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Vikings Off-Season Could Bring Massive Changes - Part II

A look at GM Rick Spielman and his Staff

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the first part of this series, I evaluated the Vikings coaching staff. In this part, I’ll evaluate Rick Spielman and his staff, with a view toward whether the Wilfs will keep their GM or make a change there too.

Evaluating the Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman and his Staff

As Vikings General Manager, Rick Spielman is head of football operations for the franchise. That includes leading a group of 26 player personnel staff- scouts and football-related analysts. He also works with Rob Brzezinski, who is EVP of Football Operations and manages the Vikings’ salary cap, among other things. Spielman also has a hand in other more business-related matters, but COO Andrew Miller has more of a lead in working with the EVPs of Finance, Real Estate, Marketing, Legal, etc. in running the day-to-day business operations of the franchise.

The GM responsibilities are primarily managing the college scouting process and the draft, veteran scouting and free agency, contract negotiation and salary cap management, and managing the coaching and other football-related staff including players. When it comes to roster management, the GM and his staff work with the head coach and his staff to find the best players and put together the best roster they can. Typically, the coaching staff put together the criteria they’re looking for in players at a given position, and the GM works with his staff to find the best players available that meet those criteria. Or to use the Bill Parcells cooking analogy, the GM buys the groceries (usually from a list provided by the coaching staff), and the coaching staff prepares the meal.

The challenge for the GM is that buying groceries in the NFL isn’t just going to the local supermarket to feed an average family, it’s more like trying to find all the ingredients for the finest restaurant for a meal among top food critics at a local market in Kansas City. There may be plenty of beef available, but which is the best cut for the meal you’re planning? Is it a choice cut or prime? Are you paying prime prices for a choice cut? How do you know? And what if you need pineapple or seafood, saffron or an excellent wine? And you’re on a fixed budget that allows only a few splurges among a 53-ingredient list.

Managing the Draft

The most high profile job for an NFL GM is managing the draft.

I’ve done a several articles on Rick Spielman and his draft performance over the years, here and here, here and here. One of those also includes some history of Spielman’s draft day trades. Using the Pro Football Reference AV metric, which can overstate mediocre performance among early-round draft picks with many starts, and understate that of a decent late-round pick from a value standpoint, only about 20% of all draft picks are considered good picks. The rest are either average, poor, or busts that either didn’t make the team or hardly played at all. If you consider the overstated performance of some players by the AV metric (for example Christian Ponder was considered a good draft pick based on his number of starts), the number of good or better picks is closer to 15% of all draft picks. Even among first round picks, the success rate is only about 50%, and that is being generous with the AV metric.

And so even with all the time and resources that go into evaluating all the college prospects, maybe 1 in 6 amount to more than an average player at best. Given that the standard allotment of draft picks is 7 for every team, one for each round, having one good (i.e. at least above average) draft pick every year is average. Having one above average draft pick, a couple average, and a few career backups/special teams contributors overall represent a fairly good draft.

I point this out every time I talk about the draft because every time I mention Rick Spielman, there is a significant contingent who point out the laundry list of missed draft picks, which every GM in the history of the league has had. It’s kinda like pointing out how many times Rod Carew made an out, which was a lot more times than he got a hit or walk, and he was a multi-year batting champion. A better comparison in evaluating Rick Spielman’s draft performance is relative to other GMs, and the overall league average. By that comparison, he has done very well by most measures, and has also added value via his draft day trading.

Looking at Spielman’s 2021 draft, Christian Darrisaw - the Vikings 5th highest graded player on offense and highest graded run blocker according to PFF - looks like he could be a good draft pick that remains the starting left tackle for the Vikings for years to come. Camryn Bynum, the 4th highest graded player on defense, albeit on 211 snaps, looks like he could emerge as an above average starting safety. And Kene Nwangwu is already an above average kick returner and could contribute more as a running back down the road as well. If Kellen Mond, Chazz Surratt, Wyatt Davis, Patrick Jones II, Janarius Robinson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Jaylen Twyman all end up busts, that would still be at least an average draft compared to league averages. And if any of the other picks become contributors and/or starters, it will be above average or better.

