Minnesota Vikings  

 

Vikings build through draft under Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- This video evidence shows Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman focused on trading up to secure the services of Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson -- a move to get not just his guy, but the team's guy, with the investment of months of scouting riding on his ability to pull it off.

The backdrop is easy to explain. Minnesota would've been fine sitting at pick Nos. 23 and 25 and taking Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Patterson. Trouble was, the sudden, unexpected availability of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd threw that grand plan into flux.

"We all thought he was a top-10 pick, at least," head coach Leslie Frazier said of Floyd.

And Minnesota wasn't going to pass on him. The Vikings, in fact, even entertained the idea of trading up for Floyd, before Spielman consulted with owner Zygi Wilf and decided to stand pat.

Patience paid off: Floyd was still there at 23, as was Rhodes at 25. Then the Vikes traded back into the first round (using the down-the-line capital they had considered burning in a Floyd trade-up) and nabbed Patterson with the 29th overall pick.

"To end up with all three, if you'd asked me about that before the draft, I'd have told you that's more than highly unlikely," Spielman said. "Because the talent pool was so close together, a lot of those teams that were above us were really trying to hone in on a specific need. And I think what happened was, when those teams start selecting all those offensive linemen, they start to go, and it pushed some very good defensive players down our way. It just happened to be great timing."

Beyond that, it highlighted where the Vikings are, and where they are headed in Year 3 of the Spielman/Frazier regime -- just not necessarily in the way you might think.

On the surface, the Vikings' first-round aggressiveness in a draft seen as average (at best) by most clubs appears to be the picture of a club selling out for now. Yet, in the rooms of this suburban facility, the Floyd/Rhodes/Patterson haul is viewed differently: As merely another example -- albeit maybe the brightest-shining one -- of the vision the coach and GM, both holdovers from the Brad Childress era, have been executing over the past few years.

The Vikings' roster now features seven top-45 picks, six of them first-rounders and all of them 25 or younger, from the past three drafts. There are big-money players on the team, but save for defensive end Jared Allen, all of them were drafted and developed in Minnesota -- a group that includes running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive tackle Kevin Williams. Sixteen draftees from 2011 and '12 make up the guts of the club.

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Even better: Now everyone is invested in the organization and its future. Spielman proudly says that six 2013 Viking free agents, including linebacker Erin Henderson, fullback Jerome Felton and offensive tackle Phil Loadholt, cancelled visits with other clubs and re-signed because they couldn't imagine not seeing through what's being built in Minnesota.

"Those guys talk amongst themselves," Frazier said. "And in Jerome's case, he's been at other teams, so he knows what those environments are like. Our guys know that we have a unique situation here in Minnesota. And the ones who buy into our philosophy, they know that they're gonna benefit not only now, but long after their careers are over. Every guy that's a part of what we're doing, they're gonna be a better person when they leave our football team. And we're gonna win in doing it."

That brings us back to Spielman, and the draft room, and why he and his staff were able to move so decisively when an unexpected opportunity presented itself with the presence of Floyd.

Mostly, it's because the vision here is shared.

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What Frazier saw as mistakes made in pre-2011 Minnesota, when he was the Vikings' defensive coordinator, set the path for the new group, which was made up simply of some of the old guys promoted into elevated roles.

"I remember, so many times, sitting in those draft meetings," Frazier said, "and feeling like we were on a different page, coaches and scouts."

That wasn't going to continue. Frazier met with Spielman after being named head coach, and the two hatched a plan for coaches to put together tapes and demonstrations on "what a Minnesota Vikings player should look like, from A to Z." Then, in the throes of the 2011 lockout, an internal clinic was staged -- scouts were drilled by the coaches and molds were carved.

"It took a lot of time, man, a lot of time," Frazier said. "But it was worth it, because in 2011, 2012, we had really good drafts. And I think 2013, we had a really good draft. But we went through every position, we talked about the character we were looking for in a player, height, weight, speed, athleticism, footwork -- every little detail.

"And every coach talked to the scouts, we filmed it, and then we wanted to hear back from the scouts what they heard, so no one walked out the room saying, 'Well, I don't remember hearing that. I didn't know you were looking for that.' No, no, no. Let's make sure all of us are hearing the same thing."

Prior missteps weren't hard to diagnose. The 2010 Vikings came apart at the seams as the result of a relentless win-now push, fueled in part by the age of the club's core and a 2009 run that fell just short of a Super Bowl. This left a mismatched roster in turmoil. Minnesota needed a serious makeover. Fortunately, some of the building blocks were already in place.

