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Tracking the red dots, red flags and green lights of Vikings’ draft tactics

On the eve of the 2009 NFL draft weekend, there are enough shades, hues and slivers of the rainbow in play with the Minnesota Vikings to make you, well, color blind.

On the eve of the 2009 NFL draft weekend, there are enough shades, hues and slivers of the rainbow in play with the Minnesota Vikings to make you, well, color blind.

We’ve got red dots, which are the equivalent of scarlet letters, next to the names of players with conduct or attitude issues.

There are red flags, which sound more serious than the similarly colored dots but aren’t, because a prospect apparently can be red-flagged yet still manage to get green-lighted, especially if he’s a blue-chipper. Those who are red-dotted, though, might as well slip into a black hole.

Then there are those aspiring players whose evaluations leave them in a gray area, in terms of the opportunities they’ll have to play for greenbacks and gold. For the Purple, anyway. Spend enough time studying it all and you surely will end up with pink eye. Or waving a white flag.

First, colors; then, numbers
And that’s just working through the Crayola box, without getting to the heavy mathematics of the Vikings’ numerical grading system, which features 21 player classifications and rankings that range four spots to the right of the decimal point. All in a strangely compressed world in which pro prospects get rated on the team’s big draft board anywhere from 1.0000 to 1.900. Uncle Sam lets us all round up or down on our 1040s each April, but when it comes to evaluating a left tackle from Chattanooga State vs. a wideout from Slippery Rock, a difference of 0.0002 apparently can make all the difference between Super Bowl contention and coaches — and player personnel directors — adding to the unemployment rolls.

Why don’t they just drop the 1’s and multiply everything by 10,000, so that the difference between draft’s likely No. 1 pick and its 174th prospect might be more obvious? Don’t ask me. I’m still trying to figure out what the chartreuse means.

Here is Rick Spielman, the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel, from his pre-draft briefing with Twin Cities media Thursday, giving a taste of the system’s complexity and compartmentalization. He had been asked if a player might move up or down the draft board based on actual interviews and personal contact. Never mind the Wonderlic psychological test, never mind the times, measurements and other proddings from the NFL scouting combine:

“How we do it is, we never devalue what they are as football players,” Spielman said. “If we feel uncomfortable about them, we put ’em in a box below everybody but in that same area. So, for example, if there’s a first-round talent there, and we red-dot that player, he’ll go into our box and he’ll be below all the other first-round talent. But we won’t drop him all the way down. So we have boxes where we drop him off. There’s a drop-down box in each of our categories.”

So it’s like a Blockbuster night deposit, only more complicated? And we wonder here in Minnesota why some folks can’t figure out what to do in voting booths.

NBA model it ain’t
As a sportswriter more familiar with the inner workings of the NBA draft, I found my exposure out at Winter Park this week to the NFL style of talent assessment and procurement to be eye-opening — I haven’t been a regular on the Vikings beat since 1992. That’s like going from a typewriter to Twitter in terms of technology and draft science. The NBA’s June draft, in relative terms, is like choosing up sides playground-style — and sending somebody home to drag back his little brother for a 10th guy.

Pro basketball’s annual round-up college and international players is threadbare by comparison; it’s two rounds deep, 30 picks in the first, 30 in the second, with about a quarter of those players ever making much of an impact or having much of a career. With the NFL, it’s seven rounds of intense scrutiny, based on repeated viewings in person and on videotape of a prospect’s performance, ideally by seven or eight members of the scouting staff.

An organization’s fortunes can rise or fall on its acumen with a fourth- or fifth-rounder. And even when the whole ordeal is over — it takes two days, rather than the NBA version’s four hours or so — teams still scurry after the unchosen, convinced that all the other talent scouts and math wonks missed on the guys they didn’t have sufficient choices to select.

The NBA draft is checkers to the NFL’s chess, fast food to a seven-course meal, haiku to the Mahabharata. With one, the headaches come after you draft them. With the other, they begin as soon as you start all the ciphering, analyzing and evaluating.

Red dots are of particular interest to the Vikings and their fans in this draft, because a player they reportedly have some interest in is a candidate for a supersized, movieplex box of them.

Wide receiver Percy Harvin, from the University of Florida, allegedly flunked his drug test at the NFL combine in February, testing positive for marijuana. He was involved in multiple altercations with a coach or students while in high school in Virginia, and he is said to have scored a 12 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test, a workplace tool popularized by the NFL to gauge the taker’s potential for learning and problem-solving. Football players typically average about a 20, with chemists coming in at 31, warehouse workers at 15 (and journalists, on average, near 26, those the numbers don’t break out future employment prospects for any of those involved).

Harvin also is said to have had, or still have, a variety of nagging physical issues with his neck, ankle and foot. But the Vikings are hungry enough for another option at wide receiver beyond Bernard Berrian that they reportedly had head coach Brad Childress meet with Harvin in Florida earlier this week. The Vikings did not confirm or deny that a meeting took place.

The mystery of the red dot
Still, it does call into question the concept of the red dot. Asked at one point Thursday if a red-dotted player might be viewed as a bargain and worth the gamble in a late round if his talent normally would have made him a first- or second-round pick, Spielman said no. He would be “done. Done. Done. Seventh round? Free agent? Done.”

From a draft board of nearly 700 names, the Vikings recently eliminated 78 from consideration for injuries or character issues and have red-dotted more as the weekend drew near.

“We are very specific on the type of people that we want to bring in here,” Spielman said. “If there’s anything that’s a red flag on a guy, after we do all the stuff from a due-diligence standpoint and we don’t feel comfortable and don’t want him here, we’re not going to bring him here regardless. If we feel comfortable enough with him, even with issues, regardless of who it is, then we keep him alive.”

Which sounds, without being in the room but based on the continuing look at Harvin, like a handy way of drawing the line of acceptability in the sand: Eliminate the player as a prospect, then red-dot the person. Rather than vice versa.

So what’s going to happen, with the Vikings holding six picks (no fourth- or sixth-round picks but two in the seventh), including No. 22 sometime Saturday evening as the event grinds on? If it’s not a flier on Harvin, all signs point to Arizona offensive tackle Eben Britton. Except for those that point to Maryland receiver Darisu Heyward-Bey, Cal center Alex Mack or Oklahoma tackle Phil Loadholt.