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How The Vikings Built One of the Best Rosters in the NFL - Part II

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We continue with a look at how the current Vikings came to be

Minnesota Vikings Introduce Mike Zimmer Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In Part I of this series, I broke down how the Vikings roster has been ranked as one of the best rosters in the league, and that it was largely a result of a successful draft, develop and extend strategy the Vikings have employed over the years.

In Part II, I’ll take a look at what the Vikings have done to help increase their success in building through the draft.

Draft and Develop Has Its Advantages - But It’s Not Easy

If a team can draft and develop players well, they’re rewarded by being able to keep them for four years at bargain basement prices by NFL standards. That team also has a roster of young and ascending players, and gets first dibs on re-signing them- sometimes for less than full market value.

All this builds advantages in terms of salary cap management. That, in turn, helps provide the salary cap space to acquire free agents to supplement draft picks- and extend draft picks when their rookie deals expire.

But in order to capture the advantages of a draft and develop strategy, you have to be good at it. And that is easier said than done.

A couple years ago, I did a piece detailing how most NFL draft picks are busts. Basically about 2 of every 3 draft picks prove to be busts - players that never contributed in any significant way to the success of the team that drafted them.

The reasons for the poor success rates are two-fold. First, just like most good high school football players don’t make it at the college level, so too is the case from college to the pros. The second is that there is no tried-and-true method for successful drafting.

QBs who were too short (Russell Wilson) or a lackluster prospect (Tom Brady) turned out to be the best picks ever. And yet most QBs with those characteristics don’t make it.

One of the best offensive linemen of all time (Joe Thomas) had short arms. And yet short arms is a limiting factor for many offensive linemen.

Hall of Famer John Randle was too small to be a defensive tackle. And yet many smaller defensive tackles don’t succeed in the NFL. The list goes on.

The Vikings Have Drafted Well

Despite the difficulties of drafting well, according to a couple rankings, here and here, the Vikings have been one of the best drafting teams in the league since Spielman became GM. The rankings correspond with a piece I did on how well the Vikings have drafted a couple years ago. It also seems to correspond with both the make-up of the current Vikings roster (as shown in Part I) and the Pro-Football-Reference AV methodology, as the Vikings had the second-highest total AV from the players they drafted and remained on their team from 2012-2017, with a total of 430 AV points. Only the Rams fared better with 470 AV points during that span. If not for freak injuries to a couple first-round picks - Sharrif Floyd and Teddy Bridgewater (which cost another first-round pick to replace) - the Vikings may have had the highest number of AV points in the league.

Going back and looking at all of Spielman’s draft picks since 2012, and using the same AV methodology to rate them, Spielman’s rate of success is only about 5% better than the 68% bust-rate average. Meaning about 63% of Spielman’s draft picks have been busts (not including last year’s draft).

That’s not all that much better, it would seem, to be 2nd overall in drafting success. And yet by multiple measures - AV methodology, others that look at Pro-Bowlers and All-Pros drafted, etc., the Vikings still come out near the top in drafting success. Why?

Building Draft Advantages

I suspect there are several reasons the Vikings have outperformed in draft success since Spielman became GM:

The Vikings Devote More Resources to Scouting Than Most NFL Teams

No NFL team that I know of publishes how much they spend on their scouting operations, but considering the $190 million or so player salary cap, the $3 million or so teams are thought to spend on scouting salaries and expenses seems to be a rather poor investment in R&D.

In any case, we can get an idea of which teams may be committing more resources to their scouting operations based on the size of the staff - which is listed on most team websites.

Currently, the Vikings have the following staff in their college scouting operations: Director, Coordinator, 8 scouts, and a consultant. This does not include their pro scouting staff and other general scouting support staff. So overall the Vikings have 11 people dedicated to college scouting - which is one or two more than other teams I spot checked (NFC North, Steelers, Ravens, Chiefs, Saints, Eagles) . And while some teams employ recent college grads to do their college scouting, all but one of the Vikings college scouts has at least 14 years working as a scout, most of them with the Vikings, including the Director of College Scouting, Jamaal Stephenson.

