Friday, April 26, 2013

Spielman One Move Away from the Perfect Draft

In the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Minnesota Vikings' GM Rick Spielman selected players fitting three of the Vikings' four most immediate needs.  That accomplishment already marks this year's draft a success, assuming, of course, that each of the selections pans out.  If Spielman wants to truly elevate himself into the realm of the select few drafting GMs, he has but one more decision to make in this draft.

The final decision for Spielman would be to bundle as many of the Vikings' remaining picks as necessary to secure a trade with the Jaguars for the first pick in the second round of the draft.  With that pick, the Vikings could and should take linebacker Manti Te'o.  Selecting Te'o would resolve the Vikings' lone remaining glaring hole--at least to the extent that the team is willing to acknowledge glaring holes.  After selecting Te'o, Spielman could sit back and consider whether he will allow two strong drafts and star veterans to be undermined by quarterback play in 2013.

Up Next:  Any Move?  Plus, why the Vikings duped New England.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spielman Mixes Now Expected Good Fortune With Sound Process

The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2013 NFL draft with two late first-round picks.  They emerged from the event with three starters, two of them having fallen to the team through a series of bad picks and need selections by other teams.

With the 23rd pick in this year's draft, the Vikings selected Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.  Virtually every mock had Floyd projected in the top five of the draft, with most mocks showing the tackle going at number three.  Floyd fell to Minnesota because teams became nervous about the perceived run on offensive linemen and because the Jets took Sheldon Richardson at 13, rather than one of the more highly touted defensive tackles.  And, yet again, Vikings' GM Rick Spielman was the beneficiary of a mighty fall.

That, along with Manti Te'o, probably would have made for the perfect first day for the Vikings.  But fortune was not done shining on the team.  Nor was Spielman done showing his increasing value to the team.

While most expected the Indianapolis Colts to nab free-falling Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes--a player widely viewed as an early to mid-first round pick--the Colts, instead, selected defensive end Bjoern Werner.  The Vikings did not hesitate in selecting Rhodes, picking up a player who will be expected to start this year.

A Floyd-Rhodes combo was more far more than any reasonable Viking fan could have hoped for in the first round this year and yet another sign that Spielman is living right.  But the Vikings were not done.

With multiple middle-round picks and a bottom-third second-round pick, Spielman sent the New England Patriots a second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round pick for New England's 29th overall pick.  For some, the price seemed steep.  But if, in selecting mercurial Tennessee wide-receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings picked up the receiver that they needed to fill the void left by Percy Harvin's trade to Seattle, Spielman will have made the right move.

In every draft, the goal must be to select three players capable of immediately starting for the team.  Last year, Spielman selected Matt Kalil with the Vikings' original first-round pick, traded up to the bottom of the first round to select safety Harrison Smith, and, later, selected placekicker Blair Walsh.  This year, in addition to adding wide-receiver Greg Jennings in free agency, Spielman has added Floyd, Rhodes, and Patterson.  If the latter three live up to expectations, Spielman will have his second consecutive successful draft--regardless of what happens with any of the other members of the 2012 or 2013 draft class.

What should be most heartening to Vikings' fans about Spielman's two-year run is that he has demonstrated an understanding of process and has committed to a process that is both intuitively sensible and, so far, productive.  The object in the NFL is to find starters at the front end of the draft and role players and specialists at the back end.  Spielman has defined a process that makes use of middle-round chips to provide greater certainty at the front end of the draft while leaving options for filling role positions at the back end of the draft.  This represents a sea change for an organization which, for many years, tappeared to have neither a sensible draft philosophy nor an ability to evaluate talent.

With several picks remaining in the middle and later rounds, the Vikings are now left to canvass the field for an linebacker, another receiver, another cornerback, an offensive guard, and, perhaps, yet another quarterback.  At a minimum, after only one day in this year's draft, the Vikings have met all of their most pressing needs, save for that of linebacker--the position the Vikings almost assuredly will be targeting with their next pick.

Up Next:  Will the Vikings Trade Back Into Round Two?  Plus, the cost of three first-round picks.

