"We want smart, passionate and tough football players"
Head coach Mike Zimmer isn't shy about defining what he wants in a player they acquire, but his slogan isn't complete.
The players the Vikings have acquired are generally known for their intelligence, passion and toughness, it's true. Last year, Anthony Barr, Scott Crichton and Jerick McKinnon embodied those concepts really well. Aware football players whose play in college reflected accelerated development curves and position-specific awareness that allowed them to perform a lot of different functions.
Something else those three have in common? They are unique athletes.
When talking about Danielle Hunter, general manager Rick Spielman said "He's a physical specimen—he's 6'5" and change, weighed 252 pounds; we measured his arms at 35 and a half, I think he had a 10-10 broad jump [ed. note - he did], which is extremely unique for his size and position.
"We feel he has tremendous upside to grow as a football player. It's another guy that I know Coach Zimmer loves to work with: athletic guys that have length."
Consider that last year, there were only 17 players who passed Justis Mosqueda's "Force Players" metric, a workout-specific set of filters that apply stringent standards to edge rushers and defensive linemen, and it looks at weight (or rather, density)-adjusted explosion, agility and burst. Three of those 17 force players ended up on the 90-man camp roster: Scott Crichton, Anthony Barr and Rakim Cox.
With only 3 percent of the available roster space in the NFL, the Vikings took 17 percent of the available Force Players.
Once again, they grabbed a Force Player in the third round with Danielle Hunter, a unique physical specimen for his combination of speed, agility, explosiveness and length. Should he meet half of his potential, he'll be a long-term starter.
Aside from Hunter, they've grabbed Trae Waynes, a 4.31-second speedster capable of defending deep, and Eric Kendricks, an underrated athlete whose test numbers exceed the basic filters for successful linebackers at the next level.
I've done a lot of work creating position-specific scores based on combine workouts, all graded 0-10. Generally speaking, 5 is average and anything above 9 is very difficult to find. Take a look at the scores of the Vikings picks for their position in this last draft and this one:
Anthony Barr's score above 10.0 is a product of the fact that the scores were indexed according to performances built from data from 2005-2011, where Patrick Willis scored a perfect 10.0. Since then, Anthony Barr has been the only player to score above 10.0 (actually, at any position). Ryan Shazier, Martez Wilson and Dontay Moch were the only players to come close to Willis.
The ATH scores are not position-specific, but are merely holistic scores using every workout and adjusting for weight and height—averaging out the impact of each of those workouts. They are built on percentile, where a 95 would mean that player is in the top 5 percent of athletes for his frame (which is to say Jerick McKinnon is in the top 0.3 percent of all NFL athletes, not just running backs).
Of note, the Vikings picked players in the top quarter 43 percent of the time and in the top half eighty percent of the time. Which is to say they overselected the top quartile of athletes by 68 points. Think of it this way, if athleticism mattered very little, one would expect only a quarter of the players drafted to be in the top quarter of their position. This was 168 percent representation in the top quarter and 158 representation of players from the top half. The Vikings only picked two players outside of the top 60 percent and no one in the 35th percentile or lower—and Diggs met a different roster requirement (discussed below) while Jabari Price was still very fast for his size, simply not agile or explosive.
"Fast for his size," by the way, is another angle to look at for the Vikings, who seem to find speed even more important than generalized athlete scores.
If one looks at 40 times and the expected 40 time for a player of a certain height and weight, it's clear that the Vikings invested more draft capital in fast players. Below we have a curve of expected 40s with weight on the x-axis and 40-times on the y-axis, and the "expected" score in orange with the true scores in blue.
For the stats nerds: the R^2 of the expected 40 and the actual 40s is 0.75—something I particularly am excited about given that the model was constructed out of one sample, tested at 0.75 with another sample and holds at 0.75 when using the whole dataset.
I've noted in red some of the best performers over the past 15 years, as well as the Vikings picks in the first three rounds in the Zimmer era in purple.
Every Viking player picked in the first three rounds beat their "expected" 40 time for their height and weight (not shown in the tables or graphs is Teddy Bridgewater, though he did also beat his positional averages in workouts for what it's worth).
