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Vikings Draft Grades

The Daily Norseman issues some annual draft grades...

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If you're looking for draft grades of the 2016 NFL Draft, less than 24 hours after it has finished...then you're looking in the wrong place!  As I've done for several off-seasons now, I'll be offering draft grades for the draft that happened FOUR YEARS AGO, or in other words, the 2012 draft.  Why am I looking back four years ago?  During the 2010 lockout the NFLPA calculated the average length of an NFL career to be about 3 years, while the NFL pushed a number closer to 6 years.  A couple of years ago, a blogger over at Sharp Football Analysis calculated that it was probably closer to 5 years, at least since 2002.  If an average NFL career is somewhere between 3 and 6 years (and probably closer to 5 depending on how you calculate a "career year") it means we need to wait at least 3 years before we pass judgement on a draft prospects career, but probably longer.  So, I prefer to wait 4 years until I issue my grades for a draft.  That means you can expect to find my grades for the 2016 Draft in...let's see...2020!  In the meantime, now is the perfect time to pass judgement on the 2012 draft.

Let's flashback to the 2012 off-season...fair warning, this might get a little ugly.  In fact, let's flash back even further: to the start of 2011 season, which was one of the worst Vikings seasons in a long time.  The Vikings had just drafted Ponder during a lock-out off-season with Leslie Frazier as the head coach.  The Vikings traded for McNabb late in the off-season program in a sign of panic, and ultimately that 2011 team finished 3-13. They had a pretty bad defense; one that ranked near the bottom of the league and even ignored coaches.  It got so bad defensive coordinator Fred Pagac was officially demoted after the season.  The Vikings had effectively hit rock bottom tying a franchise record for the worst finish since the 1970 merger.  The last time they had finished with only 3 wins was in 1984...with Les Steckel as head coach (generally regarded as the worst season in Vikings history).  It was shortly after the conclusion of that season that Rick Spielman was named general manager, and would thus have full control over the draft and team transactions.  Prior to Spielman becoming general manager the Vikings had a "triangle of authority" with the head coach, VP of player personnel and VP of Football Operations all receiving equal say in all team transactions.  That triangle of authority was established by Zygi Wilf in 2005 when he acquired the team, but it ultimately only lasted 6 years.  So the 2012 draft was the first with Rick Spielman totally in charge.

In order to effectively grade the 2012 draft, it's important to assess the state of the roster at the time.  During free agency the Vikings did not re-sign the following notable free agents: WR Greg Camarillo, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, LB E.J. Henderson, CB Benny Sapp, S Husain Abdullah and S Tyrell Johnson.  We resigned the following in-house free agents: QB Sage Rosenfels, WR Devin Aromashodu, DT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion and LB Erin Henderson.  We also cut the following guys: LG Steve Hutchinson, RG Anthony Herrera, DT Remi Ayodele and CB Cedric Griffen.  We made a few splashes in free agency signing the following players: TE John Carlson, FB Jerome Felton, OL Geoff Schwartz, QB McCleod Bethel-Thompson, WR Jerome Simpson, RB Matt Asiata, LB Marvin Mitchell and CB Chris Carr.  TE Jim Kleinsasser also retired after the 2011 season, ending the People's Champion's reign in the most unheralded of ways: going out during one of the worst seasons in franchise history.  Heading into the 2012 draft our roster was pretty close to this:

QB: Christian Ponder, Sage Rosenfels, Joe Webb, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
RB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Jordan Todman, Jerome Felton
WR: Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins, Jerome Simpson, Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arcenaux
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Mikey Shuler
OL: Phil Loadholt, Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, John Sullivan, Geoff Schwartz, Joe Berger

DE: Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, D'Aundre Reed
DT: Kevin Williams, Fred Evans, Letroy Guion, Christian Ballard
LB: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Larry Dean, Marvin Mitchell
CB: Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook, Chris Carr, Brandon Burton, Marcus Sherels
S: Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, Eric Frampton

