For Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, the NFL combine still produces a blend of anticipation and energy that ranks behind only the 48-hour frenzy of the draft in terms of offseason enjoyment.
So it was with great eagerness that Spielman and the rest of the Vikings personnel department and coaching staff headed to Indianapolis this week to continue devising their blueprint.
“It’s probably the biggest event heading into the draft,” Spielman said. “It’s the first time you’re going to get all the Olympic numbers on these guys: the height, weight, speeds. (It’s) the first time that we’ll get in front of a lot of these guys too, especially the juniors. … It’s probably my most exciting time besides the day of the draft. Because there’s so much you get accomplished there.”
The Vikings recently completed their first version of a 2013 draft board. Now evaluations will continue at the combine. With that in mind, here are three key story lines that might develop:
Positions of need
Spielman often jokes that he doesn’t determine his positions of need until he’s read every local media account on the topic. But not even the GM can disagree that his squad has major holes at receiver, needing to enliven a passing attack that ranked 31st overall in 2012.
As luck has it, the Vikings’ need for receivers coincides with a draft pool that seems quite deep at the position. Early logic says the Vikings could use their top pick — No. 23 in the first round — on a premier pass catcher. And if that’s the path taken, options will be plentiful.
Take Cal’s Keenan Allen, for example, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound playmaker who does a bit of everything and has a knack for winning deep balls. Allen reportedly won’t participate in combine drills due to a knee sprain. But he’ll still be on the Vikings’ watch list.
There’s also Baylor’s Terrance Williams, who had an NCAA-best 1,837 receiving yards last season. And Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, a big-play threat drawing comparisons to Atlanta’s Roddy White.
And yet the depth at receiver also seems so strong that standouts should remain available after the draft’s first day (see: Marshall’s Aaron Dobson and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter as possible Day 2 targets and potential Day 3 sleepers like Texas’ Marquise Goodwin and Elon’s Aaron Mellette).
Furthermore, the position that seems most prominent this year to the draft experts — defensive tackle — is also a Vikings need.
“It is flat out loaded,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said. “You’ll be able to find defensive tackles well into the draft.”
Eyeing free agency
While the Vikings will focus most heavily on evaluating draft prospects this week, they’ll also stir up conversation regarding the 10 players they have who could become unrestricted free agents in March. That list includes Phil Loadholt, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Jerome Felton, Jamarca Sanford and Jerome Simpson.
Of that group, Felton is the most likely to re-sign without many headaches.
Loadholt, meanwhile, may be the team’s most interesting UFA, in line to command a sizable raise. That will leave the Vikings with a major decision.
Spielman insists continuity up front is a priority. But the Vikings may have to dig deep into their pockets to re-sign Loadholt. That means this week’s preliminary discussions with the tackle’s agent, Gary Uberstine, will be important in formulating a plan.
What about Manti?
Three of the Vikings’ top four linebackers (Brinkley, Henderson and Marvin Mitchell) are scheduled to enter free agency next month. So the draft could be a resource to add depth there. Spielman also has no problems targeting Notre Dame players.
So you know where this discussion is headed, right? Could it possibly be: Manti Te’o in Minnesota?
Two months ago, Te’o was almost universally lauded as the Heisman Trophy runner-up and emotional leader of the nation’s No. 1 team. Now he’s notorious for being the guy duped into a relationship with a fake girlfriend.
So how will that hoax impact his stock? Kiper is convinced the controversy won’t scare off many teams, instead believing the linebacker’s 40-yard dash time will prove even more significant.
“If he runs a great 40 time, he gets back into that mix to be in that top 10 to 12 discussion,” Kiper said.
Te’o is scheduled to speak with reporters Saturday, which will no doubt create a mini-circus. But that session will not be nearly as important as the flurry of behind-the-scenes interviews he’ll do as NFL teams supplement his physical evaluation with a more detailed mental and psychological scouting report.