NFC North: Morris Claiborne

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
10:00
AM ET

IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

Analysis of the 2012 draft literally will continue for years, but I long ago accepted our psychological need for instant answers. It has become a tradition around here to review the immediate reaction of the country's foremost media draft analyst, which I consider to be a starting point for further discussion. So here are Mel Kiper Jr.'s 2012 draft grades Insider, which require an Insider subscription to view fully but can be summarized forthwith:

Chicago Bears
Grade: C+
Kiper snippet: "I'm really surprised they had six picks and didn't get a single offensive lineman."
Seifert comment: The Bears weren't joking before the draft when they said they were satisfied with the makeup of their offensive line, one that will include the return of Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams. Saturday, coach Lovie Smith said: "We as a coaching staff are going to try and put the players in a better position, adding Chris and Gabe to the mix. There's a period of time, as you might have forgotten, during the season, when we played pretty good ball on the offensive line." Kiper thinks that first-round defensive end Shea McClellin might have been overvalued at No. 19 and isn't a big fan of second-round receiver Alshon Jeffery, but I think the Bears improved both positions with those additions.

Detroit Lions
Grade: B
Kiper snippet: "The board broke pretty well for Detroit."
Seifert comment: Yes, few media analysts thought tackle Riley Reiff would be available at No. 23 overall. (Clearly they hadn't measured his arm length.) And it's true the Lions managed to snag three intriguing cornerbacks after making the surprise choice of receiver Ryan Broyles in the second round. But to me what stands out about the Lions' draft is that they are in position to address future needs rather than desperately flail at their current issues. Reiff might not be a starter until 2013 or 2014, and Broyles' knee rehabilitation means he might not have immediate impact, either. It's called roster maintenance, and the Lions haven't been in that position in a while.

Green Bay Packers
Grade: B
Kiper snippet: "The Packers simply had to add to the pass rush."
Seifert comment: There will be plenty of talk moving forward about first-round linebacker Nick Perry and some about fifth-round linebacker Terrell Manning, whom Kiper loves as a situational pass-rusher. But you wonder if they'll both be eclipsed by second-round defensive lineman Jerel Worthy, a first-round talent who should be highly motivated by his draft fall. He's got the ability and capacity to become a dominant force on the line, whether it's as a 3-4 end or as a tackle in the nickel. Worthy could turn this into a proverbial "A" draft.

Minnesota Vikings
Grade: B
Kiper snippet: "I don't think we'll look back and see a lot of star power here, but they got what they needed."
Seifert comment: General manager Rick Spielman did a good job convincing everyone he was considering several bad decisions, and thus has been widely praised for making what seemed to be the obvious ones. That's the case for both of his first round picks, left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith. And after passing on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, Spielman at least added some speed to the position by drafting Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson. At the end of the weekend, Spielman used 10 draft picks and pushed two more into 2013. Quantity runs a close second to quality in the draft.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A small part of why the Minnesota Vikings chose left tackle Matt Kalil over cornerback Morris Claiborne in Round 1 of the 2012 NFL draft: The chances of finding a starting-caliber cornerback later in the draft were higher than if they were looking for a starting left tackle.

Robinson
Robinson
And so it came to be that the Vikings drafted Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson early in the third round Friday night. Robinson had the fastest 40 time at the scouting combine in February, running it in 4.33 seconds, and that speed along with a 38 1/2 inch vertical leap give him the raw skills that the Vikings hope will help him develop quickly into a contributor if not a rookie starter.

"Some of the plays he makes on tape really stand out because of those athletic traits," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said.

Robinson left school a year early and turned 21 in January, so he might need some development time. But I'm trying to remember the last time the Vikings had a defensive player with this kind of speed. I can't.

