AnalysisOpinion

The Elephant in the Room: Spielman’s Biggest Failure

Rick Spielman is an above average general manager. This is clear to most levelheaded observers.

There are voices online that will tell you otherwise; for a segment of the Minnesota sports viewing public, criticizing Spielman seems to be something of a sport. Just a cursory search of the man’s name on Twitter usually reveals a sizable dose of anger directed at the Vikings GM, often laced with misspelled profanity and other vitriol. The particular grievance is ever-changing, but currently, it has become en vogue to begin proclaiming Spielman’s preseason trade for Sam Bradford is an abject failure. Perhaps it’s the nature of the job he holds, or perhaps it’s the fact that ten years with a franchise is certain to yield at least a handful of bad moves, but for all the observers who tell you Rick Spielman has done good work assembling the Vikings roster, there are just as many who will tell you he needs to be fired tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the job he holds, or perhaps it’s the fact that ten years with a franchise is certain to yield at least a handful of bad moves, but for all the observers who tell you Rick Spielman has done good work assembling the Vikings roster, there are just as many who will tell you he needs to be fired tomorrow.

Do not listen to this latter group. They are an emotionally volatile bunch who choose to nitpick over specific happenings rather than step back and look at the big picture. And the big picture is this: with the Vikings, Rick Spielman has been a good GM. I’ve already laid out my thesis at length over the course of examining his best and worst moves with the club, so I won’t drone on here, but in a nutshell, I believe Spielman has built a deep and talented roster that has allowed the 2016 Vikings to remain competitive despite an avalanche of injuries at key positions, and I think his good moves far outweigh his bad ones. There are more early round slam dunks (Barr, Bridgewater, Rhodes, Rudolph, Smith, Kendricks, Peterson, et al) and mid- or late-round steals (Diggs, Hunter, Griffen, Sullivan, Robison) than there are outright draft busts. There are more shrewd, economical trades and free agent acquisitions than there are wasteful, fruitless ones. Overall, Spielman has navigated the cap well and put together an impressive roster of talent, and I think any objective analysis of his work over the long haul will show that.

But.

There is a problem with this team, a big, headline-grabbing weakness that has played a central role in derailing a once-promising season, and it’s as much Rick Spielman’s fault as anyone else’s: the offensive line.

The offensive line is a disaster, and even before the rash of injuries, it was the weakest unit on the team. And since the Vikings lost both starting tackles (and other starters for spots of time), the lack of depth has been exposed, rendering the line a hapless, bottom-of-the-barrel group. This, of course, has greatly hampered the entire offense.

I theorized after the Thanksgiving loss that the Vikings offensive line is currently so bad, it’s turned every offensive play into an exercise in not getting the quarterback sacked. I still stand by this point of view and believe the rest of the offense has performed admirably considering the circumstances.

The reasons this unit has lagged so far behind the rest of the roster — in both the quality of its starters and its backups — can be directly traced to Spielman’s poor history of drafting offensive linemen in his time at the helm. He simply has a terrible track record of drafting blockers, far worse than any other position or unit. Spielman has made sporadic improvements to the line through free agency, but NFL teams — especially Spielman’s Vikings — are primarily built through the draft, and the long line of failed draft picks has created a vacuum of talent up

Examining the Draft History

Rick Spielman was appointed Vice President of Player Personnel on May 30, 2006, and has overseen 10 drafts since then (both in that role and as the General Manager). In that time, he has drafted 13 offensive linemen. Here’s a look at those picks and how they have contributed to the Vikings over their respective careers:

(Statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.)

PlayerYear DraftedRoundPositionGames PlayedStartsPro Bowls
John Sullivan20086Center109930
Phil Loadholt20092Tackle89890
Chris DeGeare20105Guard850
Brandon Fusco20116Guard64610
Demarcus Love20116OL000
Matt Kalil20121Tackle66661
Jeff Baca20136Guard400
Travis Bond20137Guard000
David Yankey20145Guard000
T.J. Clemmings20154Tackle26250
Tyrus Thompson20156Tackle000
Austin Shepherd20157Tackle1400
Willie Beavers20164Tackle100

A few takeaways:

  • With 13 draft picks invested over 10 years, the Vikings have wound up with five meaningful contributors; Sullivan, Loadholt, Fusco, Kalil, and Clemmings.
  • Consequently, seven of these 13 draft picks never made a start for the Vikings (although this includes 2015 pick Willie Beavers, who is now on the active roster and could conceivably start in the future (may God help us). Four players never appeared in a single game.
  • Just a single Pro Bowl appearance on this entire list, Matt Kalil’s 2012 season.

