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Continued: Drafting Kalil: A tough call to tackle

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

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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New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Portland 0 Postponed
Brooklyn 0
Sacramento 0 Postponed
New York 0
Philadelphia 74 FINAL
New Orleans 99
Minnesota 84 FINAL
Oklahoma City 92
Orlando 94 FINAL
Memphis 103
Boston 99 FINAL
Utah 90
Denver 98 FINAL
LA Clippers 102
Army 68 FINAL
American Univ 66
Wright State 64 FINAL
Detroit 53
Syracuse 83 FINAL
North Carolina 93
Cleveland State 56 FINAL
Oakland 59
Delaware State 54 FINAL
NC Central 55
High Point 63 FINAL
Presbyterian 54
Howard 45 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 42
Coppin State 84 FINAL
NC A&T 71
Nicholls 51 FINAL
Northwestern St 80
Hampton 56 FINAL
SC State 65
Gardner-Webb 59 FINAL
Campbell 78
MD-Eastern Shore 72 FINAL
Florida A&M 65
Stephen F Austin 82 FINAL
Lamar 65
Central Arkansas 67 FINAL
New Orleans 87
Norfolk State 70 FINAL
Savannah State 54
TX A&M-CC 70 FINAL
SE Louisiana 61
Sam Houston St 80 FINAL
Abilene Christian 63
McNeese State 84 FINAL
Incarnate Word 86
Milwaukee 48 FINAL
Valparaiso 73
Alcorn State 66 FINAL
Alabama A&M 78
Southern U 59 FINAL
Alabama State 63
Prairie View 68 FINAL
Ark-Pine Bluff 105
Texas 86 FINAL
Iowa State 89
Texas Southern 85 FINAL
Miss Valley St 84
Long Island 85 FINAL
Bryant 88
Central Conn St 51 FINAL
St Francis-NY 49
Fairleigh Dickinson 0 Postponed
Sacred Heart 0
St Francis-PA 87 FINAL
Wagner 74
Delaware State 59 FINAL
NC Central 66
Howard 53 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 61
Coppin State 49 FINAL
NC A&T 67
Hampton 88 FINAL
SC State 53
Norfolk State 54 FINAL
Savannah State 56
MD-Eastern Shore 54 FINAL
Florida A&M 64
Angelo State 55 FINAL
Abilene Christian 70
Samford 32 FINAL
(25) Chattanooga 49
Prairie View 83 FINAL
Ark-Pine Bluff 66
Alcorn State 58 FINAL
Alabama A&M 55
Southern U 53 FINAL
Alabama State 49
Texas Southern 63 FINAL
Miss Valley St 52
(12) Texas A&M 61 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 79
Robert Morris 68 FINAL
Mount St Marys 44
East Tenn St 72 FINAL
Mercer 70
Wofford 56 FINAL
Furman 58
Morehead St 64 FINAL
Tenn Tech 54
Illinois 57 FINAL
Michigan 70
Quinnipiac 0 Postponed
Manhattan 0
Saint Peters 0 Postponed
Rider 0
(18) Miss State 59 FINAL
Auburn 48
(15) Nebraska 72 FINAL
(20) Iowa 78
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
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Dec 28 - vs. Chicago NoonX13-9

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