In addition to executing relatively successful drafts the last several years, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has another skill: his misdirection talks prior to free agency and the draft.
Spielman talked with reporters for more than 40 minutes last week without giving away much of anything when it comes to the Vikings’ offseason plans. All the same rhetoric was issued: they will talk with representatives for all of their pending free agents, they value veteran leadership and they will draft the most highly graded player left on their board when their first selection is up.
Spielman can issue that last sentiment with a straight face because of his method of grading players. Instead of assigning a sequential order of talent like draft fans often see in rankings by the media (Scout.com’s can be found here), Spielman allows players at different positions to have the same grade, therefore giving him the choice of selecting several players left on the board that all have the “highest” grade.
But don’t believe that the Vikings would pick just any position whenever they make their first selection. They don’t need to supplement their defensive line with a high draft pick or a free-agent signing. They are stacked nicely there. The other side of the trench, offensive line, has to be a focus, even if Spielman wants to temper that expectation by saying that offensive linemen typically take more time than many other positions to blossom to NFL-ready.
“Just in general, offensive linemen take a little longer to develop,” Spielman said. “It’s just the way the game has developed in college. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.”
Spread offenses in college are part of the culprit, with Spielman saying that “99.9 percent of the time” offensive linemen in college are working out of a two-point stance. That requires time to transition to the NFL game, especially if the linemen are accustomed to working out of a two-point stance.
But don’t believe that will automatically preclude the Vikings from taking an offensive lineman early. There are programs that run more of a pro-style offense in college and the Vikings have to prepare for the possibility that this could be Matt Kalil’s last season in purple. If he doesn’t rebound with a stronger and more consistent season in 2016, would they even want to bring him back?
The other thing to keep in mind as Spielman talks about the development time needed for offensive linemen and his study that found few successful rookies? It’s misdirection season, if not flat-out lying time in the NFL. Free agency and the draft encourage that – with NFL general managers, coaches and even agents. Coaches and GMs want to play it coy, laying in the weeds for a coveted prospect. Agents want increase the perception – real or imagined – of demand for their players.
While coaches talk about the eye in the sky (the film) not lying, fans should trust what they see. A weakness is a weakness, even if teams try to mask or diminish it, and it was clear the offensive line didn’t perform up to expectations in 2015.
There are plenty of choices and varieties available among the offensive linemen in this year’s class, one that even Spielman admitted was pretty deep after going through the offensive evaluations.
“(If) there’s less depth at that position there than in the first round, it doesn’t force you,” he said. “You just have to know where the depth of the draft is and know if there’s guys you covet in the second and third round at that particular position, maybe you wait in the first round and take a swing at it and get a potential guy you can get in the second or third round.”
But, wait. Wouldn’t that mean they aren’t picking the so-called “best player available” if they are passing up a prospect viewed as a long-term starter because there is depth at that position? The fact of the matter is that teams draft for need all the time, even the Vikings, who selected linebackers in the first or second rounds of the previous two drafts because, well, Mike Zimmer “needed” them for the style of defense he wants.
This year, it’s clear he needs improvement at receiver and the offensive line. With the line, some of that improvement could come with a different style of coaching, he admitted, saying that new line coach Tony Sparano will hold his players more accountable.
But if linemen take longer to develop, wouldn’t the Vikings be better off getting an experienced one in free agency? Spielman admitted they might “dabble” in free agency, but they don’t appear willing to break the bank there, even if they have the salary-cap room to do it.
The big picture is as important as the desire to win now.
“When we come back (from the NFL Scouting Combine), we’ll put the whole financial piece together, so you have a whole picture of your team, the UFA market and the draft market,” he said. “Then you can come back and start really honing in on making your decisions on players and where they’re going to fit cap-wise and how the financial picture is going to look. We always look at, not only this year’s financial picture, but down the road and some significant contracts that we may have coming up in ’17 and ’18. So you don’t spend all your money and mortgage the future because I know there are some significant contracts that will be coming down the pipe here the next couple of years. So you have to balance all that out.”
Sparano offered a clear picture of the type of player he wants. But linemen are coveted around the league, and Spielman believes teams are perhaps more hesitant to give up on offensive linemen than any other position.
“I bet you look at the people that are released, if a team thinks an offensive lineman has a chance he’s probably going to get claimed, so you’re very guarded on a guy who may not be ready but has upside but he’s going to take time to develop,” he said. “You want to try and keep those guys because if you get rid of those guys and you get injuries up front I think it really hurts your football team.”
Although they admit that Mike Wallace’s 2015 season was a disappointment from a production standpoint, they aren’t likely to keep him around at $11.5 million in 2016. Although they say they don’t want to use injuries as an excuse on the offensive line, it’s clear they need help there.
The Vikings will look at wide receiver and offensive line in the draft and free agency. Spielman can joke all he wants about looking at reporters’ suggestions to see what the team needs.
He knows. Zimmer knows. And the Vikings will address those needs. Count on it.