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Updated: May 11th, 2014 10:57am
Mackey: Why it doesn't make sense to criticize Vikings' early picks

Mackey: Why it doesn't make sense to criticize Vikings' early picks

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Long before Mike Zimmer was hired as Minnesota Vikings head coach, people in NFL circles openly wondered when he would finally get his shot to pilot a team. Zimmer was regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in football - a disciple of Bill Parcells who orchestrated stout fourth-quarter barriers and schemed through injuries. He also had the unique ability to crack down on players while still maintaining their full respect, which is no easy task in this era of entitlement.

After Zimmer finally did receive his chance, not one player, coach, executive or media member adamantly disagreed with the decision. Most fans seemed elated too. The hire was universally praised, and Zimmer followed by knocking his introductory press conference out of the ballpark.

Then, once offseason workouts commenced, players raved about Zimmer's approach and attitude. "We're out here and he's actually grabbing guys and he's showing them what to do, how to use their hands, how to do their footwork," Brian Robison said earlier this month. "We've always had head coaches sit in meetings, but they've never really talked a whole lot. It's been about the defensive coordinator. Whereas Zimmer is, he's stepping up, he's running the meetings most of the time, going through the defensive calls."

Of course, all of these positive vibrations could all change in the fall, but to this point there is no tangible evidence suggesting Zimmer doesn't know what he's doing.

So why is it that many people seemed to criticize the Vikings' selection of UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr in the first round of the NFL draft?

Oh, make no mistake. The Barr selection was Zimmer's as much as it was Rick Spielman's. As the Vikings' pick approached, Zimmer was in the war room drawing up schemes to show how Barr could fit into his defense.

So here's the question for people who are criticizing the pick: What do you trust more, Zimmer's acumen? Or mock drafts that likely aren't an accurate representation of actual NFL war room draft boards?

With all due respect to the Mel Kipers and Todd McShays - guys who no doubt put in some of the craziest hours of any media members - mock drafts are loose guidelines for where players may wind up. Last week, most mock drafts had Barr as a mid- to late-first round pick. Mike Mayock had him going 20th to the Cardinals. But in December, McShay had Barr going seventh overall to the Bucs. In that same mock draft, Teddy Bridgewater was the No. 1 overall pick.

So, instead of burying ourselves in mock drafts and prospect rankings - exercises that are inexact, subjective sciences - let's say we had the opportunity in April to sit down face to face with Zimmer over beers for an honest discussion. And let's say Zimmer, injected with truth serum, said, "There's this linebacker from UCLA, Anthony Barr. We've studied all the film, I've demonstrated to the front office how I'll utilize him on defense, and we're probably going to take him with our first-round pick. He's a little raw, because he was an H-back just three years ago, but we love him as a pass rusher, and I think he'll fit my system perfectly. You'll love this guy in a couple years."

Would you have looked Zimmer in the eye with a straight face and said, "I don't know, Zim. I've seen multiple mock drafts that had Barr going later in the first round. Plus, from what I've read, Barr seems like a bit of a project. Don't you think this is kind of a reach in the top 10?"

Or would you have turned to your friends and said, "Guys, forget about the mock drafts and scouting reports. I just (perhaps illegally) injected Mike Zimmer with truth serum. He told me about this Anthony Barr guy. You're not going to believe how well he fits into this new defense."

Think of it this way too: Let's say somebody told you in December the Vikings would draft one of the top available linebackers in the top 10 to plug a major hole in the defense, then they'd grab Bridgewater later in the first round. Wouldn't you have signed up for that scenario without hesitation?

Is it possible Barr and Bridgewater wind up being complete busts? Absolutely. But if your reference points for criticizing the picks include media mock drafts and subjective position rankings, you're probably doing it wrong.

The same could be said for profusely praising draft picks too. Sure, Cleveland Browns fans are ecstatic about landing Johnny Manziel, and the excitement is justified for a city that hasn't seen quality football in two decades. Hell, it would have been must-see TV every week for Vikings fans too if Johnny would have landed here. I was all for drafting him from an entertainment standpoint.

But let's be honest: When the smokescreens cleared, the only two groups of people who thought Manziel was a "gotta have him" franchise-saving quarterback were fans and media. Multiple franchise-QB starved teams passed on him in the top 10. More teams passed on him in the top 20.

It's like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans - all quarterback-starved - were walking through the Mojave Desert, no water in sight for days. And when they each stumbled upon a bottle of Aquafina, they looked at it and said, "Nah. We'll be OK for now. We're holding out for Evian."

In reality, sometimes we have to be comfortable saying, "Hey, this NFL draft business is really fun to follow, but we simply have very little idea who will pan out and who won't."

In the case of the Vikings, Spielman has only whiffed on one first-round pick in his Minnesota tenure. Now, that whiff was a big one - Christian Ponder - but the others have been serviceable at worst: Harrison Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Kalil, Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Xavier Rhodes and perhaps Sharrif Floyd.

Bookmark this if I'm wrong in three years, but I'll give the benefit of the doubt to Spielman and Zimmer for this year's first round picks. 

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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