Which third is charm for Vikings?

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 26, 2012 - 5:04 PM

The Vikings like three players with the No. 3 overall pick, and might even trade the pick away. The hard part comes when making the decision.

Finally. It's over. All the tireless research and analysis, all the outside speculation and hullabaloo.

Poof. It's gone.

The NFL draft is all about action now. Finally.

Tonight, sometime around the bottom of the 7 o'clock hour, Rick Spielman will make his first selection as Vikings general manager. It's scheduled to be the first of 10 picks Spielman locks in this weekend. Yet, whoever the Vikings reel in as their choice at No. 3 will become the player by which Spielman's acumen and reasoning is widely judged -- at least in the immediate draft aftermath.

So who will it be? Left tackle Matt Kalil? Cornerback Morris Claiborne? Receiver Justin Blackmon? Or might a last-minute trade surface?

The mystery remains.

This week, the Claiborne-vs.-Kalil debate has intensified as much as any story in the draft. Those who favor the Louisiana State cornerback point out how porous the Vikings pass defense was in 2011, then also acknowledge that three standout NFC North quarterbacks all under the age of 29 will be firing bullets at the Vikings six games every year for the foreseeable future.

Man, it sure would help to have a standout cornerback to slow that blitzkrieg.

The Kalil backers' retort? Quarterbacks win Super Bowls. And unless Christian Ponder is given some peace of mind and a legitimate chance to grow in the next year or two, nothing else will ultimately matter. If Ponder fails, the Vikings will likely fail. So a standout offensive lineman is needed immediately.

Which is a legitimate argument -- even if it has been oversimplified to assume that all the pounding a young quarterback takes and all the errors he makes are directly related to the performance of his left tackle.

Somewhere along the line, a best-selling book, a horde of NFL analysts and a schmaltzy acting performance by Sandra Bullock convinced us of this supreme value of a standout left tackle.

Yet here on draft day, we decided to turn loose some of our own independent research, results of a study done to determine how many of Ponder's rookie errors were the direct result of shoddy left tackle play.

Our research was done with no preconceived notions. Instead, we ran the film back on the 43 plays in 2011 during which Ponder was either sacked, committed a turnover or both. For every one of those plays, we asked the same question: Whose fault was it?

The quick summary:

• Ponder was solely responsible for nine of his 15 turnovers and three of his sacks.

• Eight of Ponder's 13 interceptions came with no pressure in his face, often the result of his own poor decision making.

• Right tackle Phil Loadholt was at least partially responsible for eight of the 30 sacks Ponder took.

• Only four of the 30 sacks Ponder absorbed occurred by way of a right defensive end beating Vikings' left tackle Charlie Johnson 1-on-1. Poor protection from Johnson at left tackle contributed to only one other sack.

• Twenty sacks were generated by defensive tackles or blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

• On five occasions Ponder was sacked, at least in part, because a running back missed a block.

Interpret those numbers however you'd like. And we'll readily admit that research is limited, not fully accounting for all the times Ponder was pressured or hit in 2011, becoming more and more fidgety with each encounter.

But at least understand that adding a stud left tackle like Kalil tonight, while helpful, won't suddenly give Ponder the same protection the Hope Diamond gets at the Smithsonian.

This isn't to suggest Kalil would be a foolish pick for the Vikings at No. 3. He's a fantastic talent who fills an obvious need. But Claiborne also fits that description. Blackmon, too.

Too often, we've been sucked into the draft chaos believing there is only one correct pick for a general manager to make. After all, it's not as much fun to solve a riddle with three logical answers.

But in actuality, tonight Spielman seems to face the perfect scenario for his first pick, ready to pull the trigger in what his coach, Leslie Frazier, believes is "a win-win-win" situation.

Who's the right choice for the Vikings at No. 3? There might be three of them. It all depends on which way you come at it.

Dan Wiederer • dan.wiederer@startribune.com

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