Vikings weigh draft, free-agent options

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2012 - 10:27 PM

GM Rick Spielman says the NFL's new CBA limits signing bonuses, so teams are more willing to trade up.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune file

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Normally a team like the Vikings will sign 10 or so rookie free agents, but that might not be the case this year, according to Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman.

"The budget now with the new [collective bargaining agreement] is basically you can spend $75,000 in signing bonuses on all your college free agents," he said. "There's never been a cap in the past. Now going forward you get $75,000 towards signing college free agents. How you divvy it up is what you do with it."

That new rule makes the draft even more important because in the past, the Vikings and many other teams have signed free agents who have made it big with the club. Center Mick Tingelhoff, defensive tackle John Randle and safety Robert Griffith are three former free agents who went on to become standouts with the Vikings.

Spielman also pointed out that the CBA limits the money guaranteed to draft choices, especially in the top 10 picks.

You can see that difference between the contracts of the past two top picks in the NFL draft. St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford got a six-year, $78 million contract in 2010; about one year later, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton signed for four years and $22 million.

"A lot more teams are willing to move into that top-10 area because that financial commitment is not as great as it has been in the past," Spielman said.

As for the upcoming NFL draft, the Vikings have lost three starting offensive lineman in the past two years -- Bryant McKinnie last year and Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera were free agents who weren't brought back this year.

Spielman refuses to admit the Vikings will draft USC's Matt Kalil with the third pick in the draft, a player who, according to my sources, is the best offensive tackle to be available since Cleveland drafted Joe Thomas from Wisconsin third overall in the 2007 draft.

Spielman doesn't consider Kalil a sure pick. He puts cornerback Morris Claiborne of LSU and wide receiver Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State in the same class as Kalil, who USC coaches rate as one of the best players to play for the Trojans in years. Spielman says the Vikings will take one of those three players.

Spielman, when talking about Claiborne and Blackmon, said, "In the same breath [with Kalil], you look at the receivers and quarterbacks you're playing in this division week in and week out, and Claiborne has some very unique traits and very unique ball skills, and Blackmon is a very unique receiver."

Spielman believes there potentially could be four or five tackles going in the first round.

"Everybody talks about Riley Reiff from Iowa, you talk about Jonathan Martin at Stanford, talk about Mike Adams at Ohio State, you're talking about another big guy at Georgia that was down at the Senior Bowl, Cordy Glenn, he can play both tackle and guard. There are a lot of potential options out there," Spielman said.

But my good sources tell me none of those other tackles comes close to Kalil in ability. One thing Spielman will admit is that, "We're not going to move up, I can tell you that, from our spot. We'll listen. There's been a couple calls coming in [about trading down], nothing specific that says, 'Hey, we want to do this,' but we also have to keep our options open from that end as well.

"If there's a deal out there that can potentially set your franchise up for the future, and have some of the things that are in place that Washington had to give St. Louis [to trade up to the No. 2 pick], that's something you definitely have to look at as well. This is a pretty deep draft class through those first two rounds and you should be able to get some good players out of those picks."

I'm still betting the Vikings will wind up with Kalil, who will play a key role in protecting quarterback Christian Ponder. Charlie Johnson, who apparently graded out pretty good last year according to Vikings coaches, could then move from left tackle to left guard and the Vikings would be much stronger on that side.

Merila in new role

Former Gophers baseball player Mark Merila is changing positions within the San Diego Padres organization.

Merila had to retire from professional baseball after the 1995 season after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. At one point, he was told he only had months to live.

But Merila is in great health now. He has been with the Padres organization for 17 seasons, including being the team's bullpen catcher for 10 years. He will now become a professional scout, watching American League teams when they play at Target Field, and visit some other minor league teams around the Midwest.

Jotings

• A source close to LSU reported that representatives of the school did meet with Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith in Virginia, where he was going to watch Gophers senior Ralph Sampson III play in the Portsmouth camp -- Sampson later couldn't participate because of an injured knee -- where seniors perform before a number of NBA scouts. Time was spent to see if Smith had any interest in the LSU job. LSU hired former Tigers player and coach Johnny Jones earlier this month after talking to Smith.

• Phil Humber, who threw the 21st perfect game in baseball history Saturday in the White Sox's 4-0 victory over Seattle, came to the Twins in the Johan Santana trade in 2008 and pitched in 13 games for the Twins in 2008 and '09. He had only started two games in his professional baseball career before he was signed off waivers from Oakland by the White Sox in 2011. Last season Humber got a real shot, starting 26 games and going 9-9 while posting a 3.75 ERA in 163 innings.

• Smith, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski paid close attention to the performance of Apple Valley's Tyus Jones as he played with the Howard Pulley team in the Nike EYBL tournament in Eagan this week. Those schools and Ohio State are the leaders in recruiting Jones, a sophomore guard who is ranked with the top high school players in the country.

• Ben Johnson, the former DeLaSalle, Northwestern and Gophers guard whose first job at Texas-Pan American included little pay and $100 for doing the basketball laundry, has left his coaching job at Northern Iowa and now is a top assistant at Nebraska with a salary of $180,000.

• The leading rusher in the Gophers football spring game Saturday was JoJuan Harper, who gained 44 yards. He walked on at Minnesota after attending North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, where he never played football. In high school at Columbia Heights, Harper earned all-North Suburban Conference honors following the 2011 season and was named the Hylanders' MVP following his senior year.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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