BBAO: Day 2 is upon us

April, 27, 2012
4/27/12
10:00
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I'm rested (sort of) and ready (definitely!) for Day 2 of the 2012 NFL draft. Before we steamroll into the nitty gritty, let's take a run through local coverage of Day 1 in the NFC North:
  • Bears general manager Phil Emery was no doubt happy to pull a draft surprise, writes Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • New Bears linebacker Shea McClellin is "a natural at the unnatural act of rushing the passer," according to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Like Isaacson, David Haugh of the Tribune brings up a dreaded comparison to Dan Bazuin: "But, sorry, I recommend healthy skepticism when evaluating [Phil] Emery's first draft pick as Bears GM. You can't hate it yet. But it's very hard to wholeheartedly endorse -- especially considering the pool of potential Bears available."
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: "The [Detroit Lions'] selection of Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff reflects the team’s unwavering commitment in helping its most valuable asset -- quarterback Matthew Stafford -- shine as brightly as possible."
  • Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com has a transcript of Reiff's interview with Detroit-area media.
  • Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Packers draft pick Nick Perry: "The 6-foot-2, 271-pounder admitted at the Combine that he was more comfortable as a defensive end. With good coaching, the Packers must feel confident they can help him adjust to linebacker."
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: " No one is ready to call the 271-pound Perry a savior, but his presence is expected to give the defense a major boost."
  • The Packers didn't appear too interested in trading up to get a different pass-rusher, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Hilarious column from Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A sample: "Vikings general manager Rick Spielman did his best to convince the world that he was flat-out nutty and might not take the player of paramount importance to the franchise. Oh yes, he said, we like Matt Kalil. Kind of. Sort of. But we also like Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne. Then he stood on his head and spit nickels. He laid it on thick, all right. And for those a bit taken aback by his free-agent signings, which included a former point guard and several players who missed the 2011 season, there was some consternation. Is this fellow really a basket case? But I had faith. Well, let's say some of us could see through the bad acting."
  • Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune: "Minnesota hasn't been home to many general managers who could be called 'slick,' unless you were using the word in a way that might start a fight."
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "In reality, the Vikings were going to make sure they got Kalil. They weren't doing a deal with anyone except Cleveland or Tampa Bay, which also coveted Richardson at No. 5. They were committed to protecting Christian Ponder's blindside, regardless of whether LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and/or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon had marginally better grades or they fabricated the debate entirely to stir up a market."

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The sky is still blue.

Grass is still green.

Water is still two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

Up is still up.

Down is still down.

Left tackle is still one of the most important positions in football.

Whew!

Had the Minnesota Vikings passed Thursday night on the opportunity to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil, I would have been left questioning one of the most basic premises of life. Crazy Rick Spielman, the Vikings' general manager, tried to convince us that he might turn the earth on its axis. In the end, Spielman stopped short of losing his mind.

He took Kalil over LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne because his team was barren at one of the most difficult positions to fill in football.

Spielman drafted Kalil because the immediate future of the franchise depends on creating a more comfortable environment for quarterback Christian Ponder.

And Kalil is a Viking because there are more ways to elevate poor secondary play than there are to fill a hole at left tackle. Spielman demonstrated just that a few hours later by trading back into the first round to select Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith.

"There is never or rarely ever a left tackle that's going to come available in the unrestricted free agent market," Spielman said. "You look at the corners, the top three corners in free agency became available. There are receivers that become available. When you're going back and forth at this position and that position, I know that when you have the opportunity to get a left tackle, especially where we were picking, and as talented as Matt is, I don't know that you'll ever get that opportunity again."

I agree, and frankly I felt like banging my head against a wall this week as so many of you argued for Claiborne. I don't have a single bad thing to say about him or his talent, but the left tackle position is arguably more important than ever given the passing explosion of recent seasons. As long as you're convinced Kalil is a true franchise player, as the Vikings are, you make the move first and then start sorting through your other needs. Left tackle can't be an afterthought. Not on this team, at least.

Even Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, a former NFL cornerback and longtime defensive coach, agreed.

"It's a very important position," Frazier said, "when you're talking about a young quarterback that you want to make sure gets a little bit more comfortable in the pocket, and Matt gives us some confidence in knowing that that position is taken care of.

"We had some needs, but none were more important than addressing the left tackle position."

Harrison Smith
Robin Alam/Icon SMIMinnesota addressed their needs in the secondary by drafting Harrison Smith late in the first round.
Drafting Kalil was part of a bravura opening performance for Spielman in his first draft since the Vikings promoted him to general manager, a mixture of sound thinking, stoic poker-playing and aggressive targeting that netted Kalil and Smith -- and still left the Vikings with 10 picks between rounds 3-7.

