I know the Vikings training camp started yesterday and that's everybody's focus, but I want to stray from that topic today and write about the team's general manager, Rick Spielman.
Spielman has been general manager for seven months. Before he was promoted to the position, the Vikings hadn't had a general manager in place since I don't know when (Mike Lynn, maybe? Help me out here Vikes fans).
The move was praised by the people who cover and follow the team, as the main criticism about how the Vikings operated in the past was that the club was a ship without an organizational rudder. There was no one with the ultimate authority to dictate personnel moves and the Vikings football strategy long-term. So making Spielman the man with that authority was considered an important move.
Of course, Spielman's work as general manager in 2004 with the Miami Dolphins has been widely panned, so there are doubts about whether he is the right guy for the job. And while the Vikings have yet to win or lose a football game in 2012, and the wisdom of Spielman's moves won't be revealed at least until the end of 2012, and in the case of some players, maybe another two or three years from now, I figured I'd assess his job performance anyway. I think we can make some calls on whether Spielman's work during free agency, the draft and post-draft has made sense.
Spielman's strategy during free agency wasn't apparent until it was almost over. He made one significant signing – tight end John Carlson for five years and $25 million ($9.1 million guaranteed). But he didn't go after the big names (Vincent Jackson; Brandon Carr) who would have filled positions where the Vikings have the greatest need to improve.
Spielman was busy though. He resigned Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, then a host of other guys who didn't play for the Vikings last year to one year deals for not much money. Many of them – Jerome Simpson, Chris Carr, Geoff Schwartz and Jerome Felton – figure to play big roles for the Vikings in 2012. It's a strategy that could be a slice of genius by Spielman. He's signed young free agents who are still in their athletic primes and who could still be ascending talents, and he's signed them to cheap, low risk deals. These players will be hungry because they will be looking for lucrative, long term deals in 2013. And hungry athletes are often productive athletes in professional sports. If these guys outperform their contracts, they'll make the Vikings a better team and they will be better values than some of the high priced free agent talent other teams signed.
The flip side is these guys were cheap for a reason. Some of them are coming off injury plagued seasons. And none of them were superstars to begin with. They are cheaper than Vincent Jackson and Brandon Carr, but they are also likely going to help the Vikings less than Jackson or Carr would have. Maybe Spielman figures he'll spend Zygi Wilf's money in 2013 when there are better free agent prizes to be had and the Vikings are bit closer to contending for a playoff spot. In the long run, perhaps history will show it was the right thing to do. For now, I'm more underwhelmed than anything by what he did during free agency.
This was an important draft for the Vikings, and it was important for Spielman as it was the first one he had complete control over without having to kowtow to the wishes of the head coach. While citing the usual caveats that you can't truly grade a draft until three of four years down the road, Spielman early round work was strong in April. But there were some mid- and late-round picks that seem dubious and make the grade lower than it could have been.
Trading down with Cleveland one spot, grabbing extra picks and still getting left tackle Matt Kalil was the kind of wheeling and dealing you like to see from your GM. Spielman then used the extra ammo to trade back into the first round to select safety Harrison Smith (I've written before that I don't think safety is an impact position, but the Vikings really do need at least one good one, so I can live with the move.) In the third round he grabbed a promising corner in Josh Robinson (get that hammy healthy, Josh) and picked up two wide receivers in the fourth (Jarius Wright and Greg Childs). The questionable moves include drafting tight end Rhett (Who?) Ellison in the fourth round, kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth - I don't like using draft picks to select kickers - and not addressing the club's weak depth at linebacker until the seventh round.
Yet if Vikings can plug Kalil in at left tackle for the next decade, Smith turns out to be at least a solid starting safety and Robinson's starting (and playing well) at cornerback this time next year, this will have been a very good draft for the Vikings. It will be even better if either Wright or Childs (preferably both) develop into bonafide receiving threats.
Off the field stuff
One of the benefits of having a general manager is that it frees up the head coach to coach and leaves the explanations about personnel moves, organizational philosophy and any off the field controversies to someone else – the GM.
In this area, Spielman has been pretty effective so far. There's been no more episodes like when Mike Tice would talk to the press about the Vikings draft plans, freely chatting about who the team liked so the entire NFL knew what the team was going to do in April. During the offseason, Spielman was the media's point man when they wanted to talk about draft plans, or free agency or contract stuff. He was interviewed more this offseason about Viking issues than he had been in his previous six years as the Vikings vice-president of player personnel. Spielman didn't provide much detail when he commented, but he made it clear the Vikings did have a plan in place to get out of their rut and that it was based on making the team better over the long haul. There would be no quick fixes this time around.
That's a message that wasn't communicated to Viking fans in the past, particularly by coaches like Tice, Brad Childress and, now, Leslie Frazier, who don't often have the luxury to think long term. But I think it's a message the team's fanbase has bought into and understands. And it provides some comfort that even if 2012 isn't much better than 2011, the Vikings have a plan in place and better days are ahead.
Spielman also help up very well in dealing with his first off the field controversy as general manager when Percy Harvin had his OTA hissy fit in June. Again, Spielman didn't give the public much when he spoke publicly about the Harvin situation. But that was good. There was nothing to gain in providing any details on why Harvin was unhappy, etc. Spielman said nothing that could have angered Harvin or made the situation worse. He made it clear the Vikes weren't going to trade Harvin and that he was an important part of that team (which he is). He presented a calm, reasoned face to a bizarre situation. And, what do you know, Percy says things are all good now. Well done, Rick Spielman. Well done.