Beyond the scouting staff, Spielman has also talked a little about the team’s investments in “advanced analytics” such as advanced number crunching, psychologists, etc. to help determine whether a prospect may be a good pick or not. Not every team devotes these added resources to evaluating draft prospects, although more and more are doing so to some extent.

Spielman Likes to Accumulate Draft Picks

Despite the investments in scouting, drafting is still more of an art or craft than a science, as there is no tried-and-true method for successfully drafting good players.

Therefore the draft can be more of a lottery or crapshoot, with success determined as much by luck as anything else. But even supposing a team can build a slight draft advantage by making a bigger investment in R&D, that may not be enough to make much of a difference, particularly when you only have 8 picks a year.

So, in order to get more chances to pick a winner, and leverage perhaps a slight advantage in scouting, Rick Spielman likes to accumulate more draft picks where he can. In the seven drafts since Spielman became GM, only two teams have had more draft picks than the Vikings. This despite the Vikings having relatively few compensatory picks during that span - in part due to success drafting, developing and extending players in-house.

Sheer quantity of draft picks isn’t the answer by itself, however. The Browns have had the same number of picks as the Vikings under Spielman, but have been one of the worst drafting teams in the league during that time. The 49ers have had 3 more draft picks than the Vikings since 2012, and haven’t done nearly as well either.

But having more than the average number of picks, combined with at least an average to slightly above average success rate, can make a difference over time. That seems to be what underlies the Vikings’ success.

Rick the (Draft) Day Trader

Another way Spielman looks to come out ahead is by making trades during the draft. Since Spielman has become GM, no team has made more in-draft trades (i.e. draft pick trades while the draft is in progress) than the Vikings.

There seems to be a self-fueling reason for this. Spielman has said that he likes to have more draft picks to give him the capital to trade with, and that he likes to trade to accumulate draft picks where possible.

Beyond accumulating draft picks to “give you more swings at the plate”, as Spielman has described them, there is the possibility of added value.

There are studies, given the crapshoot nature of the draft, that it doesn’t make sense to trade up in the draft, but it does make sense to trade down. Spielman has done both, but trades down more often, particularly in the later rounds. Why?

The standard trade value chart, developed by Jimmy Johnson almost 30 years ago, is thought to be outdated by many, and yet still seems to be the norm for trade terms during the draft.

Comparing the value of the trade chart with the actual average ‘AV’ or average value of draft picks from 1994-2013 (shown below) compiled by Pro-Football-Reference, the following points can be drawn:

  • Looking at the red AV curve alone, it makes sense to move up into the first-round, where AV is somewhat higher. The problem is that the cost to do so (using ‘the chart’ values), more than negates the value of doing so - many times over in fact.
  • Beginning around pick #60, the red AV line begins to flatten, meaning difference in average AV between #60 and pick #100 isn’t so great. As is the case between pick #100 and #150. And yet ‘the chart’ value between pick #60 and #150 is significantly larger. This suggests that by trading back a handful of spots with a 3rd or 4th round pick, and gaining a cheap 5th or 6th round pick, a GM may increase his chance of gaining more AV in the process.

Put in another way, and subscribing to the ‘draft is a crapshoot theory’, if you can trade back on a pick that has a historical chance of success of, say 25%, for another pick with a success rate of 24% by moving back a little, and also gain a pick with say, an 15% chance of success, you’re chances of getting a successful result increase by having two rolls with 24% and 15% success rates, rather than just one with a 25% chance of success.

Looking at the AV rates for historical draft picks, they are heavily influenced by the number of picks that have next to zero AV - i.e. busts. And so while the average AV suggests modest declines with each pick, the reality is each pick is somewhat binary - most often you either hit it right and get much better than average AV, or you miss and get next to nothing.

So in both cases it makes sense to trade down. Either because you’re more than adequately compensated (trading down in the first round), or give up relatively little to do so (later rounds). And most of the time that is what Rick Spielman has done.

