Vikings GM can claim a high rate of success in his offseason moves
No NFL general manager — not even the likes of Ozzie Newsome, Bill Belichick or John Schneider — is going to bat 1.000 when it comes to offseason roster decisions.
But Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, with new coach Mike Zimmer’s input, has certainly gotten a lot of hard contact with the players the team brought in back in the spring.
After a disappointing 5-10-1 season that got former coach Leslie Frazier canned, Spielman was able to make his first head coaching hire in January. Together, he and Zimmer quickly began overhauling one of the NFL’s leakiest defenses while looking for an answer at quarterback.
Now, here in November, the 4-5 Vikings have 19 players on the 53-man roster who weren’t in the building a season ago. Six of them are starting and a few others are counted on to play key reserve roles.
And while the Vikings are not quite contenders yet, Spielman was right to say last week that the franchise — at least when it comes to the on-the-field stuff — is heading in the right direction.
Perhaps the two smartest decisions that Spielman made happened the weekend before the frenzy that was free agency, when he re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen and quarterback Matt Cassel.
The dollar signs attached to Griffen’s lucrative deal raised eyebrows in the media, especially since the Vikings were giving the big payday to him and not veteran teammate Jared Allen. But nine games and nine sacks later, Griffen’s play is proof that Spielman knew what he was doing there.
Beyond choosing to keep an ascending young end in Griffen over an aging player in Allen, the Vikings also made a few other moves to overhaul their defensive front for Zimmer.
They inked nose tackle Linval Joseph and built a dangerous rotation with reserve tackles Tom Johnson and rookie Shamar Stephen and pass-rushing end Corey Wootton. They also said goodbye to another fan favorite in Kevin Williams to allow 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd to grow in a starting role.
The defensive line has been the team’s biggest strength this season. The Vikings lead the NFL with 30 sacks, and the pressure they have generated while rushing just four players is one of the primary reasons why the team is fourth in pass defense after ranking 31st a season ago.
The play of another free-agent signing, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, has also helped in that regard. After a shaky start, Munnerlyn appears to be getting comfortable in Zimmer’s scheme.
As for the Cassel contract, it might not appear that the deal has worked out considering that he was lost for the season in Week 3. But his presence enabled Spielman and the Vikings to be patient on draft day. Instead of reaching for a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel in the top 10 picks, the Vikings nabbed Anthony Barr and circled back for Bridgewater at the end of the first round.
Barr is a serious candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Bridgewater, despite some up-and-down play and a few maddening misfires on deep balls, has offered hope that he might be the long-term answer at quarterback by displaying poise and savvy as a rookie.
Barr and Bridgewater are not the only draft picks playing significant roles. Third-round running back Jerick McKinnon in recent weeks has made the loss of Adrian Peterson sting a little less by averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Stephen has exceeded expectations. And young defensive backs Jabari Price and Antone Exum, despite their special-teams screw-ups, show promise.
There have been some whiffs for Spielman, though, and that’s not counting draft picks such as third-round defensive end Scott Crichton and fifth-round guard David Yankey, who have often been in street clothes on game day (if those two remain nonfactors next season, then you can be concerned).
Spielman got caught looking during free agency and the draft when he didn’t take a meaningful hack at addressing the left guard, middle linebacker and strong safety positions, though, to be fair, a GM of a cellar-dwelling team can rarely get to all of his needs in one offseason.
Those three spots will likely be need positions again this upcoming spring, especially middle linebacker. Jasper Brinkley has been decent as an early-down run plugger, but the Vikings need to find a middle linebacker who can play on all three downs, especially with outside linebacker Chad Greenway, who is one of the team’s two nickel linebackers, not expected to be back in 2015.
And if we are sticking with the baseball analogies, Spielman fouled one into his foot when he took another one-year gamble on wide receiver Jerome Simpson, who got in trouble again and was kicked off the team. That left the Vikings without a speedy deep threat to sprint under some of those deep Bridgewater overthrows.
Still, looking back, Spielman should feel good about what he got done last offseason, and that’s not even including the Zimmer hire, which has the potential to be a home run.
With that rebuilt defensive line, a budding star in Barr and a potential franchise quarterback in Bridgewater, for most general managers that would be a pretty good offseason at the plate.