The biggest question facing the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL Draft is whether a playmaking wide receiver or a franchise left tackle is more helpful to quarterback Christian Ponder.
With quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III expected to be drafted with the first two picks, the Vikings will likely have their choice of the best non-quarterback with the third overall selection in April's draft. Will it be USC left tackle Matt Kalil or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon?
"I think there's two ways to go with that question. The first way to go is, if Adrian Peterson is ready to play, they're going to be a run-first team for the most part. I think your offensive line needs then to be a priority," NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell said. "Having said that, it all depends on your assessment of Kalil. I really like Kalil. If you evaluate Kalil as one of those guys – the Orlando Pace, the Walter Jones – if you look at him as that kind of player, you've got to draft him because there's not that many of those guys."
The Vikings' front office has been shaping its draft board over the last month. General manager Rick Spielman will continue to hone it as medical and psychological exams, as well as drug-testing results, are evaluated from the NFL Scouting Combine. But as long as the top non-quarterbacks on the Vikings' rankings don't face any serious concerns in those areas, it will come down to the team's assessment of the players' value.
"If you have a need at left tackle and you feel like this is the best player in the draft at that position and you've identified that as a need and you've circled it and said ‘We'll get a left tackle that will take us to the next level,' it'd be hard to pass on that left tackle if indeed you feel like that's the position that's going to get you where you need to go," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
Speaking the combine, Spielman said he didn't have an answer on that basic question of which position is more important – left tackle or a playmaker at receiver. Most likely, he does have an answer, but Spielman goes to great lengths not to publicly reveal his draft desires.
"Not only Kalil, but there's a lot of other guys that are going to be able to play left tackle in this league," Spielman said. "You want to look at their ability to protect the quarterback's blind side. Does he have the athletic skill set and does he have the feet and does he have the arm length to do everything to make him competitive at left tackle?
"There's the adage that you go back and forth on – is the left tackle that important or is it more important to have playmakers on offense? Because as your quarterback evolves, he learns the system, he gets the ball quicker out of his hand and all of a sudden that left tackle doesn't need to be a Pro Bowl left tackle. He can be a functional left tackle because the quarterback evolves and he's got playmakers."
Cosell believes that a quarterback can help make a left tackle into a Pro Bowl player. In fact, he thinks that already happened in New Orleans. He calls Jermon Bushrod, who was named to the Pro Bowl, "just a guy" with the Saints, but because quarterback Drew Brees is so good at running the Saints offense, it made Bushrod look better.
Ponder, however, at least in his rookie season in the NFL, wasn't close to Brees' level, so the question is posed whether adding Kalil can make Ponder look better.
"I really like Kalil, and because I did this thing for NFL.com, I got to see him and we interviewed him," Cosell said. "I love his whole body type. He's an athlete. If they see it the same way, then I think you've got to draft him."
Placing Blackmon on the roster opposite Percy Harvin, with Kyle Rudolph going up the seam, would be another approach to improving the Vikings' passing game. Once again, it will come down to the Vikings' assessment of the big-bodied receiver.
"You're ultimately asking me if Blackmon is a true impact receiver like an Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, because Fitzgerald was (selected) two and Johnson was three in the year they came out," Cosell said. "Ultimately, you're asking me if he's that guy. Again, if you think he's that guy, then he's certainly worth taking at three, as well. But it depends on their evaluation. If you believe both Kalil and Blackmon are ‘special' guys, which position would theoretically be more important? That's a tough call. It's a tough call. I would say that the left tackle probably would be. I think it's ultimately easier to get quality receivers than it is to get a special left tackle."
When posed the question about the importance of having an elite left tackle versus a functional one, Frazier said it depends on the quality of the quarterback. He saw Peyton Manning tear up the league with the Vikings' Charlie Johnson as his blindside protector. But, once again, Ponder is not at Manning's level, either.
Spielman believes there are starting left tackles to be had in the draft after Kalil, but the offense may need a broader approach. It could see improvement on several levels – with the addition of both a receiver and left tackle, along with improvement in quarterback play. Cosell has a prime example where that has already happened.
"I just remember Aaron Rodgers and how the media were criticizing their offensive line when Aaron Rodgers took all those sacks his first year as a starter," Cosell said. "Now, their offensive line has gotten better, but Aaron Rodgers has also gotten better … and they've got tremendous playmakers around him."
For the Vikings, the question might not be limited to which is more important – an elite left tackle or a playmaking receiver – but how can they add both?
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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