As the final weekend of regular-season games wound down, the Vikings settled into the No. 3 overall draft slot, a position that had the Winter Park decision-makers turning the page to 2012 with optimism.
But the hope reaches beyond simply having a premium draft pick and either snatching one of the top three players on general manager Rick Spielman's draft board or trading down to acquire more picks. The Vikings will also be third in each successive round and, as owner/team president Mark Wilf puts it, no longer have a deficit of picks. Once compensatory picks are awarded, the Vikings anticipate they will have 10 selections to make in the April 26-28 NFL draft.
"Going forward, a lot of reason to be optimistic is that we have 10 draft picks coming up potentially, compensatory picks," Mark Wilf said. "… We're going to get a lot of good talent in here and you can't rest on your laurels or what happened yesterday in this league. It can flip in this league. We're not saying it's going to be easier, but with this structure in this place and having a surplus of picks rather than a deficit of picks, I think we can get better in a hurry."
NFL research shows he is right. This year, six teams – San Francisco (13-3, NFC West champions), Houston (10-6, AFC South champions), Detroit (10-6, wild card), the New York Giants (9-7, NFC East champions), Cincinnati (9-7, wild card) and Denver (8-8, AFC West champions) – that didn't make the playoffs in 2010 made it for the 2011 season. In fact, it was the 16th straight season that at least five teams made the playoffs after not doing it the previous season.
The Vikings did that in 1996, 2004 and 2008 during that 16-year period.
Over the next three-plus months, the Vikings will have to decide what to do with the No. 3 pick, and Spielman has a history of being more than willing to trade up and down in drafts. With the top brass being convinced that building through the draft is the ideal way to sustain long-term success and selecting quarterback Christian Ponder in the first round last year, trading up is far less likely.
"There is so much that is going to go on between now and then with the new (Collective Bargaining Agreement), where you don't have to pay those top five guys a kazillion dollars, that there's going to be a lot of activity, especially up there in the early rounds and early in the first round," Spielman said.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to be the top pick, whether that is executed by the Indianapolis Colts or traded away. After that, opinions vary on the value placed on the next several picks, but if some team really wants Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, they may have to trade into the top five picks, which could give the Vikings the ability to leverage more value from the third pick.
As much as they value the third pick, they seemed equally as excited about the number of picks they expect to have after compensatory picks are awarded in March. Compensatory picks are awarded based on a formula that evaluates a team's free-agent gains and losses from the previous year, and after losing Sidney Rice and Ray Edwards during free agency in 2011, the Vikings believe they will end up with 10 picks overall.
"It depends on a host of factors," Mark Wilf said. "… The league comes out with that I think in March sometime, maybe around the owners meetings. We anticipate there will probably be two picks. We're not exactly sure where yet."
Whether they finish the draft with 10 picks or not remains to be seen, given Spielman's propensity to move up and down. But it's clear that Spielman is passionate and thorough about evaluating talent. That doesn't always translate into the right decision, but after Tuesday's structural move to make him the general manager, the choice is now definitively his to make.
"I think you're excited about the guys that you've gotten, but I also know that you're going to have your misses and I take full responsibility for the misses that we've had," Spielman said. "I know that we've studied it very hard: Why did we miss those guys? Was it because of a character thing? Was it because we missed him from an evaluation standpoint? That's what you have to do. You have to go back and really analyze some of the misses that you've had so that you can try to correct those and hopefully prevent those from the future. But I'm also realistic that you're never going to be 100 percent on everything you do."
In addition to grading about 700 draft prospects on an annual basis, Spielman also analyzes his scouts and grades them on how their evaluations have done in the past, going so far as to evaluate if they are more accurate in assessing one position over another. He also grades how many hits and misses they have in each round and how that compares to the NFL average.
"By getting all that information, it's a process where I can show the guy on tape and I show myself, hey, you're too hard of a grader in this area," Spielman said. "These (players) have made it and you said they wouldn't. Or, you're being too light in this area where we need to make sure we improve in this area. It's a self-scout check in the scouting department if that makes sense."
Spielman also grades himself and said he hands all of the grades over to ownership – including his self-assessment.
While many view the Vikings in full rebuilding mode, ownership believes the team is farther along, citing the Vikings' playoff run in 2009 that put them in the NFC Championship Game and having nine losses during the 2011 season that were by seven points or fewer.
"We have a core nucleus of players and leaders that will bring us back quicker," Zygi Wilf said. "There's a lot of talent and it's a game that requires all hands to be on board. It's not some one star that's going to make it. We have a lot of great talent to make that comeback."
And they believe the draft is the place to do that, with this year's expected surplus of 10 picks being the most important way to kick start that process.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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