The Vikings did not select a single underclassman in this year's NFL draft of college players. Usually, a team can expect to end up with one or two players who elect to opt out of college before completing their four years of football eligibility.
Last year, the Vikings' first-round choice, running back Michael Bennett of Wisconsin, came out following his junior year. It was the same for former Vikings running back Robert Smith, who was drafted by the Vikings after his junior year at Ohio State in 1993.
Because the Vikings lost a number of starters to free agency and salary cap considerations, they were looking at critical vacancies at several starting positions that they hoped might be shored up by players selected in the draft. They did not, however, make a pre-draft decision to choose only four-year college players, according to the team's director of player personnel and veteran draft guru Frank Gilliam, who will move into a consulting role starting in June.
Said Gilliam: "Yes, we always like to get a guy who stays in school four years because they're more developed. But, really, this year it just happened like that. In previous years we took younger guys, like Smith and Bennett, but this year the opportunity to select an underclassman just didn't present itself. If it had, I don't know that we would have looked at it any differently than we would have in the past.
"What we do is look at a player, whether he's a four-year guy or a three-year guy, and try to see what kind of maturity he shows. You don't expect a 21-year old to have the maturity of a 30-year old, but we expect him to be mature enough to act like a professional."
Gilliam concedes that free agency has put pressure on rookies to come into the league and be prepared to play sooner than they might have in the past. "But," he added, "even though the guys have to come in and play fast, what we look at more than just maturity is his athletic ability and other attributes. Like is he strong enough, is he explosive along with being a smart player?"
It's not much of a stretch to presume that an older player is going to demonstrate more maturity than a younger college recruit. "You know, we were never big on guys coming out early," Gilliam said. "But the league said it was OK, and the younger guys decided to do it. But we'd rather they stayed in school for four years, that's for sure."
The Vikings' first-round draft choice this year, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, could have entered the draft last year after just one season with the University of Miami. He transferred to Miami after an All-American season in 1999 at Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Penn.
McKinnie told VU that he made the decision to stay at Miami for one more season partly "because of the kind of team we had and what I felt we could accomplish. There was a lot of media talk after my first year about me leaving. ‘This kid could go high (in the draft)' and stuff like that. But I decided to stay and I'm glad I did because if I wouldn't have stayed I wouldn't have been the Outland Trophy winner (as the best interior lineman in college football) as a senior and I would have missed out on a national championship. So I think I made the right choice and I would tell anybody else to do the same thing."
Age, as well as maturity (there's that word again), played a part in McKinnie's choice to stay at Miami for his senior year. "I was too young," he said. "I was only 21 last year and I wanted to get one more year of experience."
The Vikings' director of college scouting, Scott Studwell, says McKinnie is better prepared to step in and start as a rookie because of his two seasons on the Miami varsity. "Remember," Studwell cautioned, "he was a junior college transfer. He needed those two years at Miami. And then coming from a successful program like the Hurricanes was an additional benefit as far as his preparation for the pros. In a program like Miami's, they practice against the top players every day and they play against top players every week."
Studwell acknowledged that there is an upside to an all-senior draft. "It looks like we didn't draft anybody that you might say had a tremendous amount of potential but needs some more seasoning, so we feel good about that because all of the players we picked are probably better prepared for the pro game than an underclassman would be. But I have to say as a fact, it's the talent that we evaluate, not whether or not he's a senior or underclassman."
Maturity Could Help Rookies Contribute Quicker
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