a specific player as players come off the board in the latter regions of the first round, the Vikings are openly talking about trading out of the first third of the opening round--the area where a bona fide starter absolutely will be available--to "load up on picks." In Minnesota, we know that's code for loading up nothing of value and hoping that reaches lead to something.

In the NFL, reaches rarely amount to anything other than a reach. That's why, in an era of near full draftee transparency, few teams outside of Raiders engage in reaching. Should they prefer to remain outside the Raiders' dubious area code, the Vikings, too, ought to turn their backs on such endeavors, before it becomes so commonplace within the organization that the organization begins to accept reaching as the norm and making the clearly correct choice the aberration.

Since coming to the Vikings in 2006 as the replacement for Fran Foley, Rick Spielman has had two unquestionably perfect draft selections--Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. Everyone fully acknowledges that Peterson's selection was both a no-brainer and fortuitous. Nearly the same can be said of the Harvin selection.

Of Spielman's remaining draft selections, only Sidney Rice stands out as even remotely remarkable and, given his early-second-round selection, probably not any more remarkable than any other mid-second-round pick usually is.

Spielman's record in Minnesota is, thus, average. But he now has the second highest draft position since having Peterson fall in his lap in 2007. What Spielman does not need to do with that opportunity is dismiss it as if it was worth nothing more than a high second-round/low first-round pick, or some combination thereof. He also does not need to select a quarterback with training wheels--the only kind available in this draft--with that pick.

What Spielman needs to do is fill a position of need by selecting someone such as USC OT Tyron Smith, Florida G Mike Pouncey, Auburn DT Nick Fairley, or, should he fall, Alabama DT Marcell Dareus. All good picks. All potentially available at number twelve. And all likely off the board past fifteen.

If none of these players are available at twelve, and no other clear star falls that far, the Vikings could also do far worse than filling a position that they thought they filled last year--that of Peterson's sub and heir apparent. That role could quite capably be filled by Alabama running back Mark Ingram, a player who would be near the top of the board, but for exaggerated concerns about his ACL surgery last year.

Whichever direction the Vikings turn on Thursday, Vikings' fans will have reason to deride the team should it fail to use its pick at number 12 or should it do so to select yet another young arm.

Up Next: The Draft.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Vikings' Best Option in Draft Not the One Team Currently is Considering

The Minnesota Vikings approach the 2011 NFL entry draft with a plethora of needs. The team currently has listed atop these needs a starting quarterback. That incorrect assessment has led the Vikings to consider which of a long list of quarterbacks with projected NFL promise, ranging from bust to spectacular, the team should select with the number twelve pick in the draft.

In 2010, with Brett Favre out with an injury and Tarvaris Jackson displaying his limited NFL capabilities, the Vikings were forced to resort to rookie quarterback-turned receiver-turned quarterback, Joe Webb. In five games for the Vikings (two of them starts), Webb completed 60 percent of his passes, threw three interceptions, and had two rushing touchdowns (zero passing touchdowns). Webb also was sacked eight times.

Sacks aside, the bulk of Webb's negative statistics (i.e, the interceptions) came in the first game in which he played meaningful minutes--a 40-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. In that game, which he entered in the second quarter after Favre was knocked out with a concussion, Webb threw two picks. He also ran one in on a nice running play that displayed his agility, athleticism, and speed, and, at times, showed a strong and fairly accurate arm.

Webb improved from there, leading Minnesota to an improbable Sunday night victory at Philadelphia. In that game, he again ran for a touchdown and otherwise protected a Minnesota offense from self-destructing. Despite a continuing porous offensive line, Webb managed to take only two sacks while throwing zero picks.

What the Vikings have in Webb is the quarterback for whom they have been searching--a strong, athletic, young player who makes good decisions and can take some pressure off of his blockers. That the team continues to pursue a quarterback in this draft suggests that the Vikings do not recognize what they already have. It also suggests that the Vikings do not realize their most glaring warts.

