The Vikings’ Rick Spielman has made several good trades and, as is the nature of the business, he has made some bad ones, too. But one that ended up outstanding is the deal he made in October of 2015 that brought offensive lineman Nick Easton and a 2016 sixth-round draft pick from the 49ers for linebacker Gerald Hodges, who was recently cut by the Bills.

I can’t believe Spielman — who was the team’s vice president of player personnel from 2006-2011 before being promoted to general manager in 2012 — ever thought this deal would turn out this well. A player who hadn’t played in a single regular-season NFL game before being acquired became a starter for the Vikings in five games last season and will start at left guard in the season opener against the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night.

Easton was an undrafted free agent and signed a rookie deal with the Ravens in 2015. He was traded to the 49ers for a seventh-round draft pick later that year before coming to the Vikings.

Nothing much was expected of Easton. He was inactive for every game that season, in part, because of Joe Berger’s great play at center.

But in 2016 Easton got his chance when Berger was injured. Easton did not allow a sack in those five games he started, and appeared in 11.

Harvard ties

The Vikings have started two offensive linemen who attended Harvard. Easton joins former Vikings center Matt Birk, a sixth-round pick in 1998 who was selected to six Pro Bowls during his 15-year pro career.

Birk played with the Ravens for four seasons after 11 years with the Vikings. He now works as a special adviser to the NFL and is on the board of directors of USA Football.

Easton said he heard a lot about Birk’s legacy while playing at Harvard.

“He was a legend at our program,” Easton said, who said he has had talks with Birk since coming to the Vikings. “I’ve seen him on the sidelines a couple times and had good conversations about it.”

Easton talked about Harvard’s unique recruiting approach.

“They don’t look at guys without a certain SAT score and GPA threshold; then from there, they look at your tape,” he said. “They like to have guys come out to camp and try out for them, and then you get the offer.”

Still, he said the Harvard football program was well-run.

“They’re awesome. Tim Murphy is a great coach,” Easton said. “They have a great program there. The strength coach is awesome, and they know how to win football games. While I was there, my last year [in 2014] we went 10-0 and had a good year.”

Four of Harvard’s five starting offensive linemen from his senior season are now in the NFL.

“We had one guy drafted by the Cardinals, another guy on the practice squad for the Colts, another guy between the practice squad and active for the Browns,” Easton said.

Big jump to pros

Easton said the jump from the Ivy League to the NFL was a big one. He said his first year in San Francisco was beneficial because he got extended time on the practice squad.

“My thought was I had to come in and learn a new offense and catch up with everything,” he said.

Finally getting to play in an NFL game last season for the first time in his career was both a great reward and a big challenge.

“There were ups and downs for sure; it was definitely a learning experience,” Easton said. “ I thought I improved as the year went on.”

When it comes to this season, he said he’s open to filling in at any position.

“I’ll do whatever the coaches ask me to do,” he said. “However they want me to fill in.”

Easton said he played at guard at Harvard and has been working at both guard and center for the Vikings. He said the center position is a little more demanding.

“There’s a lot of things but primarily getting everybody lined up, finding the point of the play, and getting everybody going in the right direction on the O-line,” he said.

To continue improving his blocking, Easton said he has tried getting stronger, faster and more athletic. He doesn’t emphasize run blocking or pass blocking.

“They’re equal,” he said. “We like to stress both, because we want to protect [quarterback Sam Bradford] and gain yards running the ball.”

Easton was an economics major in college. Did he ever considered working in that field instead of being on the field as a pro football player?

“The thought definitely crossed my mind,” he said. “But I loved football, and I knew at the time I wanted to take it as far as I could.”


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Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.