Vikings' needs call for defensive draft early

Manti Te'o (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Rick Spielman's history shows drafting for need unless an offensive playmaker is too good to pass up. There aren't many of those this year, so expect the early picks to concentrate mainly on defense.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is going to have an "interview" tomorrow to discuss the Vikings draft plan. If you've ever seen a presidential press secretary conduct a news conference, you know what to expect. Questions will be asked. Answers will be veiled.

The big question that won't get an answer tomorrow will get answered on Thursday. What positions do the Vikings believe they need help at the most?

You can say what you want about Spielman, but his draft philosophy has consistently been based on drafting for need. Ironically, his first selection as a member of the Vikings front office was Adrian Peterson. He wasn't a need pick because Chester Taylor was coming off one of the most prolific rushing seasons in Vikings history to that point – being the first Viking to ever rush 300 times in a season. Other than that, the next three picks (WR Sidney Rice, CB Marcus McCauley and DE Brian Robison) were all based directly on team need.

In 2008, the rare opportunity to acquire a pass-rushing defensive end with an unquestioned track record of success prompted the Vikings to trade away their first-round and two third-round picks to acquire Jared Allen. It made sense then. It makes sense now. The only remaining early pick was used to take a safety (Tyrell Johnson). It was a need position, but Johnson wasn't the answer.

In 2009, the Vikings still had a need at wide receiver – Rice had yet to pan out as the star he would become and Bernard Berrian was a one-trick pony and, it can be argued, the best thing he did was endorse checks. Percy Harvin wasn't necessarily a front-burner need in 2009, but he was too talented to pass up. The Vikings used their second-round pick on right tackle Phil Loadholt – perhaps the team's greatest need at the time. The Vikings swung and missed on another cornerback in the third round, selecting Asher Allen.

Arguably the most ineffective Vikings draft came in 2010. Coming off a deep playoff run, the Vikings traded out of the first round, took CB Chris Cook in the second round and then traded back into the round (giving up their own second and third round picks) to select Toby Gerhart. Not that either player has been a disappointment on the field, but neither has made an impact like other premium draft picks.

In 2011, the Vikings' biggest need coming in was at quarterback, with Brett Favre limping off into the sunset. Many believed Christian Ponder was a reach with the 12th pick, but need overrode the risk of missing out completely on the draft class of that year – three QBs had already gone – and Ponder made sense. At the time, tight end didn't appear to be an immediate need, but when the Vikings drafted Kyle Rudolph, it was clear that would be Jim Kleinsasser's final season and that Visanthe Shiancoe's days were numbered as well. It was drafting for future need.

Last year, among the Vikings' greatest needs were a dominant left tackle and safety. They drafted Matt Kalil and traded up to get Harrison Smith – do you suppose Baltimore now wishes it would have stayed at No. 29? It was a draft based on need and the team hit the ball out of the park. History will remember that particular draft, not just for Kalil and Smith, but Blair Walsh and possibly Josh Robinson and/or Jarius Wright. It has the potential to be remembered as a franchise-changer four or five years from now.

What the Vikings face this time around is something new to the Spielman experience – two regularly scheduled first-round picks. The Vikings have traded out of the first round twice on Spielman's watch (having no picks). They've traded back into the first round to get a second pick. They've never had two to start in the Spielman ear, which will mean that the Vikings (and Spielman) will be breaking new ground when it comes to potential wheeling and dealing.

With picks at No. 23 and 25, it has been much-debated as to what the Vikings will do? Will they use their extra ammunition of two late first-round picks to trade one of them and their second-rounder to move 10 spots or so to take a player they truly covet? Will they make one pick and trade out for a bounty of current and future picks to let an over-aggressive team to get back into the first round (like they did last year when they became convinced Smith would get drafted before they were back on the clock).

What they're going to do won't be known until the cards start being dealt on Thursday. But given Spielman's history, we can take away a couple of things. First, he drafts for need. Second, he looks for value and views draft picks as the gold standard of NFL currency.

There is no questioning that middle linebacker is a need, which plays strongly into Spielman's drafting history. Whether you believe Alec Ogletree will still be available at No. 23 or that Manti Te'o will be (or is the answer to that need), it is the clear-cut No. 1 need. Spielman's history has been to address the team's top need or needs early on. It's hard to imagine Thursday night ending without the Vikings coming away with a middle linebacker.

As for the other pick? The only time Spielman has drafted talent over need has been at a skill position (Peterson and Harvin). Nobody has complained about either pick. If the team holds firm that it will makes its two pick and either Tavon Austin (highly unlikely) or Cordarrelle Patterson (a 50/50 shot at best) is available, Spielman will pull the trigger. History says he likes offensive difference-makers, but, if both of them are gone, all bets are off.

The essential component of determining what the Vikings will do on draft day is to utilize the process of elimination. With their three current picks in the first two rounds, it is safe to assume the Vikings won't use a pick at quarterback, running back, tight end, offensive tackle, center or safety. While that eliminates six possible positions, the fact that five of the six defensive positions can't be eliminated is something to drink in. This can be said with some assurance: two of the Vikings' first three picks need to be made on the defensive side of the ball, if not all three. Coming off a playoff season in which significant positional needs require attention if they intend to repeat, defense will take precedence – simply by virtue of the numbers game.

Perhaps the wild card in the "need-based" drafting philosophy comes at cornerback. Antoine Winfield, the best cornerback the Vikings had in 2012, is gone. Chris Cook is in the final year of his contract. If the Vikings are going to entertain offers to move up in the draft, it may well be to take a cornerback. The Vikings have tried, without viable success, to use the second and third rounds of the draft to pick a cornerback. Considering the QB firepower in the NFC North, if Spielman wants to make professional amends for past miscalculations, if there is a "sure-thing" cornerback in his mind, if the Vikings are going to trade up and make a big splash, cornerback may be the position they target.

Questions concerning just about all those topics will be posed to Spielman on Tuesday. He won't answer until Thursday.


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.

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