Rick Spielman had garnered a bit of a (somewhat unfounded) reputation for being frugal in free agency prior to this year. The splashes he has made in his tenure with the Vikings- both before and after becoming the official general manager- were often overshadowed by a perception that he was a ‘bargain basement hunter' type who was happy to sit the first flurry out and sort through the remaining pieces after.
In case you've been sitting under a rock, that concept has been blown out of the water this year. With moves both big and small (namely, Brinkley, Joseph, THE CAPTAIN, and something called a ‘Cox') amongst those available, as well as re-signing in house pieces he considered critical (Cassel, Griffin, Evans, Simpson, et al), Spielman has attacked free agency with a vigor and has indicated that he's not yet done.
Of note, Spielman appears to have focused far more on defense than offense. This is of course intuitive and not very surprising; outside of QB and OG, the offense really wasn't in need of much. The defensive side of the ball, on the other hand, didn't have a single position without a question mark assigned to it.
While new head coach Mike Zimmer has commented (in essence) that he feels that the rebuild could take well more than just one year, Spielman all the same seems content on building as much of this team back into its glory days sooner rather than later. (Don't read into that, by the way, as some sort of indication of unaligned philosophies or goals- all reports indicate that the two have worked hand-in-hand throughout this process.)
So what does all of this mean for the upcoming draft? While Spielman's reputation in free agency was that of a ‘wait and see' approach, conversely he's been seen- particularly in the past two drafts- as an extremely aggressive wheeler-and-dealer, netting five first round picks (Kalil, Smith, Floyd, Rhodes, and Patterson) in just two years. But just because that's been his reputation doesn't necessarily mean that that's exactly how he will always approach the draft. To his great credit the aggressive moves for five first round picks have also netted five very solid starters (or, in Floyd's case, future starters), with nary a bust amongst them. This indicates that he is aggressive only when he and his scout team have identified a target that the team needs, and further indicates that their ability to pick these targets is quite good. Which, of course, further means that he won't be aggressive unless such a target is available.
In a draft such as the upcoming one, seen as deep at several important positions and with the Vikings having the number 8 overall pick, there is a strong possibility that Spielman will want to swap down and garner more selections. He's said as much- of course, if you believe Spielman right now, well, then I have a bridge for sale that I'd LOVE to discuss with you.
On the other hand, there is one critical position that is still a glaring weakness, and one that absolutely cannot be fixed in free agency: quarterback. While the team re-signed Matt Cassel to a two-year contract, it's clear that he is not the QB of the future for us. Furthermore, Cassel's value as a backup/ mentor cannot be ignored- if we want to groom the future, he is a huge asset in that regard as well. And with the Vikings again sitting at pick number 8, with only two or three quarterbacks by and large believed to be actual NFL starting caliber talent, it's not terribly likely we can nab our future in the draft.
While any attempts to read into Spielman's intended draft strategy beforehand are inevitably going to be half-correct at best (nobody saw a trade down with the Browns in 2012 coming), perhaps we can begin to clarify some likely paths he's going to take via his actions in free agency.
As it stands right now, you can cross basically any D-line position off our list of needs. That's not to say we couldn't use- and won't pursue- a little more depth, but it's not very high up there anymore. Furthermore you can bump CB down a bit- it's still a need, mind you, but not as big as it was before when we basically needed two more starting caliber players as well as depth. The aforementioned QB situation is still glaring, as is LB and OG. (I would list needs starting with those three, in that order.) I don't see safety being a concern, as Sanford is likely safe for another year- not to mention decent depth like Sendejo in that department. (Sanford... the safety... is safe. See what I did there? Please tell me you saw what I did there.)
Potential Draft Action The First: All In, Baby.
While Spielman has been aggressive in addressing our defensive woes in free agency, Zimmer again has said that a rebuild into his dream defense will take some time. On the other hand, NORV is eager to begin building up the QBOTF who will lead us to five consecutive Lombardis. Well aware that the team needs a QB, and that mediocrity can slide us into quarterback hell (being just good enough to never have a decent shot at top-tier talent in the draft, yet never good enough to win it all) and that the chance to get one may never be better, Spielman makes his move.
Hate me if you will- and many will take me up on that offer- but I don't see Spielman being interested in Johnny F'in Football. He's not the kind of QB who will fit in well with Turner's offense, and regardless the gamble in him is a pretty hefty one- having gambled and lost in Ponder, I do actually believe it when Spielman admitted that he was, in fact, a bit gun-shy on drafting the next QB. That leaves Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater as his targets.
I also do not believe for a second that the Texans will draft anyone- even Clowney- over a QB at number one. I would be THRILLED if I were wrong as this could really open up our options, but I just don't see it happening. This means whomever of those two the Texans identify as the best QB (unless it is, in fact, Manziel himself) will be gone. Again assuming that it's not Manziel, this means that there is exactly one guy under center Spielman has a shot at.