Frazier still recalls flying with Allen aboard Wilf's plane back in 2008, when the defensive end, with the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, was looking for a new football home. Allen had just completed a dominant fourth season in the NFL, leading the league in sacks (15.5) and earning All-Pro honors in a contract year. But given Allen's bevy of off-the-field problems (multiple DUI arrests), the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on their troubled star and allowed him to explore trade-and-sign options. On this fateful flight, Allen and Frazier discussed changes the emerging pass rusher needed to make in his personal life. Frazier was struck by how well Allen's mindset lined up with what he as a defensive coordinator was looking for in a player. A few days later, Allen cancelled visits with other clubs and instructed his agent to work out a deal with Minnesota. The agent later told Frazier that talk was the difference.

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Peterson, Greenway and Williams are three more who shared Frazier's vision, and they have remained cornerstones through the transition. And those in the building believe the emphasis on character helped the team's first- and second-year players grow up quickly last year, which manifested in a four-game winning streak to close out the regular season, getting the team back into the playoffs in Year 2 of the retooling.

"When we did have that dip last year, when we lost some games, and we had to win those four games to get in the playoffs, that showed maturation of this roster, as those young guys started to grow and handle that pressure of everything that was at stake as we went through that last part of the season," Spielman said. "So you're hoping and you're expecting that to carry on to this year."

The GM did allow that "we're expecting a step forward from Christian (Ponder)," but quickly added that he felt like the quarterback's growth last December sparked the team's surge: "I give him just as much credit for getting us in the playoffs as Adrian." Spielman added that it was made clear to new backup Matt Cassel, who's still just 30 and has quarterbacked 10- and 11-win teams in five seasons as a No. 1, that Ponder is the starter.

That, in a nutshell, captures where the entire franchise is headed. The general idea for Spielman has been to be conservative with free agents and trades and aggressive with the draft. Now he'll sink or swim with the young core he and Frazier have assembled.

*****

Eventually, the torch will need to be passed, with Williams now 32, Allen 31, Greenway 30 and Peterson 28 -- at a position where 30 looks more like 40. Meanwhile, Ponder is 25, safety Harrison Smith is 24 and tight end Kyle Rudolph and offensive tackle Matt Kalil are both 23. The way the Vikings see it, the sooner this becomes the latter group's team, the better.

"It's up to those guys now to start taking over the locker room," Frazier said. "We're a young team. We were a young team a year ago, maybe the fourth- or fifth-youngest team in the league. You're counting on the Christians, the Kyles to really take over and lead the team. There are not a lot of 10-year veterans on our team anymore, so you need those young guys to really step up and take the mantle when it comes to leadership."

The most decisive move in that direction this offseason might have been a subtraction rather than an addition, with receiver Percy Harvin jettisoned for a package of picks, topped with the No. 25 selection that became Rhodes. Frazier wasn't willing to go in-depth on whether or not Harvin, still just 24 years old, was a misfit in the Vikings' program and vision, saying only, "When he was out on the field, he did a lot of good things for us. I know he's happy now."

Outside of the intangible effect of the trade, the capital Spielman landed allowed more leeway for pushing the limits on draft day -- striking first for value, with Floyd at 23, and having enough left over to fill one big need at 25 and move up for another one at 29.

And even with all that accounted for, the Vikings still made six more picks over the three-day draft, and they're now carrying 25 players taken in the past three drafts. Without diminishing what the pre-2011ers bring to the table, it's clear that this is the group of guys that the Spielman/Frazier regime will be judged on, for better or worse.

That's just the way they planned it.

"When I sat with Leslie and our ownership," Spielman said, "I told them this is the direction we wanted to go with our team. And this, hopefully, would result in building a championship-caliber team. That vision is starting to come to light. Now, these guys still gotta come out and we have to find out if this draft class has the same type of impact the last two had. But I have a pretty good feeling that the guys we brought in should have some kind of impact for us."

The players feel it, too.

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Peterson just reiterated his goal of 2,500 rushing yards to SI.com -- he'd said it back in January on NFL Network, too -- and added that he thinks his team has the potential to get to the Super Bowl, and win it.

Frazier talked to his star about the proclamation last Thursday, emphasizing something he's stressed to all of his players: that it's still just May, and the singular focus should be on improving, as individuals and a team. But when asked about his own goals, and surveying what's happened here over the past 28 months, the coach eventually was lured to the same place where Peterson found himself a few days earlier.

"If we can improve, the sky's the limit for this team," Frazier said. "Finding a way to improve to the point where we can go get a win in the playoffs, and build on that win. That's the goal: Win our division, get a win at home in the playoffs and hopefully get to ... Where is it this year?"

Not a split-second passes before Frazier answers his own question: "New York? Yeah. That's the same goal that every team, all 32 teams, have -- our goals are the same. We want to win a home playoff game and keep going."

And that's one part of the vision that, for everyone here, is pretty easy to share.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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