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Updated: April 25th, 2012 10:16pm
Pelissero: If trade talk fails, is Matt Kalil worth it to Vikings?

Pelissero: If trade talk fails, is Matt Kalil worth it to Vikings?

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

The scenario was laid out, the question posed and the NFL personnel executive didn't hesitate to answer.

If the Minnesota Vikings are choosing between Matt Kalil, Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon as the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft, is there an argument to be made for taking someone other than Kalil despite their glaring hole at left tackle?

"I think that's fair," the executive said. "If you're truly honoring your board, I think a guy like Morris Claiborne -- and I'm not in their draft meetings -- at the position he plays and for his physical skill set at the position, he may have a chance to have a higher ceiling."

That line of thinking could yield a complicated decision on Thursday night, when three players Vikings general manager Rick Spielman swears have identical grades will be stacked vertically on the big board at Winter Park.

Spielman might want Claiborne, the press-man coverage ace from LSU he calls "one of the most talented corners I've seen come out in a long time."

He might even want Blackmon, the productive receiver from Oklahoma State who makes up for his lack of elite physical traits with effort, body control and savvy.

Spielman also knows the Vikings' near future -- and perhaps his own -- is tied to the progression of quarterback Christian Ponder, who has the athleticism and accuracy on the move to make things happen outside the pocket but took a beating in it as a rookie.

"If you don't have a left tackle, it's hard to play in this game," the executive said. "You have a quarterback you're trying to develop, and if they draft Kalil, you're selecting one player and you're solving two issues, because what they'll be able to do then is move Charlie Johnson in to guard."

That scenario was under discussion inside Vikings headquarters as far back as November, when a top-five draft pick became a virtual inevitability. Coaches and scouts privately expressed optimism about the impact of adding the draft's premiere blindside protector.

Passing on Kalil would force the Vikings to pursue an alternative solution in the draft or another short-term fix on the back end of free agency, unless they're willing to design their protection schemes around Johnson's weaknesses.

Taking Kalil over a player with even a marginally higher grade, however, would go against Spielman's core philosophy of building a roster with the best football players available.

Spielman's remarks about the trade market "really heating up" supports the theory he wants the decision taken out of his hands, trading back one to three spots to land an extra pick and get his man anyway.

"You have to weigh all the situations and what you feel the most comfortable with," Spielman told 1500 ESPN on Wednesday.

"You ask yourself, if you lost player 'X', 'Y' or 'Z', how sick would you feel coming out of that draft? Because I also think, just like anything else, what you do with that first pick kind of sets the tone for the rest of your draft. It sets the mood of the organization."

At No. 4, the Cleveland Browns are thought to be targeting Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who is believed to be one of Tampa Bay's targets at No. 5 along with Claiborne. St. Louis may target Richardson or Blackmon at No. 6.

That's three potential trade partners who might be desperate enough to leapfrog one another -- if Richardson's value isn't being overblown and/or the Vikings have created the impression they really could take Claiborne or Blackmon at No. 3.

The standard value chart says such a deal could bring the Vikings a second-round pick, but it's worth wondering if they'd take less to justify the choice they end up making. A blockbuster that drops them way down in Round 1 can't be ruled out either, with talks about any deal unlikely to turn serious until Thursday afternoon.

"I believe Kalil is the choice," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, "and if it's not, it's got to be Claiborne."

Why not just stay at No. 3 and take Kalil, the prohibitive favorite from the moment Washington traded into the No. 2 spot and ensured the first two picks would be quarterbacks?

In short, Kalil may be the best offensive line prospect since Miami took tackle Jake Long first overall in 2008, but scouts don't put the two in the same category and the Vikings simply may not feel they'd be getting value at No. 3.

There are doubts about whether Kalil can get much thicker from the hips down because of the way he's built. He played around 300 pounds at USC and at times was exposed by stronger defenders.

"The guy's going to be a starter in the league, there's no question," the executive said. "I think what gives you some cause for concern is there's a lack of power. There's a lack of general explosiveness at the point of attack. He wins with athleticism, with his feet, his ability to use his frame. That's kind of how he wins -- cover guys up with his (6-foot-6) frame. But you just don't see him really vertically push defenders off the ball.

"When you're picking a guy third or (in the first round) at all ... it's just one of those decisions you've got to make. You know you're getting better. You know you're getting a starter. It's just -- it's almost like wanting more bang for your buck."

Would the Vikings get it by taking a reliable receiver who probably lacks the speed to be a consistent vertical threat?

Would they get it by taking a press-man corner at a time they still employ a head coach who espouses a zone-based coverage philosophy?

"You never know -- they may tweak their scheme a little bit," another NFL scout said. "Honestly, I don't think you can ever say that a pick's too high for a particular position. If that's the guy that you have rated highest, I'm a firm believer -- don't overthink this thing now. That's how mistakes are made."

But if they pass on Kalil, would the Vikings even be able to fill their biggest hole through a draft in which the second-rated tackle (Iowa's Reilly Reiff) might be a better guard and another top prospect (Ohio State's Mike Adams) comes with major character questions?

Can they afford to take that risk at a time nothing is more important to the team's prospects than giving Ponder every chance to succeed?

That's a decision Spielman will have to make on Thursday night.

Unless, of course, someone comes with the right offer to make the decision for him.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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