Rare Low-Risk, High-Reward Picks Available to Vikings in First Round of 2013 NFL Draft

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2013 NFL draft with two picks in the first round, selecting number 23 and number 25.  From a 2013 macro perspective, the team needs help at cornerback, linebacker, defensive line, wide-receiver, and guard or tackle.  Focusing on specific needs for 2013, the Vikings cannot leave the draft without a cornerback, wide-receiver, linebacker, and interior defensive lineman.

The challenge for Vikings' General Manager, Rick Spielman, is not only to make the right picks, but to make the right picks at the right point in the draft.  In previous years, fortune shone on the Vikings and made the team's first-round selections relatively easy.  In 2007, injury concerns pushed Adrian Peterson to number seven.  In 2009, character issues dropped Percy Harvin to the Vikings at 22.  In 2012, the Vikings drafted near the top of the draft and took the best player available, landing offensive tackle Matt Kalil.

During Spielman's tenure in Minnesota, he has, thus, been the beneficiary of much good fortune.  Last year, however, he also identified two players who appear to be entrenched as long-term starters for the team--Harrison Smith (29th) and Blair Walsh (175th)--and who were not clear-cut picks.  Having traded Harvin and opting for another year of Christian Ponder development, Spielman must do more than replicate the two-starter success from 2012.  And he will need to do so without the benefit of drafting a special teams starter.

Once again, Spielman could benefit from having an obvious starter fall into his lap, however.  Following months of bad publicity--both on and off the field--Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o could well fall to the Vikings at 23.  At the beginning of the 2013 college football season, Te'o was considered a certain top-five pick in this year's draft.  Should he fall to 23, the Vikings would be forced both to select him to fill a pressing need at linebacker and to consider whether Spielman should be given a lifetime contract if only for his good charm effect.

Many mocks have the Vikings selecting Te'o at 23, due, in part, to Spielman's affinity for former Irish players, but even more so for the Vikings' need to restock a linebacking corps that has only two tested players in Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson, neither of whom is a middle linebacker.  Te'o fills both the general linebacker need and the more specific and urgent need at middle linebacker.  While it is true that the Vikings will often be in nickel and dime packages that limit linebacker play, the question for the Vikings is not whether they will need three linebackers often but whom they want on the field at linebacker in the nickel and dime situations.  If the answer to that question does not favor Te'o over Henderson and possibly even Greenway, something is wrong with the analysis.

The Vikings' play at linebacker will, of course, be greatly influenced by the play along the defensive line.  In selecting Matt Kalil with the number three pick in last year's NFL draft, the Vikings finally acknowledged what the great teams have long practiced.  Namely, the Vikings committed to building from the line back.  Having turned a ragged 2011 offensive line into a steady unit in 2012, the Vikings now must do the same with an aging and bendable defensive line.  The most obvious point of concern is defensive tackle, where the Vikings have Kevin Williams and nobody else that has been able to fill Pat Williams' shoes.

There are at least three immediate impact defensive tackles in this year's draft--Sharrif Floyd, Sylvester Williams, and Star Lotulelei.  Most mocks have Floyd and Williams going in the top half of the first round with Lotulelei going near the end of the round or the beginning of the second round.  All three interior linemen are big and all would meet the physical requirements of playing in the 4-3 defense.  Where Lotulelei surpasses Floyd and Williams, however, is in his origins.  While Floyd and Williams come from conferences that load up on big athletes that may or may not be invested in much else, Utah has a reputation for producing prospects who understand the bigger picture and who generally give full effort.  That's not necessarily a slight of Floyd or Williams as much as it is a complement to Utah football and a risk-factor analysis that suggests that Lotulelei has both the physical tools and the lesser long-term risk for being a bust in the NFL.

Vikings' fans should be elated if the Vikings complete night one of the draft with Te'o and Lotulelei, knowing that the team will have made low-risk, high-reward selections that must pan out and leaving for day two the less certain cornerback and wide-receiver picks.

Up Next:  The Picks.  Plus, Planning Day Two.