GM Rick Spielman's blueprint for turning over the Vikings' roster is starting to pay dividends.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman doesn't travel as much for in-season college visits as he has in the past, having turned over some of those responsibilities to assistant general manager George Paton.
Spielman has made a few changes to his schedule in the 10-plus months since he was given the position of general manager. One of those was cutting out mid-week trips to scout Thursday or Friday night college games, with Paton taking those trips now. Spielman says he designates Thursdays and Fridays as "college days," instead analyzing game film in his office before making trips for Saturday games.
"What I did, that enabled me to stay in the office more, like I said, to be closer with the team, to be there with coach Frazier, to handle a lot of the other deals that come with this job besides just personnel," Spielman said this week with Minnesota (6-4) on its bye week.
Pulling back even a little bit is a big concession for Spielman, who loves the college scouting and draft process. Simply look at Minnesota's last two drafts, where Spielman had his biggest influence, to see how he's succeeded. Previously, Spielman shared a lot of the responsibility for the Vikings' drafts with then-coach Brad Childress.
Spielman, in his seventh season in Minnesota and first as chief decision-maker after spending six years as the team's vice president of player personnel, has set the foundation for the future of the franchise the past two drafts with a pair of impressive classes.
The Vikings still have nine of the 10 players they drafted in 2011, including four starters and the hopeful franchise quarterback in Christian Ponder they've sought since 2005. This year's draft – with nine of the 10 draftees still with the team – has produced two starters already, including a cornerstone left tackle to protect Ponder, a nickel cornerback and a kicker who has surprised everyone except maybe Spielman and the team's personnel and coaching staffs.
Spielman approached the past two drafts knowing he had to set the foundation for the future.
"I think we had to because of the age of our team," Spielman said. "I know we were one of the oldest teams in the league. I think we're the fourth-youngest team right now in the league, and I think you have to continually build because if you can build that foundation through the draft and continue to have successful drafts or guys that can come in and contribute and play, you're always going to have a competitive football team."
Ponder and tight end Kyle Rudolph, a second-round selection last year, highlight the 2011 group that includes starting safety Mistral Raymond (sixth round), starting right guard Brandon Fusco (sixth round), and backups Christian Ballard (defensive tackle, fourth round), Brandon Burton (cornerback, fifth round), D'Aundre Reed (defensive end, seventh round) and Stephen Burton (receiver, seventh round). DeMarcus Love is out for the season with an injury, but the team is high on the sixth-round offensive tackle.
This year's draft started with a splash, with Spielman trading back one spot and still getting left tackle Matt Kalil, the player he had wanted all along. Armed with extra picks from the Kalil trade, Spielman made a move to get back into the first round and selected safety Harrison Smith. Both players have started from the regular season's first game. The third round brought cornerback Josh Robison, the team's nickel corner who plays a lot and has started three games.
The fourth round brought receivers Jarius Wright, who provided a spark in his first regular-season game last week, and Greg Childs, who is out for the year after tearing both patellar tendons. But tight end Rhett Ellison was the surprise of the fourth round. Ellison, out of USC, wasn't well-known at draft time and said after being selected said he didn't think he would be drafted, but Spielman saw something in Ellison and he's become an effective blocker and shown better receiving skills than expected.
"Sometimes when you take a guy like Rhett Ellison, I knew what kind of a football player he was and what kind of person, and those are the types of building blocks that you want to have," Spielman said. "I knew that he had the potential to fill a Jim Kleinsasser-type role. I knew what kind of special teams player he was. Jarius, we had a lot of similar discussions with him. He was too good of a football player on our board to pass up, regardless if you have a Percy Harvin here, because you're going to find ways to get him on the field or he's going to eventually be able to help you win ballgames. Some have immediate impacts. Some don't have an immediate impact but will have an impact some time down the road."
Kicker Blair Walsh, picked in the sixth round, has maybe had the biggest impact for Minnesota. His selection also raised eyebrows because the Vikings had veteran Ryan Longwell. But Spielman and his staff had plans to replace their veteran kicker with a strong-legged youngster, and Walsh fit the bill.
Minnesota's scouts and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer saw something in Walsh despite a poor senior year at Georgia.
"You knew the talent Blair had," Spielman said. "But that's the fun part of; when Blair had his struggles as a senior, why did he have those struggles? And are those struggles correctable? That's the part of really honing in and digging in. Mike Priefer was a big part of that. He's going to be the expert in that area. I rely on people that are experts in their area."
Spielman knows the path to sustained success starts with scouting, drafting and developing. Building through the draft is Spielman's philosophy. He said strong drafts keep the team from overspending in free agency and having to make rash decisions at the trade deadline.
The GM and his staff expect the impossible, which is to be "100 percent right" in each draft. They will not only evaluate their picks, but also the picks of each other team. If Minnesota misses on a player, they want to know why. The Vikings don't seem to have missed often lately.
As good as the past two drafts appear, Spielman isn't patting himself on the back yet.
"I'll judge it three years down the road," Spielman said. "Some guys can be flash in the pans, but you want to make sure you see where they're at three years down the road from now."