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Updated: April 24th, 2013 7:46pm
Zulgad: Leap forward didn't impact Vikings GM Rick Spielman's vision

Zulgad: Leap forward didn't impact Vikings GM Rick Spielman's vision

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings promoted Rick Spielman to general manager shortly after the team finished 3-13 in 2011. He immediately went to work reconstructing a roster that, among other things, had been allowed to age after a run to the 2009 NFC title game.

Spielman, like all pro sports executives, was never going to use the term rebuilding when discussing what he was doing. But it was clear from the outset he had a plan and wasn't going to go for a quick fix.

Rather, Spielman appeared to have a clear vision for the direction he wanted to take the franchise, and if that meant incurring a few additional lumps in the short term, he was comfortable with that.

There was just one catch.

The Vikings' 2012 performance exceeded almost everyone's expectations. Spielman's retooled roster and Leslie Frazier's coaching -- not to mention some help from all-world running back Adrian Peterson -- helped the Vikings to a 10-6 finish and a playoff berth.

That success has raised expectations for 2013, despite a schedule that includes one fewer home game (the Vikings will "host" Pittsburgh in London) and looks to be difficult in the middle.

So, did this alter Spielman's offseason plan and vision as he continues to go about building the Vikings roster entering the NFL Draft this weekend?

"No, I think you just stay the course because every season is different," Spielman said on Wednesday during an interview with 1500 ESPN.

"You can't predict what happens from an injury standpoint and this or that, so I think you just stay the course. Stay to your true philosophies and what you believe and don't waver from that."

The Vikings hold 11 choices in the seven-round draft -- including the 23rd and 25th picks in the opening round on Thursday night.

While NFL executives are all about subterfuge this time of year, Spielman likely is telling the truth when he says he won't be afraid to trade one of his picks to move lower if it means getting more selections either this weekend or in coming years.

Much like Ted Thompson has done as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, Spielman is all about accumulating draft picks and dealing them to get more.

Spielman was named the Vikings vice president of player personnel in May 2006 and went to work helping to shape the roster with then-coach Brad Childress. The two never would discuss which one held the power over the draft, but it was pretty clear Spielman guided the process along and Childress made several of the key calls.

It was later learned that Childress had final say over the 53-man roster, making him the team's de facto general manager. Despite the feeling of many that the Vikings would be better off with a general manger who wasn't the coach, the structure was altered after the 2010 season when Frazier was promoted from interim to permanent coach.

During the debacle that was 2011, Spielman and Frazier shared a say on the final roster. This led to mistakes, such as the trade that brought washed-up quarterback Donovan McNabb from Washington in a trade following the NFL lockout.

Eventually, it led owners Zygi and Mark Wilf to decide that having a general manager who could look at the long term without feeling the immediate pressure to win now was the best route to take.

One of Spielman's plans was to utilize the draft as a main tool to build the roster and not trade away picks for short-term fixes.

Childress was the head coach for five drafts in Minnesota. In that time, the Vikings made six, eight, five, five and eight selections. This wasn't always a bad thing, considering the Vikings sent four selections in the 2008 draft, including their first-rounder, to Kansas City for Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen. That trade worked out rather well for Minnesota and helped the franchise get to an NFC championship game.

But it should have come as no surprise that in 2011, with Childress gone, the Vikings made 10 selections. Last April, that figure again was at 10. Now, it's grown to 11.

Although it's impossible to put a grade on a draft a year removed, Spielman's first as general manager of the Vikings appears to be a winner. He landed left tackle Matt Kalil with the fourth overall pick, after trading back a spot with Cleveland, and then got back into the first round to grab safety Harrison Smith from Notre Dame.

Both appear to be long-term solutions for areas where the Vikings were in desperate need of help. Kicker Blair Walsh, a sixth-round pick, ended up being so good he made the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Cornerback Josh Robinson, wide receiver Jarius Wright, tight end Rhett Ellison, safety Robert Blanton and linebacker Audie Cole either already made contributions or appear capable of doing so in the coming season.

Defensive lineman Trevor Guyton, a seventh-round pick, was the only player not to stick. Wide receiver Greg Childs, a fourth-rounder, spent last year on injured reserve and is trying to come back after blowing out both of his knees.

The difference between this spring and last for Spielman was that, as he selected players a year ago, the Vikings had so many holes to fill and so few expectations that everything could be done with a projection of whether a player would help down the road and not in 2012.

This time around, the Vikings still have plenty of holes to fill, but the expectation is going to be those get taken care of for 2013. Among the most pressing areas of need are cornerback (the loss of veteran Antoine Winfield to Seattle should not be underestimated); middle linebacker; defensive tackle; wide receiver; and guard.

The Vikings made their biggest free-agent investment in wide receiver Greg Jennings, but also dealt away recalcitrant/ultra-talented receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle. There always remains a possibility Spielman could dip back into the free agent market to sign a few veterans if the Vikings don't get the immediate help they are looking for in the draft, but signing a soon-to-be 35-year-old Brian Urlacher to play middle linebacker or a 36-year-old Charles Woodson to play in the defensive backfield doesn't really fit what Spielman set out to do.

Spielman's insistence on continuing to build through the draft might not be the best news for Frazier, who didn't exactly get a vote of confidence after last season when the Vikings exercised the option on his contract for 2014 and elected not to extend the deal beyond that.

But this is the plan Spielman wanted to follow when he was given the general manager's title and it's what he told the Wilfs he intended to do. It might mean the Vikings' momentum from 2012 is slowed a bit in 2013, but in Spielman's mind, it's the best long-term plan for this franchise and one he appears intent on following.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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