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Sunday slant: Minnesota Vikings need to adjust draft strategy

The Minnesota Vikings need a make-good draft filled with talent, and that might require an adjustment in philosophy in a few areas.

Mike Zimmer has admitted in the past that he realizes every year is a prove-it year for coaches in the NFL. The same should be said for general manager Rick Spielman and the front office.

The coaching staff and front office have to work in concert in picking and developing draft picks and making sure the roster is consistently flooded with young talent. Unfortunately for the Minnesota Vikings and their fans, that concert has been hitting some flat notes in recent years, putting the pressure on this year’s draft and free-agent class to provide the necessary high notes.

Like nearly every NFL organization, the Vikings and Spielman say they want to become a team that thrives on a “draft and development” philosophy rather than having to rely on big spending for replacement parts to avoid a roadside breakdown. Last year, injuries exposed a lack of depth, especially on the offensive line after Phil Loadholt retired, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith broke down quickly and Jake Long lasted fewer starts than Smith.

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It was three aging offensive tackles that all saw their seasons, and perhaps their careers, sputter to a halt. Kalil’s bum hip started the parade of injuries at tackle, but without newer spares, the older retreads continued to blow up in the faces of the front office.

The deep-seeded troubles might not have happened had two of the most recent fourth-round picks, Willie Beavers in 2016 and T.J. Clemmings in 2015, found their stride or been allowed to develop longer. Spielman prides himself on incredibly in-depth analysis on draft prospects, so the missteps aren’t because of a lack of effort. The Clemmings pick came with Jeff Davidson as the offensive line coach and the Beavers pick came with Tony Sparano in place as Davidson’s replacement.

But the Vikings have swung and missed too often on mid- and late-round picks and simply ignored the position in the first three rounds since taking Kalil in the first round in 2012, Spielman’s first year as the general manager. With almost one-fourth of the offensive and defensive starters (five of 22) coming on the offensive line, ignoring that position completely over the last 12 picks in the first three rounds of the draft came home to roost.

Spielman has had five years of drafting as the general manager. In that time along the offensive line, he’s drafted Kalil (2012, first round), Jeff Baca (2013, sixth round), Travis Bond (2013, seventh round), David Yankey (2014, fifth round), Clemmings, Tyrus Thompson (2015, sixth round), Austin Shepherd (2015, seventh round) and Beavers. Only Shepherd (on the practice squad) and Beavers are left among them.

In five years, that’s eight offensive linemen – one in the first round, two in the fourth round, one in fifth round, two in the sixth round and two in the seventh round. In other words, it’s time to invest in the offensive line on Day 2 (we’d include Day 1 as part of the discussion, but the Vikings traded that away to get Sam Bradford, which appears to be worth the investment).

As much as Spielman loves to accumulate additional mid- and late-round picks to fill out his internal mandate of having 10 draft picks every year, the Vikings haven’t gotten much out of their late-round picks. Since 2012, Minnesota has had 25 picks in the fifth round or later. The only ones that got much playing time in 2016 were Blair Walsh (before he was cut), Jeff Locke, Shamar Stephen and Stefon Diggs.

Diggs has the makings of a star, but you have to wonder if the Vikings should change philosophy and, instead of trying to acquire so many longshots (one in 25 being difference-makers with the picks they have made), perhaps trading some late-round picks to move up and get contributors.

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Spielman has had some success in the early rounds with, to varying degrees, Kalil, Harrison Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, Trae Waynes and Laquon Treadwell in the first round since 2012. With so many second-round picks sacrificed to move up for multiple first-rounders, the only two picks Spielman has left himself with in the second round are Eric Kendricks and Mackensie Alexander. Third-rounders have also been too sparse since he took over as general manager – Josh Robinson, Scott Crichton, Jerick McKinnon and Danielle Hunter.

The philosophy of quantity over quality in the late rounds hasn’t yielded much other than Diggs and Stephen, and sacrificing Day 2 picks for additional first-rounders has been a mixed bag – Smith on the strong end of a 2012 trade and Patterson and Bridgewater on the marginal end of trades in 2013 and 2014 (Bridgewater is difficult to judge too harshly because he may have been on the verge of something good had he not shredded his knee on Aug. 30).

The draft-and-develop philosophy is a good one, but, despite accumulating so many extra picks, the cupboard has been getting bare for two reasons: the additional late-round picks haven’t panned out as often as necessary, and the idea of moving up into the first round for additional Day 1 picks has left the Vikings with five fewer picks in the second and third rounds over the last five years.

Each miss puts additional pressure for a rectifying draft in 2017. The draft is coming in less than three months and Spielman and company need to make the most of it to help gloss over the mistakes of the recent past.


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