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Drafting for Need vs. Drafting the Best Player Available

As we're now less than six weeks away from the NFL's Annual Selection Meeting, speculation is starting to run wild about what teams are going to do at their positions.  If you look at the Mock Draft Database we've got here (conveniently linked on your left), you can see that a lot of people have the Vikings spending their 17th overall selection on a defensive lineman, whether it's Florida's Derrick Harvey or Clemson's Phillip Merling.  In fact, of the 50 Mock Drafts that we have listed, nearly 60% of them have the Vikings taking either Merling or Harvey.

This poses the question of whether or not a team, such as the Beloved Purple, should simply use their first-round selection to fill a "need" position or whether they should simply select the player that they deem to be the best player available on their board at that time.  Obviously, when you're early in the first round, "need" and "talent" pretty much intersect.  After all, how much foresight does it take to select Peyton Manning #1 overall?  But as you get further down into the first round, the gap between "need" and "talent," depending on the position, can change. . .and it can change in either direction.

For example, go back to 1998.  The Vikings are sitting at #21, and a guy by the name of Randy Moss just keeps dropping. . .and dropping. . .and dropping.  Now, the Vikings already had a pair of pretty good wide receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed.  Wide receiver wasn't exactly a "need" for the Vikings, but Moss was just too good a value to pass up, so the Vikings jumped on him.  The result was a passing game so good that the team set a record for the most points scored in a season and fielded, in my slightly biased opinion, the greatest offense in the history of the NFL.  You could also point to last year's selection of Adrian Peterson as an example of this, and you saw what it did to the Vikings' rushing game in 2007.

Now, look back to 2005.  The Vikings' 2005 draft was pretty much a disaster on every front, and it started right at the top.  The Vikings were fresh off of dealing Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders and had received the #7 overall pick in the draft in exchange for him.  When the #7 pick rolled around, the Vikings reached to fill a "need" with Troy Williamson rather than going with the best available player, which probably would have been DE/LB Shawne Merriman or DE DeMarcus Ware.  Now, the Vikings had a need at DE, too. . .the Vikings have had a need at DE since they traded Chris Doleman, but that's here nor there. . .but their self-imposed pressure to "replace" Randy Moss was so great that they took a less talented player to fill that need.  As we all saw first-hand, it didn't work quite so well.

I was asked to do a blogger mock draft with the folks at  They asked bloggers from different teams to make their selections for their teams, and when the Vikings' pick came up, I was faced with a dilemma.

Now, there should be very little doubt that the Vikings' biggest positions of need at the time were (in no particular order) DE, WR, and DB (be it CB or S).  But if you look at the link to the draft above there, you'll see that 3 defensive ends and 4 cornerbacks had already come off the board, as well as 3 offensive tackles.  That's 10 players that all play positions that the Vikings could use help at.  Surprisingly, there were no wide receivers taken prior to the Vikings pick at #17, and I was all ready to jump on one such as Malcolm Kelly or James Hardy, when I noticed something curious.

Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, who has been projected as a Top 3-5 pick in nearly every mock draft I've seen out there, and no later than the Top 10 to be sure, was still sitting out there and available.  In many mock drafts, Ryan is the only QB listed with a first-round grade, so to see him available at #17 was a huge shock.  So the question begged itself. . .should I take the most talented guy at what might not necessarily be a "need" position, or do you take a guy that's slightly less talented, but would be a bigger upgrade at his position?

As much as I like Tarvaris Jackson and believe in his talent, Ryan was too good to pass up there, so I jumped on him.  I'm not sure if the Vikings would do the same, but that's what I did.  Even if Ryan wasn't able to snag the starting job from Jackson right away, he'd provide a MASSIVE upgrade over Brooks Bollinger, and would be a much better option to step in should Jackson be injured again.  A receiver like Kelly or Hardy, or even an OT like Jeff Otah, would also be an upgrade, but not quite on the level of upgrading from Bollinger to Ryan, in my opinion.

Will a DE be the best player available when the Vikings select at #17 this April?  They might be, they might not be.  But if that's not the case, history. . .and particularly recent Vikings' history. . .has shown that it's usually better to take the most talented player available regardless of position than to reach for someone just to fill a need.  I hope that the Vikings continue to take this philosophy to heart this year like they did in 1998 and 2007.