According to Frazier, the coaching staff has felt comfortable since last month that Kalil should be the pick. Kalil said he got "good vibes" on the possibility during a visit to Minnesota this month, but Spielman managed to turn public perception of what seemed an obvious decision into a legitimate debate.

It doesn't appear that any team bought into the possibility that Claiborne or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon was his top choice. But Spielman still managed to parlay his professed flexibility -- Kalil, Claiborne or Blackmon -- into an easy pre-draft trade with the Cleveland Browns. If the Browns were convinced he was going to take Kalil at No. 3, they never would have felt compelled to move up and block a team from taking their target, Alabama's Trent Richardson.

Adding three picks from the Browns to move back one spot made it easier to deal a few hours later with the Baltimore Ravens, who accepted second- and fourth-round picks in exchange for the No. 29 pick to select Smith. As much as Spielman had spoken publicly about Kalil, he had never mentioned Smith -- whom the Vikings fell in love with while coaching him at the Senior Bowl. To hide their interest, the Vikings made no contact with him at the scouting combine and didn't invite him to Minnesota for a pre-draft visit.

Even with the trade, the Vikings have enough picks remaining to move back into the second round for a receiver or a cornerback. On the other hand, they might move further back and start piling up picks for in 2013. Or …

"You never know what's going to happen," Spielman said with a laugh.

Not with Crazy Rick Spielman. No sir.

Look, this is the same Spielman who ran the Vikings' past four drafts with mixed results. I don't think it's time to start interviewing artists for his Hall of Fame bust. We had some fun with him this week, but the guy had a good day and the Vikings are better for it. That's all.
Matt KalilJerry Lai/US PresswireThe Vikings filled a major need by taking USC left tackle Matt Kalil.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- After a week of sudden speculation about whether the Minnesota Vikings were moving away from their long-assumed affection of USC left tackle Matt Kalil, we have our answer.

They hadn't.

The Vikings selected Kalil at No. 4 overall, passing up the opportunity to draft the other two players that general manager Rick Spielman claimed to be under consideration: LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. Give Spielman credit for creating enough uncertainty to elicit three extra picks to move down one spot, but in the end it was hard to believe he would pass up the opportunity to select a franchise left tackle regardless of the other multiple other needs on his roster.

It was the right choice. I'll have more on this decision after speaking with Spielman in a bit, but there was no position more barren on this roster than left tackle. It's one of the most difficult positions to fill in the game, and the Vikings had the opportunity to draft the best in the country.

How could they pass that up?

As for cornerback, the Vikings have a much better chance to find a starter later in the draft than they did a left tackle.

It was that simple.

More in a bit.


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- We'll start our draft coverage by giving credit to Minnesota Vikings general manager "Crazy" Rick Spielman, who succeeded in creating a trade market for his No. 3 overall pick.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported that the Vikings will move back one spot in the first round after making a trade with the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings got three extra picks -- in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds -- to make room for a team to draft a player the Vikings had no plans to select. In other words, Spielman just got something for nothing.

The Browns are expected to draft Alabama running back Trent Richardson. That means the Vikings will still have the opportunity to draft all three players they have targeted -- USC left tackle Matt Kalil, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon -- at No. 4, with additional trade compensation as well.

Having publicly ruled out Richardson as an option for the Vikings, Spielman must have convinced the Browns that they were in talks with another team that also had interest in him. I'm going to guess we'll never know who that team was (or wasn't). That's how these things go.

Back in a bit.
There are some genuine reasons to believe the Minnesota Vikings would seriously consider selecting LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The most obvious was the Vikings' historically poor pass defense last season, along with the national consensus that Claiborne is the best cornerback in the draft.

