As a prospect, Zygi Wilf was a mid-round draft pick with high motor in desperate need of coaching.
Remember three of Wilf’s first important decisions as the Vikings owner? He …
• Fired Mike Tice minutes after he coached a mediocre roster to a victory that resulted in a 9-7 record, one year after Tice coached a mediocre roster to a playoff victory at Green Bay.
• Hired Brad Childress as coach because he feared Childress would land with the Packers. (Childress wasn’t going to land with the Packers.)
• Hired Fran Foley to oversee personnel.
Foley, you might remember, chose lumpy New Mexico center Ryan Cook in the second round, then proudly defended the biggest reach in the draft by proclaiming his in-depth knowledge of one of the greatest college football programs in history. “I know New Mexico football,” Foley said.
We knew then that Foley either wouldn’t last or would relegate the Vikings to Timberwolves-like irrelevance.
It was at this juncture of Wilf’s tenure that he became a competent owner. He hired Rick Spielman to run his personnel department. Spielman would become general manager in 2012, rising above Wilf’s silly “Triangle of Authority” concept — a decision-making troika of Childress, Spielman and Rob Brzezinski — to become the franchise’s unquestioned football boss.
Spielman has been running the Vikings’ draft since 2007, when he landed Adrian Peterson with the seventh pick. He has made enough draft picks that you could build a feature-length film around his hits (Peterson, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs, etc.) or his misses (Christian Ponder, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Cook, Tyrell Johnson).
In the 2015 draft, Spielman landed Trae Waynes, Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs. In the 2016 draft, he landed ... nobody worth mentioning.
In the early rounds of the 2018 draft, Spielman reprised familiar themes. He loves spectacular athletes and when spectacular athletes slip in the draft because of behavioural issues that Spielman does not believe will be problematic in the pros. Mike Hughes is exactly that player, and his ability to play a position coveted by coach Mike Zimmer made him, for this braintrust, a logical pick.
In the second round, the Vikings chose the best player at a position of maximum need, Pitt tackle Brian O’Neill.
Spielman’s track record indicates that both could become stars ... or busts. Over the past decade or so, what we have learned is that Spielman should not be judged on one or two picks, or one or two drafts.
When you have been a personnel boss this long, the roster is your résumé. And the Vikings have one of the best rosters in football.
The draft has become such a spectacle, and fans have become so insatiable, that the three-day yapathon can obscure an important fact about the three-day festival of wild speculation:
The draft is not always important. There are many ways to find good players.
The Vikings found their franchise quarterback, Kirk Cousins, in free agency.
They found their best receiver, Adam Thielen, at a tryout camp.
They improved their offensive line dramatically last year by signing two veteran tackles, Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff.
Their best interior defensive lineman, Linval Joseph, was a free agent.
Their longtime kick returner, Marcus Sherels, was a college free agent.
Is the draft, as a whole, important? Sure.
Is landing a rare talent with every high pick vital? Apparently not.
Spielman has missed on important picks. He has whiffed on entire drafts.
And, still, the Vikings will enter the 2018 season with a championship-caliber roster.
The Vikings became a professional franchise when Wilf, that high-motor longshot, hired Spielman as his vice president of personnel, even though Spielman did not claim to know New Mexico football.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib Email: firstname.lastname@example.org