The Minnesota Vikings inched down one spot, and then they jumped up and joined in again before the first round was finished. When the night was done, they could not have felt better about their haul.
The Vikings took massive left tackle Matt Kalil from USC on Thursday to solidify their offensive line and provide their young quarterback some protection, and after their second trade on the opening day of the NFL draft they selected Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith to continue the resuscitation of their depleted secondary.
“Wow. This is pretty good,” a smiling head coach Leslie Frazier said.
The Vikings dealt their third overall pick to the Browns for the fourth overall selection plus Cleveland’s picks in the fourth (118th overall), fifth (139th) and seventh (211th) rounds. The Browns wanted Alabama running back Trent Richardson, so the Vikings knew they could still get Kalil.
Concerned about the lack of quality safeties in this year’s crop, the Vikings found another trade partner in Baltimore, acquiring the 29th overall selection and sending their second-round (35th overall) and fourth-round (98th) picks to the Ravens.
“This is what makes the draft so fun,” general manager Rick Spielman said.
With quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III already spoken for, the Vikings held the early key to the draft. The calls came, Spielman said, a couple of hours before the draft began. The Vikings refused to move below the fifth spot, to ensure they’d still have either Kalil, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
So after all the months of speculation and rumors, the Vikings wound up with the player they were widely projected to take first all along - the player they’ve clearly coveted for a while and one who will give Christian Ponder beef on his blind side. Spielman insisted the team had Kalil, Claiborne and Blackmon graded equally, but the Vikings couldn’t pass on Kalil.
This draft is deep in wide receivers and cornerbacks. Plenty of them will be around later. Elite left tackles are also rarely available as free agents, making the top of the first round the ideal place to find one.
“I really couldn’t picture myself any other place,” Kalil said, describing the relief of seeing a Minnesota area code on his phone.
Long arms. Big hands. Tall frame. Mobile body. Strong bloodline. Hard worker. Nasty streak. Those are the prevailing descriptions of Kalil, a bearded, imposing-looking guy whose older brother, Ryan, is a Pro Bowl center for the Carolina Panthers. His father, Frank, once played in the USFL.
“He has all the ingredients,” Frazier said.
Kalil needs to muscle up, improve his run blocking and hold his ground more consistently against bull-rushing defensive ends. The one knock against him in the obsessively detailed world of NFL pre-draft scouting is lower-body strength. But Lane Kiffin, his head coach at USC, called that criticism unfair because of how tall and athletic he is.
“You don’t want to sacrifice weight for speed,” Kalil said, repeating advice from his father.
Kiffin, who was raised in Minnesota himself, said that Kalil has already purchased a Ford truck.
“That’s what you’re getting. He’s not going to get a sports car. Just a good o-lineman,” Kiffin said.
The Vikings haven’t selected in the top three since 1968, when they drafted offensive tackle Ron Yary first overall. Yary, another USC product, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The 6-foot-7, 310-pound Kalil left college after his junior year, giving the Vikings an obvious upgrade for their offensive line. Charlie Johnson, the left tackle last season, will move to left guard. John Sullivan is set at center and Phil Loadholt is established at right tackle, leaving a competition at right guard with Geoff Schwartz and Brandon Fusco the favorites.
Kalil not only will instantly improve a critical position, but he ought to be able to block the league’s best defensive ends and outside linebackers one-on-one without needing chip help from a tight end. That will free more targets for Ponder.
There will be growing pains, of course, as Frazier reminded.
“I think Jared Allen going against him every day is going to help school and educate and hopefully make that process go quicker,” Spielman said.
But Kalil isn’t lacking confidence.
“When I left USC, I think I was ready to take on this role,” Kalil said.
Smith will fill a glaring need at an important position and almost certainly be an instant starter. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound Smith was a four-year starter for the Fighting Irish who spent about one-third of his college career as an outside linebacker. All seven of his interceptions for Notre Dame came during his junior season.
What happened his senior year?
“I dropped a couple,” Smith said.
He was also in man-to-man coverage a lot. The Vikings weren’t worried about that, either.
“He’s played on a big stage and made terrific plays against top competition,” Spielman said.
The only other safety on the roster with significant experience is returning starter Jamarca Sanford. Husain Abdullah became an unrestricted free agent, but he’s coming off a concussion. Spielman said a determination has not yet been made whether the Vikings will bring Abdullah back.
Smith was a two-time team captain at Notre Dame. He’ll join former Fighting Irish stars Sullivan, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph with the Vikings.
“I think we’ve reached our quota,” Spielman said, jokingly.
But playing for Notre Dame, for those who do, is serious business.
“The sense of pride that I have for the school and for the guys I played with .... means a lot to me,” Smith said.