But there are just as many reasons to be suspicious of the sudden league-wide uncertainty about the Vikings' intent, which for months we assumed to be either a trade or the selection of USC left tackle Matt Kalil. It coincides with the very public efforts of Vikings general manager (Crazy) Rick Spielman to create that very impression. Based on individual team needs, it's more likely that a team in the top 5-8 would trade up for Claiborne, or possibly Oklahoma receiver Justin Blackmon or Alabama running back Trent Richardson, than Kalil.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireLSU cornerback Morris Claiborne had 11 interceptions over his final two college seasons.
From a football perspective, some people are shaking their heads and wondering why a team whose base defense includes more zone coverage than anything else would spend the No. 3 overall pick on a cornerback. As conventional wisdom goes, individual coverage skills aren't as valuable when not employed in man/press coverage. Thus, you can get cornerbacks to play in a Cover-2 scheme lower in the draft than if you plan to use them in man coverage.

The Vikings have based their scheme on the Tampa-2 framework since 2006, when Mike Tomlin took over as defensive coordinator. Current coach Leslie Frazier, who like Tomlin is a protégé of modern-day Tampa-2 linchpin Tony Dungy, maintained continuity when he replaced Tomlin in 2007.

The goal of the scheme is to find elite pass-rushers to create havoc among the front four and allow the remaining seven players to flood the coverage zones. As a result, teams that use the Tampa-2 framework don't often pursue cornerbacks in the first round.

The Indianapolis Colts selected cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden with their first two picks of the 2005 draft when Dungy was the coach there. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected cornerback Aqib Talib and the Buffalo Bills selected Leodis McKelvin.

Those picks were the exceptions to the rule, and none of the cornerbacks were taken in the top 10.

Spielman said this week that the Vikings aren't a pure zone team, which is true. No NFL team could get away with a single form of coverage for 16 games. ESPN Stats & Information doesn't track coverages, and it is almost impossible to do accurately without help from someone who knew the exact play call on every play.

But considering Frazier's roots with Dungy, and a similar history of new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, it would be fair to say the Vikings' coaching staff has a strong background in zone coverage. That doesn't mean the Vikings won't, or shouldn't, draft Claiborne. But it means that one way or the other, changes would be afoot if they do.

If you have a player as talented as Claiborne in coverage, it makes sense to use more man/press coverage than the Vikings have used in the past. And if that's an issue for the coaching staff, you wonder if drafting Claiborne would further shake the ground under Frazier.

We've already noted the unique position Frazier finds himself in entering a rebuilding process in his second full year as head coach. Would a commitment to an elite cover corner mean that Spielman isn't expecting his Tampa-2 coach to be around much longer? It's a question worth asking. We'll know if it's even relevant in a few hours. Stay tuned.

BBAO: The first round beckons

April, 26, 2012
4/26/12
10:40
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Happy (first) Draft Day! We're getting a bit of a late start Thursday because this day isn't really going to end for about 60 hours or so, when the final pick of the 2012 draft is made late Saturday afternoon. It'll be a blur, but the best kind of blur, if you know what I mean. (And yes, Twitter followers, the overnight break did in fact include an unexpected but most appreciated viewing of "Weekend at Bernie's.")

You probably have guessed this, but my plan is to cover Thursday night's first round from the Minnesota Vikings' draft headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn. So there will be a Vikings focus Thursday night, but that should be expected when a team has the No. 3 overall pick (at least for now). Rest assured we will account for the first-round picks of all four NFC North teams in a substantive way before the evening is complete.

I'll have some final thoughts to post as we await the 8 p.m. ET first pick, but for now let's take a mid-morning spin around the division:

The freight train of national discussion continues to move away from USC tackle Matt Kalil. The latest episode: ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has changed his pick for the Minnesota Vikings at No. 3 in his soon-to-be released mock draft.

Speaking Wednesday morning on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning," McShay said he now thinks it's more likely the Vikings will draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne if they don't trade down in the first round.

"Nobody knows for sure except the Minnesota Vikings right now," McShay said. "I'm not getting great information but I do get the sense from the people I'm talking to that they're leaning toward going in a different direction than Kalil."

McShay added: "You can't go wrong taking Morris Claiborne."

Agreed. But in the same breath, McShay also noted that if the Vikings truly favor Claiborne at No. 3 and the Cleveland Browns prefer Alabama running back Trent Richardson at No. 4, then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will miss out on their top two priorities in the draft.

