How did Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman fare in his 12th draft with the team?
“If you ask me, I thought I did a hell of a job,” Spielman said with a laugh on Saturday when asked if he did well. “What do you want me to say — ‘No?’ ”
More definitive judgments probably will have to wait for another day.
As much as the NFL’s draft industrial complex loves to indulge in the practice of evaluating a team’s rookie class shortly after it’s finalized, the conclusions drawn in the hours after the draft often fail to hold up over time.
That could be especially true of the Vikings’ 2018 group, which followed the team’s typical script and could take some time to yield fruit.
The Vikings’ eight-player draft class is tied for their smallest of the decade, and at first blush, it would seem to be populated mostly with players who might be a year from contributing. The team tends to look more for athletic upside than immediate polish, and the state of the Vikings roster means that if their veterans are healthy, they shouldn’t need to lean too heavily on their 2018 rookies right away.
“The theme [of the draft] was sticking with the athletic traits we’re looking for, and relying on this coaching staff to develop a lot of this young talent,” Spielman said. “It gives you a chance to hit on some guys that can be pretty special. We talk about this all the time in the draft meetings: This guy may be a better football player today, but this guy has such a higher ceiling, and our coaches are so eager to work with these athletes. To me, that’s when you get an opportunity to hit on a guy that can be something.”
In fact, their most immediate contribution might come from their fifth-round pick: Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, who became the highest-drafted kicker in Vikings history when the team traded up to select him 167th overall.
The pick would indicate the Vikings could be making a switch at kicker in the near future. On Saturday, Spielman said the Vikings would have competition at kicker throughout the spring, though the previous two times the team has drafted a specialist, it quickly cut loose a veteran.
The Vikings spent a sixth-round pick on Blair Walsh in 2012, and they released veteran Ryan Longwell shortly after their rookie minicamp that May. They did the same thing to punter Chris Kluwe in 2013 after drafting Jeff Locke in the fifth round.
This spring, the Vikings signed Kai Forbath to a one-year deal that counts for only $630,000 against the salary cap and includes no guaranteed money, so they might not be as compelled to make a quick move for financial reasons — though if they decide soon that Carlson will be their kicker, they could let Forbath go as a courtesy to the veteran, giving him time to find another team.
In many other areas, a team coming off a 13-3 season, a division title and a trip to the NFC Championship Game isn’t in position to need major contributions from rookies right away — though as the Vikings saw in 2016, a slate of injuries to veterans can ruin even the most optimistic set of plans.
First-round pick Mike Hughes figures to play as a return man right away, while the Central Florida product gets time to develop as a cornerback. Second-rounder Brian O’Neill has only been a tackle for three seasons after shifting from tight end.
Fifth-rounder Tyler Conklin — the pass-catching tight end offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was looking for — was limited by an injury in 2017. Sixth-round defensive end Ade Aruna is still relatively new to football after immigrating from Nigeria as a basketball player, and seventh-rounder Devante Downs, a linebacker from Cal, could be limited during the Vikings’ offseason program by a knee injury, though he declined in a conference call Saturday to offer many specifics.
The Vikings’ Class of 2018 might not be showered with post-draft plaudits, and its ultimate success could hinge on the ability of Mike Zimmer’s coaching staff to coax production out of young players.
That’s been the approach the Vikings have taken since Zimmer and Spielman started working together in 2014, though, and the team’s decisionmakers are comfortable enough with it to continue on course and let the results come over time — like they eventually did with defensive end Danielle Hunter, a third-round pick in 2015.
“When we drafted him, I don’t know how popular that was, because he had one sack coming out,” Spielman said. “But he had such great traits that these coaches love to work with, and he’s developed. That’s the philosophy we’ve kind of used as we went through the draft.”