Pelissero: Grade Vikings' draft? Simple, it will be an 'A' or an 'F'
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There is no in-between for the Minnesota Vikings' 2011 draft class.
It'll be an "A" or an "F".
That's the reality of using the 12th overall pick on Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, as Carolina did with Cam Newton at No. 1, Tennessee with Jake Locker at No. 8 and Jacksonville with Blaine Gabbert at No. 10.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. You have one or you don't. And that more than justifies the bold moves four franchises made to redefine themselves within the first 12 picks, although history suggest two of them will regret it.
The last time four quarterbacks went so early was 1999, when five came off the board in the top 12. Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper went on to some measure of success, making nine Pro Bowl appearances between them. Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown were epic failures.
Of the 17 quarterbacks selected with top-12 picks from 2000 to 2010, four (Joey Harrington, David Carr, Matt Leinart and JaMarcus Russell) were total busts, two others (Byron Leftwich and Alex Smith) failed to live up to expectations and two more (Jay Cutler and Vince Young) wore out their welcome before their rookie contracts expired.
That makes 11 out of 22 swings at franchise quarterbacks that have failed to connect in the draft's first 12 picks over the past 12 years -- a 50% mistake rate, without factoring in Michael Vick's eventual downfall in Atlanta and Matthew Stafford's early-career injury issues in Detroit.
The Vikings had more picks (10) in this draft than they had since 2000. Even if nine others exceed expectations, it will be for naught if Ponder falls short.
The following is a position-by-position look at what NFL scouts told 1500ESPN.com before the draft, how we thought the Vikings would proceed and what ended up happening. (Players who received restricted tenders are marked with an asterisk. Click links for full scouting reports.)
What scouts were saying: "I've been impressed with Joe Webb. But to say that he can go out there and be the starter -- I don't know that. From what I've seen, I wouldn't feel comfortable with that. And I'd love to have Joe Webb on our team -- but as a backup, you know? He's really talented. He looks tough and it doesn't look like it's too big for him, which is important. They didn't even draft him as a quarterback. They drafted him as a receiver and they moved him. They didn't even know what they had."
What we were saying: "It would be nothing short of stunning if the NFL Draft's first two rounds pass without the Vikings selecting a quarterback. They've drafted one that early only four times in the franchise's 50 years -- Tommy Kramer (27th overall in 1977) and Daunte Culpepper (11th in 1999) in the first round, Bill Cappleman (51st in 1970) and Jackson (64th in 2006) in the second. But a gaping hole at the most important position, coupled with their detailed work on all of the top quarterbacks during the pre-draft process, makes it a safe bet this time around. Coach Leslie Frazier has made no secret about his desire to draft and develop a franchise quarterback, and that would become more and more difficult the longer the Vikings wait. The top two prospects, Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, universally are projected to be off the board before the Vikings' first selection at No. 12 overall. If they pass on Washington's Jake Locker and the rest of the second tier with their first-round pick, trading up from No. 43 in the second is another possibility -- there's just no telling how long the quarterback(s) they target will be on the board in a year so many teams need one."
Additions: First round (12th overall) -- Christian Ponder, Florida State.
Analysis: Newton, Locker and Gabbert all were off the board, but that didn't stop the Vikings from addressing their biggest need once they failed to find a willing trade partner. The Vikings had a first-round grade on Ponder (6-foot-2, 229 pounds). So, even though it wasn't a top-12 grade, it's senseless to call the selection a "reach" -- not for a team that needs an answer at the most important position, and not before the guy has set foot on the field. Known for his intelligence and toughness, Ponder has experience in a pro-style system and has Frazier's confidence he can start immediately if the NFL lockout doesn't cut into training camp. But only time will tell if the Vikings' decision to hang their future on Ponder's surgically repaired right arm will pay dividends or cost people their jobs.
What scouts were saying: "(Peterson)'s deal is obviously always going to always be staying healthy, protecting the football and just how productive he's going to be catching the ball. But hey ... if you made me put a gun to my head and tell me to pick one (halfback), I'd take that one. It's amazing, because when he came out of school, there were a bunch of teams that were quaking in their boots about taking him because there was a little hump on his collarbone. There were people that said, 'Yeah, well, he's going to have to rebreak it, reset it' and all that kind of stuff. With a guy with that kind of talent, you take him and ask questions later."
What we were saying: "Of all the positions on the Vikings' roster, this one seems least likely to be addressed. If anything, a change-of-pace back with return ability could be an option on Day 3. A late-round fullback/H-back also is another possibility, but those players also can be found in rookie free agency."
