(Note: This is a two-part series. The second part focuses on Spielman’s worst moves. For part one, an analysis of the best moves, click here.)
I came into this exercise fairly objectively—while I’ve always been a fan of Spielman overall, I don’t think his work has been infallible. Just before this year’s draft I had a quick online discussion with The Sportive Podcast’s “Clarence Swamptown”—one of Minnesota’s foremost Spielman detractors (at least on Twitter)—and he made some good observations of where the Vikings GM has gone wrong. The conversation gave me some perspective and helped balance the voice of a fanbase that can be overwhelmingly pro-Spielman at times. I will say, though, in the end, I found this two-part series weighted more heavily in favor of the “Best Moves” half. Spielman’s list of worst moves, at least for me, was thinner and more difficult to scrounge together; there were far less blatant failures than there were slam dunks. Perhaps that’s the nature of personnel in the NFL—for example, if you draft a player in the first round, that probably means he’s talented and has a good shot to succeed, so hitting on first-rounders should be the norm, not the exception. Regardless, as you’ll read in the descriptions below, I struggled with this list.
I imagine Swamptown would respond with something to this effect: Spielman’s biggest failures are consistent, smaller whiffs, rather than grandiose, headline grabbing ones (please correct me if I’m wrong, Clarence). And that type of failure—ill-fated mid-round picks, smaller name free agents that didn’t work out, etc.—is probably as important in contributing to a team’s success as the big splashes. It just doesn’t translate as well to a list like this.
5. Hiring Leslie Frazier
I tried to leave Frazier off this list completely, because before Spielman’s promotion to GM, it’s hard to tell how much say he had in hiring coaches. But we can be reasonably sure he didn’t have complete control—definitely not the final say, if you can trust his quotes—but he was involved in the decision to some extent. Which is why I wanted to leave it off; it’s a wishy-washy proposition to pin this one on Rick Spielman. But number five on this list came down to the Frazier hire or drafting Matt Kalil, and I think this one was quite a bit more damaging to the team overall.
Frazier was at the helm when the Vikings went 10-6 and made the playoffs in 2012, but the other two years of his tenure were dismal enough to prove he wasn’t the man for the job. The team finished dead last in the NFC North both of those seasons, and Frazier was fired at the end of the 2013 campaign. Players spoke glowingly of Leslie Frazier as a man upon his exit, but no one had much to say about his coaching acumen, which summed up his stint as the head coach of the Vikings fairly well.
The period of time following Frazier’s dismissal had Spielman on the shakiest ground he has ever been on with the Vikes—it came just after the demise of Christian Ponder became apparent, meaning Spielman had gone 0-2 in securing a competent head coach (so much as he was culpable) and quarterback. I firmly believe if he hadn’t nailed the Mike Zimmer hire, Spielman wouldn’t be employed by the Vikings today.
Why #5 wasn’t the Kalil pick: I know a lot of fans are beginning to see Matt Kalil as a bust, but I don’t think it was actually a bad move at the time. Let’s not forget, Spielman put up a strong enough smoke screen to feign interest in Trent Richardson and bait the Browns into trading up one slot to number three, in exchange for an extra fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-round pick. A masterful fleecing, considering Spielman still selected the player he had wanted all along at pick number four. Plus, the two other players most fans wanted at the time were Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon. Yeah. Neither would’ve ended up helping the Vikings more than Kalil. Sure, Luke Kuechly went number nine to Carolina, but he wasn’t on anyone in Minnesota’s radar in 2012. We’re revising history if we’re going to say he should’ve been the pick.
Kalil hasn’t developed as we had hoped, but Spielman still got a reasonable value considering what else was available in that part of the draft.
4. Signing Bernard Berrian and Madieu Williams
I hate to lump two players into a single “move,” but these signings happened almost simultaneously (a day apart, technically) and were the hallmark of the 2008 offseason. Both players received six-year deals; Berrian’s for $42 million and Williams’ for $33 million. Neither met expectations.
Berrian, signed to be the Vikings’ deep threat (where have we heard that before?), never could quite find his niche in the offense, and never went over 1,000 yards in any of his four seasons with the team. Granted, the quarterback play through most of his tenure was less than ideal, but even in the magical, Favre-led 2009 year, Berrian managed a relatively underwhelming 55 catches for 618 yards and was outperformed by Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin (!), and Visanthe Shiancoe. He did have a 99-yard touchdown in 2008, so there’s that.
Williams’ struggles were hard to place, but throughout his stay in Minnesota, he never developed into the free safety the team expected. He had three interceptions and 139 tackles in three seasons, and was released in 2011. Perhaps it was the scheme, perhaps it was the player, perhaps (and probably) it was a combination of both, but for whatever reason, it never quite clicked.
