Souhan: Spielman's first draft: smooth, with wrinkles

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 10:33 PM

The Vikings GM proved himself a sharp poker player early on, but only time will prove if later picks pan out.

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Josh Robinson (right)

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Now we know what Rick Spielman likes in a football player.

He likes a guy who attended Notre Dame, because it would be foolish not to capitalize on all of the success the Fighting Irish enjoyed in the 1970s.

He likes a big dude who blocked at USC and enjoys spending time on the water, whether it's first-rounder Matt Kalil planning fishing excursions in Minnesota or fourth-rounder Rhett Ellison admitting he spent Saturday on the river because he thought he'd never get drafted.

Spielman likes Arkansas receivers from the Hogs' famed Run-n-Squeal offense, and teammates in general, so they can get group deals on travel to the Twin Cities. He drafted two Trojans, two Fighting Irish and two Razorbacks, and now has five Notre Damers on the roster, along with Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and John Sullivan. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave just might have to install a Guinness package on goal-line plays.

This was Spielman's first draft as the Vikings' unquestioned personnel boss, and we can divide it into two phases:

• He seemed to do well with his first four picks.

• He, like everybody else who does his job, was playing Lotto after that.

Spielman landed the best offensive lineman in the draft (Kalil) after trading down a spot to pick up three extra draft choices. He traded into the first round to land the second-best safety in the draft in Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, who by default instantly became the Vikings' best safety since Darren Sharper arrived in 2005.

He took speedy cornerback Josh Robinson in the third round, and flashy-if-small Arkansas receiver Julius Wright with his first fourth-round pick.

So with his first four choices, Spielman appeared to draft for both quality and need. After that, he was either displaying a keen appreciation for hidden talent, or he was throwing bent darts at a moving bull's-eye.

Ellison was so surprised to hear from the Vikings that he broke down during their call. He said he spent the day "on the river," which may or may not be a euphemism. Ellison is either a wacky reach, or will become one of the great folk stories in Vikings history, a guy who admitted, "I was going for not getting drafted at all" and who has a chance to replace the bearded icon, Jimmy Kleinsasser, as a beloved blocking back.

"I got emotional, too," Spielman said. "I was like, 'I love you, man!' "

Spielman's next pick was Greg Childs, like Wright a receiver from Arkansas. Childs has size, talent, promise and a surgically repaired knee that limited him to 21 catches last year, and has known Wright since, he said, elementary school. He's the right kind of midround pick, a prospect who has the ability to play in the NFL and fell because of an injury. Spielman said Childs is "completely'' healthy now.

Spielman has a tough job. He's running the fourth-best team in a four-team division, behind the NFL's model franchise (Green Bay), fastest-rising franchise (Detroit) and oddest successful franchise (the Bears of Mike Tice, Jay Cutler, Devin Hester and Brandon Marshall).

One draft isn't going to close the gap between the 3-13 Vikings and those teams, but Spielman did what he could to position the Vikings to contend in the next few years if Christian Ponder becomes a good NFL quarterback.

Kalil upgrades the offensive line. Wright could complement and spell Percy Harvin and return kicks. Smith, Robinson and Notre Dame defensive back Robert Blanton should upgrade the secondary. And Musgrave now has a wealth of tight ends and H-backs to run his preferred offense.

Spielman did about as much as he could this week to give Ponder a chance to succeed.

Ponder should grow with an offense stacked with young talent, from Kalil, Sullivan and Phil Loadholt on the line, and Carlson and Rudolph at tight end, and Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart in the backfield, and Harvin, Wright and Childs at receiver.

And if Ponder doesn't improve, nothing Spielman did this week will matter much, anyway.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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