Thursday, April 25, 2013

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.

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