And now, making the Vikings pieces fit

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 10:49 PM

With Rick Spielman's first draft as Vikings GM over, the onus falls on him, Leslie Frazier and Christian Ponder to make the new roster work.

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Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman

At the conclusion of a chaotic Saturday during which the Vikings were on the clock as often as any other NFL team, Rick Spielman finally emerged from the war room, came to the dais inside the Winter Park field house and waxed optimistic about his latest draft haul.

Over a span of 61 minutes earlier in the day, he made his most important charge, selecting four players in the fourth and fifth rounds. And with pick No. 118, the Vikings general manager finally dug into the receiver grab bag he had long touted as incredibly deep.

Arkansas' Jarius Wright, Spielman asserted, will be a big-time speed threat as both a slot receiver and potentially in the return game. That assessment best be valid. After all, 18 receivers came off the board in this weekend's draft before the Vikings secured Wright.

Less than an hour later, Spielman nabbed a second receiver, Wright's college teammate and childhood buddy, Greg Childs.

"They've been together, I think, since birth," Spielman joked.

With that, another position of need had been addressed.

Overall, the Vikings made seven picks Saturday, plowing through the draft buffet line with wide eyes.

A couple of receivers here, a defensive back there, some linebacker and defensive line aid on the side.

And when the day ended, for all intents and purposes, so did the heavy offseason lifting.

From coaching and front office changes in January to detailed scouting research in February to some calculated free-agency shopping in March to this weekend's draft frenzy, the Vikings feel they have made great progress in clearing away the rubble from last year's 3-13 implosion.

Yet now, even with all these new pawns, the chessboard mostly belongs to three central figures whose abilities will most determine the direction of the franchise for the next half-decade and beyond.

Spielman? He long desired to be the team's voice of authority, the big personnel decision-maker, the guy assuming pinpoint responsibility for the end product. That wish has been granted, and Spielman's fingerprints are all over this draft.

Christian Ponder? He simply wanted a vote of confidence plus some additional support to test just how good he can be as an NFL quarterback. He has been granted all that.

Coach Leslie Frazier? He wanted a locker room filled with players who fit his vision. Talented, intelligent, team-first guys. Frazier has a bunch of them now.

"Our theme was getting smart, tough football players who love to play the game," Spielman said. "And I think all these guys we were able to draft fit that bill."

There can be no excuses going forward. The NFL world can now definitively evaluate whether Ponder is a viable franchise quarterback; whether Frazier is adept as a head coach; and whether Spielman is a shrewd talent evaluator and productive GM.

Finishing touches

A 48-hour whirlwind began Thursday night with Spielman wheeling and dealing and landing a pair of immediate starters in left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith. If this were golf, that would have been the equivalent of a 310-yard drive striped down the middle of the fairway.

Which means Spielman's decisions on Friday and Saturday became something of a putting contest. Without success there, the end result on the scorecard won't reflect the impressiveness of that big drive.

Yet Saturday provided a couple of head-scratching moments, none more notable than the fourth-round selection of fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison out of Southern California.

For those who wondered immediately whether that pick was a bit of a reach, Ellison was in the same boat. Well, actually, he was relaxing on a river near his California home when the surprise call from the Vikings came.

"I wasn't really expected to get drafted or anything like that," Ellison admitted. "I was pretty shocked."

Ellison burst into tears, so overcome with emotion that he didn't process much of his conversation with the Vikings, who were convinced Pick 128 was their last chance to nab the USC standout.

"I was crying pretty hard," Ellison said, "so I don't know if they understood anything I was saying. I'll have to give them a call back later."

The Vikings also used their lone sixth-round pick on a kicker, Georgia's Blair Walsh. Despite seemingly having bigger needs at other positions, they rolled the dice on a guy with a strong leg who was twice an All-Southeastern Conference selection but missed 14 of his 35 field-goal attempts in 2011.

"Watching him at the combine," Spielman explained, "he was the best kickoff guy we saw there."

The big picture

Spielman might not be able to avoid criticism on those two selections. That's the nature of the beast, the micro-analysis of the draft so ubiquitous that even late-round moves seem to carry supreme importance.

But in bolstering the supporting cast for Ponder, Spielman made valuable upgrades this past week.

Ponder now has a star left tackle in Kalil plus two new rookie receivers from Arkansas (Wright and Childs) plus, oh yeah, a late free-agent acquisition in former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson, whose speed and athleticism should energize the offense.

Defensively, the Vikings drafted two Notre Dame defensive backs (Smith and Robert Blanton) plus additional reinforcements at corner (Josh Robinson), linebacker (Audie Cole) and defensive end (Trevor Guyton).

If Frazier coveted ammunition for a pass defense that was feeble at best in 2011, he now has it with five drafted rookies who fit the system and the character profile the coach drew up.

Most of all, the Vikings targeted players who work hard and love football. Had Spielman mentioned passion any more Saturday evening -- seven references in total -- his postdraft news conference would have needed to be delayed until after 10 p.m.

"Myself and Coach Frazier and [owners] Mark and Zygi [Wilf] sat down and really honed in on where we need to go with this roster and what we're looking for," Spielman said. "And that was a huge part of this planning process when we had our big meeting in January. That's the direction we've been going."

Seventeen weeks have passed since the Vikings last played. Much has changed. With the roster, with the coaching staff, with the front office hierarchy.

All of it has been done to give Spielman, Ponder and Frazier a chance to prove themselves. The stage is now theirs.

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