Which, among other things, illustrates why it would be in the Vikings' favor to portray more interest in Claiborne than Kalil. Ostensibly, that could motivate the Bucs to offer a trade that would ensure they could draft Claiborne or Richardson at No. 3. The Vikings could then draft Kalil at the Bucs' No. 5 spot and also add an extra pick.

Earlier: Is Vikings general manager Rick Spielman crazy smart or just crazy?
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- At one point during a lively news conference Tuesday, a nonagenarian Twin Cities reporter offered some veteran advice for Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman:

If you don't take that tackle, you're crazy.

"Well, maybe I am," Spielman said in a way that wasn't entirely unconvincing.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kalil
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWould the Vikings risk losing out on a potential franchise left tackle in Matt Kalil to collect more picks in the draft?
If Spielman has demonstrated any particular draft approach in his first year as general manager, it's to create the public impression that he's just crazy enough to do anything. That includes making something other than the obvious pick at the No. 3 overall spot in the draft, a decision he claims to be considering by insisting that USC left tackle Matt Kalil has "exactly the same grade" as LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. It includes the kind of unsolicited information he passed along Tuesday, notably his unprompted claim that trade discussions for the No. 3 pick have "really heated up" in the past 24 hours and that there is already "potential for a trade."

And it includes the kind of non-traditional thought Spielman espoused when wondering "how important a left tackle" is "compared to having another playmaker on offense."

The only rule of NFL draft season is that no one tells the truth, so I certainly won't judge Spielman if he has joined the fun. That's how it works. But it leaves us with a few options in reading his exotic tea leaves:

  1. Spielman is covering for a decision he long ago made to draft Kalil at No. 3, hoping to convince a team to trade up for either Claiborne, Blackmon, Trent Richardson or Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill and then grab Kalil a few spots below.
  2. He's pulling a double Jedi-mind trick, telling the complete truth -- that he has given strong consideration to not drafting Kalil -- because he assumes everyone will believe he's lying.
  3. With the No. 1 and No. 2 selections all but made, Spielman figures he has nothing to lose by floating every scenario, operating from a position of strength and seeing where it takes him.

Kalil, Claiborne, Blackmon, Richardson and even Tannehill are all excellent prospects. But the two players most likely to spur movement at the top of the draft are going to go No. 1 (Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck) and No. 2 (Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III). Do we think a team behind the Vikings will give up a second choice to draft Kalil, Claiborne, Richardson, Blackmon or Tannehill? With three days remaining before the draft, that question is at best debatable.

So the question returns to whom Spielman would select at No. 3. Many of us have wondered why he would draft Claiborne, an elite press corner, for a defense that has long employed the Cover 2 scheme. So Spielman went out of his way Tuesday to note those objections, noting the Vikings play "some" Cover 3 and could move to more Cover 1 with new defensive coordinator Alan Williams. (Anything would be better than last season's cover-no-one defense.)

In the end, I'm going to continue to guess that Kalil is the pick. After the quarterback, is there a more important position on offense -- or on an entire team? I'm not sure. The Vikings have a chance to lock down that position. They're not crazy enough to ignore that opportunity -- I don't think.
The 2012 ESPN.com blog network mock draft is in the books. It was actually a lot of fun, and I hope you got a chance to jump into the fray for at least a few moments. If not, here is the chat transcript.

I learned a few things. First, I'm much more conservative than I thought I was. I tried to drum up trade interest in the Minnesota Vikings' No. 3 overall pick, but for the most part I was content to let everyone else wheel and deal and then sit tight for targeted players to drop in a way that I thought would only happen in my dreams.

Second, every draft has some unexpected trades and some unconventional picks. Having eight people participate helped lend a sense of that dynamic, even if the trades we made and the picks that resulted don't happen this week. You got a more realistic sense of how it could go, I think, than in a conventional mock draft.

We faced decisions at each stop, which I'll detail below for those interested:

3. Minnesota Vikings
My pick:
USC left tackle Matt Kalil
Final decision: Kalil or LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne
Process and reasoning: I felt obligated to solicit trade offers for anyone who might be interested in Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. I pressured AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley, who is convinced the Cleveland Browns do not want to trade up from No. 4. I leaned on AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, suggesting Tannehill would be a nice target for the Kansas City Chiefs. "I'm good," Williamson said. And I tried to entice AFC East blogger James Walker, letting him and the Miami Dolphins know I was talking to the Hensley/Browns and Williamson/Chiefs.

