The Vikings' quarterback quandary

  • Article by: JUDD ZULGAD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2011 - 8:34 AM

The Vikings are like a lot of teams at the top of this year's draft list: They're looking for Mr. Right to lead their offense.

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The vetting process is complete. The speculation nearly finished. 

Vikings officials have dined with Blaine Gabbert. They have watched Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Cam Newton and Ricky Stanzi in private workouts. They have spent several hours at Winter Park trying to get inside the head of Ryan Mallett and played host to Andy Dalton. 

All that's left is the decision that will play a significant role in determining the direction of this 51-year-old franchise: Will Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier and Co. use their first-round pick on a quarterback -- something the Vikings have done only two times -- and attempt to end a five-year string of stop-gaps at the position?

Barring a decision to trade up, Newton and Gabbert almost certainly will be gone by the time the Vikings select 12th overall Thursday night. That leaves Locker, Ponder and Mallett as the most likely targets.

Frazier, who served as interim coach for the Vikings' final six games of 2010 before having the temporary tag removed a day after the season ended, made it clear last month that his desire would be to find his next quarterback through the draft.

"In this league you either have one or you don't," said Brian Billick, the former NFL coach and Vikings offensive coordinator who is an analyst for NFL Network. "When you look at the front of this draft, you can almost to a man see why [teams are] in the front end of the draft. They don't have a quarterback."

The Vikings are searching for a quarterback who provides hope and the stability they have lacked at quarterback since Daunte Culpepper suffered a season-ending knee injury seven games into the 2005 season.

"There are some things that I've tried to come up with [in the predraft] process that are out of the box as we process these quarterbacks," said Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel. "I still think you can't force a quarterback. If you're not comfortable with it, you're just going to make a mistake."

There have been reports that the Vikings have Washington's Donovan McNabb on their radar and that the 34-year-old would like to play in Minnesota, but that move again would be nothing more than a potential quick fix.

McNabb is coming off a disappointing season with the Redskins in which he was benched in favor of journeyman Rex Grossman. It's expected that the Redskins will release McNabb. But the NFL lockout means no transactions can be made until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

Then there is the issue of McNabb's willingness to serve as a mentor for his potential successor. Frazier gave a telling answer when asked about pairing a veteran short-term starter with a rookie.

"He would have to understand that, 'This is what your role is,' " Frazier said.

"It would be up to us to explain that to get the right guy. Otherwise, it really splits your team and stunts the growth of that young quarterback."

There also is Kevin Kolb, whose emergence enabled the Eagles to trade McNabb last year. Kolb is expected to be available as Philadelphia has turned to Michael Vick as its starter. Kolb has started only seven games in four seasons, but at 26 he would provide a potential long-term solution.

McNabb could be obtained for nothing if he's released, while the asking price on Kolb is likely to be a high draft pick or more.

Keeping it under wraps

Spielman and Frazier, who will be working together on the draft for the first time and appear to have just about equal power, have managed to keep the Vikings' thinking very quiet in recent months. Because of the NFL lockout, their primary focus has been on the draft, and there is little question their research on this quarterback class has been extremely thorough.

From Locker's lack of accuracy in the pocket to allegations of drug use by Mallett to the status of Ponder's surgically repaired right shoulder, there isn't much the Vikings don't know about this group.

If the Vikings do select one of the top quarterbacks, odds are they would need to do it early.

They own the 43rd pick in the second round and don't have a third-rounder because they dealt it to New England last year in the Randy Moss trade. One option might be trying to move back in the opening round in order to grab a quarterback, such as Locker, and also recoup the third-rounder in the process.

Waiting until the second round might be a gamble, because there has been speculation that the top seven quarterbacks (Newton, Gabbert, Locker, Ponder, Mallett, Dalton and Colin Kaepernick) could be gone in the top 40. There also could be a run on the position late in the opening round as many teams need quarterbacks.

Spielman has stuck by his long-standing "we'll take the best player available" mantra -- and the Vikings do have a wide variety of needs as they go about retooling their roster -- but not pulling the trigger on the quarterback position when you really need one could prove difficult.

"It's really easy to say, 'Take the best player available at that point and time,' " said Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager now serving as an analyst for NFL Network.

"But when you're sitting there and you don't have a quarterback, that can be really tempting. Especially this year. If you have free agency first, maybe the Vikings could have gone and solved this. If they don't take a quarterback there [now], Joe Webb could be the starter on opening day. That's a very real possibility."

One argument based on avoiding the quarterback position in this draft is that if the lockout extends into training camp or the regular season, a young quarterback would be lost because of a lack of familiarity with a much-more complex NFL system.

However, that thinking is shortsighted if a team feels that a quarterback from this class has the potential to be your guy for the next seven to 10 seasons.

Standing pat

There also is the philosophy of waiting for the perfect fit, but the Vikings are in for a long and terrible season in 2011 if they are going to hold their breath and hope to get Stanford's Andrew Luck a year from now with the top overall pick.

The Vikings hired Bill Musgrave as their offensive coordinator in part because of the role he played in Matt Ryan's development in Atlanta while serving as quarterbacks coach. Ryan was the third pick in the 2008 draft and stepped right in as the starter, leading the Falcons to an 11-5 finish.

Musgrave's presence might actually help a younger quarterback, because he's expected to simplify the offense and keep only some elements of the heavy-verbiage West Coast system the team employed under Childress.

"You know when you've got to play a rookie, you've got to understand -- like with Mark Sanchez, who went to the Jets -- that you've got a pretty good defense around him so he just has to be a manager of the game in his first year or two," said former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Herm Edwards. "Don't lose the game. That's what you tell the kids."

The same year Ryan was taken by the Falcons, the Baltimore Ravens moved from No. 8 in the first round to No. 26 and then back up to 18th to grab Delaware's Joe Flacco. The 6-6 Flacco hasn't missed a start and has led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his three seasons.

Billick acknowledges there are questions about all of the quarterbacks in this draft, but he also makes it clear that is nothing unusual and that there is some serious revisionist history when it comes to how previous classes are now judged.

"Let's be careful," Billick said. "When we go back and talk about [St. Louis' Sam] Bradford and Ryan and Flacco with such glowing terms -- and we should, because they are going to be excellent quarterbacks -- we had concerns for them, too. Bradford, is he going to stay healthy? Matt Ryan, does he have the arm strength? Flacco, he doesn't look like anybody we have in the league right now. Is he too big, is he going to fit?

"They turned out well, but we had questions about them, too. So when I say that there's questions about these guys ... everybody has [questions] every year. We kind of forget after a kid gets in the league and plays well and say, 'Oh, yeah, I had him really high. I knew he'd be good.' No, you didn't. We had some questions about all of them."

The question for the Vikings is this: Have they answered enough of their own queries about this group to be comfortable taking one of them?

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