Drafting Kalil: A tough call to tackle

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2012 - 11:28 AM

USC's Matt Kalil just might be the best fit for the Vikings at No. 3 overall. But history shows that drafting an elite offensive tackle early doesn't guarantee a turnaround.

Ask James Cregg about Matt Kalil's skills, long-term potential and the defining moments that proved his worth during an All-America career at Southern California, and Cregg needs a second. After all, USC's offensive line coach has an extensive mental catalog to sift through.

His first instinct is to point to last season's game with Washington, a blowout victory throughout which Kalil seemed to be snarling like an angry Rottweiler.

The Trojans had lost 32-31 at home to the Huskies a year earlier. Something about that stumble really agitated Kalil.

Cregg sensed as much during the rematch last November yet took even greater notice when he watched the game again. As USC's offense piled up 426 yards, including 252 on the ground, during a 40-17 victory, Kalil repeatedly demolished Huskies defenders like a bulldozer uprooting a tulip garden.

"You put that game on and you instantly see a guy with a chip on his shoulder," Cregg said. "You see who Matt Kalil is, a fierce competitor who is doing everything he can to bury his man. That was Matt's passion at its best. That's his determination to win every block he has."

Statistically, Kalil succeeded in that mission in 2011, not allowing a sack in 457 passing attempts.

Yet if you want a more current gauge of his worth, Cregg offers that, too. As USC's spring practice unfolded in March and April, that once impenetrable safe door on the offensive line suddenly had a loose hinge.

"If I didn't fully appreciate what Matt meant to our offense, I understand it now," Cregg said. "Not having him here, I can tell you we miss him dearly already."

At this point, with the NFL draft four days away, it's difficult to find even a small collection of Kalil detractors. Ask the folks who have studied the star left tackle -- the NFL coaches, scouts, general managers and draft analysts -- and they all will sing a similar refrain: Kalil is as close to a can't-miss offensive line prospect as you'll find.

He's strong and athletic. His feet are quick and his reach packs power. Best of all, he has an undeniable ferocity that fires his ambition to get better.

Realistically, Kalil could be a perennial Pro Bowler for the next 10 to 12 years.

Given all that, it seems insane to even entertain the thought that the Vikings, owners of the No. 3 pick and hoping to bolster their line, would consider passing on such an obvious standout.

So why might the decision prove more complicated?

Return on investment

Over the next four days, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman will revisit every detail of his voluminous research on the left tackle position in an attempt to answer one question: Just how much can a standout lineman like Kalil catalyze the growth of a rebuilding team?

As crazy as it might sound, the Vikings cannot select Kalil solely because he projects as a future Hall of Famer who will provide a sturdy wall of protection for the next decade. That alone, unfortunately, does not guarantee significant team success.

Take Willie Roaf, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in January. Roaf was drafted eighth overall by the Saints in 1993 and enjoyed a 13-year career that included 11 Pro Bowl appearances. Yet during his nine years playing tackle for New Orleans, Roaf was a part of exactly one playoff team.

A revolving door at quarterback -- from Wade Wilson, Jim Everett, Heath Shuler and Kerry Collins to Billy Joe Tolliver, Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks -- ultimately proved too chaotic for the Saints to capitalize on Roaf's premier play.

And what about Joe Thomas, five times a Pro Bowler during his five seasons in Cleveland? Well, since drafting Thomas third in 2007, the Browns have gone 28-52 with no indications a resurgence is ahead.

So just how valuable has it really been for Cleveland to have a consistent star on the offensive line?

That's a question Spielman and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier must consider, measuring Kalil's worth alongside fellow blue-chip prospects such as LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon.

"You've got to really weigh your options," Frazier said. "Because the philosophy [in the NFL] has always been to get the game-changer. And left tackle is not necessarily the game-changer. Usually game-changers are the guys who can score you points. Receivers. Quarterbacks. So what are we measuring that left tackle against? It's a loaded debate."

Comfort zone

Between 2001 and 2010, 14 NFL teams invested a top-10 pick on an offensive tackle. From that fraternity, nine of those linemen never have been part of a playoff victory. And only Jordan Gross, Levi Brown and D'Brickashaw Ferguson have made it as far as the conference championship game.

Former Browns coach Romeo Crennel was part of the brain trust that locked in the Joe Thomas pick five years ago. Without question, Thomas has become exactly the player Crennel envisioned.

Sturdy. Consistent. Dominant.