Spielman’s 2020 draft looks even better and has the potential to be better than the 2015 draft. Justin Jefferson is a superstar that is on a path to be one of the rarest of picks- the top 1%. That makes it a good draft right there. And there are 11 other draft picks still with the team. Ezra Cleveland and Cameron Dantzler are starters, and both look to be above average. Dantzler is the 3rd highest graded cornerback in his draft class, and 6th highest graded in coverage with at least 20% of snaps according to PFF. Cleveland is the 7th highest graded offensive lineman in his draft class with at least 50% of snaps this year. KJ Osborn is WR3 and could move up to WR2 if he continues to improve. DJ Wonnum is a a below-average starter overall at this point but is also tied for the team lead in QB pressures and sacks. He also leads his draft class of edge rushers in QB pressures this season and has the lowest missed tackle rate among them and is second in stops. Six others could be at least career backups and special teams contributors. Troy Dye is the highest graded special teams player (90.5) - 8th highest in the league. All that makes Spielman’s 2020 draft top-tier. Spielman’s only real bust in the 2020 draft - Jeff Gladney - was hardly predictable. He had no history of off-field incidents or character issues that suggested he was a risk in that regard.

Beyond that, the Wilfs seem impressed with how Spielman runs the draft, from his picks to his trades, his process and ability to work quickly to execute under the gun. They trust him and value his experience.

Recent Free Agent Acquisitions

Among Spielman’s free agent acquisitions this year, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Everson Griffen and Sheldon Richardson all worked out reasonably well. They were all signed to one-year prove-it deals. None were outstanding, and some missed time, but overall they were all graded between 9th and 13th on the team defensively according to PFF. The two more notable ones that didn’t work out were MacKensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland. Both were signed to minimal deals but brought up the rear in PFF grades among CBs. Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce may not have been the new Williams Wall this year, but they rank 8th and 3rd respectively in PFF grade among defensive players on the team. The biggest issue is that Pierce can’t seem to stay on the active roster much.

Offensively, Mason Cole was a good addition, and if extended could become a decent starter on the offensive line going forward.

Salary Cap Management

This falls mostly to Rob Brzezinski, but Spielman is certainly involved and is chief contract negotiator. The Vikings have managed their salary cap reasonably well and have mostly avoided overpaying players relative to market value. Currently the Vikings have $212 million and 48 players on the books for 2022, with a salary cap estimated at $208 million. That’s a manageable situation that doesn’t require a lot of bloodletting to get under the cap. But clearly there will be some important decisions to be made on some key players. Such has been the case since the acquisition of Kirk Cousins, the first time in a decade that they Vikings had a top QB and a top QB salary eating up a lot of cap space. They’ve still managed to extend core players coming off rookie contracts during that time, and I’m not sure the cap casualties they’ve had were bad decisions, all things considered.

Bottom Line

Spielman has been one of the better GMs in draft success since becoming GM in 2012 and has done reasonably well in free agent acquisitions in recent years as well. Trading Stefon Diggs for what turned into Justin Jefferson, Camryn Bynum and Kenny Willekes also worked out well for the Vikings and will probably get even better over time. Justin Jefferson is 22 and on a cheap rookie deal, while Diggs is 28 and has a $17+ million cap hit the next two seasons. Jefferson’s cap hit is under $8 million combined for both years. Camryn Bynum could turn into a quality starter and looked good in limited action this season.

Spielman’s biggest deal in recent years- the free agent acquisition of Kirk Cousins- has produced the best multi-year QB the Vikings have had since Dante Culpepper, and arguably the best since Fran Tarkenton. He’s achieved a 103 passer rating over his 4 years as a Viking, best among all Vikings QBs, although era adjustments would make it closer among the best QBs in franchise history. This year Cousins ranks 8th in a PFF ranking based on PFF grade and EPA efficiency (despite a team pass blocking ranking of 27th), ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and two dozen other starting QBs. He also ranks 8th in average annual contract value at QB, with a current market value by Spotrac is estimated at $33.7 million annually- just over his current $33 million AAV. Overall that’s a fair deal that has given the Vikings a top ten quarterback - the most important position in professional sports. Clearly Cousins alone hasn’t produced the wins and deep playoff runs expected after the 2017 season, but Cousins’ performance, which has exceeded that of Case Keenum in 2017, hasn’t been the reason for the disappointment.

Given all that, it wouldn’t seem that the Wilfs will look to replace Spielman this off-season. Indeed, they may want a trusted and experienced GM to help in what is likely to be a busy off-season full of key decisions that will impact the franchise for several years to come.

In the last part of this series, I’ll look at the Vikings roster.

Poll

Should the Vikings fire Rick Spielman?

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