The ineptitude is alarming. It’s not as if Spielman has ignored the offensive line in the draft — he’s invested at least one pick in the unit every year since 2008 — but most of the players simply haven’t panned out. Of the five meaningful contributors in 10 years, only Sullivan could be categorized as a top-end player, while Kalil and Loadholt would likely fall into the “solid starter” category. (Of course, there’s a wide range of opinions on Kalil, but I think we can agree he’s at least been average through the balance of his career. He has underwhelmed in relation to his draft position, but he’s not bad.)

Fusco and Clemmings are, I’m afraid, in the below average pile, and while they (like Beavers) still have the opportunity to improve, I think we’ve seen enough to realistically understand what they are as players. So that’s three players out of 13 who could be considered decent or better.

What’s even more telling is the record since 2012, when Rick Spielman was promoted to General Manager and given total control over personnel matters. In those five years, the Vikings have drafted eight offensive linemen. Removing 2016 pick Willie Beavers for fairness and posterity, that’s seven players, five of whom never made a start for the team (and probably never will; only Austin Shepherd, a member of the practice squad, is still with the organization). Spielman the GM has only nabbed two offensive line contributors via the draft, Kalil and Clemmings, and neither seems like a long-term answer at tackle.

It’s important to note that, while the field we’re examining is laden heavily with duds, most of them were selected in later rounds. Of the 13 linemen drafted in Spielman’s ten years, only one (Kalil) was picked in the first round, and only one other (Loadholt) was picked before the fourth. Seven of the 13 players were selected in the sixth or seventh round, in point in which no prospect is a sure thing. The Vikings have done poorly drafting offensive linemen, but they haven’t invested many high picks, either.

Conclusions

We’re seeing a few clear patterns here. First, the Vikings have consistently invested draft picks in offensive linemen during the Rick Spielman era, though most of those picks have been in mid or late rounds. Second, Spielman’s track record is bad, as over half those picks haven’t become meaningful contributors, and those who have have been mostly average. Third, Spielman has actually begun drafting more offensive linemen (eight) since being promoted to GM in 2012, but the success rate has gotten even worse.

The Vikings best O-line draft pick in the Spielman era was John Sullivan, a sixth-rounder, and I do wonder if that early success shaped the regime’s strategy in subsequent years. They’ve invested heavily in late-round offensive linemen, perhaps trying to recreate the Sullivan home-run, but coming up empty with the exception of Brandon Fusco. And, in the few times the Vikings have invested high picks in linemen — Kalil and Loadholt — they’ve at least wound up with viable starters.

I would like to see Spielman stop trying to create magic with the late round picks and start taking guards and tackles in the first three rounds. It’s a simple strategy, of course — “if you want better players, hey, maybe start taking them earlier?” — but the position group is in desperate need of an infusion of talent and depth. For the offensive line to catch up to, say, the defensive front and cornerbacks, they need to start investing in it like they have with those units, and that starts with high draft picks. Spielman’s track record proves he is not adept at drafting late rounders who can contribute along the offensive line; rather, the vast majority of those picks have failed.

It’s time to try a different strategy, or risk having future seasons derailed in the same fashion we’re watching with the 2016 Vikings.

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Sam Neumann

Sam Neumann is a freelance writer and lifelong Vikings apologist. He has seen his share of Vikings-related heartbreak, but believes we are united by the hope that one day that norse ship will come in. Sam is the author of three books, including the New York Times Bestseller Memoirs of a Gas Station. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and has had it with Broncos fans. You can follow him on twitter @NeumSamN.

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6 Comments

  1. Isn’t Zimmer still following his 3 year plan to rebuild the team, starting with the defense? This next year I was thinking was going to be when he shifted focus to getting the offense, specifically the line, rebuilt. At least that was the plan before the oline completely crumbled.