Yet, to date, Thomas' brilliance has paid few dividends. Cleveland started seven different quarterbacks during Thomas' career and had three head coaches.

So what should the Vikings be considering as they measure Kalil's value? Crennel, now the head coach in Kansas City, believes the left tackle discussion has to center on the projected comfort that O-line prospect can provide his quarterback.

In other words, the Vikings must sidestep the idea that Kalil's arrival will instantly accelerate their rise back to relevance. But if the Vikings firmly believe Kalil's steadiness will help quarterback Christian Ponder ascend quickly, then the pick is a no-brainer.

"If you have a quarterback who has confidence in the guys protecting for him, when he has to throw, he is more at ease," Crennel said. "He can look down the field for the routes. He doesn't have to look at the protection or the rush. And I think that value, in itself, is hard to measure. If you get a left tackle who provides that for your quarterback, then I think your whole offense can be better in a hurry."

Kalil, with an obvious vested interest in the discussion, echoes Crennel's assessment.

"It's about making that quarterback feel more comfortable in the pocket, that he can trust that he can get that extra read and get that extra second knowing he's not going to be getting hit from behind or speared in the back," Kalil said. "I think a quarterback's confidence is everything."

'Take the tackle'

Now might be a good time to mention the Vikings allowed 49 sacks last season. Ponder was sacked 30 times in 10 starts and suffered a painful hip pointer in Week 13 that hindered him in losses to Denver, Detroit and Chicago. He also was knocked out of a Christmas Eve victory at Washington because of a concussion.

Frazier and Spielman still believe Ponder is their long-term answer yet concede he needs to show marked growth in Year 2. That's a goal that will be reached only if Ponder can retain his health and remain at ease in the pocket.

Which might bring this draft debate full circle.

Paging: Matt Kalil.

According to ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, Kalil is the surest bet for the Vikings at No. 3, a pick that needs to be made unless an incredibly lucrative trade offer surfaces.

Said McShay: "It would take a team blowing me away. Because you don't have many opportunities to get an elite left tackle and a guy that can protect your investment. Whether you believe Ponder's going to be a great quarterback or not at all, bottom line is you drafted him high last year. ... So you've got to do everything you can to put him in the best situation to succeed. I think right now, unless you get multiple picks who can come in and be successful and productive players around that quarterback, just go ahead and take the tackle."

The pros and cons have been scrutinized. The clock is ticking.

 

