Personnel Department Back In Loop

Longtime player personnel employees Frank Gilliam and Paul Wiggin have a renewed sense of purpose at Winter Park, and their history of successful late-round picks (like fifth-rounder Ed McDaniel and others) is cause for hope in April's draft.

It is believed one of the reasons for Dennis Green's ouster as Vikings head coach and vice president of football operations was owner Red McCombs' dissatisfaction with some of Green's recent personnel decisions and his reluctance to confer with the team's personnel and scouting department.

During Green's tenure in Minnesota, the NFL annual draft of college players has resulted in somewhat of a mixed bag for the Vikings — with high draft choices such as Dimitrius Underwood (first round '99), Ramos McDonald (third round '98) and James Manley (second round '96) never contributing. And former first-round picks such as cornerback Dewayne Washington ('94), tackle Todd Steussie ('94), defensive end Duane Clemons ('96), and linebacker Dwayne Rudd ('97) currently playing for other NFL teams.

For the most part, however, it's hard to argue with the Vikings' direction in the draft since they have made some wise first-round selections by choosing such players as running back Robert Smith ('93), wide receiver Randy Moss ('98), quarterback Daunte Culpepper ('99) and defensive tackle Chris Hovan (2000). Middle- to late-rounders contributing to the current squad and added under Green's watch are center Matt Birk (sixth round '98), defensive end Talance Sawyer (sixth round '99) and defensive end/linebacker Patrick Chukwurah (fifth round 2001).

It was more on the NFL free-agent front — where Green consulted more with linebackers coach and long-time friend Richard Solomon than the football people in the front office — that the team repeatedly came up short. The Vikings' big-ticket free-agent signings, players the Vikings were counting on to plug holes in the struggling defense, such as linebacker Craig Sauer (2000), defensive ends John Burrough ('99), Bryce Paup (2000), and more recently Lance Johnstone (2001), did not work out as hoped. Johnstone, who has an out clause in his contract that can be exercised by either him or the Vikings, could still become a factor for the team but was considered a disappointment after Green predicted a double-digit sack season for the former Temple Owl and Oakland Raider. Former Pro Bowlers who were past their prime, such as cornerback Cris Dishman, who was signed in 2000, and safety Henry Jones, signed during the 2001 season, became immediate starters but were released after spending only weeks with the club.

Under new Vikings head coach Mike Tice, the team will take a different approach concerning personnel decisions — sort of. Instead of an overhaul of the front office, a return to the proven process has been re-instituted, a chain of command and decision-making that served the organization so well prior to the past few seasons and had made the Vikings such a successful organization over the years.

With the departure of Green, the team will rely more on the talents and experience of vice president of player personnel Frank Gilliam, coordinator of pro scouting Paul Wiggin and player personnel coordinator Scott Studwell, a former linebacker with the Vikings (1977-90). Executive vice president Mike Kelly will handle the financial end of the business while vice president of football administration Rob Brzezinski will be in charge of salary-cap administration and contract negotiations.

The prospect of a more open line of communications between the scouting department, financial administration and the coaches promises to bring with it a healthier atmosphere around Winter Park. Tice believes better communication between departments will also equal better results on the playing field and give the Vikings a better chance of returning to their winning ways.

"We do have some very good coaches, some very good teachers on our staff," Tice said. "They have already started working on evaluating the talent we do have on our football team. That is a start. That talent will be reviewed with our scouting staff, Frank Gilliam, Scott Studwell and Paul Wiggin. We will try to come to consensus to how we are going to get better. One thing we will try to do — not one thing we will try to do, one thing we will do — each and every day of the year you will see us attempt to get better as an organization in some area. It doesn't always have to be player acquisition. It could be communication between departments."

Communication is something that many observers believe has been sorely lacking in the Vikings organization during the past few years. After McCombs granted Green the additional title of vice president of football operations prior to the 1998 season — thus giving him final say in all football decisions — the personnel department was often sidestepped in the evaluations and decisions regarding players.

Green instead relied on his own player assessments and those of Solomon. Solomon, who also carried the title of director of pro personnel last year, had been a scout for the New York Giants from 1987-91 before joining the Vikings' coaching staff in 1992. Solomon was fired shortly after Green's dismissal.

Gilliam has been given the final say in all personnel matters, such as the draft and free agency. Gilliam began his front office career with the Vikings as the team's scouting director in 1971. He was promoted to director of player personnel in 1975 and has been credited with many of the Vikings' late-round finds, including Studwell (ninth round '77), tight end Joe Senser (sixth round '79), quarterback Wade Wilson (eighth round '81), tight end Steve Jordan (seventh round '82), cornerback Carl Lee (seventh round '83), running back Terry Allen (ninth round '90), linebacker Ed McDaniel (fifth round '92) and quarterback Brad Johnson (ninth round '92).

All-Pro free agents such as defensive lineman John Randle ('90) and safety Robert Griffith ('94) were also gems uncovered by Gilliam.

Wiggin is responsible for advance scouting current NFL players and teams and assisting in player evaluations. He returns to full-time duty after working part-time last season while recovering from bladder surgery. Wiggin has served the Vikings for 16 years, beginning in 1985 when he became the team's defensive line coach, a title he held for seven seasons before moving to the front office. Wiggin has a wealth of experience and is highly respected around the league.

Studwell will be in charge of the team's college scouting. After a stellar career as a player for the Vikings, Studwell was voted to the team's 25th and 40th Anniversary Teams. He holds records for career tackles (1,981), tackles in a season (230 in 1981) and tackles in a game (24 vs. Detroit in '85). Upon his retirement following the 1990 season, Studwell was named assistant to the president/player relations before being named to his current post in 1992.

Many in the Vikings organization have high regard for Studwell, including McCombs.

"Scott is a great evaluator of talent," said McCombs. "He also does a great job for the Vikings in the community. He also has very good management skills, which we utilize."

Tice, for his part, intends to make the most of the talent the Vikings have on hand in the front office and will not hesitate to seek advice and opinions.

"I think there needs to be communication between each department," Tice said. "When … you have a staff meeting and you look in the room and you see all of the talented people that are in there, you wonder why this person hasn't chipped in before. So we're excited about the opportunity to have everybody in our organization feel like they can think freely and that their thoughts will be listened to and they will be able to have a say in making our organization better."

With the seventh overall selection in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft, the Vikings have a chance to tab an impact player for their offensive or defensive line. They will likely have more breathing room under the salary cap than in the past few seasons and may try to sign a proven NFL veteran from another team, although the team will still be somewhat limited by cap constraints and may just concentrate on their own free agents.

The Vikings also have young players already on their roster to develop and build around. The key for the Vikings to improve this year is to utilize their resources to the fullest extent and bring teamwork back to the organization. According to Tice, "we will work hand in hand with our scouting department to make sure that we evaluate the talent that we have and the areas where we can go and fulfill that lack of talent.

"There are four ways to get that done. One, the college draft. Two, college free agency. Three, unrestricted free agency. And four, teaching better. That means developing the players you have. There are four ways that we can get better, and we will do all four of those." VU

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