The Minnesota Vikings face unique challenges entering the 2013 NFL Draft and have a lot of questions they need to address. Coming off of a 10-6 record and a brief playoff berth, the Vikings seem to be on the rise. But with the magic of regression to the mean and the difficulties of a stronger schedule this year, the Vikings could find themselves on the outside looking in come January.
In order to stave off a drop in performance, the Vikings will have to make sure they draft well and produce several immediate starters to fill glaring holes. It's an extremely difficult prospect, as even first-round rookies find it difficult to contribute immediately.
Luckily the Vikings have a lot of value to work with, with two first-round picks and two fourth-round picks. While they can move around or stand fast and pick for quality, the Vikings find themselves with more options—and arguably more obvious needs—than they did in 2013.
The success of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 Vikings franchises might depend in a large way on this draft, given how much capital the Vikings are working with and how deep the draft is shaping up to be.
Ultimately, fans may see their hopes fulfilled or dashed as a result of the answer to a few key questions.
The Vikings are missing quality starters at nose tackle, middle linebacker and receiver. They might also want to replace Charlie Johnson or provide competition to Brandon Fusco at guard. Given Chris Cook's absences from the field and Josh Robinson's struggles—as well as Winfield's departure—the Vikings will need to expand their secondary to produce a high-impact cornerback.
They will need to produce anywhere between three and five starting-caliber players, a tough proposition in any year. With a deep class at the three biggest holes and a fairly good set of cornerbacks to boot, the Vikings have a great opportunity to produce some starters.
It does mean, however, that they'll have to find more polished players instead of raw athletic talent. Occasionally, they might find both in players like Alec Ogletree, but they'll have to avoid developmental players like Cordarrelle Patterson in favor of "safer" picks like Robert Woods. The Vikings don't have time to wait for players to develop.
This will require much more difficult scouting than most, because projecting immediate starting capability is more difficult than it is to draft athletic talent. If the Vikings land four starters, they'll have done an extraordinary (and statistically unlikely) job. The problem is that they might need that many.
Unlike other draft classes, the wide receivers in the 2013 draft are not so far apart in talent that there are clear front-runners or solid top-tier receivers. The difference between the best receiver in the class and the tenth best is at an historic low.
ESPN puts out draft grades on every player drafted by NFL teams and many who are not. Those grades, ranking from 0-100 (but more realistically 40-100) can be used to determine how "strong" a class is or how far apart players are in overall skill. Statistical tools can be used to answer questions like "how strong is this draft class?" and "how significant is the dropoff between this player and another player?" Here, to determine how far apart in skill players are, one can use the standard deviation.
In statistics, a standard deviation is a measure that can be used to determine how spaced apart data can be. It simply shows how much variation there is from the average. In this case, the larger the standard deviation, the further apart the receiver class.
Using data culled from ESPN Insider, one can easily evaluate the top receivers in a particular year. Using standard deviation and player rankings going back to 2005, this is the closest receiver class ESPN has ever graded. The standard deviation for the top ten draft-eligible wide receivers from 2005-2012 was between 5.3 and 8.7, but was generally around 7. The standard deviation for this year was shockingly low at 4.8.
It's a rough measure that demonstrates what people already know: this is the hardest to differentiate receiver class in recent memory, and quite possibly since grades for individual players have been made public.
Because not every receiver will do well, the Vikings absolutely need to nail down their scouting and find the right receivers, because they will be that much harder to find.
The Vikings need to get Christian Ponder some help, and not just because the Vikings had one of the league's worst passing games in 2012 and the second fewest passing yards. This year is a make-or-break one for Christian Ponder, and without a good stable of receivers, it will be very difficult to evaluate what the Vikings have.
Not only that, a strong passing game should theoretically open up the running game and give Adrian Peterson more room to run. That can only be good for a run-oriented Vikings offense.
Making the correct determination will have cascade effects for the Vikings offense.
In every draft, there are a number of talented players who end up in the "wrong" system—one that hides their strengths and emphasizes their weaknesses. Each team has a scheme that will take advantage of a different set of talents and the Vikings are no different. In that way, they are restricted in the pool of available players who can benefit the team.
But sometimes, players are so talented that it would be a waste not to select them, regardless of scheme. The balance between talent and scheme fit is one that teams try to find the better side of every year. Players find themselves in poor schematic fits nearly every year, and the talent that teams saw sometimes goes away.
This happens in free agency often, where a player who was talented in one system disappears in another—Nnamdi Asomugha is an excellent example, where an exclusively man-free corner who played on the right ended up playing zone on either side with the Eagles—and lost nearly all of his acclaim. Glenn Dorsey is an example of a player who was drafted for the wrong scheme and seemingly disappeared. Dorsey was a 3-technique defensive tackle for a 4-3 system but was forced to play defensive end in a 3-4 system.
