Friday, January 20, 2012

Scouting the Country with Studwell

We're down to the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, which means 28 teams have already moved on to offseason preparation—namely, the college draft. It also means that 87.5% of fan bases have moved on to the draft. Yes, YouTube NFL Draft scouts (myself included) are already operating out of the offices of mom's basement, and as you know, these pros never miss a pick. But what about the real guys? Fans are quick to credit or blame GM Rick Spielman for draft successes and failures, and often gloss right over Director of College Scouting, Scott Studwell. He's held the post for 10 years, and this study will take a look at how the Studwell-led scouting effort has fared not only in judging college talent entering the league, but more specifically, how they've fared with respect to the major conferences.

The chart below breaks down draft picks by conference, dating back to 2006, which is the cutoff for players who figure into the current team's future. Obviously, this information should be taken with a grain of salt, as each draft presents its own unique challenges, coincidences and war room voices. However, certain trends may give us some insight into how well Studwell & Co. have allocated their scouting resources.

Draft grades are based player performance, as well as projected future performance.

Non-Major Conferences: 11 Picks since 2006
Grade: F

Sifting through small-school prospects has been the achilles heal of the Vikings' scouting department in recent years. The 2006 second round selections of Ryan Cook (2.19, OL, New Mexico) and Tarvaris Jackson (2.32, QB, Alabama State) were mortifying reaches, and unforgivable misjudgments of talent. The team wasted four more draft picks on small-school kids in 2007, Spielman's first year, selecting Marcus McCauley (3.8, CB, Fresno State), Aundrae Allison (5.9, WR, East Carolina), Tyler Thigpen (7.7, QB, Coastal Carolina) and Chandler Williams (7.23, WR, Florida International). Thigpen would become the only player of the 2007 bunch worthy of an NFL roster spot, and the personnel department, still searching for Coastal Carolina on the map, promptly assigned him to the practice squad and lost him to Kansas City. The Vikings went off the grid again with their first pick in 2008, selecting Tyrell Johnson (2.12, S, Arkansas State), and later adding Jaymar Johnson (6.27, WR, Jackson State). The 2009 team was a breath away from the Super Bowl, and a meaningful contribution from any of the seven aforementioned selections—Cook or Johnson, in particular—could have been the difference.

Thankfully, the small-school scheme was trashed in 2009, as the Vikings used all five of their selections on major conference prospects (including four from the SEC). They threw a late-round pick at Joe Webb (6.30, QB/WR, UAB) in 2010, an experiment that, at the very least, still has a chance to pan out. Finally, it's too early to tell on 2011 selections Brandon Fusco (6.7, C, Slippery Rock) and Stephen Burton (7.33, WR, West Texas A&M), but both look like throw-away picks.

One interesting trend is that nine of the 11 small-school selections since 2006 have come on the offensive side of the ball, including three quarterbacks. 

Conclusion: The team's inability to identify small-school talent that will translate to the next level is apparent, so anything more than a late-round dart in the 2012 draft should be cause for concern. 

SEC: 7 Picks since 2006
Grade: B+

The Vikings have uncovered some very nice production from the SEC in recent drafts. In 2006 the team selected Greg Blue (5.17, S, Georgia), who turned out to be nothing more than a training camp tease, but the staff earned high marks for their 2007 decision to select the talented Sidney Rice (2.12, WR, South Carolina) instead of fan favorite Dwayne Jarrett of USC. After skipping over the conference in 2008, the Vikings pilfered the SEC in 2009, when in addition to Percy Harvin (1.22, WR, Florida) they turned up depth guys like Asher Allen (3.22, CB, Georgia), Jasper Brinkley (5.14, LB, South Carolina) and Jamarca Sanford (7.22, S, Mississippi). The team bypassed the SEC again in 2010, but added 2011 developmental prospect DeMarcus Love (6.3, OT, Alabama), who's expected to have a future in the league.

Conclusion: The Vikings have gotten a lot of bang for their SEC buck since 2006. The fact that they've done good work in SEC talent evaluation is comforting, considering that LSU cornerback Morris Clairborne is surely on their short list of candidates for the No. 3 pick.

Big 10: 6 Picks since 2006
Grade: C-

The Vikings hit a homerun in 2006, when they nabbed Chad Greenway (1.17, LB, Iowa) and Ray Edwards (4.30, DE, Purdue) from the Big 10. However, they haven't landed an impact player from the conference since. 

