Nobody sells hope as relentlessly as the National Football League. It’s a game where politicians find themselves laps behind pro football. Matched against the NFL as a peddler of a better tomorrow, even preachers barely come out of the blocks.
And this weekend of the NFL player draft, nobody sold it as energetically as the Vikings’ Rick Spielman, who only a few months ago emerged as the Vikings general manager after 20 years of relative anonymity in pro football player procurement.
Drafting Matt Kalil, the Bunyanesque offensive tackle from Southern California in the first round as the new bodyguard of Viking quarterbacks, was a gimmie. All of Christian Ponder’s relatives and a few of his orthopedic surgeons would have wailed their objections if he didn’t.
But with some deft phone calls that raised jitters among potential trading partners, Spielman picked up unforeseen draft choices. A few of them may emerge as a windfall for a team that has spent the last two years in misery and even today isn’t sure whether all of these new folks are going to find a stadium to play in.
What can tickle the Viking fan today is that in addition to Kalil the team has harvested a lot more than one sure star from the three-day marketing vaudeville in New York.
Not that these folks are suddenly going to strike terror into the hearts of the Packers, Bears and Lions. But out of this large cast of freshly minted draftees, the Vikings ought to uncover some who can play the game at this ultimate level: The Vikings desperately need help in their defensive backfield. After Kalil they traded up in the first round for Harrison Smith, a respected safety and team captain from Notre Dame; Josh Robinson, a cornerback from Central Florida who was clocked in the NFL Combine’s fastest time in the 40-yard dash, 4:33 seconds, and later another defensive back from Notre Dame, Robert Blanton.
What does all of this mean for the Vikings this fall, a year after one in which they lost 13 of 16 games, the third worst in the NFL, and practically all of their credibility with their brooding base?
New comfort level
It means that with Kalil fronting him, Ponder should approach a new comfort level when he drops back to pass, rather than being abandoned to the vigilante herds that ultimately ended his rookie season. Kalil is an athletic 300- pounder who was judged almost unanimously by the professional scouts as the best offensive lineman in college football. Playing tackle on the left side of the line, he becomes the quarterback’s blind side protection, a role he seems to relish without be noisy about it. He comes over as a thoughtful and adaptable guy who looks forward to fishing in Minnesota, which may make him a novelty among the visiting studs who remember California.
“I like to go up against the best defensive players,” he has said, “and I look forward to playing against Jared Allen of the Vikings when I work out.”
No such words have been spoken recently by a visiting offensive tackle. Among other virtues, Kalil playing on the offensive line should end the still-lively debate on whether Ponder belongs in the class of the Cam Newtons and the other young quarterbacks of star potential who have entered the league in the last two years. He gave glimpses of that last fall. His injuries and lack of reasonable protection prevented any clear judgment on his future. It should come now. He doesn’t have to be the next Tom Brady. Simple competence can be enough at that job. But it helps to stay healthy, and a revised Viking offensive line including Kalil and several of the younger veterans like Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan may change the landscape, particularly with a healthy Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin giving the Vikings offensive diversity that not many teams can match.
But the key may be what Kalil can deliver. A man whose job may be riding on it, coach Leslie Frazier, looks at Kalil this way: “His passion for the game was what really stuck out to me. Just spending the amount of time I had with him, just to be able to find out how much he loved football. How much did he care about it? How much did he want to be good, be the best? We came away with from our conversation just believing he would fit in with what we were trying to do …not just that he was a great a football player, but just feeling good that he was a good person.”
The draft can be nutty. The Vikings picked Rhett Ellison, a fullback and tight end from Southern Cal who, while innocently lounging around at home, got the excited call from the Vikings. He admitted he had no idea the Vikings or anybody else was interested. On the sixth round the Vikings drafted a field goal kicker from Georgia, Blair Walsh, to complete with the Vikings Ryan Longwell, and good luck with that.
But there was an impressive hoard of Viking followers aching for some credible improvement in the mounting mess of the team’s wide receiving corps, which has been seriously depleted by trades and mediocrity. The fans are not likely to be mollified by the Viking picks– Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, both taken on the fourth round and both, remarkably, from the University of Arkansas.
“Wait till you see them run,” one of the Viking observers advised. “They both run like Percy Harvin.” In fact, it looks as though they do, which would not be bad, except they can’t all play at once. Childs has some size and longer arms and speed that most scouts roam the continent to find.
But anyone for another crack at Randy Moss?
Audie Cole, a linebacker from North Carolina State, and Trevor Guyton, a defensive lineman from California, round out the Viking draft, with the usual pack of free-agent signings to follow.
So is their sunlight on the future for the Vikings in all of this? It can be. The expectations can’t be high, and six of their games are with Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit. On the other hand, when you go into the season with a healthy Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield and Chad Greenway, you have a start. And now you can unite the veteran John Carlson with a fellow Notre Damer, Kyle Rudolph, at tight end and include John Sullivan at center from Notre Dame and add the new Golden Domers –Smith and Blanton — what do you have?
You may not have five great football players but you do have five guys who are familiar with the classroom.
When you think about it, three days to decide on a couple hundred football players may not be the best use of air time. It never fails to arouse the ego. By the time the Washington Redskins had finished not only taking the No. 2 quarterback in the draft, Robert Griffin III, and, inexplicably, quarterback Kirk Cousins of Michigan State three rounds later, two of the commentary stars, John Gruden and Mel Kiper, almost came to the blows.
It looks like bonanza season.