The 2013 NFL draft is just a week away, and that means it’s time to start looking forward to the 2013 season. The draft also presents an opportunity to take a look in the rearview mirror and discuss the draft class that came before. It’s inarguable that Rick Speilman and company nailed it out of the park last year, although how difficult some of the choices were can certainly be debated. Overall, the improvements made in the draft proved to be, in many cases, key to the huge leap that the Vikings made from a 3-13 team in 2011 to a playoff contender at 10-6 in 2012. So let’s take a closer look at the pickups from last year’s draft and how they stack up.
Note: I’m grading players by their positions (what they are expected to do) and their overall contribution to the team in 2012. I will not be grading them according to how they stack up against other players in the league, rookie or otherwise, nor for the spot they were taken in the draft. An “A” means that they did everything you would expect or need a player at that particular position to do on this team, that they made significant contributions, and that they even excelled a little bit. A “C” is the baseline. They did their job, they were fine at it, but nothing to write home about. And an “F”… well you can figure out the rest.
1. Matt Kalil: A
Taking an offensive lineman as the number four overall pick in the draft probably wasn’t a very sexy move, nor was it surprising. It was however a perfect decision. The level of solidity that Kalil brought immediately to the offensive line was quite literally a game-changer, as the Vikings offensive line went from being one of the worst in the NFL to somewhere near the top (Charlie Johnson sliding over to guard and the dismissal of Anthony Herrara in favor of the younger Brandon Fusco also contributed). Kalil played very well for the most part, struggling at times as all rookies do, but overall proving that the decision to take him at number four overall was not only necessary, but was the smart thing to do. He showed all the signs of being a true franchise left tackle, the kind of guy you can expect to see playing at a very high level for a lot of years to come.
2. Harrison Smith: A
I remember the reaction I had when I found out that the Vikings had traded their way back into the first round to take Harrison Smith. It wasn’t disdain or disapproval, but it certainly wasn’t joy. It was probably mostly a feeling of trepidation; did we REALLY need to do that? We needed a safety to be sure, but there were a few other more pressing needs that I felt could have been addressed sooner. Boy was I wrong. Of all the 2012 rookies, Smith was easily the most exciting to watch. For a rookie, he was consistently solid with a few absolutely huge plays mixed in. He brought a level of physicality, intimidation, and playmaking ability that Vikings fans haven’t seen in our secondary in many many years. The absolute best part about Smith, like Kalil, is that he doesn’t seem to be a one hit wonder. All signs point to him being able to continue to improve each season and hopefully, he’ll be a mainstay here in the backfield for Minnesota for many years to come.
3. Josh Robinson: C
I actually really like Josh Robinson. His rookie season was a little bit up and down, but potential can be an important factor. Everyone knew he had potential when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, the fastest time in the NFL Scouting Combine last year. I recall hearing his name, entirely because of his stellar 40, but not taking much note of it or the things said about him leading up to the draft. When he was drafted by the Vikings I thought it seemed like a reasonable choice for a third round pick, and I was excited to have a player of “note” join the team. When he first hit the field during the regular season he actually made some plays, including an interception and near touchdown return. He seemed fairly solid for the most part, making a few rookie mistakes here and there, but at some point, he just seemed to disappear a little. I’d like to see a little bit more out of a third round pick, and hopefully that exact thing will happen this season.
4. Jarius Wright: B
Ah, what to say about Jarius Wright. He’s a difficult one to grade, as he saw such limited playing time during the season. He had a moment of brilliance in the Lions game where he came up with a huge 54-yard catch, a few moments of solid/slightly exciting play, and a whole lot of run-of-the-mill stuff with a few drops mixed in. He seems like a guy who can be a receiver in the NFL, but so far there doesn’t seem to be anything splashy or exciting about him. We’ll have to see what he can do with some more playing time in 2013. Like many of the Vikings 2012 draft picks, there’s nothing troubling about this guy. There’s no reason he won’t improve next year, and who knows, he might end up as a pretty good offensive weapon after getting some more experience under his belt.