Minnesota declined to pick a single player from the Big 10 from 2007-2009. In 2010, they made a mind-boggling reach for local boy Nate Triplett (5.36, LB, Minnesota), and then added career practice squadder Mickey Shuler (7.7, TE, Purdue) late in the draft. Last season, they landed the talented Christian Ballard (4.9, DL, Iowa), who was pinned as a first-round prospect with a marijuana habit. He looks to have a fairly promising future in purple if he can avoid Sam Hurd. The team also added (and soon cut) Ross Homan (6.35, LB, Ohio State). It's interesting to note that the Vikings addressed their dreadful safety situation last season by using one of their four sixth round picks on the anonymous Mistral Raymond (South Florida) instead of Iowa's Tyler Sash (6.33, Giants), a much more established player.

Conclusion: Whether by preference or sheer coincidence, the team hasn't pulled anything useful out of the Big 10 since the Spielman era began in 2007. Iowa OT Riley Reiff is on many Viking draftniks' radars (via a trade-back situation), but where does he rate with Studwell's team?

Big 12: 5 Picks since 2006
Grade: A-

The Vikings have had a great deal of success pulling players from the Big 12 since 2006, so it's a bit discouraging to see that they haven't tapped the conference in the last two drafts. Prior to the unpredictable knee injuries, 2006 draft pick Cedric Griffin (2.16, CB, Texas) was one of the fastest rising cornerbacks in the league. The next season, the Vikings landed superstar Adrian Peterson (1.7, RB, Oklahoma). Of course, this pick had more to do with risk-taking (due to injury concerns) than talent evaluation, but the team also hit on Brian Robison (4.3, DE, Texas). We'll never know if Peterson's teammate, Rufus Alexander (6.2, LB, Oklahoma), would have panned out, as he tore his ACL before he ever got a chance. After an encouraging rookie season, 2009 draft pick Phil Loadholt (2.22, OT, Oklahoma) has struggled, but he still has the talent to turn it around.

Conclusion: Studwell's staff has vetted this conference as well as any, and there's likely to be a lot of Big 12 talent available in the area of the Vikings' draft picks. Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State) and Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor) are projected as top-five picks, and guys like Ronnell Lewis (OLB, Oklahoma) and Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor) could be possible options early in the second round. 

Pac 12: 5 Picks since 2006
Grade: D-

After bypassing the Pac 12 altogether from 2005-2007, the team swung and missed on John David Booty (5.2, QB, USC) in 2008. They skipped the conference again in 2009, but have used two picks on Pac 12'ers in each of the last two drafts. In 2010 they traded up to secure the services of Toby Gerhart (2.19, RB, Stanford). Slowly but surely, this pick is becoming less disappointing. Two rounds later they grabbed the athletic (and troubled) Everson Griffen (4.2, DE, USC), who like Christian Ballard, was viewed as a first-round talent with off-the-field concerns. Griffen's arrow is pointing up, and many are excited to see what he could do with more playing time. Considering the team's immense struggles in the secondary last season, it was disappointing that rookie Brandon Burton (5.8, CB, Utah) couldn't make more of an impression. Finally, D'Aundre Reed (7.12, DE, Arizona) is nothing more than a developmental project.

Conclusion: Yuck. Perhaps USC OT Matt Kalil could give this grade a boost.

ACC: 4 Picks since 2006
Grade: C+

By all rights, this grade should read "incomplete," but we're projecting here. Ultimately, the grade will hinge on how well last year's first rounder, Christian Ponder (1.12, QB, Florida State), pans out. Amidst the rookie mistakes, he showed promise in 2011, and we won't be able to fairly grade him until the offensive line and wide receiving corps are overhauled. The team got nice value in Letroy Guion (5.17, DT, Florida State) in 2008. His purple future is still being written. The team also seemed to be on to something with their first pick in 2010, Chris Cook (2.2, CB, Virginia), before he injured his knees... and then his girlfriend. Stay tuned, his trial is set to begin March 5th. Finally, Chris DeGeare (5.30, 2010, G, Wake Forest) never materialized.

Conclusion: It's all about the continued development of Ponder here. The ACC isn't sending much top-tier talent to the NFL this season, so a mid-round depth guy like Guion is probably the Vikings' best bet.

Big East: 2 Picks since 2006
Grade: F

In Studwell's 10 seasons, the Vikings have drafted exactly two players from the Big East, and both were non-descript late-rounders: Ryan D'Imperio (7.30, 2010, FB, Rutgers) and Mistral Raymond (6.5, 2011, S, South Florida). 

Conclusion: There's nothing to see here.

Independent (Notre Dame): 2 Picks since 2006
Grade: A

John Sullivan (6.21, 2008, C, Notre Dame) has developed into a franchise center, and Kyle Rudolph (2.11, 2011, TE, Notre Dame) is the real deal.

Conclusion: Cretin-Derham Hall's Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame) is projected to go somewhere between Minnesota's first and second picks, but the 6'3", 224-lb. wideout could be in play for the Vikings via trade.

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