3. Drafting Tyrell Johnson
Johnson is the highest draft pick of the Spielman era to underwhelm so dramatically; yes, the Christian Ponder experiment ended in disaster, but there were ups and downs along the way. There were neither for Johnson, only a cathartic flat-line that saw him make 27 starts over four seasons but impact the game so very little.
With their first round pick in the care of Kansas City via the Jared Allen trade, the Vikings’ first move in the 2008 draft was trading up four spots in the second round to select Johnson. He filled a need, and was tried at both safety spots, never having much success at either. Johnson’s time as a starter was mostly a result of his draft position and lack of other viable options—he had two interceptions in four years and averaged 21 tackles a season. Tyrell Johnson had brief stints with Detroit and Atlanta before washing out of the league, and cannot be categorized as anything but a draft bust.
2. Drafting mid-rounders
Again, this isn’t a singular “move,” and I’m mentally reprimanding myself right now for taking this liberty. BUT this has been, I believe, Spielman’s greatest downfall in his Vikings career, and it needs to fit somehow in this list—not one particular bust player, but a consistent failure to draft mid-round players who develop into starters or even contributors. Here’s a quick list of some during Spielman’s reign who haven’t panned out:
Scott Crichton (2014 Third Round…five total tackles in two seasons)
David Yankey (2014 Fifth Round…never appeared in a game before being released)
Gerald Hodges (2013 Fourth Round…made 10 starts in two-plus seasons, did record 53 tackles in 2014, but neither the Frazier nor Zimmer staffs loved him and he was eventually traded to San Francisco to make room for Eric Kendricks)
Brandon Burton (2011 Fifth Round…one start and seven tackles in two seasons)
Chris Cook (2010 Second Round…developed into a decent corner but ran into legal issues, never made the leap to the upper-echelon, now out of football)
Chris DeGeare (2010 Fifth Round…appeared in eight games in two years, was out of the NFL by 2013)
Asher Allen (2009 Third Round…was an average contributor before leaving the game after the 2011 season)
Marcus McCauley (2007 Third Round…zero interceptions in two seasons)
You aren’t going to hit on every draft pick, especially the mid- and late-rounders. But Spielman’s draft history is weighted too heavily in favor of players selected in rounds three through six who contributed little or nothing. I’ve previously touched on the team’s struggles with drafting offensive linemen (last section of this post), but the number of whiffs on defensive backs also sticks out. McCauley, Allen, and Cook were all drafted in the second or third rounds—fairly high picks—and Cook was the only one who resembled a quality NFL starter at any time. And the list above doesn’t even mention Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford, and Mistral Raymond—players who stuck around, but were never especially effective. These latter three were later round picks, so maybe getting anything at all out of them is a plus. But not one defensive back selected after the first round in Spielman’s tenure has become a legitimate, long-term contributor.
1. Drafting Christian Ponder
What can be said about the Ponder pick? It was not only a bust at the most important position in sports, but a reach, as well—Christian Ponder wasn’t projected to go anywhere near 12th overall prior to the draft. Ponder was a late first-round prospect, possibly second-round, but the Vikings (understandably) knew they needed to take a chance on a quarterback at some point, so they took him at 12, one pick behind J.J. Watt.
Soon after the draft, Trent Dilfer joined Colin Cowherd’s radio show and effectively eviscerated the Ponder pick:
“The great quarterbacks are as accurate going to [options] two, three and four as they are when you go to one. … Christian Ponder, as soon as you get to two or three, the ball is dirting. It’s high. It’s all over the place. OK? He plays with a lot of anxiety. Do you want your quarterback in the NFL to play with a lot of anxiety?”
I remember being upset Dilfer made those judgments before the kid had even played a down in the NFL. So what if he’d watched every play of Ponder’s college game tape? Ponder would develop into a quality starter with the right coaching. He’d show Dilfer.
It turned out, of course, that Dilfer’s analysis was spot on. Ponder showed potential in spots and looked the part when things were going well, but he consistently collapsed under pressure. He played four years with the Vikings and compiled a 14-21-1 record. His brightest time was the 2012 season, when the team went 10-6 and Ponder completed 62.1% of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions. Still, he failed to crack 3,000 yards passing—he wouldn’t reach that milestone in his career—and the offense mostly rode a historic MVP season from Adrian Peterson en route to a playoff appearance in which Ponder didn’t play due to injury. From there, things got worse, and it became clear he wasn’t a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. Ponder’s career hit rock bottom in 2014, when he was asked to start at Lambeau Field in place of injured Teddy Bridgewater. He went 22-44 and threw two bad first-half interceptions en route to a 28-0 halftime lead. The Packers won 42-10, in a game that wasn’t that close.
It was a reach, a bust, and a quarterback, and that’s why I think drafting Christian Ponder was the worst move of the Spielman era.
Honorable mentions: Donovan McNabb (woof), John Carlson’s contract (five years, $25 million in 2012), the Mike Wallace trade (ultimately ill-fated but worth the gamble of a fifth-round pick).