Friday, May 09, 2014

Did Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman Read Too Many of His Own Press Clippings?

Entering the 2014 NFL draft, Minnesota Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman had made a short reputation for himself as someone able to identify when a marquee player had fallen into his lap.  Last year, Spielman jumped on three such players, selecting Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Sharrif Floyd in the first round, after trading up to take Patterson.  In 2012, the Vikings drafted Matt Kalil and traded up into the bottom of the first round to take Harrison Smith.

Over the past two drafts, the early returns are favorable.  Kalil has had his ups and downs, but mostly has been the dependable left tackle that the Vikings needed.  Smith has been solid when not injured.  Rhodes showed promise as a rookie.  And Patterson was brilliant, when finally allowed to play.  Only Floyd has yet to live up to his promise, and that might be coming this year.

Spielman's recent success in the first round has over-shadowed his wretched 2011 draft and his inability to identify the less evident talent in later rounds.  Of the Vikings' eight non-first-round selections in 2012, only Blair Walsh and Audie Cole have panned out and the rest look to be not long for the NFL.  Of the team's six non-first-round selections in 2013, none appear long for the NFL.

The goal in any NFL draft is to identify two immediate starters and two players who will develop into starters.  Because he took the obvious players in 2012 and 2013, Spielman likely will come close to meeting this objective for those two seasons.  The same almost certainly will not be said of the 2014 draft, however.

Championship teams in the NFL are built from the front back, with special consideration due the quarterback position.  In 2012 and 2013, the Vikings strengthened their lines and supplemented with secondary help.  The Vikings did that despite also having needs elsewhere--at wide receiver and linebacker in particular.

Entering the 2014 draft, the Vikings had several holes to fill for a team that finished 2013 with a 5-10-1 record.  Barring a miraculous run through the remainder of the draft, the team will not fill those holes in 2014.  Nor, despite having two first-round picks, did Spielman come away with any player that can be regarded as either the best player on the board or even the best player at a position of need for the Vikings.  That's unfortunate.

Minnesota began the draft well enough, trading down one spot and picking up a largely ceremonial fifth-round pick--the kind that Spielman tends positively to make use of only when he deals it to move up.  At nine, the Vikings had three apparent options.  One was to take the best player on the board--the player that fell into their laps--in Aaron Donald.  The Vikings can argue that they did not need Donald because they had Floyd.  That's nonsense, however, if Donald is the player that everyone believes him to be.  If that makes Floyd expendable or diminishes his already limited role, so be it.  Unlike last year and the year before, Spielman missed this clear gift.

The second option at number nine was to take Johnny Manziel.  Passing on Manziel will save the Vikings some near certain headaches in off-the-field drama and Manziel is no sure thing.  But, drafting Manziel would have sold tickets and he would have made things interesting.

The interesting thing about the Vikings' decision to pass on Manziel is not that Manziel was an obvious pick, it is that the Vikings appear to believe that he was their guy but that he would be available for the taking later in the round.  According to some reports, the Vikings attempted to trade up to the 22nd pick in the first round to take Manziel, only to be bested in their offer for Philadelphia's pick by Cleveland--which then took Manziel.  Spielman did not deny the report, which all but confirms its validity.

If the report of the Vikings' attempt to trade up to take Manziel are accurate, the Vikings look foolish.  If Manziel was their guy, given the team's frustrations at quarterback for several years--frustrations almost entirely at Spielman's feet--the Vikings should have taken Manziel with the ninth pick or traded down a bit more and taken him in the middle of the first round, assuming a trading partner.

The guess here is that Spielman wanted cover for taking another quarterback and taking Manziel at eight or nine would have put him squarely on the clock for showing Manziel's immediate value.  Spielman did not want that kind of heat, so he backed down.  In doing so, he fumbled the ball and was left with an even worse predicament.

The third option at number nine was to trade down, take a trenches player and use the largesse from the trade to fill holes elsewhere, using a second-rounder on Jimmy Garoppolo.

Instead, the Vikings stayed at nine and selected a raw linebacker in Anthony Barr.  The upside to Barr is that he is big, strong, and fast.  The downside is that he is a project with limited experience playing linebacker.  At a position for which identifying NFL starters from college production is difficult for players with stellar and long college careers, projecting Barr's NFL trajectory is perilous, at best.  That would be fine, if Barr were the Vikings' second first-round pick or if the Vikings had a certainty in their other first-rounder.  Neither is the case, however.

After failing to land Manziel, the Vikings traded back into the bottom of the first round to select Teddy Bridgewater.  There appear to be two reasons for this move.  The first is that taking Bridgewater in round one gives the team an option for a fifth year.  Of course, if Bridgewater is awful early, that option is meaningless.  The second is that by taking Bridewater in the first round, Spielman buys more time to "evaluate" his pick as a first rounder--assuming Spielman retains that duty over the long term.  We saw this play out with Christian Ponder and now, it appears, the Vikings have positioned themselves to see it play out that way with Bridgewater, as well.

The upside to Bridgewater appears to be that many once viewed him as a top-five pick.  That he slid down the draft board has been explained by some to be the function of a poor pro day.  That's probably part of it.  The other part, however, is that he has some work to do.  Bridgewater's greatest asset in college was his ability to play against bad teams on a regular basis.  Against good competition, Bridgewater generally looked like a decent, if unspectacular quarterback.  Add to that the fact that Bridgewater has a three-quarters arm slot on his deep pass release and that his sense of himself is matched only by Manziel's sense of himself and you have a recipe for disaster that easily could have been avoided at lesser cost.

