How was this all going to work?
The three newest Vikings weren’t totally sure. This was new to them. New to the organization as well.
One by one, the athletic defensive tackle, the lockdown corner and the raw but promising receiver took their new purple jerseys — No. 76 for Sharrif Floyd, No. 29 for Xavier Rhodes, No. 84 for Cordarrelle Patterson — and climbed onto a platform to align for the cameras.
The day-after photo op is a requirement following the NFL draft’s first round. Prospects grab new, flat-billed caps, hold up jerseys and smile like all their dreams have come true.
It’s just incredibly rare for a team to be squeezing three grinning playmakers together at once.
So on Friday in the Winter Park field house, the stage quickly became cluttered. So much so that after owner Mark Wilf circled to the right of Floyd and Zygi Wilf sandwiched Patterson and Rhodes from the left, General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier were wedged into the background.
“A good problem for us to be having,” Spielman quipped, suddenly looking as he if was photo-bombing a moment he had been so influential in creating.
This was the defining snapshot of the Vikings’ 2013 draft, a nine-player class headlined by three guys who all, at one point or another, were touted as top-15-caliber picks.
“There’s no question in my mind we’ve gotten better,” Frazier said.
If Spielman’s first draft as GM had produced an immediate jackpot with a Matt Kalil-Harrison Smith exacta paying off on offense and defense, the Vikings seemed to have a tough act to follow on Night 1 this year.
Then, in the span of 50 minutes Thursday, Spielman stole the show.
Plucking Floyd at 23 and Rhodes at 25 set off a defensive celebration in the Vikings’ war room, with Frazier finding coordinator Alan Williams and secondary coach Joe Woods for high-fives.
If the night had ended there, the Vikings would have been thrilled. Yet rather than wait until Day 2 to find a big-time playmaker at receiver, the Vikings caught the ear of New England with a trade pitch that will forever define their 2013 draft.
Whether the four-picks-for-one deal seemed too expensive, in Patterson the Vikings secured a dynamic receiver whose childhood role model was Randy Moss, whose game, he says, can resemble Julio Jones’ and whose versatility allows him to be a chess board queen — as an outside deep threat, a slot or backfield bottle rocket.
Who knows? Maybe that initial Thursday night focus on defense had offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave feeling left out.
Said Spielman: “He was walking around a little bit with a sad-puppy look on his face. But he perked up real quick.”
Six more players
Then came Saturday’s finishing touches, six picks that seemed mostly anticlimactic yet netted two Penn State linebackers (Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti), a punter (UCLA’s Jeff Locke), two guards (Jeff Baca and Travis Bond) and a defensive tackle (Everett Dawkins).
The Locke pick was the most notable by far. He is now the highest chosen of six punters the Vikings have ever drafted and presumably in line to succeed accomplished 31-year-old vet Chris Kluwe.
Yet if there was an instinct to feel bemused by that move, the Vikings have last year’s Blair Walsh story — drafted in Round 6 in April, stole Ryan Longwell’s job in May, named All-Pro in January — to fall back on.
And it was another sign of Spielman’s push to upgrade his roster in bold and unconventional ways.
That’s exactly how this draft began, with that binge in the final hour of Round 1. It was then that the Vikings watched two players they loved drop to them — Floyd in free fall to 23 and Rhodes at 25 — before aggressively moving up to land Patterson.
“We call him CP,” Spielman noted.
The giddiest fans quickly called “CP” a big-time steal so late in the first round. More cautious analysts labeled him a project, a player whose classroom aptitude may be a noticeable handicap in his NFL transition.
Whatever the case, the Vikings flipped their late-second-round pick at No. 52 into Patterson at 29 while also surrendering picks in the third, fourth and seventh rounds.
It was a night that exemplified Spielman’s approach in the GM chair — patient when it seems prudent, ultra-aggressive when he identifies guys he really wants.
For more than 2½ hours Thursday, Spielman sat with serenity to make two wise first-round picks. The third selection required an urgent sprint from a podium back to the war room to rubber stamp a trade.
“That’s what makes this job very exciting,” Spielman said. “Especially when I almost pulled a hamstring getting back upstairs.”
Rolling the dice
From a cost standpoint, the Vikings’ big three-pick night will always need the context of the gamble they took to storm up for Patterson. It left them with no way to address their obvious hole at middle linebacker on the draft’s second day and came in a draft that had long been touted as loaded with depth at receiver.
So it should be noted that had the Vikings held on Thursday night, passing Patterson altogether, they still would have had a chance with pick 52 to go after receivers Keenan Allen, Aaron Dobson or Terrance Williams not to mention linebacker Arthur Brown.
And when their original third-round pick at 83 came around, a handful of notable receivers (Ace Sanders, Josh Boyce) and linebackers (Khaseem Greene) were still in play.
Still, Spielman viewed the trade through a different lens, having completed a first-round trifecta that added three potential difference-makers at three positions of need.
“If you were to say, in a normal draft, we had a first-round pick, a second-round pick and a third-round pick, is there any chance of us getting these three players? No way,” Spielman said.
With that, there was another surge in enthusiasm at Winter Park. And it’s at least partly a byproduct of a better organized power structure that provides Spielman final say on all personnel decisions.
Neither Spielman nor the coaching staff would come out and say Thursday’s trade might have been impeded by the organization’s old hierarchy. But it’s clear the cogs of the machine are running smoothly these days.
“I would just say that when there are decisions that need to be made and made [quickly], it’s easier when one person is in charge of doing that,” Spielman said.
But with that pinpoint responsibility, Spielman remains meticulous with his push for input from all levels — fellow execs, coaches, scouts.
“We put it all together as a group because everybody does such a fantastic job and puts their heart and soul into that board,” Spielman said. “But when decision time comes — Are we moving, are we sticking? Are we staying with this guy? Are we trading? — that’s going to fall on my shoulders.
“That’s a lot easier now because there’s one decision-maker in the room.”
The Vikings’ current decision-maker is far from infallible. Spielman’s handling of Antoine Winfield’s release last month followed by a failure to re-sign the veteran corner as desired registered somewhere between clumsy and miscalculated. His 2012 free-agent signing of tight end John Carlson appears to have been, at best, an expensive misevaluation.
And now, with the potential ousting of Kluwe, an accomplished punter whose renown skyrocketed because of his outspoken support of gay rights, Spielman may experience a wave of blowback.
But in two offseasons, the GM’s handling of the roster has been decisive and productive.
This weekend he took a 10-win playoff team and added eight new pieces, including three first-rounders.
And it wasn’t just at Vikings headquarters where the enthusiasm spiked. After deboarding a flight from New York City on Friday, Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson were whisked to the Mall of America, where they immediately felt the buzz.
“The energy is crazy,” Rhodes said. “There was one guy, we saw him twice. I think he almost fell out. It was kind of funny. But I could tell the fans here love Minnesota, they love the Vikings.
“I love it, I completely love it.”
No one was loving it more than Spielman.