As Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman entered what turned out to be a 55-minute talk with reporters in advance of the NFL Scouting Combine last week, he carried with him an oversized sheet of paper that is acting as a general offseason bible for building a more complete roster.
On the paper were three columns – the current roster by position in one column, the top players in the draft, matched by position to the right of the current roster and then a similar column that denoted the free agents of interest.
As Spielman and his herd of scouts and the Vikings coaching staff descend on Indianapolis this week for four days of scouting players, talking with agents and figuring out a more precise direction for free agency and the draft, he already had a handle on the positions of strength in the draft. He listed four, but one of the most often referenced was running back, which coincidentally happens to be a position of need for the Vikings after they decided not to exercise the 2017 option on Adrian Peterson’s contract on Tuesday.
“This is pre-combine, we’ve got to put all the bells and whistles in. I think offensively running back is the strongest I’ve ever seen,” Spielman said. “I think tight end is a very significant position. On the defensive side, the number of corners that are top-rated corners coming out, I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant amount go for sure in rounds one and two. I think safety is a very strong group for this year. I think those five areas are as strong as I can remember coming up in the draft.”
Whether running back was a position of strength of not, the Vikings likely wouldn’t have honored the option year on Peterson’s $18 million salary for 2017.
Several other quality free agents are on the free-agent market already, including Jamaal Charles and Latavius Murray, but they could be more than the Vikings are willing to spend at the position. Instead, the draft market seems more likely.
“It’s just like every year there’s certain positions where there’s [better quality] and a lot of it is when the juniors come,” Spielman said. “Sometimes some of the juniors stay in and it makes it a weaker position.”
After a stretch when running backs were ignored in the first round, that expected 2017 run on them could thin the top-end market when the Vikings pick in the second round. But Spielman seems to believe value can be found well after the first round.
“What helps us, I believe, is that when the draft class is that deep you weigh in is it worth going back into the first round or because of the depth of the draft class, especially at those positions, is that going to push other areas that you may need down to you?” he said. “That’s the part of trying to anticipate. I’ve already started going through scenarios and once we have the draft board developed you start having kind of a feel for what can and potentially can’t be there. But you have to do that in order to put these other pieces in place and what we potentially can do in free agency.”
A deep draft class at running back could have another effect. If general managers around the league agree with Spielman’s assessment of the rookie running back class, it could lower the price tag for free agents at the position. It’s even possible that Peterson could test the free-agent market and find his best offer comes from the Vikings, and he left open the possibility of a return, saying he still considers the Vikings a contending team.
The Vikings likely will be patient in free agency, especially at positions of depth in the draft, like running back.
“I know everybody gets riled up if you don’t do something the first day of free agency – the world’s coming to an end. But I do know that this is a continuous process, that you build your roster and hopefully have most of the significant pieces in place by the end of the draft,” he said.
He even referenced the June free-agent market as a possibility for certain positions.
For now, however, with Peterson aware that the team isn’t picking up his option, Spielman and company will evaluate the rookie prospects first-hand. That will start this week at the Scouting Combine and continue with pro days in March and April.
“What we’re finding as we keep evolving on the analytics side, each position has specific things that mean something to that position, whether it’s a 20-yard shuttle or a vertical jump, whether it’s a 40-yard dash,” he said. “Maybe a 10- or a 20-yard dash is more important than a 40-yard dash. There are specific tests that mean different things for different positions. So you may be excited about one or two things in a running back session and something totally different in an offensive line or defensive line session.”
Whatever the case, expect Spielman and company to keep a close eye on the running backs this week in Indianapolis and in the weeks to come at pro days.