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Tampa Bay - WP: J. McGee 6 FINAL
Toronto - LP: B. Morrow 5
Cleveland - LP: B. Shaw 4 FINAL
Detroit - WP: P. Coke 6
Washington - WP: J. Zimmermann 3 FINAL
NY Mets - LP: J. Niese 0
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: E. Volquez 7
Miami - WP: A. DeSclafani 5 FINAL
Philadelphia - LP: J. Papelbon 4
Cincinnati - LP: M. Leake 2 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: M. Garza 9
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 8 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Vargas 4
Minnesota - WP: T. May 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox - LP: H. Noesi 4
Colorado - LP: J. Lyles 1 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: M. Gonzales 4
Atlanta - LP: M. Minor 3 FINAL
Texas - WP: C. Lewis 10
Houston - WP: D. Keuchel 6 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Santiago 1
Los Angeles - WP: C. Kershaw 4 FINAL
San Francisco - LP: Y. Petit 2
San Diego - LP: O. Despaigne 6 FINAL
Arizona - WP: Z. Spruill 8
Oakland - WP: J. Lester 4 FINAL
Seattle - LP: C. Young 0
NY Yankees - LP: D. Robertson 2 FINAL
Baltimore - WP: D. O`Day 3
Miami 10 FINAL
Buffalo 29
Jacksonville 10 FINAL
Washington 41
Dallas 26 FINAL
Tennessee 10
Arizona 25 FINAL
NY Giants 14
New England 30 FINAL
Minnesota 7
New Orleans 24 FINAL
Cleveland 26
Atlanta 10 FINAL
Cincinnati 24
Detroit 7 FINAL
Carolina 24
St. Louis 19 FINAL
Tampa Bay 17
Seattle 21 FINAL
San Diego 30
NY Jets 24 FINAL
Green Bay 31
Kansas City 17 FINAL
Denver 24
Houston 30 FINAL
Oakland 14
Chicago 28 FINAL
San Francisco 20
Philadelphia 9/15/14 7:30 PM
Indianapolis
Tampa Bay 9/18/14 7:25 PM
Atlanta
Boise State 38 FINAL
Connecticut 21
Indiana 42 FINAL
Bowling Green 45
Ga Southern 38 FINAL
Georgia Tech 42
Syracuse 40 FINAL
Central Mich 3
UCF 10 FINAL
(18) Missouri 38
Massachusetts 31 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
Ohio U 14 FINAL
Marshall 44
West Virginia 40 FINAL
Maryland 37
Kent State 0 FINAL
(23) Ohio State 66
Pittsburgh 42 FINAL
FIU 25
East Carolina 28 FINAL
Virginia Tech 21
Louisville 21 FINAL
Virginia 23
Wyoming 14 FINAL
(2) Oregon 48
Air Force 48 FINAL
Georgia State 38
(13) Georgia 35 FINAL
(14) So Carolina 38
Arkansas 49 FINAL
Texas Tech 28
Iowa State 20 FINAL
Iowa 17
Miami-Ohio 10 FINAL
Michigan 34
Kansas 3 FINAL
Duke 41
NC State 49 FINAL
So Florida 17
Arkansas State 20 FINAL
Miami-Florida 41
Miss State 35 FINAL
South Alabama 3
Louisiana 15 FINAL
(10) Ole Miss 56
Minnesota 7 FINAL
TCU 30
Illinois 19 FINAL
Washington 44
Army 0 FINAL
(16) Stanford 35
Western Mich 45 FINAL
Idaho 33
Eastern Mich 3 FINAL
Old Dominion 17
Southern Miss 12 FINAL
(3) Alabama 52
Northern Ill 48 FINAL
UNLV 34
Tulsa 21 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 50
ULM 0 FINAL
(8) LSU 31
Wake Forest 24 FINAL
Utah State 36
Western Ky 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 50
TX-San Antonio 13 FINAL
(25) Oklahoma State 43
Purdue 14 FINAL
(9) Notre Dame 30
Kentucky 30 FINAL
Florida 36
New Mexico St 24 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 42
Tennessee 10 FINAL
(4) Oklahoma 34
(17) USC 31 FINAL
Boston College 37
Navy 35 FINAL
Texas State 21
(12) UCLA 20 FINAL
Texas 17
Penn State 13 FINAL
Rutgers 10
Rice 10 FINAL
(6) Texas A&M 38
(15) Arizona State 38 FINAL
Colorado 24
(24) Nebraska 55 FINAL
Fresno State 19
Nevada 28 FINAL
Arizona 35
(5) Auburn 9/18/14 6:30 PM
(20) Kansas State
Connecticut 9/19/14 7:00 PM
So Florida
Old Dominion 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Rice
Troy 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(13) Georgia
Georgia Tech 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Virginia Tech
Eastern Mich 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(11) Michigan State
Iowa 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Maryland 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Syracuse
Tulane 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Duke
Hawaii 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Marshall 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Carolina 9/20/14 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Army 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Virginia 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(21) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 9/20/14 2:30 PM
SMU
Rutgers 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Central Mich 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Kansas
Utah 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Florida 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(3) Alabama
Louisville 9/20/14 2:30 PM
FIU
Fla Atlantic 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Wyoming
Indiana 9/20/14 3:00 PM
(18) Missouri
San Jose St 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Minnesota
Texas State 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Illinois
Massachusetts 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Penn State
Georgia State 9/20/14 5:00 PM
Washington
Appalachian St 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Miss State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
(8) LSU
Northern Ill 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas
Middle Tennessee 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Memphis
Utah State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Miami-Ohio 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Idaho 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Ohio U
Ball State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
(14) So Carolina 9/20/14 6:30 PM
Vanderbilt
(4) Oklahoma 9/20/14 6:30 PM
West Virginia
Ga Southern 9/20/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
UNLV 9/20/14 7:00 PM
Houston
(22) Clemson 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(1) Florida State
Miami-Florida 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(24) Nebraska
New Mexico 9/20/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 9/20/14 9:00 PM
Arizona
Louisiana 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Boise State
(2) Oregon 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
San Diego St 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Oregon State
Los Angeles 1 FINAL
San Jose 1
Montreal 16 FINAL
Edmonton 33
Toronto 33 FINAL
Calgary 40
Winnipeg 9 FINAL
Brt Columbia 26
Saskatchewan 3 FINAL
Hamilton 28
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