Despite a quick release and one of the lowest snap totals in his starting career, Favre endured 22 sacks in 2010. Jackson's and Webb's sacks brought to 36 the total number of sacks allowed by the Vikings' offensive line in 2010. That put the Vikings in the middle of the NFL pack for sacks allowed--twenty behind the league leader--but for a team with a quick-release, West Coast offense and Adrian Peterson at running back, that's nearly the same as leading the league in sacks allowed. Vikings' fans who watched Bryant McKinnie continue to spin on the left side of the line also will attest that the Vikings eluded far more sacks than they allowed, by a combination of fortune, stacking of the line, quick releases, and scrambling.

That suggests that the Vikings' greatest need in the draft is not a quarterback who will need two years to learn under the tutelage of a highly suspect new offensive coordinator, but, rather, a beast of an offensive tackle who can protect the quarterback's blind-side with little to no coaching. Such a person is available in the draft in the form of USC left tackle Tyron Smith.

Drafting Smith would allow the Vikings to shift McKinnie to the right side where his lack of agility could unimpress for several more years without the downside of numerous sacks. And Smith's addition almost certainly would permit an already capable Webb to improve even quicker.

What the Vikings most need at quarterback in 2011 is not another young arm that needs mentoring for two or three or more years before being ready to lead a team already stocked with Percy Harvin and Peterson, but a relatively stable veteran capable of stepping in if Webb falters. The Vikings will have that option in either Kevin Kolb or Donovan McNabb, if and when free agency returns to the NFL. In this year's draft, however, the clear priority is offensive line.

Up Next: Bill Musgrave?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Time for Minnesotans to Turn Tables on Vikings' Pathetic Stadium Drive

Nearly since the Metrodome first began housing the Minnesota Vikings, Lester Bagley has served as point man on the team's efforts to construct a new, billion dollar stadium. Bagley's utter fleecing of his employers over that span of time aside, the purpose of Bagley's endeavor has been to ensure that, for whichever Vikings' ownership group he has served as public-good-implications-aside mercenary, he obtained an expensive, publicly funded, retractable-roofed, luxury-box-ensconced, revenue-stream rich stadium, replete with public funding, in perpetuity--a stadium that would draw not only unrelenting revenue but also equity for the team and league.

Bagley and his minions--many of them found throughout the local media and most evidently displayed in local newscasts wondering such things as "where should the next Vikings' stadium be located?"--routinely and consistently have pointed to the end of the 2011 season as the bewitching point. That is when, we are cautioned, the Vikings will prove that they mean business, packing up their Minnesota shop and heading for the new stadium in the sky.

If not before, certainly now is the time for the good people of Minnesota to provide a counter-proposal to Bagley and his carpet-bagging cohorts. That message should read as follows:

"At the end of the scheduled 2011 NFL season, the State of Minnesota invites the Minnesota Vikings to renew their Metrodome lease. That lease will not include any of the perks that the Vikings currently enjoy to the tune of tens of millions of dollars every year, perks such as advertising, naming rights, and tax concessions. Rather, those rights will return to the operators of the Metrodome and the residents of Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota. Rent also will increase, placing the Vikings on the same footing as other tenants in the Minneapolis area. We recognize, of course, that the Vikings' ownership group might balk at this proposal and prepare for the team's departure. Should they opt to take this course, searching for a market that does not yet exist, we certainly wish them well."

The result for Minnesota will be either a far better return on a product that currently receives an unwarranted sweetheart deal or the loss of a mounting tax burden that occupies a valuable chunk of the downtown real estate. Instead of the choice falling to the people of Minnesota, the people of MInnesota ought to let the choice fall to the ownership group of the Vikings with notice clearly given that the State and local governments, not Bagley or his minions, hold the winning cards. If the Vikings wish to depart, so be it. Cheering for jerseys no longer has the broad appeal it once did.

Up Next: Fungible NFL.