Even just a cursory glance at the roster above would reveal a metric ton of holes to fill.  The offensive line was decimated as we had to endure guard Charlie Johnson trying to play left tackle during the 2011 season: illustrating the utter black hole at the tackle position.  Our wide receiver corps had a malcontent star in Percy Harvin, and pretty much nothing else after that.  We had questions marks surrounding Christian Ponder, but 2012 was going to be not only his first full season as the starting quarterback, but also his first full "lock-out free" off-season program.  On the defensive side of the ball we had one of the worst secondaries in the league with an aging and oft-injured Winfield, possible prison time in store for Chris Cook and nothing else.  And at safety we had arguably four backups and no starters.  At linebacker E.J. Henderson's return from a gruesome leg injury didn't go so well, and Erin Henderson was re-signed to move over from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker...a move many fans questioned.  We also lacked a viable starting nose tackle after free agent Remi Ayodele didn't work out and all we were left with were rotational backups Fred Evans and Letroy Guion.  In short, this was a roster that was still feeling the after-effects of an all-or-nothing approach to team building that Brad Childress had put together from 2007-2010.  The Vikings had secured the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 Draft along with 10 total draft picks and here is what they did with those picks.

Round 1, Pick #3 -€” TRADED to Cleveland for their #4, Round 4 (#118), Round 5 (#139) and Round 7 (#211) picks

This trade was almost unbelievable.  It was widely expected that the Vikings were going to draft Matt Kalil, and with Cleveland sitting right behind them at #4, there was simply no reason for the Browns to move up.  The browns gave up all those picks to trade for Trent Richardson, who turned out to be a bust.  But the Vikings moved down one spot, picked up three more selections and still retained the rights to draft the player everyone expected them too.  The Vikings must have convinced the Browns that another team was interested in moving up to #3 for the rights to draft Trent Richardson.

Grade: A+

Regardless of who the Vikings selected with those 4th, 5th and 7th round picks, pulling off this trade added to the "Slick Rick" reputation of GM Spielman and helped cement his legendary status as a wizard of the draft.

Round 1, Pick #4 -€” OT Matt Kalil, USC

Kind of like this year's draft where there was almost total consensus that the Vikings would draft a wide receiver, pretty much everyone mocked Matt Kalil to the Vikings back in 2012.  He was seen as a "can't miss" prospect and one of the top overall players in the draft.  The Vikings drafted him 4th overall with the expectation that he would become a cornerstone of the offensive line, and anchor the left tackle position for a decade.

Grade: B+

Kalil's rookie season was quite good and he earned Pro Bowl honors, suggesting that the Vikings did indeed make the right choice in selecting Kalil.  But the following three years saw Kalil struggle with injuries and inconsistent play against some of the NFL's most elite pass rushers.  After seeing Kalil play for 4 seasons, it has become clear that his performance has declined since his rookie year and he's been nothing more than a replacement-level player.  Still, because the Vikings were desperate for a left tackle and because of Kalil's pedigree during the draft, this has to be viewed as a very good pick.  The only other players that were even in the conversation for the Vikings at pick #3 at the time were WR Justin Blackmon and CB Morris Claiborne, both of whom have failed to live up to expectations.  Looking back in hindsight, the Vikings could have drafted LB Luke Kuechley to address a major hole on defense instead of Kalil, but I think the Vikings made the right choice at the time. The team exercised Kalil's 5th year option for the 2016 season, but a long-term contract may or may not come to fruition. Even if he doesn't stay with the Vikings, Kalil will surely land with another team as a starter going forward.  Whatever your views of Matt Kalil, I believe he still has starter ability.  But it may be impossible for him to ever live up to the "#4 overall" draft status.

Round 2, Pick #35 -€” TRADED to Baltimore for Round 1, Pick #29.  We gave up this pick, along with our 4th round pick (#98 overall) to select S Harrison Smith, Notre Dame.