In an ideal world, the Vikings would just have to find a way to swap with the Flacons- a move of two spots- to land a QB. This means, however, that Bortles/ Bridgewater has to slide past the QB needy Jaguars, Browns, and Raiders. Even if Manziel takes up one of those slots that's still two teams that are going to have to pass on a quarterback for this kind of a trade to work. Instead, the Vikings are most likely going to have to find a way to hit up the Rams (who made the trade-of-the-century for that number two pick just a few years ago) or even the Jaguars- although, considering our targets may well be one and the same, I sincerely doubt the Jaguars will move.
What would it take to move up to the #2 spot? And would Spielman actually be so aggressive? Well, seeing as how we have addressed a few holes already on defense, it's very possible Spielman would be willing to pass on a few helpful targets to get that ever-coveted signal caller. Plus, with the aforementioned depth, he may feel that giving up the 2nd round and even the 3rd round picks would be acceptable- especially if he plans on finding ways later to move back up into those rounds.
Trying to figure out exactly what we'd have to do is pretty much impossible, at least to be accurate. The old draft trade chart is essentially useless thanks to the rookie wage cap. And with the depth of this draft, it has been said a few times that moving up will cost less this year. That said the #2 spot is still the #2 spot, and the Rams could easily create a bidding war should the Vikings come calling. (And it could take quite a bit to fight off the Jaguars offer.) While Spielman doesn't care much for trading future picks, this could be the scenario where it happens- our first rounder this year as well as next year's (knowing Rick, look for that to be conditional if possible). Even then we might still have to cough up a second rounder to get that move done (if not, in fact, more).
This would be an incredibly aggressive move, one unprecedented in Spielman's tenure. That said, he's already missed (badly) one on quarterback- the pressure is on. Either he convinces Wilf that this year is a mulligan on finding a QB or he gets it done. And again, let's not forget- while it's just on paper right now, I find it hard to believe that we won't be a better team come next year. That's great but in terms of securing the QB position that means we're going to have a lower pick in 2015 and beyond, and the ability to grab ‘that guy' will be harder and costlier.
It's just a chance, and call it as slim as you may, but I see this being a real possibility- and one he could be setting up for now by aggressively fixing needs in FA to ease the use of picks for a trade in May.
Secure The Defense And Make It Legendary, We'll Deal With QB Later
Spielman may not want to go so all out on a quarterback this year- either it's just too against his philosophy, he's not truly sold on any of those in this draft and will be happy just taking a Carr or Garoppolo later, or the cost is simply too prohibitive. (If it's for a QB that he's sold on, that at this point means ‘the cost is something he can't physically afford'. Or it better be, anyways.) If he's not going to break the bank to take one more swing at the position, then barring Mack/ Clowney being there at #8, look for the trade down. (Clowney will not be there, and I personally see the odds of Mack being there as slim.) LB and CB are still needs, as is OG (and let's not forget an additional RB). With the D-line secure and the safety position being ‘acceptable' for now, Spielman's going to want to begin stacking things up. With Zimmer in the fold, I could see a Seattle-style ‘everyone competes' camp with several positions being quite filled.
In fact, this could be Spielman's evil master plan all along. Having an offense loaded with weapons and crafted by a known offensive savant, he may be attempting to do everything possible to patch over the QB hole and make a Ravens/Buccaneers style run- one based on a ‘sold enough' offense and a legendary defense. (One could argue the Seahawks just did this as well, but that really ignores what Wilson has done for that team and can continue to do for that team, and I hate that mentality.) This could further explain his aggressive FA strategy- turning a nearly historic low in defense into a true shutdown, ‘screw QB we can do this ourselves' monster, even if we accept a two or three year timeline, will require a constant strategy of adding new players into the mix.
If that mentality occurs, then a trade down is more than likely- at least with the #8 pick. With a deep draft I doubt Spielman accrues multiple first round picks, but we may end up with a bounty of second rounders used primarily on guys whose sole purpose will be to make other offenses miserable. (Again, not to ignore the fact that we're going to grab a RB at some point as well as an OG- or, at least, we better.)
While hopefully the perceived rise of ‘not first round' starting QBs (Kaepernick, Wilson) that seems to jumble the minds of fans hasn't entered into the thoughts of an experienced professional like Spielman, he may still be happy accepting mediocrity at that position if he can ensure that other teams simply can't score on us. Of course this is a tall order in a division with Aaron Rodgers, but that doesn't mean it's not his intention.
So Which One Is It?
Like I said earlier- this is Rick Spielman, so who knows. But FA has definitely changed the landscape of the Vikings' potential draft moves- again, either we have put ourselves in a position to draft defense as aggressively as we've added to it in FA, and could take leaps and bounds on that side of the ball; or, we have opened up some needs so that a crazy trade up to take care of QB once and for all can occur. Ultimately this will likely depend on two things: first, if Spielman truly believes a superstar franchise cornerstone indeed exists in this draft; and second, if it's even physically possible for him to find a way to get said cornerstone.
And good luck figuring the answer to that riddle out pre-draft. What say you, fellow Vikings fans? After a crazy (and still ongoing) free agency, will Spielman move up for a QB or down to get more defensive pieces in the draft?