The easiest solution is to "design your scheme around available talent," but that's easier said than done. The perceived flexibility of Bill Belichick has increased the popularity of this suggestion, but it doesn't make it a simple fix. Belichick often found players who fit his schemes perfectly, but were deficient at a number of other things that made them cheap—which is not quite what proponents of the "talent-first" approach are advocating.
The issue with finding talent first and scheme second is fairly simple—scheme philosophies are dependent upon each other for success. There are cascading effects to a scheme change to accomodate a single talented player that places different demands on other players on the field—one they may not be able to meet. For example, if the Vikings wanted to eschew finding a nose tackle in favor of a very good pass-rushing under tackle, they would be forced to implement a "Wide 9" defensive front, leaving both "A" gaps (the gap on either side of the center) open.
This system does a good job of creating pressure from four linemen, but it creates additional stress on the linebackers, who are fully responsible for the run game. With three linebackers responsible for four or even five gaps against pro sets, it's difficult to stop the run without top-tier linebackers who can read blocks as well as plays.
So, drafting one player and changing the scheme to put him on the field changes the requirements for nearly every other player on the field. It is not simple or useful to change the scheme in response to draft talent available, because it could downgrade the on-field production or scheme talent of the players on the roster at the moment. Rare examples, like Bill Arnsparger's initial 3-4 at Miami or Bill Parcell's "true" 3-4 front at New York have captured imagination, but failed examples (like the Vikings' brief experiment with the 3-4) have been forgotten.
Even the perceived master of scheme flexibility, Bill Belichick, has found problems adjusting his talent and scheme to match. The transition to a 4-3 had nearly neutralized Vince Wilfork and made him a liability for most of 2012. The same thing happened to Devin McCourty his sophomore year after a phenomenal rookie season because Belichick switched to a zone system to accommodate players. McCourty was targeted again and again.
So, when the Vikings draft, they have to be very sensitive to scheme. Without it, they could end up with another Jasper Brinkley.
This means when face with a choice between a man corner and a zone corner—say Xavier Rhodes or Desmond Trufant—they'll want to bias their decision towards the zone corner. Same with middle linebackers, where deep drops and zone coverage is important. If the Vikings draft a guard, they need to find someone with extremely good footwork above all else, given the complication of the Vikings' run game.
If the Vikings find ways to draft talent and scheme fit, they'll have set themselves up for a very long time.
The Vikings have five players on their roster from Notre Dame, a school they've become known to draft from. In addition, they have four players from USC and three players from Arkansas and Iowa.
There are solid football reasons to do this that are outside simply being enamored with a school's history or reputation. Chemistry is as important as anything in football, and if teams can cheat and add several years of experience to a relationship that should take much longer to develop. That communication can be critical and establish solid assignment play early on. There are innumerable examples of how that chemistry can help, from signaling how to cycle coverage or dump a receiver off from one player to another to reading blocking or protection assignments that much faster.
Beyond that, some schools play schemes closer to the professional scheme that the drafting organization would like to implement. Players that know the scheme are not only going to learn the system that much more quickly, they have proven talent within that scheme.
From Notre Dame, there are a number of draftable prospects, the most notable of which are Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o. The Vikings already have an Irish tight end in Kyle Rudolph and they are enamored with the result. Creating a tandem of tight ends who know how to play off each other and work within a similar offense could create enormous dividends. Manti Te'o has been one of the more talked about prospects in the draft and remains a talented middle linebacker who specializes in coverage—fitting the Vikings' needs to a T.
The Vikings will also want to find ways to prepare for Toby Gerhart entering free agency, and Theo Riddick or Cierre Wood could be drafted to replace him. Riddick could even be used as a very poor man's Percy Harvin, given his flexibility. Knowing that three defensive ends will enter free agency as well in the next year, they could even take a chance on Kapron Lewis-Moore, who could develop into a very good starter int he NFL.
Finally, they may want to create a Golden Dome secondary by adding Zeke Motta, who has worked with Harrison Smith in the past. Motta complements Smith's skill set, as he could fulfill a strong safety role when the Vikings choose to differentiate their safety responsibilities.
From USC, there are even more prospects, with top-tier receiving prospect Robert Woods leading the way. Matt Barkley likely won't find himself in a draft spot where it would make sense for the Vikings to draft him, but he would be an interesting addition. In the secondary, Nickell Robey could replace Antoine Winfield in the slot and T.J. McDonald could man the secondary as a safety if need be.
Khaled Holmes is the last of the draftable prospects and could take over for Charlie Johnson at guard as he learns how to play center in the NFL.
