Opinion

Why Vikings GM Rick Spielman Deserves Executive of the Year Honors

The Vikings ended a disappointing 2016 season by finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Just one year later, the team is eyeing their first Super Bowl appearance since 1976.

Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was named the 2017 NFL Executive of the Year by Pro Football Weekly. An 18-person panel selected the 55 year-old as the recipient of the honor.

“Slick Rick,” or “Trader Rick” as he’s commonly referred to, has built a reputation of accumulating draft picks, selecting impact players throughout all seven rounds and engineering multiple draft day trades. More recently, however, it’s Spielman’s ability to transform a roster that has him receiving recognition.

The 2017 offseason may have been some of Spielman’s best work as the Vikings general manager. Let’s take a closer look at how he used due diligence and refined offseason strategies to revamp the Vikings roster and put Minnesota back on the map.

Background

Before coming to Minnesota, Spielman worked in the personnel departments of the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and Miami Dolphins. Spielman held the role of general manager with the Dolphins for one season from 2004-2005. He later worked as an ESPN analyst in 2005.

Spielman was initially hired by the Vikings as Vice President of Player Personnel in 2006. For six years, he was part of the “Triangle of Authority,” a trio comprised of the owner, an executive, and the head coach that made all the personnel decisions for the franchise. Spielman took over general manager duties in 2012. According to PFW, there are only nine “true NFL GMs who have served longer than he has.”

Scheme change

As free agency approached this past offseason, one thing became evident — the Vikings needed to make a major change on offense. No longer with coordinator Norv Turner or running back Adrian Peterson, the offense was in need of a new identity after featuring one of the best runners of all-time for a decade.

Logically, the future direction of the Vikings offense was determined — the West Coast scheme of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The decision made sense considering Shurmur and starting quarterback Sam Bradford had worked together in the past and had previously run a similar scheme with both the Rams and Eagles.

In Shurmur’s offense, like any West Coast offense, teams place more of an emphasis on passing than rushing. Short, quick passes and timing routes are used to open up running lanes. The purpose of the scheme is to spread out the defense and take advantage of the open field created by separating the defenders. The philosophy makes the defense play “honest” and keeps them guessing when it comes to play-calling.

There was only one problem; the shift in scheme was a BIG change from the Vikings’ previous system. The unit was built to run, and the team needed new personnel.

Enter Mr. Spielman.

Roster turnover

Luckily, or maybe by design, the Vikings had a number of veteran players whose contracts expired after the 2016 season. Players like Peterson,  Matt Kalil,  Cordarrelle Patterson, and Rhett Ellison all became free agents.

The Vikings, in the midst of a switch to a more pass-oriented offense, could have opted to bring back some of these players. They chose not to. The players were simply too expensive or more importantly, didn’t fit in the team’s future plans. Instead, Spielman replaced them with pieces that schematically fit the mold of Shurmur’s system.

Take the offensive line, for example. The new scheme featured zone-blocking technique, which requires linemen who are athletic, agile players that can pull and reach the second level, opening up rush lanes for the running back.  A “blue collar” mentality was also a desired trait of linemen.

The Vikings front office targeted that type of player throughout the offseason. Spielman added Riley Reiffand Mike Remmers in free agency as cornerstone tackles. Center Pat Elflein was drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft and guard Danny Isidora was drafted in the fifth round. Joe Berger, the only holdover from the 2016 starting unit, also fit the mold.

Personnel decisions

Later on, players like RG Brandon Fusco and ultimately LG Alex Boone were released to make room for players that better fit Shurmur’s scheme. Guys like Rashod HillNick EastonJeremiah Sirles, and even undrafted free agent Aviante Collins were kept over the veteran guards.

Those decisions could not have been easy. Spielman, who had signed Fusco and Boone to multi-year deals just one or two seasons prior, had to cut them both before their contracts expired. He also had to take into account dead money salary cap hits.

But by doing so, he made it possible to shape what has become one of the best offseasons of his professional career. In hindsight, the most critical move was signing journeyman quarterback Case Keenum to a 1-year, $2 million deal in free agency, but the team made plenty of other notable moves:

2017 offseason

Despite not having a first-round draft pick, Spielman and the Vikings accumulated 11 picks. They drafted:

Not a bad offseason right there.

Offensive identity formed

What the front office found out during the course of the season is that the new personnel supported the new scheme. Spielman’s offseason goals of addressing the offensive line and improving the offense as a whole had been reached. The offensive line was upgraded and the Vikings, flashing a new offensive identity with Shurmur, excelled.

Because of the offseason overhaul, the line (and entire offense in general) turned from a weakness into a strength. Not only did the “new guys” fit in well, but the veteran free agents did as well.

The roster clicked. Even players that had never stood out before produced some unexpected results. Keenum’s 2017 performance (3,547 yards, 67.6 completion % with 22 TDs and 7 INTs) was a complete surprise. Punter Ryan Quigley, who capped the regular season with zero touchbacks, was another great find. Riley Reiff was an upgrade, Mike Remmers was solid. Even Latavius Murray (8 rushing TDs) proved to be a great pickup. The list goes on and on.

Minnesota’s top-2 wideouts even developed into the arguably the best receiving duo in the NFL. The supporting receiver roles didn’t exactly work themselves out this season, but between former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, former Arizona Cardinal standout Michael Floyd, and former starter Jarius Wright, the team has plenty of options moving forward.

Options are a good thing, and the Minnesota Vikings roster is stacked with them.

Moving forward

One of Spielman’s personnel-acquisition strategies is to pair college teammates together, and the players have responded. Not only has the team’s performance been consistent throughout the entire season, but the players have formed a strong, family-like bond in the process. The Vikings roster is not only deep; it’s built with both chemistry and character in mind.

Spielman has seen some low moments in his tenure as GM. In previous seasons, losing Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook to knee injuries would have likely ruined the Vikings’ postseason chances. But because of past experience, Spielman worked to assemble perhaps the NFL’s deepest roster in case something unexpectedly bad happened again. And that depth is a key reason why the team was able to overcome adversity without flinching.

The resilient, selfless, inspired group certainly has the individual talent needed to win a Super Bowl. They also have the right head coach. The players respect Mike Zimmer and his philosophy, and it shows. The offense is much improved and the defense is performing at a historically-high level (Spielman building the Vikings defense deserves it’s own award).

Because of the adept roster-building by Spielman and leadership provided by Zimmer, the team is able to withstand more than your average NFL team. Whether the starter, backup, or next man up is in the game, the Vikings have found a way to win, and perhaps more importantly, do so with class.

A 13-3 regular season record, an NFC North Championship, a first-round bye in the playoffs, a “Minneapolis Miracle,” a show-down in the Conference Championship.

There’s only one thing left to accomplish.

Here’s to Rick Spielman, the 2017 Pro Football Weekly NFL Executive of the Year.

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Sean Borman

Sean Borman is a writer with Minnesota roots that's still somehow an optimist. He was an intern with the Vikings during college and previously wrote for Rant Sports. You can find Sean on the golf course and on Twitter @SeanBoarMan.

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