The Vikings closed out a draft in which hairstyle-committed ESPN analyst Mel Kiper deemed the Vikings as having the worst draft of any team in the league. They traded out of the first round and, while adding future talents like cornerback Chris Cook, running back Toby Gerhart and defensive end Everson Griffen, of the eight players added, none of them are likely to emerge as immediate starters.
The Vikings have all 22 starters from the 2009 season under contract for 2010, losing only Chester Taylor and Artis Hicks to free agency. Any draft picks brought into a veteran squad like the Vikings have would be battling for playing time, not starting spots – much less the six players taken on the second day of the draft. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman was asked what the benefit was of having eight draft picks that produced no clear-cut starters?
“You’re trying to build the back end of your roster as you go through,” Spielman said. “Some of those guys, hopefully, will make our team. Some of those guys will be potential practice squad guys. As you build your roster – and we have a pretty strong roster right now with our front-liners – you’re hoping some of these young guys, as you develop them, can eventually come in and step in. The other thing that was important, with that trade with Detroit, we would’ve probably never had an opportunity to get an Everson Griffen, (except) by moving all the way up to that second pick in the fourth round. That’s something that I kind of emphasized the other night is jockeying for position. And when you can get up there and have a second pick in each of the two days after we did not take a pick on the first day, it ended up playing out pretty well for us.”
Griffen was the talk of the late-night/early-morning draft chatter. He was a player the aforementioned Kiper projected would get taken one pick before the Vikings – not by the Rams in the fourth round, but by the Jets in the first round. For reasons only the 32 war-room generals can explain, Griffen went from being taken late in the first round or in the first half of the second round all the way to the third day of the draft. Spielman said his drop was a blessing for the Vikings, who went a round-and-a-half without a pick.
“This guy can play against the run, he can rush the passer and lot of (teams with 3-4 defenses) also looked at him as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker just because he’s so athletic,” Spielman said. “We got a chance to talk with him a little bit at the Combine. He was one of our guys that we had in our room to interview at the Combine itself. To get a player of that quality, one of those guys that ended up dropping (that) we had very high on our board. We always try to take the best player available, and he was definitely in that category.”
The knock on Griffen was that he had outside influences, which director of college scouting Scott Studwell aptly referred to as “a college student who enjoyed the college life a little bit.” Griffen’s consistency and commitment have been questioned, but the top four defensive ends currently on the Vikings depth chart – Jared Allen, Ray Edwards, Brian Robison and Griffen – were all fourth-round draft picks and other players (see Warren Sapp and Randy Moss) have slid down draft boards because of perceived character red flags have turned into Hall of Fame pros.
“I think a lot of these kids as they grow and they mature – we’ve had some other players who I won’t mention who had some issues when they came out of college but have grown up to be pretty good football players for us here,” Spielman said. “I think once they get into the atmosphere in our locker room and around our coaching staff that they find out really quickly what it’s about. That’s why we do so much face-to-face time with a lot of these kids and make sure that it is the type of kid that we can get to and be a part of this organization.”
The drafting of guard Chris DeGeare was done with expectations of him replacing the departed Hicks as the swingman on the Vikings line. He played three years at right guard for Wake Forest before playing left tackle his senior season. While he remains a raw prospect, his versatility has value to head coach Brad Childress.
“I like that fact,” Childress said. “I think he’s a big guy. I think he’s a smart guy. You’ve got to be able to think on that offensive line. I’m always looking for position-flexible guys. Not just the fact that they’ve lined up there, but that they’ve lined up there and played at a high level.”
The drafting of Minnesota linebacker Nate Triplett was done with an eye to special teams. Triplett made a name for himself with the Gophers as a special teams MVP and Childress said that he has many of the same qualities that have made the Vikings one of the most improved special-teams units in the league.
“That’s a big body that can run around and kind of wreak havoc,” Childress said. “Linebackers obviously tackle for a living. We’ve made no secret of linebackers and backup linebackers’ need to be real viable candidates, a la Heath Farwell and Kenny Onatolu, on special teams. And we talk about big bodies, too. It’s one thing to have a guy that can run and cover, but if he’s a gnat running down the field, people have a way of spreading you out and moving you around. If you can get big tight ends, big fullbacks, big backs, those types of bodies that can run and hit, they have a chance to change the environment a little bit more.”
Tight end Mickey Shuler will have a battle on his hands to crack a tight end stable that includes veterans Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan. His father of the same name was a 14-year NFL veteran. Playing in a two-tight end system at Penn State, he is a young threat as both a blocker and receiver that intrigues the Vikings as a player who may end up being too tough to cut.
“He’s a big target,” Childress said. “He’s a good line-of-scrimmage player, although he’s a 4.6 guy too, so he can get up the field. The other guy, (Andrew) Quarless, got a lot of the attention. They played quite a bit in a two-tight end set, as do we. He’s obviously got a pretty good pedigree and we thought he could do some things to possibly impact this roster.”