At the time this was kind of a surprise move.  We had so many different directions we could have gone with our 2nd round pick as we had a laundry list of needs, but with safety Mark Barron going in the top 10, the next best safety at the time was Golden Domer Harrison Smith (and the talent level dropped off dramatically after those two in this draft).  Smith was a former linebacker and hard-hitting safety with high upside.  And with a huge glaring hole at safety on the roster this was a bold move by Spielman to move up and address a need.  But with the fleecing of Cleveland earlier, we had some extra picks to use as ammunition.  The players that were selected #35 and #98 overall were LB Courtney Upshaw and OL Gino Gradkowski.  Upshaw did not get a second contract from the Ravens and signed a 1-year deal with the Falcons this past off-season, and was generally viewed as a disappointment.  Meanwhile Gradkowski has bounced around with several teams and is currently the backup center to Ryan Kalil in Carolina.

Grade: A+

This trade has turned out in our favor, as Harrison Smith has become one of the elite cornerstones of our defense and has contributed a lot to turning around our league worst secondary.  He finally made his first Pro Bowl this past year as an alternate, but has yet to be named as an All-Pro.  The Vikings exercised his 5th year option, but it is widely expected that the team will extend him sometime this year.

Round 3, Pick #66 -€” CB Josh Robinson, Central Florida

The Vikings continued to address their secondary with the selection of Josh Robinson.  He was literally the fastest corner in the draft, running a 4.33 40-yard dash.  He was a little under-sized however at only 5'10" and 199lbs.  But this was viewed generally as a pretty good pick in the 3rd round to again address a glaring hole.

Grade: B

A third round pick is generally not expected to turn into a Pro Bowl level player but the expectation is that we should get a player that lasts in the NFL for at least 3 years with a small chance to become a starter.  We got a little bit more than that out of Josh Robinson.  During his 4-year tenure with the Vikings he started 21 games and played in a total of 47 games.  He registered 5 interceptions and 15 passes defended during what was a somewhat underrated career that was cut short by a torn pectoral muscle prior to the start of the 2015 season.  He was not resigned this past off-season and was signed by the Buccaneers in free agency.  While he didn't turn into a long-term starter for the Vikings, and the pick doesn't quite get an "A" as a result, he still contributed as a spot starter and exceeded the expectations of his draft position.

Round 4, Pick #118 (from Cleveland) -€” WR Jarius Wright, Arkansas

The Vikings continued to check off their needs list picking up the speedy Wright.  He was primarily a deep threat for the Razorbacks, but at only 5'10" and 182lbs, he projected as more of a slot receiver in the NFL.  Still with a 4.42 40-yard dash and single season records in yards and TDs for Arkansas during his senior season, this was viewed as a bit of a steal at the time.

Grade: A+

As a 4th round pick, expectations are for a 3-year NFL career and not much more than that.  Jarius Wright has turned into a reliable #3 receiver for the Vikings having started 14 games and playing in 55 total.  In addition he is the current active leader in receiving yards and receptions on the team.  While Wright does not have more than 588 yards or 42 receptions in a single season, the Vikings signed him to a 4-year contract with $7 million guaranteed this past off-season making this almost a steal in the 4th round.

Round 4, Pick #128 (compensatory) -€” TE/FB Rhett Ellison, USC

Due to the losses of many free agents the Vikings were awarded a pair of compensatory selections and they spent the first one on TE Rhett Ellison, teammate of Matt Kalil.  This was a shocking pick, and even Ellison was not expecting to be drafted this high.  As a hybrid TE/FB (he was invited to the combine as a FB), it was unclear how the Vikings would use him.  But with the retirement of Jim Kleinsasser, the Vikings plan for Ellison was for him to replace the "People's Champion".

Grade: A

Ellison has been one of the best blockers on the team during his 4-year career.  While he isn't used much as a pass-catching tight end (only 42 career receptions in 4 years), and has never carried the ball, his value is immeasurable.  Despite a knee injury that derailed his 2015 season, the Vikings resigned Ellison to a 1-year deal for the 2016 season.

