EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) - The Minnesota Vikings will listen to trade offers. They'll consider every option. That's what any NFL team does during the draft.
But when the Vikings are on the clock for the third overall pick on Thursday night, there will be a clear-cut, 6-foot-7, 306-pound choice staring this rebuilding franchise right in the face.
His name is Matt Kalil, widely considered the best available offensive lineman this year and expected to be selected by the Vikings. They need to better protect quarterback Christian Ponder, and what better way to do that then to take an elite left tackle with the potential to block Ponder's blind side for the next decade?
"I just think he's a plug-and-play left tackle who can start immediately and can start at a high level and become a perennial Pro Bowl-type player," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said.
Long arms. Big hands. Tall frame. Mobile body. Strong bloodline. Hard worker. Nasty streak. Those are the prevailing descriptions of Kalil, who left USC after his junior season. He needs to get stronger to develop a better finishing technique when he's run blocking and hold his ground more consistently against bull-rushing defensive ends.
But with quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III spoken for with the first two picks, Kalil is considered to be in the next tier with Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. And this is not a group of consolation prizes, either. They're all carrying that blue chip label.
Blackmon and Claiborne would also fill significant holes on the roster. Or the Vikings could add to their stash of 10 picks, try to pick up a couple of other starters in the middle rounds and move down in a trade with another team trying to pick third. General manager Rick Spielman said Tuesday the market was "heating up" for making a deal.
"It would take a team blowing me away, because you don't have many opportunities to get an elite left tackle and a guy that can protect your investment," McShay said earlier this month on a conference call with media members.
"Whether you believe Ponder's going to be a great quarterback or not at all, bottom line: You drafted him high last year, and I know the organization is confident in him. So you've got to do everything you can to put him in the best situation to succeed, and I think right now unless you get multiple picks that can come in and be successful and productive players around that quarterback position, just go ahead and take the tackle."
The bust rate at this position is clearly lower than quarterbacks, wide receivers or defensive ends. Jake Long, Joe Thomas and D'Brickashaw Ferguson are some of the stars who've emerged after being taken in the top five over the past several years. Kalil has family on his side, too. His father, Frank, was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1982 and played in the USFL. His brother, Ryan, is the center for the Carolina Panthers and has been to three straight Pro Bowls.
"Confidence is definitely a big part of your game," Kalil said at the NFL scouting combine in February. "And I think they want to hear that you do think you're the best tackle, and I think I am."
The Vikings haven't selected in the top three since 1968, when they drafted offensive tackle Ron Yary first overall. Yary, another USC product, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Vikings haven't even been in the top five since 1985, when they got defensive end Chris Doleman, a soon-to-be Hall of Famer. They haven't picked in the top 10 since 2005, when they made the ill-fated selection of wide receiver Troy Williamson with the pick obtained in the Randy Moss trade.
This is the first draft that Spielman has full authority over for the Vikings, who promoted him from vice president of player personnel a few months ago. In the past, the head coach had equal input.
"I'm very excited about it, because I know that this is my responsibility. My name is on this. But I also think my name has been on all the other drafts in the past," Spielman said. "And I have the utmost confidence in the work that's been done. And I have the utmost confidence in the people that get us prepared for this draft."
The NFL's annual period of pre-draft misinformation, speculation and subterfuge won't end until Thursday night, so trying to get honest answers out of executives and coaches around the league this time of year is a fruitless exercise with the quest for competitive advantages at a seasonal peak. Spielman, at least, acknowledged the Vikings will decide between Blackmon, Claiborne and Kalil - that's merely alphabetical order - if they stay in the third slot.
"I can tell you those three picks on the board have exactly the same grade, and I'll just leave it at that," Spielman said.
"Everybody has a favorite, including me," Spielman said.
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