So why don’t all teams do this? The answer is simple. They fall in love with players in the pre-draft process. New Orleans gave up all their draft picks in 1999 to draft Ricky Williams #5 overall. In 2014 the Bills traded a first and fourth round pick to move up five spots to get Sammy Watkins at #4. Odell Beckham Jr. was drafted #12 that year. The Charges gave up a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up one spot from #3 to #2 to draft Ryan Leaf. The Redskins moved up 4 spots to #2 to draft RGIII for 2 first-round and one 2nd round pick.

Granted there are some trades up in the first round that look to be worthwhile. The Chiefs traded all the way up from #27 to #10 to get Patrick Mahomes - surrendering an additional 1st and 3rd round pick to do so. But most of the time it doesn’t work out so well.

That leads to the adage, “don’t try to out-pick in the draft, trade with other teams that think they can.”

Spielman has tried to out-pick at times - trading up to do so - particularly from the 2nd to 1st round. He has done this three times - for Harrison Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Teddy Bridgewater. Part of the reason for this particular move, however, is to get the added 5th year option on rookie 1st round draft picks.

Beyond those, it’s been more unusual for Spielman to trade up in any really significant way. Trading a 4th round pick to move up 7 spots in the 2nd round a couple years ago when Dalvin Cook fell surprisingly is the last trade up of any significance.

Trading back, by contrast, has been much more common for Spielman. Many times it hasn’t yielded anything - like a Jeff Baca or Tyrus Thompson. But sometimes it does - like a Jerick McKinnon or Stephen Weatherly.

But sometimes garden-variety trades end up making a big difference. Spielman traded Matt Cassell and a 6th round pick for a 5th round pick that, after trading down with it, yielded Stefon Diggs.

But at the end of the day, there is no way to really quantify how much value has been added or subtracted due to Spielman’s draft day trading without knowing all the details, but particularly in cases where he was able to trade back and still get the guy he wanted anyway, value was created.

We don’t know if there were also cases where he traded back hoping his guy was still going to be there, but wasn’t. Nor do we know if there were some picks that were a “Plan B” pick because he traded back and lost the guy he wanted, but the ‘Plan B’ turned out to be the better pick in the end.

In any case, I wouldn’t attribute trading back as lost value by looking back at who the Vikings may have drafted, with the advantage of hindsight, without knowing if that player was high on their board at the time.

But bottom line, I suspect the Vikings feel that trading during the draft has created value over the years since Spielman has been GM, otherwise they wouldn’t be leading the league in in-draft trades.

UDFAs - More Than an Afterthought

Lastly, and more recently, Spielman and his staff have spent more time looking at potential undrafted free agents (UDFAs) to try to uncover more value.

The Vikings have enjoyed some success in this market that has really paid off in recent years, starting with Adam Thielen. Marcus Sherels was also a good UDFA signing. More recently, safety Anthony Harris - the highest graded player on defense according to PFF last season - and Holton Hill - who emerged as a starting cornerback last year and graded higher than the Vikings first-round cornerback, Mike Hughes.

By delving more into typical UDFA players- often D-II or D-III college players, players with injury or off-field risks, or players deficient in one or more desired skills/traits - GMs may find some hidden gems- players who can contribute or even become an All-Pro in time - as Adam Thielen did. But even finding a good career backup or special teamer here should be considered a success. Any UDFA that makes the final roster is a success, really.

But getting the desired UDFAs takes some work not only to uncover them, but also to sign them. They are after all free agents, and can sign with whichever team they want. And the more desirable or well-known of the UDFAs may get competing offers. So, there is some recruiting that goes into it as well.

Part of the recruiting is money. Not a lot of money - a rounding error from an NFL salary standpoint - but for example offering Holton Hill $75K in guaranteed money - more than usual for a UDFA - helped get him to sign with the Vikings.