Analysis: No surprises here. Other than working on Peterson's contract extension and identifying their fullback, the Vikings are set personnel-wise at the position.
What scouts were saying: "That's going to be thing -- what do they do? Do they choose to get (Rice) a deal? If this whole thing shakes out like it probably will, he could end up being unrestricted and so he hits the market. Somebody's going to pay him, because he's proven that he can play. He's also proven that injuries are an issue. I see somebody loading him up (with incentives and escalators) -- giving him enough money to make it interesting enough for him to come, but then also not tying their hands to a contract that says that they've got to give him a bunch of guaranteed money and then he ends up having another injury-plagued season. I could see him ending up having to earn a little bit of it along the way."
What we were saying: "The Vikings' lack of outside receiver options makes this position at least a "B"-level need that would become even more pressing if Rice departs. Unless Alabama's Julio Jones slides -- NFL sources doubt it -- help won't come at No. 12 overall. A mid-round selection would be no surprise."
Additions: Seventh round (No. 236) -- Stephen Burton, West Texas A&M.
Analysis: Burton (6-foot-1, 221 pounds) was an Oklahoma recruit and brings an intriguing size-speed combination. But he's a developmental player who comes from a Division II spread offense and may have to earn his spot on returns. The Vikings either have high confidence they'll re-sign Rice or have a backup plan in free agency. Relying on Berrian and Camarillo as outside receivers to keep Harvin in the slot just isn't a viable solution.
What scouts were saying: "(Shiancoe)'s been solid, and when you consider where he came from and the growth as a player, I think he still has another couple years left in him. Kleinsasser, he is what he is -- he's the grizzled vet. So yeah, you could definitely stand a young football player in there. I'm showing Dugan as the third. You could very well go out there and get another talented guy to come in and be ready to take the reins off."
What we were saying: "The Vikings haven't used a pick in the top six rounds on a tight end since 1999, when they drafted Kleinsasser in the second (44th overall) out of North Dakota. Some in the organization thought they'd uncovered a gem in the seventh last year with Mickey Shuler, but Miami pounced when the Vikings tried to slip the rookie through waivers. There are more pressing short-term needs, but the age and contract status of all the tight ends on the roster make spending a mid- to late-round selection on the position in this year's draft a virtual certainty."
Additions: Second round (43rd overall) -- Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame.
Analysis: Rudolph (6-5, 266) was a more surprising pick than Ponder, simply because the Vikings didn't have an "A"-level need at the position and lacked a third-round pick to fill other holes. But Frazier was convinced Rudolph could be a game-changer in the passing game and balance the field to create opportunities for Shiancoe, too. The Vikings had a first-round grade on Rudolph despite the serious hamstring injury that ended his 2010 season. Dugan's days probably are numbered, unless the Vikings think he can be a full-time fullback or new coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense necessitates going four-deep at the position.
Unsigned: T/G Ryan Cook*.
What scouts were saying: "There's always something off the field issue-wise coming up with (McKinnie), and none of it is very flattering when it comes up. But he can still play, so you keep him there. The wheels haven't fallen off yet. It's hard enough to find (left tackles) and develop them. The one thing about it -- you don't want to wait until you're completely transitioning and then have to get a guy immediately, because that's where you're forced to either take one where you don't want to or pay somebody else's an astronomical amount."
What we were saying: "Since drafting McKinnie seventh overall in 2002, the Vikings have drafted only six offensive linemen -- fewer than any team but the New York Giants (five) -- and are one of six teams that hasn't taken one in the first round. There is an argument to be made for that to change this year, given the Vikings' long-term need at left tackle and the number of quality prospects likely to be available at No. 12 overall. Taking the top interior prospect, Florida's Mike Pouncey, also could be a possibility if the Vikings trade down. The most likely scenario, however, is adding depth in the second round or beyond, with the possibility of finding a starting-caliber interior player as late as Day 3."
Analysis: Frazier acknowledged that building depth here was a priority. So, they took Love (6-4, 315) as a potential "swing" tackle whose strength in run-blocking could make him a backup at guard, too. Then, they drafted Fusco (6-4, 316), a tough, strong Division II All-American they liked enough to put through a private workout with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. Both players came from outside-zone blocking schemes that will ease their transition. Fusco's presence should provide a needed push for Sullivan, who is entering a contract year. But neither draft pick looks like a candidate to start immediately on a line that declined badly last season.
