Tuesday, June 14, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: Minnesota Vikings

So. The Minnesota Vikings huh? What happened to those guys. One minute they were one or two plays away from winning the NFC Championship. Then suddenly they chucked it all down the drain. Then they came back next year and absolutely stunk the place out.

Well, that's perhaps being a little harsh and indeed injuries played their part, but the hope that the Vikings might build on a very successful 2009 season turned out to be just that; hope. Poor, misguided hope. And with the vampire that is Brett Favre finally back in his coffin, at least for now, the Vikings had a tough decision to make headed into 2011. Stick with Tavaris Jackson? Or go fishing for the next big thing?

They went fishing.

In round one of the draft, with the 12th overall pick (their first of ten) the Minnesota Vikings select... Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State!

About an hour or so after the first round had finished I thought I heard the wind picking up. It turns out this was just the arrival of the sound of the collective people of the state of Minnesota booing the Christian Ponder pick.

At the time I thought it was harsh. The Vikings needed a QB and that's what they got. Ponder was pretty good I thought. Why boo that pick? Then gradually it occurred to me that maybe people weren't necessarily against Ponder, it was just that he was taken early.

No, turns out everyone hates Ponder.

But if I thought that was harsh at the time, I'm even more critical of Vikings fans for booing now. Because (I know) the more I watch Ponder, the more I'm inclined to believe he should have been considered a legitimate first round talent from pre-draft, and that there is even a significant case that he should have been number one overall.

See, for me there are four main "pro ready" quarterbacks from the 2011 draft; Ryan Mallett, Christian Ponder, Ricky Stanzi and Nathan Enderle. I had perhaps Mallett or Stanzi pegged first. It has a tendency to shift depending on whose film you watched last. Well, now I'm getting ready to throw some serious weight behind Ponder.

Here's why;

- Footwork. Is generally very, very good, with a fluidity and balance that you would expect from a high level QB. At times he can lack the required "push" from under center, that is to say that he doesn't drive back hard and fast enough sometimes. But that's not a common issue and it's something he'll soon learn to fix when he starts running away from guys like Ndamukong Suh.

- Accuracy. Is excellent. Yes, he did throw a lot of short passes and screens in college. For the record I want to point out that I'm not talking about completion percentage, which is a terrible way to measure Quarterbacks. I'm talking about sitting there and actually watching whereabouts the ball goes when he throws it. Naturally this falls off a little at deep ranges, but newsflash, so does Peyton Mannings.

In general though his throwing is very precise, right into the receivers hands with enough lead when necessary. He can throw well under pressure and does push the ball down the field much more than someone like Blaine Gabbert.

Those for me are two really key things. When you tie in his lack of off field issues and the fact that the system he played in at Florida State had a number of "pro style" aspects to it, it really does set Ponder up perhaps better than any other QB in this draft to be a number one overall pick.

As it stands he went 12th, but I personally think time is going to prove that the Carolina Panthers were incredibly dumb for taking Newton instead of this kid. Which is good, because I hate the Panthers.

On to round two and the Vikings went with tight end Kyle Rudolph from Notre Dame. Who I hate with a passion. Well, I say I hate him but that's not strictly true. I hate what Rudolph has been made out to be by the media e.g. the number one tight end overall in this years draft.

That's rubbish in my opinion. Utter junk. If Rudolph is the top tight end in the 2011 draft then when might as well give up trying to analyse players and instead just draw names out of a hat at random. Not only did Rudolph miss three games in his sophomore season through injury, but he then ended up playing just six games in 2010 due to a hamstring injury.

So how does he stack up as a receiver? Not bad, but not really number one tight end quality. He probably drops passes at a 1:4 ratio with catches, often dropping nice easy throws. After further study, his route running is not exactly what you would call polished either. Yes, he did make some nice catches for good yards, but his ability to get additional yards after the catch is very questionable.

Simply put, there are better tight ends in this years draft; Lance Kendricks, Colin Cochart and Daniel Hardy for example.

Moving on then and the Vikings skip round three before landing again in round four with another Christian, (not Tim Tebow but) Christian Ballard, defensive linemen, Iowa. I say defensive linemen because he moved around a bit in college, switching from tackle to end on a per play basis. It is expected the Vikings will use him at end.

Now Ballard is an interesting little cookie for many reasons. Firstly, he was expected to go much higher but dropped due to allegedly testing positive for marijuana at the combine. Then comes the question of on field talent and it's for this reason that Ballard is intriguing to me in particular.

I have said recently that going back and studying each of these players in turn is causing me to question severely some of the original analysis I made of them. So far I've put this down largely to the time pressure that existed to get all of my reports out before the draft, which was compounded by my own stupidity when I believed the draft was being held a week before it actually was.

As a result I kind of raced through a lot of the studies, often not watching enough film and not taking the time to sit down and really look at each player. Ballard is a great example of this (along with Iowa team mate Adrian Clayborn). I had him pegged pre-draft as being a very good linemen and I'm semi willing to stand by that claim.

Semi willing. At times, Ballard shows great talent. At times he uses a strong push upfield and a good swim or rip move to beat an offensive tackle and get into the backfield. Sometimes he will be involved in a stunt or twist with the defensive linemen next to him and will use his speed and hustle to get into the backfield again. Sometimes he gets kicked inside as a tackle where he shows the ability to hold off blockers and make the run stop.

But much more common is for Ballard to play conservatively at the end position, which is a serious issue when you're a defensive end in a 4-3. Predominantly those ends are required to get after the quarterback, preferably now rather than later.

