Monday, April 23, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Fresh Off 'Reality Check,' Vikings Get to Focus on Football

I can't pretend to know what it's been like for Minnesota Vikings fans as of late.

The promising 2009 season went up in smoke when Brett Favre threw across his body to Tracy Porter. The promising 2010 season never really got going the way everyone expected, as the Vikings went 6-10 and appeared to bottom out, as Favre never seemed interested and the defense crumbled under the pressure of increased turnovers and decreased offensive efficiency.

Then there was that 3-13 thing. Another awful season to follow the first one.

Oh, and now there's all this talk about the need for a new stadium, with no corresponding action and now a very real threat that 2012 will be the end of an era in Minnesota.

(The latest, by the way, came Friday when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell showed up in Minnesota and delivered what Minnesota Sen. Julie Rosen called a "reality check." It's sad that the league's commissioner had to make a trip to Minnesota to tell these morons what the rest of us have known for six years -- that the Metrodome sucks, isn't a long-term solution, and the team will probably leave if one isn't found soon -- but we're all glad he did.)

Now, however, it's time for fans to finally focus on football once again, even if it's only for a couple days.

Supporting a team that consistently makes the playoffs and went 15-1 last season makes it hard to understand these types of struggles, but there is a small similarity.

The Packers went 4-12 under Mike Sherman in 2005. Regular readers will know how I felt about Mr. Sherman as a football coach and (worse) a general manager. Ted Thompson was appointed GM before the 2005 season, with Sherman serving as only the head coach that season. Once it was over, Sherman was out, and the Mike McCarthy era began.

Thompson insisted (and still does, for the most part) on building his team without high-priced free agents, choosing instead to get his core built up in the draft, and supplementing it with the occasional free agent signing (guys like Ryan Pickett would apply here).

Similarly, new Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has eschewed free agency. The plan is that the Vikings will draft several potential core players this week, and this roster will be built the right way.

There might be some differences in the overall scheme, but it seems Spielman wants to follow Thompson's plan. It's not the cheap route, because the Packers will spend close to the cap in most years, as they deal out long-term contracts to core players they drafted. The difference is the Packers won't spend much on free agents, while other organizations continue to try to make big splashes in the first couple days of free agency. Similarly, the Vikings have made sure Adrian Peterson and Chad Greenway got paid, and Percy Harvin may be next in line.

You'll notice that teams like Pittsburgh, New England, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the Giants don't make those splashes. You'll also probably notice that those teams are contenders most of the time.

It's a philosophy that can be very successful.

It starts Thursday for the Vikings, as they pick third.

(Yes, they could trade out of this pick, but I'd say I'm about 95 percent sure they'll make a pick at No. 3. I don't see another team making an offer to move up that will blow Spielman away enough to tempt him.)

There are three guys I could see the Vikings picking. Not surprisingly, they're the three guys Spielman tabbed last week when he was making the media rounds. Of the three, I think there is a clear favorite, but if Spielman is to be believed, they're not drafting based on a need, and instead based on who they rate the highest.

If that's the case, USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil is the favorite, but not necessarily a lock.

Solid tackle, a guy that the draftniks will probably try to tear down in the coming days, but I really like his game, and I think Kalil is an immediate starter in the NFL. He's also a good starter, not just a stopgap. This could be the Vikings' answer at left tackle for a decade or more.

There are other options for the Vikings. Cornerback is a need, and LSU's Morris Claiborne is a very good prospect who should be a top five pick Thursday night. Could he go third?

I love Claiborne's ball skills. He's also plenty fast enough for the position, and he has enough muscle that he shouldn't get pushed around by guys like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall in the NFC North.

The final candidate is a guy whose tires I was pumping during the regular season. Wide receiver Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State fills a real need for the Vikings if they pick him third. He might not have the big-time buzz of a guy like AJ Green last year, but he's a receiver whose skills translate nicely to the next level.

Blackmon's got great hands, can catch the ball in traffic, and is a freaskish athlete. He's also an anti-diva type of player, whose story extends beyond the football field. Watch this heartwarming ESPN piece from last season.

I'm not going to advocate drafting Blackmon because he seems like a grounded, kind-hearted young man. But when you combine his athletic ability with what appears to be more of a Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson-type attitude, you have a pretty special prospect who won't cause you trouble in the room or off the field.

These are the top three candidates for the Vikings at No. 3. I lean Kalil based on the pre-draft news, but my heart stays with Blackmon, a player I've been trumpeting for the Vikings since September.

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