It's become almost cliché for coaches or general managers to say that they were shocked that the players they drafted were still on the board when they made their picks. However, to listen to Brad Childress and Rick Spielman following Saturday's first two rounds of the 2009 drafts, you believe when they say that they were surprised that both Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt – two players they graded as first-round talents - were available when they made their selections.
Loadholt was projected by many, including ESPN's consistently-coiffed analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to be a first-round pick – Kiper had him going No. 28 to Buffalo. Instead, he stayed on the board … and stayed … and stayed.
Already without a fourth-round pick (traded to acquire QB Sage Rosenfels in March) and a sixth-round pick (heading to the Eagles for the Kelly Holcomb deal two years ago), the Vikings didn't have the ammunition to package picks to move up and assure themselves of landing Loadholt. They had to wait and hope and, to their delight, he didn't get drafted until the Vikings were on the clock.
"We were (surprised)," Childress said. "We didn't have to move or jockey around at all. We kind of had our fingers crossed he would be there."
Loadholt was a player the Vikings had in their sights for months. With a clear need at right tackle, the team was able to package a "best player available" with a need, much in the same way they did in the first round with wide receiver Percy Harvin. For Spielman, it was almost a perfect storm – getting two players they coveted without sacrificing draft picks to get them.
"I don't think we could have asked for a better scenario," Spielman said. "We like Phil Loadholt. He was a guy we spent a lot of time with. We visited with him at the Senior Bowl. We spent time with him at the Combine. He was another top-30 guy that (visited Winter Park). He's familiar with No. 28 (Adrian Peterson). He is a big, massive, great offensive tackle. He play left tackle at Oklahoma, (but is) more of a right tackle and has extremely good strength. His arm length (36½ inches) was as long as anyone at the Combine or anyone coming out in the draft this year. When he went over to right tackle during the Senior Bowl, he showed he could make that adjustment. We think we got a heck of a football player and filled a need at the same time."
While not going so far as to anoint Loadholt as the starter, he is going to come in with every chance of winning the starting right tackle job away from incumbent Ryan Cook. Whether he becomes an immediate starter or not, Spielman believes he provides an immediate upgrade at the position.
"He's ready to come in and compete, but I know that's going to make our offensive line better," Spielman said. "It's going to make everybody work that much harder and the only way you can get better is to keep bringing in good competition. We got a guy who we feel is extremely talented, especially on the right side. He's going to walk in here and he's going to look Bryant McKinnie (with his) size and help us in the running game."
One of Loadholt's main selling points to the Vikings was the glowing comments made by his coaching staff at Oklahoma. He made a big impression on them and they were more than willing to give him a ringing endorsement when it came to answering questions from the Vikings.
"You talk to all the Oklahoma coaches and everybody raves about him as one of the hardest working guys," Spielman said. "He took over a leadership role on the offensive line and they had a very talented offensive team last year. When you get to know the kid – know his personality – you know that this guy likes to play the game."
Childress echoed those words, saying that nobody he spoke to had anything derogatory to say about Loadholt.
"I wish I brought my notes from the guys (at Oklahoma)," Childress said. "(They said things like) ‘Guys rally around that guy,' ‘They'd go to war with him any day,' ‘He's a hard worker,' ‘He's got a great work ethic.' And he does have a little nasty to him, which is good for a big man."
The Vikings knew that there was competition for Loadholt. Spielman said that, despite fielding a lot of calls from teams trying to move into the Vikings' spot in the first round, there were even more calls when they were on the clock at No. 54. However, the Vikings weren't looking to deal. Had Loadholt been gone, Spielman said the team might have considered trading down to acquire more picks, but when he fell into their laps, that possibility went out the window.
The big question facing Loadholt is how quickly he can make the transition from left tackle to the right side. He played his two seasons at OU at left tackle, but put in a solid performance at right tackle during Senior Bowl week and Childress remains confident that he can make the transition both smoothly and quickly.
"It's just a matter of being able to get in a right-hand stance," Childress said. "You're always going to face a premium rusher. Not that people don't flip and go over and attack your right side – if they feel they're not going to be able to do anything on your left side. You've seen us move Jared (Allen) back and forth from time to time. I don't feel that way (about a transitional learning curve). I think he's going to have the ability to be able to flip to the right side."
Whether intended or not, the Vikings came away from the first day of the draft with two players who have enjoyed a lot of success at the college level. Both are from high-powered programs and both played in the BSC Championship Game – and played well. While some players will come into the NFL with the jitters of playing on the biggest stage of them all, both of the Vikings' draftees have experienced the bright lights and the national attention that comes with playing in a national championship game.
"They're not afraid of the big stage," Spielman said. "Both of them have been in national championship games. They're not going to be wide-eyed and too big when they come up to this level because they're used to playing at that type of competition level. But, if there's a guy from Podunk U that we think is special, we take him – but it helps that they've played on the big stage."
Loadholt brings championship pedigree
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