When most fans saw the scroll on ESPN or NFL Network that the Vikings had taken quarterback Joe Webb, there was a gasp among Vikings fans that the team had found some project QB. Did that mean Brett Favre wasn’t coming back? No. What it meant was that the Vikings see a versatile Wildcat type quarterback with great size for a wide receiver who will be in the mix to win a roster spot among the wide receivers. To some, he may be little more than Todd Lowber with talent. To Childress, he has the potential as a multi-faceted threat the Vikings can exploit.
“The priority thing is that he’s an athlete,” Childress said. “He’s a bigger athlete. He played (wide receiver) in the Senior Bowl and made a pretty good transition there as a big guy. So if you’ve seen it with your eyes, you think he’s got some type of aptitude. You can’t say that about every quarterback. I just liked the fact that he’s done that before.”
Spielman shared Childress’ excitement about Webb, saying that he is a rare athlete that could potentially be one of the hidden gems, and maybe in the future fans ask how he could have possibly stayed on the board that long to get taken so late. He is a roll-of-the-dice pick to be certain, but he has numerous intangibles that are pretty rare.
“Joe Webb is very good athlete,” Spielman said. “He’s 223 pounds and I think he had over a 40-some inch vertical jump. He has almost 11-inch hands, which are enormous. He was a very athletic quarterback, but when you saw him at the Senior Bowl they played him at receiver. And some of the natural catching ability that he showed down at the Senior Bowl, especially through the practices, you’re saying, ‘Wow, this kid may have a chance.’ Now he’s a 4.40 (40-yard dash) kid weighing 223 pounds. He’s a build-up speed guy. He’s got to learn how to run routes yet; he’s pretty raw with his routes. But he just has some natural athletic skills and hands and leaping ability. This is a guy that was very unique down where we were picking. Again, another young guy that potentially you can develop with a position change and see if you can get something out of him. I’m not saying he’s going to be the next Josh Cribbs or whoever, but he does have some unique athletic traits.”
Webb wasn’t the only seventh-rounder that is going to be asked to change positions. Linebacker Ryan D’Imperio, a two-year starter at linebacker for Rutgers is going to get moved to fullback – a decision spawned from a meeting between Spielman, Vikings scout Frank Acevedo and Greg Shiano, a former colleague of Spielman’s when both were working for the Bears. During a workout, Spielman asked Acevedo to put D’Imperio through fullback drills.
“There were a couple of teams there, but when you watched his workout … this kid was very athletic and caught the ball extremely well. And you’re sitting there watching him through this workout and watching him getting out of his breaks and watching him catching the ball. I know usually those middle linebackers like to thud people, so he’s just got to learn how to thud it on the other side. He was a kid we had here in the ‘Top 30’ (visits) because he wasn’t at the Combine. But he has some unique athletic skills that potentially you’re going to bring over. And I know what kind of coach E.B. (running backs coach Eric Bieniemy) is and he does a great job developing those guys. Again, you’re taking a guy with a lot of athletic skills that has played the position in high school and trying to see what he can do here up at this level.”
In the end, the Vikings landed six players Saturday. As is the standard draft axiom, we may have to wait three years to see how good or bad this draft will end up being. Clearly, the Vikings are happy with their Class of 2010. Just as clearly, Kiper speaks for many Vikings fans who question what value this weekend’s draft will have in the short-term. The larger question – posed to Spielman and Childress – was if the Vikings are a better team than the team that left the Louisiana Superdome following the NFC Championship Game.
Both said essentially the same thing – their version of “Get your popcorn ready.”
“I feel very excited,” Spielman said. “I don’t judge drafts until three years down the road, but I think we brought in some pretty good football players and some very good football players that can potentially fill needs and not only help us win some ballgames next year, but also as we move forward into 2011 and beyond.”
Childress shares the enthusiasm Spielman expressed, but cautioned that the 2009 seasons – with its numerous highs and one big heart-crashing low – is over and that the 2010 Vikings will be their own entity and the new players will be expected to fill roles in the larger tapestry of the 53-man roster.
“We lost Chester Taylor and Artis Hicks,” Childress said. “Those are our two losses. Time will tell whether these guys will adequately step up and take care of that. We’re going to be a good football team. Now you get to see kind of the molding it together and see how this thing goes. That whole thing is a process. You can’t recapture that. You’d love to be able to recapture that dynamic. That’s the same every year, whether it’s the Saints or us, or whoever played in the National Football League last year.”
Translation? Expectations are that 2010, in its own way, will try to continue to build on what has been accomplished the past two years – and the players taken over the last three days will have to play a role (large or small) in accomplishing that.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.