Heat Is On For Next Week's Draft

There have been a lot of changes in the Vikings war room over the last couple of years. After recent diminishing returns, the time has come for a solid draft -- which could mean sitting tight at No. 7.

There was a time when the Vikings were viewed as the golden boys of the NFL draft. It seemed like every year they found someone in the late rounds that became a key contributor. But the last time that happened was in 1998, when the Vikes got Matt Birk in the sixth round -- a draft dominated by the signing of Randy Moss.

Since then, it's been a very different story. Some blamed Dennis Green, who, following success in 1998, monopolized the war room power -- which may have led to his downfall. Others blamed an antiquated scouting system that relied more on hand-written notes than computer printouts. Others, like VU, blamed the complete lack of personal contact with players. Amazingly, almost every draft choice of the Vikings in recent years when asked if they thought the Vikings would select them would comment that they had little to no contact at all with the team until they got the call that they were going to be picked.

All of those factors combined to turn the Vikings draft from a replenishing of the talent pool to a crapshoot that was more miss than hit.

The recent drafts speak for themselves. While the Vikings have gleaned solid talent in the first round every year since 1998 -- Moss, Daunte Culpepper, Chris Hovan, Michael Bennett and Bryant McKinnie -- the rest has been a mixed bag at best.

The 1999 draft produced the heinous Dimitrius Underwood debacle, where a bipolar disorder undetected by team officials led to a public relations nightmare. While that draft did produce TE Jim Kleinsasser and DE Talance Sawyer, only Culpepper and Kleinsasser became consistent contributors from that draft.

Perhaps 2000 was even worse. With three of the top 56 picks in the draft, the Vikings were ready to address their problems on the defensive line. While Hovan has been a Pro Bowl caliber player, d-linemen Fred Robbins and Michael Boireau provided little to nothing in the way of starting ability, third-rounder Doug Chapman has been a part-time player at best and of the six players taken on the second day, only OT Lewis Kelly was on the roster as of March.

2001 produced similar results. Bennett lived up to his first-round billing, but Willie Howard has spent more time sidelined than playing, Eric Kelly played his way out of the starting lineup and none of the five players taken on the second day just two years ago are still with the team.

Last year, Green was gone, but most of the draft components remained the same. McKinnie was a holdout, most believed the Vikings overshot badly when taking LB Raonall Smith and safety Willie Offord. Of the seven players taken, the one who made the biggest contribution throughout the year was fourth-rounder Brian Williams. For three players expected to be immediate starters, McKinnie, Smith and Offord combined to make 13 starts.

This year, as trade speculation swirls around the Vikings and about 75 percent of the NFL's 32 teams heading into the draft, a new regime is in charge of all aspects of the draft process. Green is gone. Longtime scouting chief Frank Gilliam is gone and the job has been turned over to Mike Tice and a committee led by former Viking Scott Studwell.

It's been a long time since the Vikings had a draft that produced more than one full-time starter. The last four drafts have been littered with disappointments -- a fact that has been reflected in the Vikings' 11-21 record over the last two years.

The team has an opportunity to get a very good player in the first round -- whether it is DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Terrell Suggs or CB Terence Newman. Barring something unforseen, one of them will have to be available at No. 7. If the Vikings trade down, they could get more picks, but they wouldn't have the guarantee of greatness that has seemed to follow those names listed above.

Tice, Studwell and the scouting staff will be on the hot seat next Saturday. If they fail again, there will be nobody else to blame. This draft is all theirs. The Green era ended and Gilliam was shown to a corner office. The Vikings have set themselves up nicely in free agency and still have more damage to do with $14.5 million still remaining under the 2003 salary cap. But the draft is where the cornerstones of the franchise are built.

We'll have to wait until draft day to see how it pans out, but this could be the hallmark of the Tice-Studwell draft era -- good or bad -- when historians look back. A successful draft and the Vikings will return to playoff glory. Another clunker and the fingers will be pointed in one direction. The heat is on. Let's see if they're up to the challenge.

* Word out of Dallas is that, while the team hasn't changed its opinion on Newman, a sentiment is growing to take Kennedy with the No. 5 pick (assuming the Bears take Dewayne Robertson at No. 4). If that happens, don't be stunned to see the Vikings entertain trade offers -- like the one from the Ravens -- to move down a handful of spots to add more picks.
* To date, Kennedy has been the only lottery-pick draftee to visit the Vikings, and it looks like he may end up being the only one.
* There has been steam gathering behind the rumor that, if both Robertson and Kennedy are gone when the Vikings pick, that they might go after CB Marcus Trufant -- but VU isn't buying into that.

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