The NFL Draft is an important component of roster-building of every NFL team - Vikings included. And so with the draft approaching in just over a week, I thought it would be a good time to look at how the Vikings have built their roster over the years since Rick Spielman took over as General Manager in 2012.
One of the Best Rosters in the NFL
According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings had the 5th best roster in the league heading into last season - 7 years into Rick Spielman’s tenure as GM. In 2017 it was ranked 12th, and in 2016 it was 8th.
And while overall roster rankings are necessarily somewhat subjective, I don’t think too many analysts would consider the Vikings roster particularly weak at any position group outside of offensive line. On the other hand, I suspect most would consider the Vikings to be one of the strongest teams in position groups like defensive secondary, wide receiver, and defensive front. Indeed, the latest PFF rankings (most after last season) had the Vikings Ninth, First, and Ninth respectively in those three position groups. Ninth overall on defense. Quarterback was ranked 14th (10th in passer rating). Running backs were ranked 11th. Only the offensive line was ranked poorly - 29th in the league.
Assembling that roster has taken a number of years, and is always a work in progress. So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at how Rick Spielman and Company have built - and continue building - the Vikings roster.
Building Through The Draft
Since the introduction of the salary cap, and the 2011 CBA, the draft has only increased in importance. Rookie contracts average only about 20% of the average veteran contract, so it definitely pays, from a salary cap perspective, to be able to draft and develop players in rookie contracts.
Given the $190 million salary cap per team, and a 53-man roster, that equates to just over $3.5 million average salary per player using the full salary cap allotment. But with top veterans landing contracts well over $10 million, and top QBs hitting $30 million and other top position players approaching $20 million, teams are increasingly dependent on having a significant number of rookie, and other inexpensive contracts to fill out their roster.
The problem with many of the inexpensive veteran contracts is that you get what you pay for - and sometimes even less. Rookie contracts, by contrast, are not based on some market value based on supply, demand and performance, but instead on draft position- or if an undrafted free agent, typically at or near the rookie minimum salary.
But sometimes players on rookie contracts outperform their salary cap, as we’ve seen from the likes of Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith, for example.
Based on all that, most NFL GMs subscribe to the mantra of, “building through the draft.”
Some more than others.
Since he became Vikings GM in 2012, Rick Spielman has walked that talk.
Of course it takes a lot more than just filling in the right name on the card when your team is on the clock to assemble a top roster in the NFL.
Beyond making better than average drafting choices, a coaching staff has to develop those players, and the front office retain the good ones. And where holes remain, a GM and staff need to successfully navigate the free agent market and salary cap to put together the best roster possible.
But let’s begin with drafting, developing, and extending the players.
What Successfully Drafting, Developing and Extending Looks Like
Currently, there are 38 players on the Vikings roster that the Vikings drafted or were UDFAs the Vikings signed originally. This doesn’t include Shamar Stephen, who the Vikings drafted originally, but re-acquired via free agency.
The number of players on NFL rosters that were drafted by that same team varies a little from year-to-year, but averages around 27 or so - just over 50% of the 53-man roster. The Vikings, by contrast, acquired nearly 72% of their roster via the draft or UDFAs they signed originally. Those numbers suggest the Vikings under Rick Spielman are committed to building through the draft (and UDFA market), and have had greater success drafting, developing and extending those players.
Currently the Vikings starting roster is made up of the following Vikings’ draft picks, by round:
First Round: Anthony Barr (LB), Harrison Smith (S), Xavier Rhodes (CB), Trae Waynes (CB), Laquon Treadwell (WR)
Second Round: MacKensie Alexander (CB), Eric Kendricks (LB), Dalvin Cook (RB), Brian O’Neill (OT), Kyle Rudolph (TE)
Third Round: Danielle Hunter (DE), Pat Elflein (C)
Fourth Round: Everson Griffen (DE), Jaleel Johnson (DT)*
Fifth Round: Stefon Diggs (WR)
Sixth Round: None
Seventh Round: None
Undrafted Free Agents: Anthony Harris (S), Adam Thielen (WR)
*I included Jaleel Johnson as the starting DT, but that is only a guess based on the current roster.
Overall, the Vikings have acquired 17 of 21 (presumed) starters via the draft or UDFA market. Ten of those sixteen starters were drafted in the first two rounds. I’m guessing the remaining starter on the offensive line will be a draft pick as well, which would make 18 of the Vikings 22 starters draft acquisitions. That is a very high percentage (82%) relative to other teams.