Walker sat tight. With my time (almost up), I was left to the decision we've been discussing in recent days. I can't see the Vikings taking Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, so it was down to Kalil or Claiborne.

In the end, I took Kalil because my top goal in this exercise was to avoid overthinking. Left tackle is one of the most difficult jobs to fill in the NFL. The Vikings don't have a left tackle, not since they released Bryant McKinnie last summer, and their quarterbacks were pummeled in 2011. Kalil is one of the draft's best prospects and certainly the top left tackle available.

It's true that the Vikings are short on cornerbacks as well, but I would feel more comfortable finding a cornerback at the top of the second or third round than a left tackle. Claiborne and Kalil are both excellent prospects. So Kalil it was. We'll soon see if the Vikings agree.

19. Chicago Bears
My pick:
Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus
Final decision: Mercilus or Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones
Process and reasoning: If the real thing goes anything like our mock draft, it appears the Bears will have their pick of defensive ends to fill an important but untouched roster hole. I was holding out hope for North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who slipped as far as No. 17 before Hensley grabbed him for the Cincinnati Bengals. But ultimately I was left to choose between Mercilus, Jones, USC's Nick Perry and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw.

Why Mercilus? The Bears have spent a good bit of time visiting and researching Mercilus during the past few months, and while there are questions about the best positions for some of the other defensive end prospects, Mercilus is a clear and obvious 4-3 defensive end. I liked him more than any of the receivers on the board at the time, and I didn't think the Bears would chose an offensive tackle -- even Stanford's Jonathan Martin -- in this spot.

Ultimately, Martin went at No. 22 to the Browns, where he will presumably play right tackle.

23. Detroit Lions
My pick:
Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick
Final decision: Kirkpatrick or trade down
Process and reasoning: Frankly, I was surprised that Kirkpatrick fell that far. I can see a team jumping first for South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, as Paul Kuharsky did for the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 15. But having Kirkpatrick available at No. 23 for a team whose secondary collapsed in 2011 was a pretty good situation.

I had previously discussed a trade with Hensley and the Baltimore Ravens at No. 29, something that could arise Thursday night. But I was more than happy to sit with Kirkpatrick at that point.

Why Kirkpatrick over North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins? Frankly, for the obvious and previously-stated conservative reasons. The Lions had three members of their 2011 draft class run into marijuana-related issues. Jenkins has a long history dating back to his removal from the University of Florida team two years ago.

I realize Kirkpatrick was cited in January for marijuana possession, but ultimately he was not prosecuted.

28. Green Bay Packers
My pick:
Boise state outside linebacker Shea McClellin
Final decision:
McClellin or Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw
Process and reasoning: I had targeted McClellin as someone I would hope to draft for the Packers and was caught off guard when Upshaw was still available. I got some tweets and live suggestions for both players, but chose McClellin because I think he's a better fit for the Packers' 3-4 and that he'll be ready to start in Week 1 for a team that is a Super Bowl contender in 2012.

There is enough concern about Upshaw's fit as a 3-4 linebacker, as opposed to a 4-3 defensive end, that I felt more comfortable with McClellin here.

I would be willing to discuss this further in the blog, probably Tuesday. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

You can't have an NFL draft without drama, and for weeks -- if not months -- there has been near certainty about the top two picks. We've also been pretty close for a while at No. 3, so it shouldn't be surprising that national discussion has swerved into whether the Minnesota Vikings might pick someone other than USC left tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall pick.

I think we all understand the Vikings have been working hard to create a trade market at No. 3, mostly in hopes that a quarterback-needy team would swap picks to ensure the acquisition of Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But general manager Rick Spielman said last week that the team has graded Kalil, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon as equal prospects and are trying to decide what position best fit their needs.

I find that awfully convenient and difficult to believe, frankly. I understand the Claiborne angle, mostly that he's the draft's best cornerback and the Vikings' pass defense was historically bad in 2011. But I can tell you from experience that Spielman is a meticulous draft grader. His system takes grades out to a half-dozen decimal points, guaranteeing that there are no ties. There is no doubt that as pure prospects, the Vikings have a vertical ranking for Kalil, Claiborne and Blackmon.