Round 4, Pick #134 (compensatory) -€” WR Greg Childs, Arkansas

At the time, Greg Childs was a prospect with 1st round talent that fell because of a torn ACL injury during his senior year.  He and Jarius Wright had an unbelievable history together as teammates that stretched all the way back to grade school.  This was a calculated risk by Spielman to take a talented player that needed to over-come a gruesome injury to pay off.  It was generally viewed as a pretty good selection at the time.

Grade: D

Unfortunately, the tragedy of Greg Childs is well-documented as he recovered from the ACL injury only to have suffered a double torn patellar tendon on a freak play during training camp the following year.  Childs tried to rehab from this freak accident, but could never get back to same level of player he was in college.  This was a roll of the dice from Spielman that unfortunately didn't pan out.

Round 5, Pick #138 -€” TRADED this pick to Detroit for their 2013 4th round pick (#102) and swapped 2012 7th round picks (Minnesota got #219, while Detroit got #223).

Thanks to the trade with Cleveland, Minnesota had back-to-back picks in the 5th round.  So they traded one of them to Detroit for a pick in the next year's draft, and swapped 7th round picks.  Detroit used the pick to select LB Tahir Whitehead, who has turned into a pretty good backup/rotational player.  The Lions resigned Whitehead to a 2-year deal this past offseason and he started the majority of games at OLB in the 2014 season.  Meanwhile the Vikings used Detroit's 4th rounder as part of the trade with New England to move up for Cordarrelle Patterson in the 2013 draft (and see below for their 7th round selection).

Grade: C

In general I'd like to give the Vikings some credit for flipping a 5th rounder in a future 4th rounder, but the Lions were able to take a contributing player at a position of need for the Vikings.  And as we'll likely see next year, the value of that 4th round pick in the 2013 draft might not have been used all that well.  I'll call this one a typical trade with both teams getting something out of it, but not really a total win for Spielman.

Round 5, Pick #139 (from Cleveland) -€” S Robert Blanton, Notre Dame

In another surprise move, the Vikings drafted a second safety, this time Smith's teammate Robert Blanton.  Blanton was a tall, converted cornerback who was seen as more of a developmental project, but with starters upside.  As mentioned above the Vikings had arguably no starting level safeties on the roster, so it made sense for Spielman to address this position a second time.

Grade: B+

A 5th round pick has a 61% chance to last 3 years in the NFL and only a 19% chance to become a starter (according to old Draftmetrics data).  Blanton exceeded this expectation during his 4-year tenure with the Vikings.  He started a total of 17 games for the Vikings, including 13 during the 2014 season as the primary starter next to Harrison Smith.  Unfortunately his play was inconsistent and he did not receive a contract extension from the Vikings this off-season.  However, he did sign a 1-year deal with the Bills for the 2016 season.  Still, to have a player contribute this much in the 5th round at a position of need makes Blanton a very good pick.

Round 6, Pick #173 -€” TRADED to Washington for Donovan McNabb prior to the 2011 season.

As mentioned above prior to the start of the 2011 season, the Vikings were not ready to simply hand over the reins of the starting quarterback position to rookie Christian Ponder.  So what did they do?  They traded a 6th round pick to Washington for the aging Donovan McNabb.  McNabb began the year as the starting quarterback, but he had very little arm-strength left and it was obvious that his heart was no longer in the game as he looked lackadaisical and made puzzling decisions in-game.  An injury side-lined McNabb and Ponder eventually started the last few games to close out the year.  Still, a 6th round pick was not a lot of draft capital to give up to allow Ponder (who had a limited off-season program due to the lockout) more time to develop.  Still, the Redskins then selected RB Alfred Morris with this pick, who turned into one of their most effective starting running backs.

Grade: D-

Despite the fact that expectations are very low for a 6th round pick, the fact is that the Redskins came out way ahead on this trade.  They got rid of an ineffective player and got a starting running back in return.  Considering that safety Justin Bethel was taken just a few spots later, the Vikings gave up a chance to find another starter at a position of need for a washed up player.  Still they didn't have much choice after the lockout, and knowing what we know now about Ponder, perhaps this was the right move after all even if McNabb didn't pan out either.

