There was no need for music in the rental car. And if the radio were on, the men wouldn’t have noticed. They were too busy talking about quarterbacks, pro days and the future of the Vikings franchise.
As coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman drove from airports to college campuses and back with offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, Norv’s son, they shared laughs, stories and opinions of the many draft prospects they watched work out.
Sometimes the car trips lasted more than a couple of hours, so the new head coach and the general manager had no choice but to quickly build a relationship.
“It’s like we’ve been together for a long time. … You know, I don’t even know if the radio’s been on because we’re talking all the time. Or I’m trying to be careful of his driving,” Zimmer said two weeks ago in his office. “That’s the one thing I’ve learned: Don’t ride with him.”
As has been the case since 2012, Spielman will steer the wheel as the Vikings navigate the NFL draft this week. But Zimmer, who was hands-on in the scouting process during a successful stint as Bengals defensive coordinator, is comfortable riding shotgun inside the draft room. Spielman has the final say, but Zimmer’s fingerprints are all over the team’s draft board.
“I don’t think one guy can do this job,” he said. “I couldn’t do Rick’s job, some of the stuff that he does. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t coach defense like I can coach it. And I can’t go out on the road and scout like those scouts can. They’re experts in what they do. So we get all the expert opinions and put them all together as far as a unified plan as where we are going from that point.”
Outside of those road trips, Zimmer bonded with Spielman through a mutual love of scouting. Zimmer would be watching tape of a prospect in his office and Spielman would walk in and pull up a chair. Or Spielman would holler down the hall to tell Zimmer to come check out a player.
“Working with him side-by-side … has been very educational,” Spielman said at the scouting combine.
The Vikings already have several young building blocks in place, including left tackle Matt Kalil, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. But their eight picks in this draft will lay the foundation for Zimmer’s plans, especially on defense.
“I just want to get good football players here that are team guys — good guys on the field and good guys off the field,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, you want to get as many starters as you can. I want to continue to try to get guys that can build this franchise into being good every single year, and make this an elite franchise that can be continually building to where we can be contenders every year.”
Rebuilding the Bengals
After years of losing seasons and bungled drafts, the Bengals have built one of the NFL’s deepest rosters, which helped them make the playoffs in four of Zimmer’s six seasons in Cincinnati. The Bengals unearthed later-round gems in defensive tackle Geno Atkins and pass rusher Michael Johnson. And they found middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the NFL’s leading tackler last season, as an undrafted free agent.
Zimmer was heavily involved in college scouting because the Bengals have one of the NFL’s smallest scouting staffs. After the season ended, Zimmer and the other Cincinnati assistants were abnormally active in the process.
“In Cincinnati, their coaches were on the road a lot. And they had a lot of influence in the draft,” said Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager who is now an NFL Network analyst. “He was very hands-on in the spring, watched a lot of tape, went to a lot of workouts. … I don’t think he’ll change that.”
Zimmer was often asked for his input during the draft. He really pounded the table for Atkins, a fourth-rounder who became a two-time All-Pro, but was quick to say that nailing that pick was a team effort.
“I think we did a great job of scouting of them in terms of finding the athletic ability that we are looking for and the size requirements, the intelligence part, and I think we did a great job of coaching them, too,” Zimmer said. “We allowed them to progress. It didn’t happen overnight.”
Not long after arriving at Winter Park in January, Zimmer pulled the scouts and the personnel department, who were five months into the scouting process, into the film room to give them a new blueprint for each position.
“That can have a little bit of an adjustment on your board if you are talking about a scheme change and a philosophy change,” said former Ravens, Browns and Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst for NFL Network. “Then you’re going to have your board shaken up a little bit just to cater to your coach. But you don’t want to pass on great players because they wouldn’t be perfect fits.”
Zimmer’s main task in his first year will be fixing the team’s 31st-ranked defense. His attacking, multiple scheme is vastly different from Leslie Frazier’s Cover 2 defense. In Cincinnati, Zimmer built top-10 units with pass rushers with length on the edges, feisty defensive backs and aggressive linebackers.
“I think it’s a little bit of a change from what they’ve looked for defensively in the past,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer used last week’s minicamp to identify how the defenders on the roster will fit, and the front office and scouting department also have had to adapt to what Zimmer is looking for in a short period of time.
“He’ll look at a player, and he’ll tell us the strengths and he’ll tell us how he’s going to use him and utilize his skill set within his system,” Spielman said.
Search for a quarterback
Zimmer and Spielman, along with the Turners, drove into big-time campuses such as Alabama and Texas A&M and visited more remote college football outposts such as Central Florida and Eastern Illinois. They have been linked to a dozen quarterback prospects, from potential top-10 picks to small-school sleepers. Picking the right one, perhaps more than anything, will provide job security for years to come.
Zimmer has left scouting the technical aspects of the position to Norv Turner, the noted quarterback guru who will have a say in which passer Spielman picks. Zimmer instead focused on character and the unquantifiable traits that can make or break quarterbacks. He watched how they interacted with teammates and total strangers, tried to identify leadership qualities and looked them in the eyes in interviews.
“What you’ve got to figure out is, who is the best guy for the Minnesota Vikings?” Zimmer said. “Who’s going to fit in best with Norv? Who’s going to play well in the cold? With the team the way it is, how do they fit in with the defense? Is he better off sitting for a year or playing now? What’s his potential down the road going to be like? And they’re all good kids, and we talked to all of them. They have different personalities so there is a different flavor a little bit.”
The Vikings, who have starter Matt Cassel and 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder around to keep the position warm for the next quarterback of the future, have narrowed their list, but no one will know which flavor they prefer until Thursday night at the earliest.
Whomever they choose and however his first draft in Minnesota plays out, Zimmer said he and Spielman will travel this road together.
“He’s a little bit like me,’’ Zimmer said. ‘‘He’s a little bit sarcastic at times and we give each other a hard time, but we really respect each other. And when we come out of the room we are going to come out of the room together.”