Ballard's normal approach though is to run right at the right tackle, put his hands in the guys chest and slowly drive him back, with varying degrees of success. That, to me at least, basically seems to be the result of trying to put a man with the mentality of a defensive tackle at defensive end. It's not that he can't play end, he just gets stuck in the run-stopping-first mindset of a tackle.

So how will he fare with the Vikings? I'm still going to give him a thumbs up and say he'll be good. Why? Because (I know) if they decide to play him inside as a tackle he'll be right at home and should just straight up be successful in that regard. If they move him to end and he tries playing the way he did in college he will get a right bollocking from his position coach and be told to start getting after the QB.

That should snap him out of his "tackle funk" and get him using his size, speed and technique to do what he really does best and that's to make offensive linemen look silly. I think he can do it. I've seen him do it when he plays the end position properly. With additional coaching he could be just the ticket that the Vikings are looking for to replace a possibly outgoing Ray Edwards.

Round five next and just the one pick here, Brandon Burton, cornerback, Utah. Burton is another one of these "now I've had a proper second look" type guys. Initially I came away very impressed by him, but now I think you have to split it into a some good, some bad, type dynamic.

The good is that he; closes quickly once the ball is in the air, he actually turns and looks for the ball, he's not afraid to get stuck in (he's a knee-capper) and generally he plays with good positioning deep down the field.

The bad is that he; doesn't tackle properly which can be an issue at times, he gets bowled over in the running game laughably easily, he struggles in press coverage (playing close to the receiver at the snap) and he often gives receivers too much of a cushion when he plays off the receiver.

Given the nature of the Vikings defense, a predominantly zone style scheme that won't really let Burton play so deep and so far off his man, I can see problems. I just think this is a case of the players skill set not meshing all that well with the teams system, as opposed to him being a bad corner per se.

Right, round six now and the Vikings have four picks, three of them in the top seven. The first was offensive tackle DeMarcus Love, Arkansas. Not a huge amount to say about Love. Pass blocking is ok, run blocking is a little suspect. He has a tendency to pull his arms back to "wind up" and then let rip with a punch. As you can probably imagine this leads to him missing a lot and ending up flat on his face. Footwork is also highly suspect at times.

Two picks after Love was safety Mistral Raymond from South Florida. Having had a good look at him, all I can say is "meh". He's not Mike Person bad, but he's no Troy Polamalu either. Seems to lack any real range as a deep safety and isn't really strong enough to play strong safety. A training camp victim probably.

Two picks after Raymond came Brandon Fusco, center, Slippery Rock. And I can honestly say, your guess is as good as mine. Haven't seen a second. He did well in the drills at the combine and that's about all I can tell you for certain.

Lastly in the sixth round was compensatory selection Ross Homan, linebacker, Ohio State. Homan falls into a distinct group of prospects whom I watch now, then look at my previous notes, then check to make sure I'm watching the right team, then check my notes again, then watch again, then finally hold my hands up and just say "fuck it".

I don't know what I was talking about when I said Homan "reacts quickly to what he sees". I swear in this case I must have just genuinely got him confused with someone else, because Homan's film can best be described with the word "ass". As in "your ass just got blocked again, idiot". There really is nothing more to say. He's epically non-existent, if that makes any sense. Again, I look at Homan, then think about Anthony Gaitor drafted in the 7th by Tampa and say to myself "How? How do you fuck up your draft like that?".

Maybe Minnesota will have more luck in the Seventh round, with two more picks to go?

Not with the first of those unfortunately, defensive end D'Aundre Reed from Arizona. Simply put, Reed automatically reacts to a tackle putting his hands on him by taking a step back and to the outside. You pretty much can't do anything worse than that as a defensive end in that situation.

If you watch guys like Reed's new team mate Jared Allen, they make contact with the offensive tackle and then use their hands to try and work their way around the top to get to the quarterback. It's tough, and when you break the numbers down a DE might get 60 snaps to get after the QB and yet only get to him once or twice in a game, but that's just how it is.

Some other players have different techniques like Dwight Freeney and his spin move etc, but ultimately defensive end is one of those positions where you work your butt off for the entire game for maybe one or two plays worth of reward. But those plays can often be critical in shutting down a drive in a tight game.

I just can't see Reed doing it. He shows no real natural talent for rushing the quarterback and that is quite a serious issue to have when you play the position he does.

Finally then it comes down to West Texas A&M wide receiver Stephen Burton. And the bad news (or maybe good news because now I can now go to bed) is that I don't have a clue about Burton. Not seen a single snap I'm afraid.

So in conclusion, how was the Vikings draft? I think a lot of it rests on Christian Ponder and that's why I'm inclined to give Minnesota a lot of credit because they went with the guy they felt comfortable with, rolled the dice and I think it's going to payoff.

I like Ponder and I think he might be able to inject some much needed youth into their QB situation, along with a healthy dose of talent. I can see him being good enough for them to build around over the coming years. Of course, they already have Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice etc, so maybe that offense is ready to bounce back as soon as this year?

On defense I like the Christian Ballard pick. As a 4-3 defense they need to stay young, fresh and talented at the defensive end spot which is what I think they've achieved with this pick. As for the rest of those guys...

On balance this probably wasn't Minnesota's greatest draft. Ponder and Ballard may well go on to be great players but you have to think that with no less than ten choices the Vikings could have come up with something better. Those other eight picks are more than a team normally gets pre-trades/compensatory, and I think they wasted a fantastic opportunity to get younger and better at a lot of spots.

That's the NFC North done with then. Next it's the NFC East, starting with D for the team everyone loves to hate; the Dallas Cowboys.

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