There were the injuries. There was Norv Turner’s midseason resignation. There were the multiple surgeries to head coach Mike Zimmer’s right eye.
All of those were obstacles to overcome, but the general manager who has commissioned numerous studies on NFL personnel over the years continued to plow forward, turning over the soil to find out what he can do better. Turns out, sometimes the studies simply yield expected, simple and logical results.
Lose three starting offensive tackles without drafting any offensive linemen the first three rounds of the last four drafts and it’s hard to be surprised that the offensive line would struggle as badly as it did. Between the offensive line and losing Adrian Peterson, the Vikings dropped to last in the league in rushing yards and Sam Bradford suffered a career-high 37 sacks and countless other big hits, despite an offense that adjusted to a quicker passing style.
“Just from a personal standpoint, I hate failure with a passion, I can’t stand it, and every time something doesn’t work out we are going to attack why it didn’t work out,” Spielman told reporters during an extensive session last Thursday. “You know, we’re talking about the offensive line, I know you guys have written about it a thousand times. I can’t predict that we’re going to play with 12 offensive linemen.”
That much is true. The Vikings suffered an amazing amount of injuries on the offensive line, but at least that setback brought about an introspective look at the process. One of Spielman’s studies provided an obvious conclusion.
“I did a study on … I got a whole draft history and I’ve got a study on everything we’ve done from the offensive line because I know that’s been written about,” Spielman said. “So, offensive line, most of the guys that become successful are going to get drafted early in the draft. I mean, 79 percent of offensive linemen that start two or more seasons that play at a red or blue level [quality starters] are going to be good players for you.”
Spielman’s study provided an answer that nearly every fan could have guessed would have been coming: Offensive linemen are no different than other players; the earlier you draft them, the greater likelihood they will live up to expectations.
He called quality offensive linemen probably the most difficult position to find in the draft other than quarterback. Perhaps he is right. They whiffed on Christian Ponder, pushing him higher up the draft board than he belonged. They weren’t alone in doing that with a quarterback in the 2011 draft (see: Gabbert, Blaine; and Locker, Jake), and Teddy Bridgewater’s injury on Aug. 30 put a damper on what they hoped would be a long-term solution at quarterback and a make-good on the Ponder selection. But credit Spielman (and Pat Shurmur’s vote of confidence) in going out and getting Sam Bradford.
While the Vikings appeared to have addressed the quarterback situation so long as Bradford is signed to an extension, they have eschewed early-round offensive linemen in favor of trading up to get other players.
That strategy produced mixed results. On the plus side, they got Harrison Smith and Bridgewater. On the negative side, they got Cordarrelle Patterson, who hasn’t been terrible but also hasn’t been worth the price paid.
Spielman says it should a case-by-case, year-by-year approach to the way that the draft is handled. If they love a player and feel the ransom is right, they will pay it to move up into the first round. But trading up has come at the price of giving up second- and third-round picks.
He loves getting 10 picks every draft, but the lower the round, the less likely those additional picks will produce.
“I know the percentage of guys that start for two years in the second round, third round, fourth round, fifth round, sixth round, seventh round, free agents,” he said. “Since 2005 I did this draft study and I have a history because we grade all those players. It’s a much lower percentage on hitting on offensive linemen in rounds four through seven.”
Hopefully the conclusion of that study didn’t surprise anyone.
This year, the Vikings are without a first-round pick because of the Bradford trade, but they have five picks in rounds two through four. You can give Spielman credit for acquiring those additional picks, but it’s time to muscle up and replenish the offensive line with at least two of those picks in the first four rounds, no matter what free agency produces.
“From a personnel standpoint, I take it personally,” he said. “I know we can’t have $10 million backups at every position up front on the offensive line and let’s reassess where we’re at and are our backups good enough or not. That’s what we spend a lot of studies on.”
The Vikings have produced decent late-round picks with Brandon Fusco and John Sullivan. Neither of them are around anymore, however, and the jury is, at best, out on whether T.J. Clemmings or Willie Beavers can still live up to even fourth-round billing.
Spielman has more studies that produced expected results, like one that showed that lower-round offensive linemen take longer to develop into starters. But it seems last year’s mess on the offensive line has at least got him thinking long and hard about the past.
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“I have to assess, are we doing things the right way to address the offensive line? Other teams that have not invested, and I have the list of those teams that have not invested in early rounds, probably have been a little bit more aggressive in free agency and signing significant offensive linemen in free agency,” he said. “So there’s different ways that I had to look back and see, what are we doing right or wrong with this offensive line and how do we get it addressed?”
Despite leaving one offensive linemen after another on the board over the first three rounds of the last four drafts, Spielman said he won’t “reach” for a player in this year’s draft. Perhaps after the heart of free agency is over, he won’t have to.
“That was a whole focal point on a lot of the studies and a lot of the analytics that I have been doing since the end of the season,” he said. “So now that I know and have facts behind everything, now I know specifically what we may try to do in free agency or what we’re going to try to do in the draft.”
Then, with supreme confidence in his studies and conclusions, Spielman had a direct answer when asked about the depth of offensive linemen in free agency versus the draft.
“I know exactly what we have to do.”