Considering late-round picks like Price, Brandon Watts, MyCole Pruitt and Edmond Robinson, it's something they seem to care about throughout, though is not as strict a goal when entering Day 3 of the draft.
This generally doesn't hold true for offensive linemen it seems, but for other positions seems to be true. I'm also not sure what to do with players like
Shamar Stephen Isame Faciane, who have a relationship with a coach on staff (the defensive line coach at FIU is the Vikings' current DL coach, Andre Patterson) or David Yankey, who was teammates with the son of the current Vikings OL coach.
Regardless, it's an immensely risky strategy that relies both on a player's internal capacity for development (ie instincts, smarts and coachability) and a coach's ability to teach—sometimes teaching new positions entirely (Cordarelle Patterson learning receiver, Anthony Barr learning off-ball linebacker and Jerick McKinnon learning running back).
In this draft, we see the "pet project" is probably Danielle Hunter—with only five years of football under his belt. While much of his lack of production at LSU has to do with a scheme that limited edge rusher production, a lot of it had to do with his rawness and lack of technical or positional ability.
We've seen a lot of benefits to this approach; Barr has already flashed premier ability and is growing in coverage, while Jerick McKinnon has shown incredible maturity as a running back.
That's not true for everybody. Regardless of what you think about reports that Johnny Manziel was the top target for the Vikings (I think they were true), they did target an extremely polished quarterback that had theoretically limited upside in Teddy Bridgewater. They could have gone after those with more "upside" in Derek Carr or Logan Thomas if that was their sole model.
This year, choosing Eric Kendricks instead of moving heaven and earth to get Stephone Anthony also demonstrated that the Vikings have a multidimensional approach (though for all of Paul Dawson's technical and instinctive ability, I suspect he was off the Vikings board entirely)—and it helps that Kendricks is an above-average athlete for his size and position.
There are some other priorities, too. Obviously, being "good" at their job helps and it seems like roster-mirroring is important (that is, finding players whose abilities replicate those on the roster—like Stefon Diggs of Cordarrelle Patterson or Tyrus Thompson of Phil Loadholt), but for the most part, athletic ability is really important.
In fact, it's such a big deal that it seemed possible to predict some of their targets based on workouts alone. Both Edmond Robinson and Eric Kendricks fit models I speculated about months ago at linebacker. After slightly tweaking the defensive end model, Danielle Hunter was a clear fit, while Trae Waynes clearly fit the model (which, after modifying for Zimmer's height requirement of "taller than 5'9" only included 18 cornerbacks out of 220 tested).
Spielman functionally spelled it out when initially asked about what he liked about Trae Waynes. "I think the biggest thing is, there is no question about his athletic skill set ... there are some technical things that he'll have to work on. Those are just little tweaks.
"He is more than willing enough and tough enough in run support, but the biggest thing is the athletic traits are there to fit well in this scheme."
It's true that Waynes needed to pass filters as far as intelligence (something mentioned later in the same presser), character and instincts go, and to the extent that they can all veto a prospect they are "equally" important, but athleticism seems to be a major emphasis and a bigger reason to rank one prospect over another than particular football skills do.
Beyond just early picks, the late picks showed that pattern as well. MyCole Pruitt was one of two combine invitees at tight end to fit the pre-draft speculation and one of ten total tight ends (96 tested) to meet the Vikings' workout requirements. Stefon Diggs just barely did not fit the model I constructed before the draft, so a receiver model may not be as useful or easy to create.
In that linked piece, I did not cover offensive tackles or guards, but the tackles (T.J. Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson) both met the Vikings' theoretical model, which includes arm length, three-cone times and jump scores. Austin Shepherd, who didn't test well, did not meet the speculative workout requirements I outlined a few months ago—guards could simply be so unimportant with regards to tested physical ability that it may not matter (especially if they always pick guards late).
Still, that's a pretty good hit rate and pretty clear evidence of a trend. Some of these don't seem like a coincidence, given that only 8% of cornerbacks fit the model, and the Vikings targeted one of them (that scarcity may have driven their reluctance to trade down), while two of the linebackers selected were picked from a class of 35 qualifying linebackers (35 qualified out of 241; only 14.5% of the tested linebackers fit that criteria). Only 10% of tight ends met the criteria, and the Vikings selected one of them.