One explanation is that Spielman is making a final effort to generate a trade market for teams who really want Claiborne or Blackmon. If that were the case, however, you would think he would have included Alabama running back Trent Richardson in that group. Richardson is reportedly coveted by the Cleveland Browns at No. 4.

We could go around and around on what the Vikings need more: A left tackle or a cornerback. They need to put up a better fight against the NFC North's elite quarterbacks, which Claiborne would help with. But they also need to be in position to better match those quarterbacks with their own offense, something Kalil would presumably play a central role in.

But the Vikings also have the No. 3 pick of the second and third rounds. What position would they have a better chance at finding an elite player at the top of the second or third rounds: Left tackle or cornerback?

There has also been discussion about the difference between an elite left tackle and a functional one. Right now, however, the Vikings aren't guaranteed of either in 2012. What would you rather have: A team that has Kalil at left tackle, along with Chris Cook, Antoine Winfield and perhaps Montana's Trumaine Johnson at cornerback? Or Ohio State's Michael Adams at left tackle, along with Cook, Winfield and Claiborne at cornerback?

In the end, the Vikings need to draft the very best player on their board at No. 3. If that's Claiborne, then so be it. Some would argue that Kalil has gotten the benefit of the doubt because he plays left tackle, a position that is traditionally valued highly in the draft. If Kalil isn't the third-best player in this draft, I've written many times that I would be fine with the Vikings drafting the player they think is. Time will be the ultimate judge and jury on that decision.

But generally speaking, we haven't heard too many draft observers suggest Claiborne is a better prospect than Kalil. The Vikings would be setting themselves up for long-term failure by allowing positions -- and not talent -- to dictate draft decisions. Stay tuned.

NFC North Quick Hits: Thursday

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
5:56
PM ET
The newsbits were flying Thursday afternoon in the NFC North. Noting outrageous, but all worth a mention. Let's do just that in quick-hitting fashion.

Item: Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he's narrowed down his options for the No. 3 overall pick to three players: USC left tackle Matt Kalil, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Comment: The only news there is that Spielman has apparently eliminated Alabama running back Trent Richardson, a player believed to be coveted by the Cleveland Browns at No. 4. Spielman said that Kalil, Blackmon and Claiborne all grade out equally as prospects. I have a hard time believing that.

Item: The Chicago Bears signed free-agent linebacker Geno Hayes.
Comment: The Bears were in fact trying to add depth at the position before the draft. Hayes has played four years but is still only 24.

Item: Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said he has narrowed his options at No. 23 to between four and seven players.
Comment: That's about as much pre-draft insight as you'll get from Mayhew, who went out of his way to note how delicate information is when picking at the bottom of the first round.

Item: Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters that he is comfortable in not knowing the future of safety Nick Collins until after the draft.
Comment: It's probably safe to assume Thompson has sized up how his roster would look without Collins and has made his draft plans accordingly just to be safe.

My NFC South colleague Pat Yasinskas has posted the list of all 26 players who have confirmed plans to attend the NFL draft April 26-28. It includes most every imaginable pick the Minnesota Vikings could make if they stay at No. 3 and a number of possibilities if they move down.

USC left tackle Matt Kalil, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne will all be in attendance. So will a number of receivers we have discussed in connection with the Chicago Bears, from Notre Dame's Michael Floyd to Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill to Baylor's Kendall Wright and LSU's Rueben Randle. North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who would be a pretty good value pick at the Bears' No 19 pick if he falls that far, will also be in New York.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay used his most recent mock draft to steer South Carolina cornerback Stephen Gilmore to the Bears, but many Detroit Lions fans are hoping he is still available at No. 23 overall. Gilmore will be in New York as well. (Here is a clip of Gilmore's recent appearance on "NFL Live.")

Barring a trade, my feeling remains that the Vikings will and should pick Kalil. In the NFL32 overtime video above, ESPN's Chris Mortensen said the Kalil pick is widely assumed in league circles and that if the Vikings look elsewhere, "we won't be talking nicely about them."

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