Pelissero: If roster starts in middle, Vikings' priority seems obvious
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Rick Spielman was standing in a concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium in February, assessing the state of the Minnesota Vikings' roster, when I asked him about the plan at nose tackle.
He responded as I figured he would, saying the team is "excited about how Letroy (Guion) and Fred Evans filled in and just having those kind of guys in that role."
That's typical Spielman Speak -- praising every player on the roster and refusing the shut the door on possibilities. At this point, it would be a shock if he did anything else.
But what he said next, after noting the middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was a free agent and Harrison Smith had been a revelation as a rookie, was a quote that stuck in my head as I tried to figure out the Vikings' plans with the Nos. 23 and 25 overall picks in this year's NFL Draft.
"We'll go ahead and look at that," Spielman said, "but I really, honestly believe if you can take care of the center of your offense and defense as you go through there, that's the key part of building a successful roster."
If the Vikings' general manager holds true to that belief, it's plain what he must do on Thursday night.
He'll use one pick on a defensive tackle and the other on a middle linebacker, solidifying an interior that has deteriorated further than many realize over the past few years.
That's easier said than done, of course. If the top defensive tackles (Florida's Sharrif Floyd, Utah's Star Lotulelei, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, North Carolina's Sylvester Williams) and middle linebackers (Georgia's Alec Ogletree, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, perhaps Kansas State's Arthur Brown) are gone, there's no point in Spielman reaching.
After all, the Vikings also could use help at receiver, cornerback, guard and maybe even defensive end, depending how hard they're looking at who's unsigned beyond the season. That's why the decisions with their top picks this time are so much more difficult to project.
"If there's a player there that may not have as significant of a role in 2013, but can have a tremendous impact for our team in 2014," Spielman said at his annual pre-draft media conference this week, "that is definitely going to come into consideration as well."
In 2010, I said they'd fill their most glaring need with cornerback at No. 30. Pressed for a name, I said Chris Cook, whom they grabbed after trading back four spots into the second round.
In 2011, I said they'd take quarterback Jake Locker at No. 12 or try to trade back. Tennessee grabbed Locker at No. 8, no trade partners emerged and they selected Christian Ponder.
In 2012, I said they'd take left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 or try to trade back. They did both and got their man, Kalil, at No. 4.
None of that was premonition or rocket science. It all just made sense, with the players available matching the needs the Vikings have at the time.
This year, they have a bunch of needs at a time their surprise rise from 3-13 to 10-6, coupled with the Percy Harvin trade to Seattle, has them sitting on two picks lower in the round.
That might be the best situation for the Vikings, who enter Thursday with six picks in the first four rounds and 11 overall. After all, this is regarded as a draft with depth at some positions, but not the top-end talent of other classes.
They signed Greg Jennings and brought back Jerome Simpson but still need a legitimate split end, raising a handful of possibilities (Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, California's Keenan Allen, Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins, Southern California's Robert Woods) at receiver.
They made sure their offer to Antoine Winfield beat Seattle's but lost out anyway, leaving in need of depth at cornerback that could be addressed by adding Houston's D.J. Hayden, Florida State's Xavier Rhodes or Washington's Desmond Trufant.
They have pending free agents at guard (Charlie Johnson) and end (Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen), opening the possibility of a player such as Oregon's Kyle Long or Florida State's Bjoern Werner should the Vikings regard either as a special talent.
But if the middle is where the success of a defense begins, Spielman surely sees what every other scout does and knows he needs to fix it sooner than later.
He has a declining three-technique (Kevin Williams) who turns 33 in August, has been in decline for years and just took a pay cut in exchange for deleting the last year of his contract.
He has a starting nose tackle (Guion) who still appears out of place at a new position and an athletic backup (Evans) who is inconsistent and best in short bursts.
And he has no viable three-down option at middle linebacker, despite Spielman's insistence Erin Henderson could move inside depending what happens in the draft.
The guess here -- and it's only a guess -- is Spielman would relish the opportunity to solidify the front seven with two players who could start there from Day 1.
Taking Sylvester Williams and either Te'o or Brown would be one way to get that done. And if they're gone, opportunities abound to fill holes elsewhere, perhaps by trading back again.