Looking at the D-Line

With a new defensive end (Kenny Mixon) and a new linebacker (Henri Crockett), the Vikings can be more open with their draft options, and defensive tackle looks like a deep position, according to team scouts.

Over the past 30 years, Frank Gilliam, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel, has played a major role in the team's success in the NFL's draft of college players.

A measure of how well Gilliam and the team's scouting staff have performed lies in the fact that each season during Gilliam's tenure the Vikings have almost always won more games than they have lost. As a result, the Vikings have consistently been among the teams relegated to the lower choices in each round of the draft. This year, however, they will choose seventh in each round except the sixth round. Their sixth choice was sent to Cleveland in a trade that brought quarterback Spergon Wynn and running back Travis Prentice to Minnesota.

Except for the first selection in 1961, when the league awarded the new Minnesota franchise the first overall pick in the draft and they chose running back Tommy Mason, the Vikings have had only four picks in the top 10 in their 41-year history — offensive tackle Ron Yary in 1968, linebacker Jeff Siemon in 1972, defensive tackle Doug Martin in 1980 and running back Darrin Nelson in 1982. They had the 11th choice on two occasions: defensive lineman Derrick Alexander in 1995 and quarterback Daunte Culpepper in 1999.

The order of selection, based on the previous year's won-lost records, is something of a two-edged sword. Gilliam says he'd rather have the 31st pick instead of the seventh. "The seventh pick means you lost a lot of games. The 31st pick means you won a lot. I just don't like losing all those games."

There's no denying the fact that if the Vikings ever needed to choose higher in the draft it couldn't have come at a more fortuitous time. The obvious reason is that it comes after a disastrous campaign that saw them finish at 5-11, their worst finish since Les Steckel's 3-13 season in 1984, and their third poorest effort, with the other being the 3-8-3 season in 1967 during Bud Grant's first year at the helm.

A laundry list of where the Vikings need the most help was tilted heavily toward linemen on both sides of the ball before free agency, and Gilliam told VU that this year's college crop has a significant number of big linemen eligible for the draft who have the look of being able to make an immediate contribution at the pro level. But there is much work still to be done.

After bowl games, NFL scouts got another look at college seniors at the NFL's annual combine. They will also spend time on campuses looking at game film of underclassmen who will opt to come out early, and they will be putting individual players through their paces while making school visits.

Gilliam allows as how this year's draft will yield a talented group of big linemen to choose from.

"Yes, there are a lot of good-looking big linemen," he said. "Guys you may not even have heard a lot about. For instance, a couple of really big defensive linemen at BYU, Ryan Denny and Brett Keisel. And, of course, there's Anthony Weaver you know about at Notre Dame."

There are not as many outside players as there are inside players, Gilliam revealed. But the fact is the Vikings need help at both the inside and outside positions in the front four.

There is general agreement that perhaps the most difficult commodity to come by in the draft is a defensive back that is an exceptional athlete with the ability to come in and provide immediate help in the secondary. According to the Vikings scouts there are some good defensive backs this year.

"But," Gilliam emphasized, "it remains to be seen how many can play at this level. A lot of guys test well, but then you have to see if they can play. And the only way you can determine that is by watching him play on film, see how he performs in actual game conditions."

No question, the Vikings' biggest job this year is to rebuild a defense that ranked 30th last season. That job falls directly on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, and Shaw sees it in very simple terms: "The number one thing in this league is stopping the run ... getting it done is going to be up to me and this coaching staff.

"If you don't stop the run, you can't be very good in this league," he added. "You can have all the best pass rushes and pass defenses known to mankind, but who cares if (the opposing team) doesn't throw the ball? You can have the best cornerbacks in the league, who cares? They don't have to throw the ball.

"You have to stop the run." VU

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