By contrast, the Vikings have only 4 starters that are free agent acquisitions (UFAs) - Riley Reiff (a 1st round draft pick), Linval Joseph (2nd round), Kirk Cousins (4th round), and Josh Kline (UDFA). It seems unlikely that that number will grow this season either.
Expanding on that to include the top 32 veteran contracts (typically the best players), the Vikings have among the lowest percentage of players signed as UFA (unrestricted free agent) contracts on their roster, according to overthecap.com as of last September:
The Jets, Bills, Titans, and Raiders are all over 30% UFA contracts. That’s indicative of poor drafting and dragging your feet on extensions. At the bottom of the list are the Cowboys, Packers, Vikings, Cardinals and Bengals. These teams are strong on extensions and have somewhat minimized trips into free agency while focusing instead on draft development.
By extensions they are referring to players that have received contract extensions. For the Vikings, players like Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Adam Thielen, among others. UFA contracts are free agent signings following expired contracts with other teams.
Currently, the Vikings have the following players on their roster:
Originally Drafted Players and UDFAs:
MacKensie Alexander, Ade Arune, Jeff Badet, Anthony Barr, Chad Beebe, Mike Boone, Tashawn Bower, Kentrell Brothers, Aviante Collins, Tyler Conklin, Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs, Devonte Downs, Pat Elflein, Ben Gedeon, Everson Griffen, CJ Ham, Anthony Harris, Holton Hill, Jayln Holmes, Mike Hughes, Danielle Hunter, Danny Isidora, Craig James, Jaleel Johnson, Jayron Kearse, Eric Kendricks, Hercules Mata’afa, David Morgan, Brian O’Neill, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Xavier Rhodes, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen, Roc Thomas, Laquon Treadwell, Trae Waynes, Stephen Weatherly, Eric Wilson.
Ameer Abdullah, Dan Bailey, Adam Bisnowaty, Richard Cliett, Curtis Cothran, Kirk Cousins, Dakota Dozier, Cornelius Edison, Cole Hikutini, Rashod Hill, Brett Jones, Linval Joseph, Josh Kline, Sean Mannion, Jordan Martin, Greer Martini, Kevin McDermott, Storm Norton, Riley Reiff, Karter Schult, Kyle Sloter, Derron Smith, Shamar Stephen, Jordan Taylor, Duke Thomas, Matt Wile, Brandon Zylstra.
As you can see, the original drafted players and UDFAs contain the most names, and the vast majority of starters. The free agent list, by contrast, have many more names that are questionable to make the final 53-man roster, as they are mostly recent signings or players that have not made the 53-man roster in the past.
It’s Not Just Quantity, It’s Quality That Counts
A big part of having a top roster in the league in terms of quality according to PFF, but also a lot of drafted, extended, and cheap talent according to overthecap.com, is being able to have success on Day 3 of the draft and in the UDFA market - and then be able to develop and retain those players. Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Anthony Harris were not only “cheap talent” the Vikings acquired originally and extended, they were also the three highest graded players on the team last season, according to PFF.
But while the overall quantity of Vikings’ draft picks and UDFAs on their roster suggests at least some above-average success drafting and developing players, it’s really the quality of the roster that counts. The PFF rankings attest to the quality of the roster, while overthecap.com makes another observation on the Vikings roster:
Finally the teams filling out the rosters with the most cheap talent (UDFA and street rookies) are the Colts, Giants and Vikings, all over 30%. The Jets were the only team under 10% while the Packers, Lions, and Falcons were under 15%.
The surprising one is probably the Vikings who have a lot invested in the roster and have found some of those top tier players in the lower portions of the draft, perhaps not that different than Seattle years ago. If you look at where everyone came from on the team you would not expect much but they are clearly a super bowl contender. -Overthecap.com
All that suggests a higher degree of success for the Vikings in drafting, developing, and extending players. Beyond that, there are other studies in recent years that suggest the Vikings have been one of the better teams in this regard since Rick Spielman became GM.
I did a piece a couple years ago on the Vikings’ draft success, which is consistent with the evaluations by PFF and other assessments of roster quality, the analysis of the Vikings roster by overthecap.com, and the current makeup of the Vikings’ roster.
So how did Rick Spielman and the Vikings do it?
Part II of this series will look into how Spielman and company look for advantages in the draft process, and augment their draft, develop and extend strategy with free agency acquisitions.