5. Rhett Ellison: B
When Jim Kleinsasser left the Vikings in 2011, he left some pretty big shoes to fill. Whether it was fair or not, Rhett Ellison was billed as the man who would fill those shoes, even taking Kleinsasser’s number: 40. By virtue of the position he plays and the things he is asked to do on gameday, it’s fairly difficult to give Ellison an accurate grade. He was asked to be a pass protector, a run blocker, and occasionally a pass catcher, and performed all of these duties to a reasonably high level. Because his job description isn’t one that provides easily measurable statistics, I’m going to ignore the stats and go with my gut. He’s a pretty darn good football player who definitely contributed to this team in 2012. As always there’s room for improvement, but Ellison should be yet another guy that can have a long career and continue to improve.
6. Greg Childs: F
It’s probably not entirely fair to give Childs an “F”, but since he ultimately didn’t contribute to the team in 2012, it’s the only grade he can possibly get. In many ways the fourth round pick Childs was more exciting than his lifelong buddy Jarius Wright, in that his body type and style of play were something more desperately needed by the Vikes, who already had their very own smallish slot receiver in Percy Harvin. Unfortunately for those of us who were hoping for the second coming of Sidney Rice, things happen. In what can reasonably be described as a freak accident during training camp, Childs tore his patellar tendons (the patellar tendon connects the kneecap to the tibia or shinbone, and is responsible for straightening the leg) in both knees, ending his rookie season and putting his future as an NFL player in doubt. While he showed promise in training camp, he never stepped foot on the field during the actual season, so he unfortunately doesn’t get a good grade.
7. Robert Blanton: D
Blanton is another guy that is too difficult to really give an accurate grade. He had such limited playing time that it would be almost meaningless to discuss how good he is and how much he contributed to the team in 2012. He gets a “D” because of just how little he made it onto the field, not because of any lack of talent. That being said, he seemed fine when he was on the field, and we’ll see what he has to offer in the future.
8. Blair Walsh: A
I’m not going to give out an “A+” because that throws a wrench into things as far as what the actual meaning of each letter grade is. However if I were to give out a gold star for someone being extra special, Blair Walsh would take it, hands down. Most of us shook our heads when the news came in that fan-favorite Ryan Longwell was let go before the end of his contract, and most of us were downright shocked when the Vikings took a kicker in the sixth round. This was a gamble that paid off for Rick Speilman, and of course the entire Vikings franchise. Not only did Blair Walsh step in and perform his job to near-perfection – breaking NFL records and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl – but based purely on 2012 performances, he can legitimately be considered one of the best kickers in the league. I don’t mean top ten, and I don’t even mean top five – he’s earned the right to vie for the number one spot with maybe a couple other people. Of course consistency is everything, and he has many more years to create whatever legacy he’ll leave behind, but he’s certainly off to an amazing start.
9. Audie Cole: C
We all remember the second preseason game of 2012 where in the fourth quarter, seventh round draft pick Audie Cole snatched two interceptions and brought them in for touchdowns on back to back plays. It was incredible to see, and it cleared the Vikings bench as players rushed to congratulate him. Say what you will about it only being a preseason game, it’s still not something you see too often. But ultimately… it WAS just a preseason game. Cole saw minimal time on the field in 2012 outside of special teams, where he played pretty well, showing up on some semi-big plays at times. Cole’s grade is a function of his limited role, and the fact that we just haven’t seen enough of him. I’d love to see him impress the coaches enough to come in a little more often, or at least make some real big-time plays on special teams. Who knows, second year is often better for the guys who are solid but not splashy, and Cole certainly fits that description.
10. Trevor Guyton: F
Ultimately, the Vikings 2012 draft class is one of the better ones in recent memory. No, we didn’t get a superstar like Percy Harvin or Adrian Peterson (but hey, technically Blair Walsh performed his duty just as impressively as either of those guys did their rookie seasons) but what we did get was a half dozen players that range from solid to potentially great. These guys should all have a place on the Vikings roster for years to come. The only real disappointments were Trevor Guyton and Greg Childs, one of which was entirely due to injury. Maybe I’m being a little too easy on some of these guys because I’m a big homer, but I truly believe that this is exactly the way to build a team, lots of young talented guys who have nothing but upside and potential.