Arkansas offers some similar prospects, with a receiver to pair with Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in Cobi Hamilton and a quarterback who is too good to be drafted by the Vikings (Tyler Wilson). Knile Davis is the most exciting prospect who is still draftable for the Vikings and could serve as a change-of-pace back to replace Toby Gerhart, and Alvin Bailey could compete for Fusco or Johnson's spot at guard.
Iowa doesn't have as many prospects, but Micah Hyde is a perfect fit as a zone corner, while Keenan Davis has a good eye for the ball.
If the Vikings are truly committed to certain schools, expect one of those prospects to headline their choices.
The easiest question to ask is the hardest question to answer.
A critical part of the draft that GMs must excel at is figuring out how teams are going to draft other players so that they can best create a strategy that maximizes value. Those that play the First-Pick game well know the difference between a live mock draft and a generic mock draft.
Participating in several different live mocks will really emphasize the difference between producing a mock without the pressure to pick and undergoing the calculations it takes to figure out who to pick. NFL teams will produce dozens of mock drafts and keep "needs books" on every team partially for this reason.
For example, in MockOne's most recent live mock, Aaron Dobson lasted well into the third round at pick 70. In SBNation's Community Mock Draft, he went 48th. The run at receiver in one mock may not be reflect in another mock, and shifting priorities for teams will make it difficult to figure out which positions can be addressed later.
In a theoretically deep draft, say the draft for pass-rushers this year, means teams may be able to wait and pick up a player at equivalent need at a thinner position, like at quarterback. But if teams snap up as many pass-rushers as possible and avoid quarterbacks, it may do a team worse to pick a quarterback. Fans constructing a generic mock without the in-game decisions don't get the full effect of changing draft boards.
Live mocks don't cheat and require drafters not just to evaluate talent, but read other needs and predict where other players will go. They need to respond to changing conditions and not simply assume a player will fall where they might expect them to just because of their generic stock. CBS ranks six defensive tackles as "first-round" defensive tackles, but only four tend to get drafted in most live mocks.
It is just as important to figure out the game of the draft and determine more than player quality. Misreading the draft may lead a GM to end up with the top cornerback and the fifth-best nose tackle instead of the second-best nose tackle and the second-best cornerback.
Rick Spielman has been very good at figuring out how to generate value in the draft, but will need to do so again. It's not simply that he found good players like Matt Kalil or Harrison Smith. He read the market correctly and moved up to grab Harrison Smith in order to prevent the Vikings from having to deal with the next tier of safeties, giving up a fourth-round pick to do so. The significant dropoff from Harrison Smith and Mark Barron to Tavon Wilson was enough to warrant a move, and Spielman got his guy before another team could snap him up in the interim.
On the other hand, people will always question the wisdom of drafting Christian Ponder at the 12th spot, given the surprising depth of the quarterback class and Ponder's supposed second-round stock. In order to prevent future mistakes, Spielman will need to make sure that he reads the market on each position carefully in order to squeeze as much value out of the draft as possible.
In 2012, Rick Spielman pulled off arguably the best trade of the draft by moving down one spot while grabbing a fourth-round pick, a fifth-round pick and a seventh-round pick in the process without losing any value.
The Vikings also moved up to get Harrison Smith and found an extra fourth-round pick in 2013 by giving up a seventh-round pick and a fifth-round pick in 2012. In another move up, they traded a seventh-round pick in 2012 to get Tennessee's sixth-round pick, which they ended up using to get A.J. Jefferson and a seventh.
It's safe to say that Spielman is active, and he may be active once more. In a class that's well-regarded as deep, he may move down into the second-round like Belichick has so many times or move up to grab a top-tier player like Atlanta famously did for Julio Jones.
The greater value is arguably to be had below, but with so many teams clearly recognizing this fact, it may be hard to really trade down. Given the cycling of quarterbacks—Matt Flynn reportedly to the Raiders, with rumors of Carson Palmer ending up in Arizona and Kevin Kolb moving to Buffalo—teams may not feel as forced to spend a top pick on a quarterback, which could inspire some teams to trade up out for the second-round to grab that quarterback a little later while they shore up other important positions.
According to the draft value trading chart developed by Jimmie Johnson, the Vikings' 23rd pick and 102nd pick is worth exactly as many points as San Francisco's 34th and 61st pick. That could be an option for a team looking to double-dip in the first round to replace Dashon Goldson and a long-term answer at receiver.
Arizona, for example, could trade into pick 25 and 120 select a quarterback with picks 38 and 69. There are any number of potential trade possibilities and Spielman will be looking for him. What looks to be a bad trade at the onset could end up being a good trade, as the Lions-Vikings trade in 2010 turned out to be. Fans will be looking for more of the same, especially given the unique depth of the draft.