The risk in the strategy comes two-fold: the first is that a miss is generally a big miss; if the raw athlete doesn't develop, there's not much to salvage from that—in all likelihood, if he doesn't become a star, he also doesn't become a player who can really play in the NFL. With a "safer" prospect, a miss more often than not produces a replacement-level player (though of course, not always) than a total dud.
The second risk is that there is probably a lower hit rate (but with a higher return). Development requires a lot of things to go right, and if you compare "project" athletes to "safer" polished picks, there's a good chance you'll find more starters in the second group; you're functionally comparing a group comprised of players like Robert Griffin and Von Miller to a group made of players like Sam Bradford and Luke Kuechly.
The second group is going to produce more hits (Kuechly) than misses (Bradford), but the upside of the first group means that the misses (Griffin) are huge and the hits (Miller) are as well. The misses from the second group will often produce players who can consistently be backups somewhere, like Bradford should be (unless Chip Kelly is really on to something) while the misses in the first group are not around for long.
As examples, Mark Sanchez is sticking around longer than Vince Young did while Michael Crabtree looks like he'll be around longer than Ted Ginn.
There are exceptions (Keith Rivers is still in the NFL and Aaron Curry is not), but the point remains the same: in all likelihood, a miss will still more likely produce a serviceable player with a high-floor, low-ceiling option than in the opposite case (although one should point out that "ceiling" is not a well-understood or often useful concept, the larger point remains that a "topped out" player with less athletic potential is not as good as a topped out player that laps his peers on the track, assuming they are mentally similar).
The Vikings are one-upping this concept by including position converts—like Patterson (functionally), Barr and McKinnon—with unimaginable upside, narrowing the range of possible outcomes even more. They've also invested in players who haven't played football for very long (Danielle Hunter or T.J. Clemmings are both good examples).
That increased level of risk requires more effort. Spielman, when asked about scouting Hunter, said "That's why we went down and watched him personally work out. We spent time with him at the Combine, we spent time with him at our interviews at the Combine that very night.
"A lot of times, when we are in the draft room, when we are talking about players, we talk about potential, and asking 'does this guy have potential and the athletic traits that the coaches want to work with?'
"I can't tell you how much confidence I have in Coach Zimmer and his coaching staff to develop young guys and get the best out of them. You can't find the unique traits that he has."
When Zimmer took the podium after the Waynes pick, he was also asked what stood out to him for the corner. "I think his overall game is the combination of everything. He's got great speed, he's 4.31, he's 6-0 and it's hard to find 6-0 corners nowadays."
It's not that the Vikings don't value polish, smarts or anything else, it's just that athletic ability is often the first thing they mention with prospects, and it is a glaring tendency in the last two drafts. Compare that to the Houston Texans' presser after the first day of the draft, where they drafted a standout athlete in Benardrick McKinney, and they barely mention his athletic skills, if at all. "He's got a good size, good length, an active player, a tough player."
Those are all qualities that the Vikings value, of course, but athleticism in general doesn't seem to take the priority there as it does here (the Texans were chosen because I wanted to find a team that had transcripts online and drafted a clearly exceptional athlete in the first round, but you can find the stark differences almost anywhere—except perhaps Seattle and Philadelphia). The Texans even drafted a SPARQ star in Reshard Cliett and didn't mention his athleticism once.
It's clear where they want to go and how they'll go about doing it. You or I might disagree with individual picks, but I think the broader strategy is exciting and worth digging into.
But you trust Mike Zimmer, right? I do. I think if there's a reasonable chance that the hit rate for projects is higher with Minnesota and the Mike Zimmer staff than it is elsewhere, it's a strategy worth pursuing. They will produce busts (like if Patterson doesn't pan out) but they'll also produce some outstanding players. Say Scott Crichton doesn't become an interesting player but Danielle Hunter exceeds Everson Griffen's potential. Worth it, right?
That may not be the best way to think of it—after all, I just implied everything was a 50-50 shot—but for the most part, if they do better than their colleagues at player development, it's a smart long-term strategy. And I think they will.