Sunday slant: Vikings forced to pick for need

The Vikings have to find a starting middle linebacker and that likely will have to come in the first round, whether it's the best player available or not. Despite claims to the contrary, picking for need isn't all that uncommon.

The great draft misconception, one that is promoted by numerous teams, is that teams always strive to select the "best player available."

It's an idealistic approach, for sure, one that makes good copy and has personnel executives hoping that fans will believe that the "best player available" just happened to fit a need right when that team was ready to pick. Amazing how that happens so often, isn't it?

The reality serum, however, is in the actions, not the words, of those making the million-dollar decisions. Look no further than last year's draft for the Vikings to see evidence of that.

Their first decision, scheduled to be made at No. 3, in the 2012 draft was down to three players. It was between offensive tackle Matt Kalil, cornerback Morris Claiborne and receiver Justin Blackmon. The Vikings traded down one spot and still got the player they were targeting (Kalil). Blackmon went next to Jacksonville and Claiborne went to Dallas on the successive picks. Six of the top seven picks were traded in 2012, showing that need trumped patience and waiting for the "best player available."

But further proof of drafting for need was less than a round away. The Vikings traded back into the first round of the draft to grab safety Harrison Smith. Why? Because after Mark Barron (who was drafted seventh) and Smith, the Vikings felt there was a big dropoff in talent at safety and – you guessed it – they needed a safety.

There isn't anything wrong with drafting for need unless a big "reach" pick is made, choosing to elevate a player's value based on a lack of talent at that position on the roster. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they may be back in that situation this year with middle linebacker.

It's an interesting class of talent at the position. None of the top prospects are cleared from questioning. Alec Ogletree brings character concerns with him, but he's also considered the most athletic of the bunch. Manti Te'o has the confounding story of his Internet hoax of a girlfriend and, on the field, questions about his speed. Kevin Minter is considered one of the most intelligent linebackers, but some analysts wonder if he is fast enough or physical enough to excel and grade him as a second-round value. And Arthur Brown also gets good marks for intelligence and instincts, but his size is a concern, especially as a middle linebacker, and he, too, is valued more often in the second round.

What does it all mean? No prospect is bust-proof this year, and the Vikings will surely have a better handle than outsiders on how trustworthy those players are – especially Te'o after meeting with him and having five former Notre Dame players on their roster. The Vikings are the ones making the investment and they are the ones with the most to lose if they are wrong.

But what is most obvious is their need at middle linebacker. In 2011, it was E.J. Henderson finishing out a solid career. In 2012, it was Jasper Brinkley trying to state his case to be a long-term starter, only to have the team show little interest in investing him after several injuries over the last two years brought into question his reliability.

If the Vikings don't trade up to ensure they get their top middle linebacker, they could be caught having to "reach" and elevate another middle linebacker to their slot at No. 23 or No. 25. If they wait until their second-round pick, the top four options likely will all be gone. Need, in this case, and a dropoff in talent after the top four, has to trump patience. They can't afford to get their second-round pick without a viable starter available for the middle of their defense.

All three of the Vikings' considerations with their first pick last year – Kalil, Blackmon and Claiborne – were at positions of need. Two of those positions, cornerback and wide receiver, remain in the running for an upgrade. Middle linebacker, as the player most often making the defensive calls in the huddle and before the snap, can't continue to be a need until 2014.

So here the Vikings stands, the quarterback of their offense still not completely proven and no quarterback of the defense. If they have their target in mind, it's worth going up to get him, even if it means making it more obvious that not all draft picks are based on the best player available.

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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