The right pick for the Vikings in this year's draft would have been Donald into Garoppolo/guard/receiver/corner/running back.  Instead, the team went with two projects.  If they both pan out, brilliant.  But Spielman's own track record suggests that when he reaches for a project, the odds are against success.  For all the kudos that Spielman deserved for making the right choices in last year's draft, this draft has the makings of quite the opposite.  Time, of course, will tell.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Minnesota Vikings' Quest to Break 53-Year NFL Championship Drought Begins Today

In 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks entered the NFL.  At the time, it seemed it would be an eternity before either won an NFL Championship.  At the time, conversely, it appeared that the Minnesota Vikings were destined for many championships--certainly at least one before either of the new expansion teams accomplished the feat.

As the Vikings aged, they redefined themselves.  Rather than the Purple People Eaters, they became the best of a very bad NFC Central Division.  Then Chicago improved.  And Green Bay improved.  Even Detroit--pre-Matt Millen--showed some flashes.  And the Vikings went from clear kings of the hill to just another team attempting to compete.

When Randy Moss fell into the Vikings' lap in 1998, the team was relatively reborn, making two trips to the Conference Championship game and another to the playoffs in Moss' first three seasons in Minnesota.  After that, the wheels fell off, with poor ownership and coaching conspiring to relegate Minnesota to the lesser half of the league more often than not.

Since 2000, the Vikings have made the playoffs a mere four times--gaudy for some teams, but far below the expectations of long-invested Minnesota fans.  In that span, both Tampa Bay and Seattle have won the Super Bowl.  Adding to the insult, in the Vikings' most meaningful threat to ending years of championship elusiveness, the New Orleans Saints, a team with a 317-405-5 all-time record, stole the NFC Championship from the Vikings and went on to win the Super Bowl.

While Vikings' fans, to be sure, have had far more highs than fans of most other NFL teams, they have also had far more crushing, seemingly cruel, lows.  Four times, the Vikings have gone to the Super Bowl.  Four times, they have lost in convincing fashion, scoring a combined 34 points.  Four times since 1987, the Vikings have gone to the NFC Championship game.  Three times, they were favored to win.  Four times, they lost.  All four losses were agonizing, with three coming down to a final play that could have been made but was not and one, in which the Vikings were a road favorite at New York, ending in the infamous 41-0 loss.

Today, the Vikings look to turn the page on this history.  Despite finishing last season 5-10-1, there are several reasons to believe that Minnesota has at least a fighting chance this year.  Among these are the fact that the two best teams in the league are in the same division and that that division is not the NFC North.  The second is that the Vikings are but a handful of players away from being a bona fide contender.  The third is that Minnesota has positioned itself well to take the best player available in this year's draft, regardless of round.

All of which brings us to this year's draft.  Although the Vikings, like most teams, would love to be sitting atop a draft board with a clear for-the-ages quarterback on the board, that's not this year's draft.  But this year's draft is otherwise ideally suited for a team like Minnesota which can take any one of several players at number eight or trade down in the first round and pick up an early second or an earlier 2015 pick--a year in which the Vikings' quarterback of the future might truly be on the board.

With hours to go before the commencement of this year's draft, the Vikings appear to have one clear target at number eight--quarterback Johnny Manziel.  The knowns on Manziel are that he is competitive and productive on the field.  He also has a history off the field, however, that might discourage a team from using a high draft pick on him.  Despite the off-the-field concerns, the Vikings appear intent on taking Manziel, should he be available, and appear willing to move up to take him, even if it means ceding their own first and a third-rounder in this year's draft.

Drafting Manziel would mean several things for the Vikings.  First, it would mean that Rick Spielman was willing to stake his career in Minnesota on Manziel's performance.  Despite the good that he has done in Minnesota--namely, noticing when a star has fallen into his lap--Spielman has had several bad misses at the quarterback position, including selecting Christian Ponder in the first-round of the 2011 draft.  Another miss at the position early in the draft not only will signal years of frustration and missed opportunity for Vikings' fans, but, almost certainly, the end of Spielman's tenure in Minnesota.

Concerns notwithstanding, selecting Manziel almost certainly would energize the fan base and push to the background never-ending revelations of sweetheart deals for Vikings' ownership, relating to the "People's Stadium."  Manziel's antics, on the field and of the mouth, will offer a welcome distraction for a team generally intently focused on controlling the message.

Finally, drafting Manziel will cause the Vikings to cater their offense to a running and passing quarterback, rather, as was the case with Ponder and Joe Webb, attempting to convert a running quarterback into a pro-style quarterback.  That, in and of itself, would be welcome relief in the land of purple.

If Manziel is off the board when Minnesota selects tonight, the Vikings appear to favor moving down in the draft, even if it means passing on a legitimate deep receiving threat.  Though the Vikings have talked about taking a linebacker if they move down, the better option would be an offensive or defensive lineman.  The  draft has four grade-A offensive linemen, including one from Spielman's favored Notre Dame.  Selecting a guard would go a long way toward solidifying what good general managers understand to be one of two units around which all else revolves.

In an ideal world, this year's draft would be next year's draft.  That it is not leaves the Vikings hoping either that Manziel falls to them at eight--something that seems to work for Spielman in each year's draft--or hoping that somebody is willing to trade up and give the Vikings a second second-round pick--something else, pick aside, that seems to work out for Spielman each year.  If the Vikings have but one first- and one second-round pick this year, a successful first-day draft will be one in which the Vikings get either Manziel and a starter on the offensive line or a starter on the offensive line and a starter at linebacker.  If the former, the Vikings will need to draft a slew of linebackers after round two to improve the prospects of finding at least one capable of playing the position.

Up Next:  Who They Took.