  2. There’s been a lot of talk about college linemen today are simply not prepared to play well in NFL offenses (vs. college offenses). This would seem to preclude the idea that simply going hard in the draft could produce positive results quickly (like next year!). If that is the case with our present crop of newbies or potential draftees then the solution would seem to be a developmental coaching (or mentoring?) issue rather than simply size-strength-speed-smarts metrics.

  3. There is nothing like hindsight for giving critics the sense they could have done better than the person whose job it is to make choices and take chances. This is true in all areas of life.

    I read a comment by Ted Thompson to the effect that he would be delighted to settle for a success ratio like in pro baseball, where you are doing well if you are right once in three times.

    OL drafting is often thought to be especially difficult, as the college game differs so much from the pro game. Some folks believe poor OL play is endemic in the NFL this season.

    Even so, this article comes to a credible conclusion. The Vikings have whiffed a lot on their OL choices, partly because of their hubris about drafting late for OL players and developing them by coaching. The game with Dallas will offer one view of what a team can look like when linemen are valued during the early draft rounds.

  4. It’s not so much ineptitude as stats. The average round of those picks you listed is 5th – toss Loadholt and Kalil and it’s 5.6 Statistically by year 5 only about 10-15% of guys picked that late are still on NFL rosters. As you suggest, hitting on Sullivan and maybe later Fusco who they thought was special but clearly isn’t, made them think they could just roll lucky dice every time. Not so as we now know. Hopefully they’ve finally figured it out too.

  5. “we can agree he’s at least been average through the balance of his career”

    We’re not going to agree. There’s a reason the coaching staff constantly had to make excuses for him, blaming guard play for DEs running right past him.

  6. To be fair, after a horrible sophomore season of 2012, Fusco was a very good starter in 2013 and 2014 before he was injured, but he’s been a shadow of himself since then. If Mike Harris were healthy, there is little doubt in my mind that he would have been starting in Fusco’s place. Also, while Kalil was a solid starter as a rookie, he’s has been quite below average since then, as I am 100% sure the PFF rankings would bear out.

    Using the Games Started stats at Pro Football Reference, I come up with the following figures (any errors are mine):

    Vikings All but Vikes
    Round Picks GS Avg. GS Picks GS Avg. GS
    4 2 25 12.5 53 1,048 19.8
    5 2 5 2.5 51 532 20.5
    6 5 154 30.8 48 528 11.0
    7 2 0 0.0 60 667 11.1

    So, Spielman has been marginally below average with his fourth and seventh round picks, way below average on fifth rounders and way above average on his sixth rounders, so overall, he’s been marginally below average at drafting offensive linemen in rounds four through seven. To me, that’s a big meh for 11 of the 13 offensive linemen Spielman has drafted. Taking into account his OL free agent signings – Berger a godsend, Boone expensively adequate so far, Smith a predictable bust – and trades – Easton and Sirles have been worth the price paid – one could say that Spielman’s work on the line has been a wash, overall, until you get to the real problems with his offensive line.

    First and foremost, Spielman’s lone first round offensive lineman has been a bust, as SOME first round picks always are. Secondly, he should have drafted or signed an actual left guard to replace Charlie Johnson instead of signing off on trying to do it with converted right guards in Fusco and Boone. Thirdly, in going into this season, Spielman was not bold enough to go out and get a legitimate replacement for Kalil, and the best challenger/successor he could find for Phil Loadholt was Andre Smith?!? I would have rather seen training camp competitions between Kalil and Clemmings at LT and Loadhold and Sirles at RT than treating Clemmings and Sirles as swing tackles, but I would have been even happier if he had either drafted a LT in the first round or traded for Joe Thomas or some other legit starting LT. And if this meant spending less money on left guard by signing Matt Slauson instead of Alex Boone, I could have lived with that, too.

    Basically, I think I disagree with Arif Hasan (“I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy!”) that Spielman maybe deserves a pass for this season. Taking into account that the draft is always a crap shoot, so first-round and low-round failures are to be expected – and ditto for free agency – I’d say that Spielman’s failings on the offensive line have been less about the draft in general and more about a failure to target fixing two specific parts of the OL this year (LT) and in the past (LG).

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