Round 6, Pick #175 (from Cleveland) -€” K Blair Walsh, Georgia

No, this pick was not part of the trade involving Matt Kalil and the #3 overall pick.  This pick was acquired mid-year 2011, well before the draft when the Vikings traded backup defensive end Jayme Mitchell to Cleveland.  With this pick, they drafted Blair Walsh who was viewed by many as the 2nd best place kicker in the draft (behind Greg Zuerlein, who was drafted four picks earlier by the Rams).  With the aging Ryan Longwell's struggles on kickoffs and deeper field goals, the Vikings were in the market for a kicker.

Grade: A

There are some that would question the wisdom of spending a draft pick on a kicker when so many can be acquired as undrafted free agents.  But the Vikings wanted to ensure they got one of the top prospects at a position of need.  With the Rams drafting Zuerlein, it pretty much forced the Vikings to burn a draft pick as well.  As it turns out Walsh has been a very good kicker for the Vikings  earning 1st team all-pro honors as a rookie.  However, he has been inconsistent at times after that incredible rookie year and of course we all remember his most recent miss in the playoffs this past season.  Still, the Vikings signed him to a long-term extension, tying him up until 2019.

Round 7, Pick #210 -€” LB Audie Cole, NC State

With a need still at linebacker the Vikings took a shot at a small school player who was viewed as more of a 2-down thumper in Audie Cole.  He was primarily a strong-side linebacker in college, and moved to the middle his senior year.  But he had great size for the position and showed good speed and agility at the combine.

Grade: A

Audie Cole has been an excellent backup linebacker for the Vikings, having started in 7 games and playing in 41 games total.  While he hasn't amassed a ton of statistics, he retains a cult-like status among fans for back-to-back interceptions during a preseason game his rookie year.  For a 7th round pick to provide versatile backup and special teams ability, and earn a 1-year contract for the 2016 season, speaks to his ability and he has far exceeded expectations for a 7th round pick.  Overall, this draft pick was excellent.

Round 7, Pick #211 (from Cleveland) -€” TRADED to Tennessee for a future 6th round pick in 2013 (#176)

This pick was used by Tennessee to draft DE Scott Solomon, who did not end up making their roster that year.  He bounced around with a couple teams for a few years and was eventually out of the NFL by 2015 season.  This has to be viewed as a lost trade for the Titans.

Grade: A

In general, trading a draft pick for a higher future pick should be viewed as a good deal.  Regardless of what the Vikings ultimately did with that future 6th round pick (it would eventually be used to acquire A.J. Jefferson from the Cardinals.  And when you consider that the player the Titans took with our pick didn't even make their team, the trade has to be viewed a win for the Vikings.

Round 7, Pick #219 (from Detroit via Seattle) -€” DE Trevor Guyton, California

As part of the trade with Detroit mentioned above, the Vikings swapped 7th round selections and used it to select Trevor Guyton.  He did not ultimately make the team that year, but did catch on in the CFL during the 2014 season.

Grade: D

Even though the success rate of 7th round picks is low, we'd like to see them at least make the team in the year in which they were drafted.  To not make the team was disappointing, even if we did have a bit of a logjam at the defensive end position that year.

Overall Grade: A-

This has turned out to be one the strongest draft classes in recent years for the Vikings.  Not only did Rick Spielman come out ahead in the majority of his trades, he selected 10 players in this draft and six of them are still with the team today.  Of those six several have already gotten long-term, second contracts with the team or are well on their way to getting one.  In addition three players from this draft class alone have made at least one Pro Bowl.  As this was Spielman's first Vikings draft as sole general manager, it has to be counted as a rousing success and bodes well for his future as GM.  Seeing as how the Vikings squeaked into the playoffs in 2012, and found their way there again in 2015, that speaks well of Spielman to have produced two playoff caliber teams in the four years since hitting rock bottom in 2011.  Including the trades and picks, Spielman's 13 moves in the draft garnered a grade of B or higher on 9 of them (for a 69% hit rate).  But what did media analysts think of the draft at the time?

