Spielman's meticulous method is working

Rick Spielman brought new depth to the Vikings' player evaluation process when he arrived in Minnesota after the 2006 draft. A different grading system took some getting used to, but the results have helped produce a winning team and three Pro Bowlers (plus Jared Allen) in three drafts. See what Spielman wants out of his system and the results it has produced.

When Rick Spielman arrived in Minnesota following the 2006 NFL Draft, the Vikings' personnel department was very much in flux.

They had just gotten rid of a one-year wonder in Fran Foley, who had a good reputation as a scout with the San Diego Chargers but apparently let the power of running a personnel department get to him. With threats to fire support staff and run-ins with other decision-makers, the scouting department was not a good place to be at that time.

Enter Spielman. He came to the Vikings after cutting his personnel teeth in Detroit, Chicago and Miami, eventually becoming General Manager of the Dolphins in 2004.

Spielman was working as an analyst at ESPN when wide receiver Troy Williamson became the Vikings poster child for not drafting prospects off of 40-yard dash times and relying instead on game film.

Williamson didn't come on the clock of either Foley or Spielman. Still, the draft void of 2004 and 2005 left the Vikings with only seventh-round pick Jeff Dugan from those years that produced Kenechi Udeze, Dontarrious Thomas, Darrion Scott, Nat Dorsey, Mewelde Moore, Rod Davis, Deandre Eiland in 2005, and Williamson, Erasmus James, Marcus Johnson, Dustin Fox, Ciatrick Fason, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Ward in 2006.

With the Williamson pick as a cautionary backdrop, Spielman said at this year's NFL Scouting Combine that 40 times and bench presses won't get his scouting department to move players too far up or down. They will continue to rely on game tape and personal evaluations as their primary source for judgment.

"If we have seen a guy as just a backup by the way he plays on tape or just a camp body, if he runs a 4.00, he's not going to go from a camp body or from a late-round free agent guy and all the sudden you're saying this guy is a starter in the league," Spielman said.

In fact, Spielman's approach to the draft changed the way the personnel department evaluates players. They don't place a letter grade or projected draft round on a prospect. Each player is assigned a decimal number that indicates what kind of NFL player the scout believes he can become.

"We put them in categories – I don't want any rounds, I want to know what you think they are when they come into the league," Spielman said. "We have differences of opinion whether a guy can be a starter. That's the hardest part for every evaluator is where we have our line – is this guy a backup that you can win five or six games with but you wouldn't want as a 16-game starter, or is he a starter that's a marginal starter but you can still win 16 games with him? That's the fence where I try to make everybody jump to one side or the other."

Instead of ranking draft prospects one through 500, Spielman ends up with a number grade, and no player can have the same number as another player at his position. That way, the team can arrive at their selection and they might have a wide receiver, a cornerback and a lineman with the same draft value. Only then will Spielman allow the pick to be influenced by a position of need, but it's possible that only one player is left on the board with the highest value and that dictates the pick.

His grading system is one that took some getting used to by the scouts, but after three drafts of implementing it, the comfort level between the scouts and their personnel boss is much better, Spielman said.

"It's a lot easier now because I think everybody has worked in the system where they understand how to grade. The first year, it was just everybody getting used to it because it was so different from what they've done in the past," he said.

The system appears to be working. Not only have the Vikings avoided the first-round flops like Williamson and James, they have excelled there – getting Pro Bowl players like Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin with Spielman's only first-round picks. (The team traded away its 2008 first-round pick for Jared Allen and Spielman likes to consider him their high pick that year.)

But successful players beget successful seasons, which means a lower draft position. After reaching the NFC Championship, the Vikings no longer have the seventh overall pick that produced Peterson or even the 22nd pick that allowed them snag Harvin. This year, they have the 30th pick, which will require solid input from more than a year's worth of scouting.

"It's the preparation. It's the process. Every team skins a cat a different way …. I think it's just being prepared and truly honing in on guys that may not be well-known names to you guys because they weren't well-known names in college but have skills to play at the next level, and that's part of the digging process," Spielman said. "In our process, our coaches are evaluating, our scouts are evaluating, I'm evaluating, Scott Studwell (director of college scouting), George Paton (director of player personnel). We'll have seven or eight different opinions and it's my job to sift through those opinions to put them on that board.

"But I think because we try to do our due diligence and try to be as meticulous as possible and try to do all that other stuff that we do try to take some of the subjective things out. Use the objective to make a subjective decision. I think we've had pretty good success doing that over the last couple years."

Instead of the 2004 and 2005 drafts that leave only Dugan on the roster, drafts under Spielman have produced Peterson, Sidney Rice and Brian Robison in 2007, Tyrell Johnson, Letroy Guion and John Sullivan in 2008 (as well as Jared Allen via trade), and Harvin, Phil Loadholt, Asher Allen, Jasper Brinkley and Jamarca Sanford last year.

Ultimately, the remaining roster is how Spielman's drafts will be judged, and so far he's standing up to the test with another proving opportunity only two weeks away.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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