Saturday, April 18, 2009

Vikings drafts since 1993 – a retrospective

The NFL draft is a weekend of a promise. For the draftees, there is the promise of a long and lucrative NFL career. For management and fans, there is the promise that the players drafted will provide a foundation for the franchises they work and cheer for – the foundation for a Super Bowl champion.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Vikings terrible 2005 draft, and how different it could have been if the Vikes had hit a home run with every pick.

Of course, no team ever has a perfect draft. Teams make mistakes – in every draft and sometimes in every round. So with the draft a week away, I decided to look back at the Vikings 16 drafts in the seven-round era, to see what we can realistically expect from the players the team will pick this year in this annual meat market.

I think a good draft produces starters and so that’s what I tracked here. I wasn't interested in backups. It’s not that drafted players who never become starters don’t make contributions. They usually make up the bulk of your special teams units, they sometimes fill vital roles (like being a third down back) and they provide depth if starters are lost to injury.

But it’s starters that usually make the biggest impact on a team. And in determining who qualified as a starter, I didn’t include all draftees who started a game or two while playing for the Vikings, or who got their starting positions because the usual starter got injured during the season. I counted players who began the season as a starter and played a majority of the games. I consulted the always handy Pro Football Reference website to get this information.

So – let’s see where those starters have come.

The Draft
Teams talk all the time about building through the draft, but history shows that can be difficult – at least if you're the Vikings. The Vikes have made 121 draft picks since 1993. Only 41 of those draftees have started for at least one season. That’s an average of about 2.5 players per draft, or approximately 34 per cent of the players the Vikings have drafted during this period. Some drafts have produced more starters. Some have produced less. But generally, the Vikings only get about two starters out of each draft.

And while there are good players in every round of every draft, since the NFL switched to a seven-round draft from a 12-round draft in 1993, the Vikings haven’t found many good players beyond the second round. Seventeen of 19 first-round draft picks and 11 of 20 second-round picks have been regular starters for the Vikes. That’s 68 per cent of the starters the team has culled from the draft.

The rest of the rounds have produced the following amount of starters:
3rd round: four
4th round: three
5th round: one
6th round: four
7th round: one

So what's to be learned from all this? Don’t get your hopes up, that’s what. When the Vikings make their picks next weekend in New York City – provided they keep them all – don't expect the Vikings to find many diamonds in the seventh round, or sixth or even the third round. There's an excellent chance only the players they pick in the first two rounds will ever make much of an impact.

And don’t expect these draftees to be around too long, either. By the fifth year, when draftees should typically be signing their second NFL contract, 77 percent of the players the Vikings drafted during this period were no longer with the team.

A few other observations about the Vikings draft history since 1993.

Feel free to take a nap when...
The Vikings make their third-round pick. This is considered a reasonably high draft position, but the Vikings results in this round have been surprisingly dismal. They have gotten as many starters (four) from the sixth-round as the third. And when you’re considering whether the Vikings best pick here is a guy who is best known for stuffing a plastic bag over the head of his toddler (Darrion Scott), you know the Vikes have drafted lousy in this round.

Pay close attention when ....
The Vikings announce their fourth-round pick. Of course, the rub here is that they don’t currently have a fourth-round pick in the 2009 draft, having traded it to Houston for Sage Rosenfels. Be that as it may, the Vikings have gotten excellent value in the fourth round since 2002.

They’ve chosen some solid starters (Brian Williams in ’02 and Ray Edwards in ’06), a promising running back who, unfortunately, let drugs derail his career (Onterrio Smith in ’03), a shifty third-down back and punt returner (Mewelde Moore in ’04) and a backup defensive end who has flashed starter ability (Brian Robison in ’07)

Best draft pick since '93:
Randy Moss – I don’t think much explanation is required here.

Worst draft pick since '93:
Dimitrius Underwood – Please read this Los Angeles Times story. How did the Vikings miss the red flags on this guy?

Best value pick since '93:
Matt Birk – even if you think Birk got his last couple of Pro Bowl berths on reputation, this guy has still been a heck of a player and accomplished a lot more than most sixth round picks in the NFL ever do.

Best draft since '93:
1998 – the drafts in 1994, 1995, 2003 and 2006 produced more starters, but 1998 gets my nod because it produced a Hall of Famer in Moss, another potential Hall of Famer in Birk and a solid starter in linebacker Kailee Wong. I'll take quality over quantity.

Vikes best picks in other rounds since '93
Second round: E.J. Henderson (’03)
And to think some considered Henderson a bust early in his career.

Third round: Nate Burleson (’03)
His one good year gives him the edge over an underwhelming cast of candidates that includes Scott, Stalin Colinet and Eric Kelly.

Fourth round: Mewelde Moore (’04)
Brian Williams gets serious consideration here. But Moore’s my pick because of his contributions running the ball, catching the ball and returning punts.

Fifth round: Tony Williams (’97)
Undersized defensive tackle was a three-year starter for Vikes.

Seventh round: Tyler Thigpen (’07)
We cut this guy so we could keep Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb?

It might be irrelevant to look back at Vikings drafts since 1993 and try to predict how many of the Vikings 2009 draft picks will ever be any good. After all, the people in charge of past drafts – up until 2007 – are not the same people who will be running the Vikings 2009 draft (which is Rick Spielman).

However, if after 16 drafts there are some clear trends that emerge, then I think it's reasonable to keep them in mind when we hear Brad Childress and Spielman talk glowingly about that fifth-round pick they made on the second day of the draft. We'll all have high hopes for the draftees once the event is over. And we'll all be intrigued by their promise. But few will fulfill that promise.

Other draft odds and ends
If you're wondering how the Vikings drafts have compared to other NFL teams recently, I suggest you read this story from the Viking Update site. The news isn't good.

And Mike Lombardi released his latest mock draft this week and he predicts the Vikings first-round selection will be ...USC linebacker Brian Cushing??????


Peter said...

Great read.

My ideal draft for the Vikings includes a trade of picks and/or Chester Taylor for Boldin (that plus a stud OT like Oher would make me giddy). In the real world, however, I'll simply be happy if they can grab someone of Britton's ability or better, or at least someone big and decent (like Phil Loadholt) on Saturday. Other than that, I'm not terribly worried about the team's holes. It's not like they'll find a miracle at QB to help the team this year or anything.

DC said...


I'm not worried about the team's holes either. But I am hoping they can pick up that one player who can make enough of an impact to get the Vikings an extra win or two they wouldn't have got. Like what Moss did for the Vikes in '98 and what Peterson did in '07.