You can almost picture it. General manager Rick Spielman sitting in a room with binders and papers strewn throughout. Computers smoking from spitting out the information.
Except, in reality, Spielman is too organized for that kind of clutter.
The Minnesota Vikings general manager started out more like an engineer with an idea of what is needed, morphs into a commander sending his generals out into the field, and eventually becomes the funnel that filters an incredible amount of data into one single draft selection.
Fans will see only the selection, not the synthesis it takes to arrive at the first-round selection that will be cheered by some, jeered by others.
The process is long and sometimes grueling. With scouts on the road from late summer to late winter, the process starts over annually. The scouts are the starting point. From there, coaches – if they aren’t involved deep in the playoffs at the time – join the scouts at the college all-star games. They reconvene in Indianapolis for more of the same at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
But, like a high school principal setting a wide-ranging curriculum, Spielman brings much more to the analysis than the physical education department. The health sciences get involved with their medical opinions on past injuries of the draft prospects. The commissioned psychologists craft tests designed to determine aptitude and love of the game. The math department offers its analytical numbers approach to what the prospect has done.
And, then, about nine months after the process started, Spielman delivers the pick.
Sound more in-depth than those one-paragraph summaries on prospects you’ve been perusing? Um, yeah. Spielman could stuff a three-inch binder with the information he has on each prospect. But it’s his job to provide a one-line summary to his draft runner in Chicago – Name, Position, School and, then, “With the 23rd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings select …” Oh, just wait until Friday night. Or Saturday if Spielman deems it wise to trade out of the first round.
But to suggest that the Vikings’ choice is only a Rick Spielman production would be vastly discounting all the work of dozens of other for thousands of hours leading up to that point.
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There are the postseason meetings with coaches and scouts for current roster evaluations. There are the thousands of miles logged by coaches visiting pro days and conducting private workouts. There are the grueling fall road trips by scouts down the interstates and backroads from one college town to the next. There is the work of the medical staff and the psychologists – yes, there really are personality tests involved.
“They’re all very tailored,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of the questions asked during interviews with the prospects. “I’ve been through it. … We specifically hit each individual that is at the combine on what we need to get accomplished with that player. Whether it’s learns, whether it’s character stuff, whether it’s background stuff. So there’s a specific plan in place for each player.”
Sometimes that includes coaches and scouts meeting the player at a train station to get in an informal, quick session since everyone gets busier once the NFL Scouting Combine starts.
Zimmer said the Vikings aren’t one of the infamous teams asking if a prospect would rather be a cat or a dog, but he has been involved with teams that do that.
“One of the questions was, ‘What are stamps for? What do you use stamps for? Why do they collect taxes?’ And all kinds of stupid stuff,” Zimmer said. “‘If you got lost in the woods, how would you find your way out?’ Most of these guys have never been in the woods.”
Some of those questions are supposed determine intellect and how it might apply to on-field thinking.
But some players have all the talent, all the required intellect, and none of the drive. The psychology questions are meant to determine that, too.
“We can tailor questions that we ask them, and looking for specific answers that relate to the passion of the game and how they respond to that,” Spielman said. “… By the time we go into that final draft meeting, we should have all the answers we need to know about that player.”
And probably much more than is needed. However, any Vikings fan that remembers the “bonus” first-round selection of Dimitrius Underwood realizes that the process has changed since that off-the-tracks pick. The Vikings could have used this process back then. Yet, some questions might not apply to 99 percent of the prospects, but if the process can keep the team from drafting one monumental bust, it’s probably worth it.
The analysis goes well beyond the psychological. Although every prospect is gifted to some degree, the physical is probably the most important aspect of evaluation. Still, not all numbers mean the same thing, depending on the position.
Who cares if an offensive lineman can’t run a 40-yard dash under five seconds? Who cares about any of the Olympic events for punters and kickers? Does it matter much if a wide receiver can’t put 225 pounds above his chest more than a dozen times? One of the greatest physical specimens ever seen at a Vikings training camp, offensive lineman Bob Sapp, fizzled quickly in the NFL.
That’s why some of the drills at the NFL Scouting Combine are being considered for change, although some of them still apply.
“The measurements kind of clarify in your mind what you’ve seen on tape, so if you watch a guy on tape and you see him and you say, ‘I’m not sure how fast he is’ and he runs a 40 you’ve got a pretty good idea,” Zimmer said. “Or if you have a guy that doesn’t change directions as well and then he does a good short shuttle or the three-cone or something like that. I’ve always liked the vertical jump because it shows explosion. Things like that.”
And, as Zimmer pointed out, sometimes the physical outweighs the character questions.
“How fast they can run. How good a player he is,” Zimmer joked (we think) about where the line is between character concerns and talent. “No, you know, I sit down and talk to them and I’m pretty honest with them about what we’re looking for. I kind of put it on the line that if you come here, this is what I expect of you and if you don’t do it we’re going to get rid of you. I’ve done that with several guys. And when I was in Cincinnati, I had quite a few of those kind of guys and it turned out being pretty good. Sometimes they’re smart enough to understand, and I do think that’s part of it, that they’re smart enough to understand that, you know what, I better not screw this up. This might be my last opportunity. I tend to shy away from the guys that this is their first opportunity and they’ve got a lot of baggage because usually those guys don’t wake up the first time. It’s usually the second or third time when they wake up.”
But, with all the work that goes into not only scouting the physical but also trying to get into a prospect’s psyche, the Vikings would hate to waste a pick on a guy that flames out early. Still, it happens, and that’s why Spielman and company – committed to building and maintaining mostly through the draft – put so much time, effort and money into the scouting process.
In four days, the countless hours of preparation will result in minutes to make the pick. Choose wisely.