Bottom line, by considering UDFAs more as added 7th round picks - and there isn’t really much difference between the two in terms of player quality - and doing more research into this market, a team may hit on a good player every once in awhile. And considering a team typically has more UDFAs than draft picks, even hitting on only one each year could bring big dividends.

Indeed, after first- and second-round draft picks, the most All-Pros are UDFAs - about the same percentage of All-Pros as 5th, 6th and 7th round picks combined. Of course there are many more UDFAs than drafted players in those three rounds, but its shows there are still great players among UDFAs.

The other thing about finding decent UDFAs that can play a backup or special teams role is that you don’t have to pay more for a veteran to take those jobs. A UDFA may be $1 million or so less in salary cap compared to a B or C grade veteran. Guys like Stephen Weatherly (actually a late 7th rounder) and Eric Wilson replacing Brian Robison and Emmanuel Lamur are a couple examples. More importantly perhaps, the team has a young, developing player who could grow into a starter vs. an older veteran on the downslide or who never really made it.

Coaching Cannot Be Understated

We can all look at particularly good or bad draft picks and either praise or criticize a GM for the result. But a big part of having a successful draft pick is being able to develop the player once he’s been drafted. And that falls on the coaches, not the GM. Sometimes a player seems to be either good or bad on his own volition, and coaching doesn’t have as much impact. But in most cases, coaching makes a big difference in a player’s career path.

Part of good coaching is not just being able to teach players what they need to know to improve, but also being able to evaluate prospects and tell scouting department exactly what traits you’re looking for in a player, based on scheme and other considerations. Getting not only a good player, but also a good fit, plays a significant role in draft success as well. Having good coaching to develop players to their potential is even more important.

The Math Behind 10 Draft Picks

Rick Spielman is also known to want to have 10 draft picks every year. Why? It may come down to some simple math.

If you have a 53-man roster to maintain, including 22 starters, and the average length of a drafted player’s career is about 5 years (NFLPA stat for all players is 3.3 years- including undrafted players), that means you have to replace 20% of your roster each year on average, which is about 10 guys - 4 starters and 6 backups.

So, if you’re a slightly better than average GM and only 40% of your draft picks are not busts, that means 4 picks will eventually be starters. Some of the other six picks that may turn out to be busts may also fill backup roles for a while on the roster, while UDFAs also present more opportunities to get to the goal of 10 players making the roster.

Of course that doesn’t always happen, and that’s where free agency comes in.

That will be the subject of Part III of this series.

Poll

The Vikings have had only one #1 overall draft pick since the AFL-NFL merger. Who was it? (no google cheating)

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Fran Tarkenton
    (114 votes)
  • 4%
    Carl Eller
    (57 votes)
  • 15%
    Alan Page
    (193 votes)
  • 56%
    Ron Yary
    (699 votes)
  • 9%
    Mick Tingelhoff
    (123 votes)
  • 4%
    Jim Marshall
    (51 votes)
1237 votes total Vote Now

Appendices

Best Draft Picks of the Rick Spielman GM Era (by AV points)

Harrison Smith (29th pick) - 50 AV points. 10th most in the 2012 draft class.

Anthony Barr (#9) - 42 AV points. Tied for 9th most in the 2014 draft class.

Xavier Rhodes (#25) - 36 AV points. Tied for 14th most in the 2013 draft class.

Adam Thielen (UDFA) - 35 AV points. 16th highest in the 2014 draft class.

Danielle Hunter (#88) - 32 AV points. 9th highest in the 2015 draft class.

Stefon Diggs (#146) - 30 AV points. Tied for 10th highest in the 2015 draft class.

Eric Kendricks (#45) - 30 AV points. Tied for 10th highest in the 2015 draft class.

If you give extra weighting to AV points for lower draft picks, and for more recent draft years (fewer years to accumulate AV points), Thielen, Diggs and Hunter emerge as the three best picks.

Vikings Draft Picks and Pro-Football-Reference AV Points, 2012-2018 (after 2018 season)

Rick Spielman’s Trades Since Becoming GM in 2012