What scouts were saying: "I hear they're not going to bring back Ray Edwards. When I hear that, the first thing I always think is there's got to be some other reasoning behind that, because he is a 4-3 left end as the day as long, and he's a good football player. So, they'd have to replace that production somewhere along the way as well. (Robison is) a hard-nosed, try-hard kid, high motor. You like those things about him. But in the end, the other kid (Edwards) is a proven guy, and it's not like he's an old guy either."
What we were saying: "Frazier has placed an emphasis on shoring up a run defense that slipped to ninth in the NFL last season (102.2 yards per game, 3.9 average). So, it wouldn't be a surprise for the Vikings to use at least one and perhaps two picks to inject some youth into the line. A surplus of first round-caliber pass rushers makes end an option as early as the Vikings' No. 12 overall pick. However, a draft class widely regarded as deep -- particularly at end -- and the team's past success with mid-round selections may give vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman and company confidence about finding immediate contributors later on."
Analysis: The Vikings stuck with precedent, scooping up Ballard (6-4, 283) after he slid because of character concerns following a positive test for marijuana at the NFL scouting combine. If Ballard lives up to his second-round grade, the Vikings will have gotten a bargain on a rugged penetrator with the versatility to play undertackle, end and perhaps even nose. Reed (6-4, 261) is known as a solid run defender but wasn't even a starter in college. He's a developmental player who probably will need to earn his keep on special teams. The Vikings still have a big question mark at nose tackle, where Guion is the leading candidate to replace Pat Williams but isn't known for his anchor ability.
What scouts were saying: "They franchised (Greenway). You'll probably have to do something there one way or the other. Leber's a free agent. I would imagine they'd want to re-sign him. He's not a bad player, and the other kid, (Erin) Henderson, (is unsigned) as well. Maybe (they'll draft an) outside 'backer."
What we were saying: "Assuming the next labor agreement upholds franchise tags, outside linebacker is at most a 'B'-level need worth mid-round consideration for the Vikings, despite Leber's uncertain status. The third linebacker just isn't on the field enough, since Greenway plays virtually every down and coaches prefer E.J. Henderson call the defense in nickel. The Vikings' connection to multiple top inside linebacker prospects, however, suggests they're at least entertaining the idea of targeting Henderson's successor on the draft's second or third days. It's a sensible consideration -- if the team Brinkley's deficiencies in space will always outweigh his strong downhill run traits."
Additions: Sixth round (No. 200) -- Ross Homan, Ohio State.
Analysis: The instincts of Homan (6-1, 238) help make up for his lack of size, and he was highly productive at Ohio State. So, the Vikings will put him in the mix on the weak side if Leber doesn't return along with Onatolu, Erin Henderson and perhaps Brinkley, who figures to remain the backup in the middle since the Vikings added no depth there.
What scouts were saying: "When I think about their defense, one of the first things I think about really are the back four. They have to find a way to solidify the back four, trying to get some blue-chip players in that area. Their (Tampa-2) defensive scheme doesn't necessarily put onus on the operation to find blue-chip players in the secondary. But they could use an influx, an upgrade in their back four in terms of their corners and safeties."
What we were saying: "Cornerback could be a consideration for the Vikings at No. 12 overall, particularly if Nebraska's Prince Amukamara is available. More likely, though, they'll look for help at cornerback and safety beginning in Round 2, with a high probability of adding multiple secondary players before three days are up."
Analysis: The Vikings feel they got value with Burton (6-0, 190), who came out as a junior because the NFL Draft Advisory Board said he'd be a second-round pick. His size and reroute ability at the line makes him a perfect fit for press coverage in the Vikings' Cover-2, although his awareness in zone coverage has to improve. He's a strong candidate for subpackage duty as a rookie, while Raymond (6-1, 192) could get a look at cornerback and safety, depending how the Vikings' depth shakes out. If last season proved anything, it's that the Vikings needed depth here -- and there could be more moves to come once free agency begins. Winfield remains the only certain starter.
Unsigned: PK Ryan Longwell.
What we were saying: "It would be a surprise for the Vikings to use a draft pick on a specialist. They've been connected to several experienced return men, though, and could look to add one in the late rounds -- if not sooner, depending how much that player also could contribute on offense or defense."
Analysis: The Vikings believe Burton has some return ability, but he rarely did it in college. If Longwell re-signs, the only significant question here is who will return punts.