The success of the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots in the 2012 playoffs demonstrates several points instructive for the Minnesota Vikings as they pare their 2012 draft board. Chief among these points is that successful teams are constructed by focusing on the offensive and defensive lines and that, while great receivers will boost teams, great receivers cannot overcome poor line play.
In addition to the winning teams, losing teams such as Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay, and Cincinnati helped demonstrate the above points. Despite having elite receivers (or a purportedly unstoppable stable of receivers led by a purportedly near-elite receiver, such as Green Bay's), each of these teams failed in the playoffs either because their offensive lines failed to provide protection for the quarterback, the defensive line failed to put pressure on the quarterback and/or stop the run, or both.
Denver provided another insight particularly relevant for Minnesota, demonstrating that an athletically gifted quarterback must have the ability to consistently put the ball on the money. Tim Tebow made some very nice passes in the playoffs, several times putting the ball where only the receiver could get it and where the receiver did get it. He also, however, proved wildly erratic and utterly inconsistent.
The Vikings ought to take these messages to heart when drafting in 2012. Such heeding would not be knee-jerk but, rather, responsive to clear evidence pre-dating even this year's playoffs.
Should the Vikings heed the cautions afforded by the 2012 playoff contenders, they will focus on ensuring that, after the draft, the offensive and defensive lines are sound. Once that goal has been assured, the team can consider other positions of need.
Following this course would lead the Vikings to use their first-round pick on USC left offensive tackle, Matt Kalil. The 6'7" Kalil represents the surest bet of any player on the 2012 draft board and represents the best opportunity for the Vikings to fill a pressing need on the offensive line. Drafting Kalil also would permit the Vikings to move Charlie Johnson to right tackle and see whether Phil Loadhold can handle the right or left guard positions.
Securing the offensive line would give the Vikings a better idea of what Christian Ponder and/or Joe Webb can do when not required to flee the pocket or take a sack. It also should permit the Vikings to weather Adrian Peterson's injury.
The Vikings understandably are looking at several positions in the draft other than that of offensive line. Among those, with most logical selection in parentheses, are wide receiver (Justin Blackmon), cornerback (Morris Claiborne), defensive tackle (Michael Brockers), running back (Trent Richardson), and safety (Mark Barron).
In previous years, the Vikings would have had cause to weigh the costs and benefits of trading out of the three spot, strictly out of concern for salary cap issues. Under the new CBA, teams have no such incentive and no such defense for trading down. With the third pick in this year's draft, the Vikings will be able to sign a player to a four-year deal at less than half of what it would have cost to sign the same player in the same slot one year ago. That saves the team money, but, more significantly, it saves the team considerable cap space.
The Vikings' projected cap room savings in the draft ought to be put towards signing free agents at positions better filled by proven veterans than by mercurial and/or unproven college players. The Vikings will have an opportunity to woo free-agents such as wide-receivers Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, and Dwayne Bowe, cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Carlos Rogers, and Tracy Porter, linebacker Anthony Spencer, defensive end Mario Williams, and running backs Ray Rice and Matt Forte. The Vikings also could look to bolster their offensive line with players such as Demetrius Bell, Carl Nicks, Ben Grubbs and even the aging Jeff Saturday, should the Vikings not be convinced that John Sullivan had the year he is reported to have had.
Between the draft and free-agency, the Vikings are thus left with several options for remaking the team that finished as the worst in team history, without losing years to "rebuilding." But that starts with focusing on players at the top of the board whom the team rightly can expect to be productive for at least a decade without a falloff in performance. And that means focusing on Kalil, rather than a shorter, lighter-weight version of Calvin Johnson.
Up Next: The One Reasonable Argument for the Vikings Trading Down.