Vikings: Playmakers or an elite left tackle?

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
3:00
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INDIANAPOLIS -- When he first made the suggestion last week, it slipped through the figurative space in my head. The second time, I took note. And when Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman mentioned Thursday for the third, fourth and fifth times "the old adage" about valuing playmakers over left tackles when developing a quarterback, I started to get suspicious.

As you know, Spielman's Vikings own the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, a spot of prime real estate that has recently has used to solidify one of football's most difficult and important positions. The Vikings have an obvious need at the position, having jettisoned Bryant McKinnie on the eve of training camp last summer, and it's quite possible that the consensus top left tackle in the draft -- USC's Matt Kalil -- will be theirs for the taking.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesChristian Ponder was sacked 30 times last season as Minnesota had problems protecting the quarterback.
Conventional wisdom would tell you that a young quarterback such as the Vikings' Christian Ponder must be protected above all else. He should be comfortable behind his offensive line, and there is no greater enemy to such confidence than a backside protector who can't play.

Finding a high-quality left tackle is rare and usually requires a first-round draft choice, often in the top half of the draft. The Cleveland Browns, for instance, used the No. 3 pick in 2007 to select All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. The Miami Dolphins made Jake Long the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 and Trent Williams went to the Washington Redskins at No. 4 in 2010.

Spielman, however, has provided the following answer multiple times when asked about his left tackle situation as the draft approaches:

"There's the adage that you go back and forth on. Is the left tackle that important or is it more important to have playmakers on offense? Because as your quarterback evolves, he learns the system, he gets the ball quicker out of his hand and all of a sudden that left tackle doesn't need to be a Pro Bowl left tackle. He can be a functional left tackle because the quarterback evolves and he's got playmakers."

Is Spielman really going "back and forth" on that question? Or is he simply repeating it publicly to douse suggestions that Kalil is the Vikings' obvious choice? Based on the frequency with which it's appeared, I'm leaning toward the latter. It makes perfect draft strategy for Spielman to create the impression that he could find a "functional" left tackle later in the first round, if he trades down from No. 3, or even in the second or third rounds.

But would the Vikings and Ponder really be better off with a "functional" left tackle, combined with an additional playmaker at receiver? Or should they focus on filling one need with the highest quality player available before worrying about another one? These are the kinds of questions that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf promoted Spielman to answer, and I'll be fascinated to see whether he is bluffing or serious.

As an illustration of his thought process, Spielman noted the well-discussed protection problems the Green Bay Packers endured in the early stages of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career. Rodgers, in fact, took 75 sacks in his first 26 starts in 2008 and 2009 while playing behind a line in personnel transition. Rodgers also absorbed criticism for holding the ball too long.

"I just remember Aaron Rodgers and how the media were criticizing their offensive line when Aaron Rodgers took all those sacks his first year as a starter," Spielman said. "Now, their offensive line has gotten better, but Aaron Rodgers has also gotten better … and they’ve got tremendous playmakers around him."

Having gone through that period together, I think we can all agree that Rodgers improved his release time. But I also remember asking him about that during training camp in 2010, and he noted that the Packers' sacks diminished as tight end Jermichael Finley emerged as a pass-catcher. Indeed, playmakers helped settle the sack issue that season.

The Vikings have an elite playmaker in Percy Harvin and have high hopes for young tight end Kyle Rudolph. Would adding another high-quality pass-catcher compensate for the drop from a potentially elite left tackle to a functional one? I'm not sure if anyone can answer that, but I thought that Lions general manager Martin Mayhew offered an interesting perspective when I asked him about it Friday.

In general teams, Mayhew considered the situation from the opposite perspective. He said he avoided surrounding quarterback Matthew Stafford with too many young playmakers, instead signing receiver Nate Burleson and traded for tight end Tony Scheffler, among other moves.

"I think anytime you surround a young guys with a lot of other young guys that are making mistakes, that's not really helping the process," Mayhew said. "… From our standpoint, having gone through it in the past, having a young quarterback and adding young weapons, we didn't necessarily feel that was the best route to go as far as drafting a lot of young guys to play skill positions for us. … But I don't think you really help a young quarterback by adding young receivers to the mix."

I'm on board with that sentiment. To me, having the No. 3 overall pick is an asset that isn't to be considered lightly. It's an opportunity to draft one of the very best players in the draft, and it's overthinking the process to turn down the chance to fill one of the game's most difficult positions with an elite prospect because you hope your quarterback will throw the ball away before the pass rush arrives.

Is it better for Ponder to have, say, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and a mid-range left tackle than it would be to have Kalil and a lesser-regarded receiver? I don't think so.

I suspect Spielman is merely creating public doubt about his intentions, but at this time of the year, the truth is rarely available. That's where I stand, however. We'll see how it plays out.

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