Mel Kiper at ESPN gave our draft a ‘B' overall saying at the time:

The Vikings did pretty well. They got the left tackle they coveted in Matt Kalil, and they moved up to get a safety. Both Kalil and Harrison Smith, their two first-round picks, should be starting in Week 1. Josh Robinson adds speed, if not a lot of polish, at corner, and has the chance to develop into a good player. Jarius Wright and Greg Childs both come from Arkansas, and both can make plays after the catch. Overall, the Vikings did a good job of hitting needs. I don't think we'll look back and see a lot of star power here, but they got what they needed. A pretty good weekend for Minnesota.

Pete Prisco over at CBS gave us a ‘B+' overall saying:

Best pick: I love that they stayed true to what they wanted and picked tackle Matt Kalil and added picks in a trade down to do it. Kalil is a 10-year starter.

Questionable move: Using a fourth-round pick on a fullback isn't wise. They took Southern California's Rhett Ellison to be a lead blocker. That's a waste of a good pick.

Third-day gem: Fourth-round receiver Jairus Wright is a good slot receiver who will help add some quickness to a passing game that needs it.

Analysis: Rick Spielman did a nice job trading back, landing extra picks and still getting Kalil. They then came back into the first round to take a starting safety in Harrison Smith in a year where that position was lean. Good job.

Sports Illustrated loved our draft, giving us an ‘A' overall:

You can dock Minnesota if you think Claiborne should have been the pick at 4 over OT Matt Kalil. I think the Vikings did the right thing, and their subsequent pickups of S Harrison Smith (29), CB Josh Robinson (66) and WR Jarius Wright (118) just add to that belief.

The folks over at Fox Sports gave us tepid approval with a ‘B-' grade, saying:

General manager Rick Spielman did an impressive job getting extra picks for his top spot and still ended up with tackle Matt Kalil. The USC lineman fills a huge need at left tackle because Christian Ponder was pummeled last season. ... They moved back into the bottom of the first round to land Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, considered by many as the second-best safety behind Alabama's Mark Barron. ... Sticking with Golden Domers, cornerback Robert Blanton has the ability to shift to safety and deal with the bigger tight ends popping up around the NFL. ... USC's Rhett Ellison, son of ex-Raider Riki Ellison, is a tremendous blocking tight end. He's also a big target in the red zone. ... In the late rounds, Greg Childs of Arkansas is a big-body receiver with decent speed. ... Georgia kicker Blair Walsh has value, averaging 4.4 hang time on his kickoffs and converting 76.25 of his field goals over his final three seasons. But what does Walsh mean for Ryan Longwell? ... Inside linebacker Audie Cole of North Carolina State has very limited range.

The folks over at NBC Sports pretty much hated our draft, giving us a C+ at the time:

Minnesota acquired fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-round picks "for free" when it moved down one spot in Thursday's Trent Richardson trade. The Vikings then sent Nos. 35 and 98 to Baltimore to draft Smith with the 29th pick. GM Rick Spielman picked up 2013 fourth- and sixth-rounders in deals later on.

While accumulating selections is always a plus, and the Vikings made the right call on Kalil over Claiborne, a majority of the other players acquired have too many question marks for comfort. Smith is really an in-the-box safety, and those are rarely worth first-round draft picks. Childs may never be right after a 2010 patella tendon tear. Wright, Robinson, and Kalil were the class of this haul.

Beyond Kalil and perhaps Smith, however, the Vikings didn't get a single surefire year-one difference maker. Spielman could have used his picks better.

So the media "experts" were all over the map in handing out grades at the time with no real consensus.  Looking back in hindsight, I think we can call this draft a big success.  But what do you think?  Did Rick Spielman make the right calls in this wheeling and dealing draft from 2012?