Thursday, April 24, 2014

National Friday League: Kick Ass Links

My friend is starting a multimedia sports-chatter zone called Sportzball, and I'll occasionally post sporty-but-not-Vikingy thoughts there. My first post: "Adults Need Trophies Too."

The most striking thing about the Vikings' schedule: that's a whole lot of 12:00.

According to Andrew Healy at Football Perspective, the Vikings are "the most unlikely loser since 1950:"

"The Vikings have 1.86 fewer championships than the 1.86 titles we would predict based on their strength and playoff positioning."

I mean... I don't even...

Via Deadspin, Best Ticket Blog looks at Google Search data to find each state's most popular athlete (Adrian Peterson for Minnesota) and the Vikes are the 5th most searched for NFL team.

I've always been an advocate of mock drafts not as predictors, but as the most efficient way to give people the relevant information about the draft. You basically need to know three things: 1. the draft order, 2. the top prospects, and 3. team needs. Is there a more efficient way to gain knowledge about those three categories than a mock draft? There is not. The convention of mock drafts is reasonable. The convention of giving out draft "grades" in the days after the draft is f***ing moronic, however. Anyway, here is Sports Illustrated's mock draft database.

Meg Ryan will be the voice of Future Sally on How I Met Your Dad (E). Will the Vikings win the Super Bowl before Sally meets her kids' dad? Discuss.

Here's a picture of a very early draft:
"Yeah, I'll take that guy. Hey you! You! You're on our team now."

It was a huge rebuilding year.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The opposing QBs on the Vikings 2014 regular season schedule

The NFL released its 2014 schedule on Wednesday night and now we know when the Vikings will play their opponents.

But rather than obsess over perceived killer stretches in the 16-game campaign (how 'bout that Sept. 14 to Oct. 2 period?), or how they'll fare playing outdoors in December, what fans really need to focus on is how many elite, very good or good quarterbacks Minnesota will face next season.

Because if the QB position is the most important one in the NFL (it is), and if the Vikings - who do not currently have even good QBs on the roster - are facing too many teams with elite, very good or good QBs, then we can probably figure out how the 2014 season will turn out, regardless of whom they are playing, where they are playing and at what time of the year they are playing.

So let's take stock of those opposing QBs. Of the 16 teams the Vikes will face during 2014 regular season, they get Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford twice. They also face Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees, presumably Josh McCown (although it's possible Mike Glennon wins the starting job in Tampa Bay), Sam Bradford, EJ Manuel, Ryan Tannehill and either Michael Vick or Geno Smith.

Of those QBs the Vikings will face, I think it's fair to say Minnesota will have the weaker QB in 12 of the matchups (I think Tannehill is better than what the Vikings have at the QB position right now) - unless the QB the Vikings pick in next month's draft wins the starting job from either Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder and plays lights out in his rookie year, which is unlikely.   

Looking at the Vikings schedule, I'd only consider Bradford, Manuel, McCown-Glennon and Vick-Smith to be situations where the opponents don't have an advantage at QB.

And what that means is the Vikings will have an extremely tough time improving on the 5-10-1 record the club posted in 2013.

Having a new head coach and offensive coordinator should mean Minnesota is a better coached team in 2014. The signing of Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn, and presumably adding a high draft pick or two to the unit, should make Minnesota a better defensive team than they were in 2014. But the club looks like for the majority of its games it will still be severely overmatched at the position that matters the most - quarterback.

Until that changes, it's hard to feel good about the Vikings chances in many of the games on their 2014 schedule. Or any game beyond 2014.    

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Chris Borland

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first four posts in this series focused on likely first round prospects: Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Now I'd like to turn my attention to some college prospects who could be possible second and third-day draft targets for the Vikings.

So if you've read some of the other posts in this series, you're probably wondering when I'm going to start profiling linebackers. Well, don't despair, because this post covers that topic.

Let's be blunt. The Vikings linebacker unit was a pile of hot garbage in 2013. Upgrades are needed. However, I don't see the Vikings taking a linebacker in the first round. I don't see it because of the top outside linebackers worth taking at #8 are Khalil Mack, who will be gone by then, and Anthony Barr, who seems like a better fit for a 3-4 defense as an outside pass rushing linebacker in the DeMarcus Ware/Cameron Wake mold. As for inside linebackers, this year it's basically Alabama's C.J. Mosley and then everybody else. However, teams aren't picking middle linebackers at #8 anymore, even though it is undeniably a position of need for the Vikings. So is general manager Rick Spielman willing (and can he find a willing partner) to trade down from #8 to the teens where Mosley would be a better value pick? I don't think he is, and so improving talent at linebacker will have to wait until the second round - or later.

Which is where Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland comes in.

University of Minnesota football fans will be pretty familiar with Borland, who played inside linebacker for four seasons on Badger teams that consistently beat up on the Gophers. Borland was a key player on those Badger squads. He finished his Wisconsin career with the sixth-most tackles in school history (420), fourth in career tackles for a loss (50) and set a Big Ten record by forcing 15 fumbles in his four years playing Division 1 college football.

As a white middle linebacker who played in the Big Ten, his scouting report is pretty predictable. He's described as a smart player with great instincts and a fantastic motor, but also a limited athlete who can't hold up in one-one-one situations in pass coverage. How often have you heard white linebackers, or white football players at any position, dubbed as heady, try-hard guys who will themselves to succeed despite their athletic limitations? I've heard it plenty. For the record, Borland's 40 time at the NFL combine was 4.83, he had a 31-inch vertical, a 9'6 broad jump and a 1.62 10-yard split. Those aren't eye-popping results, but aren't in stiff territory, either.

Where Borland is limited, and it's probably what scares the hell out of NFL teams who are considering drafting him, is his height and arm length. At 5'11 1/2, Borland is the shortest player among the top 10 inside linebacker prospects by about two inches and his 29 1/4 inch arm length is extremely short. That poses problems for Borland both in run and pass defense. When defending the run, his short arms are a liability because he has trouble keeping blockers from getting their meat hooks on him as he pursues the ball carrier. And in pass defense, his height and short arms make it easy for teams to throw over him in coverage - something that will show up more in the NFL defending 6'6 and 6'7 freaks like Jimmy Graham than it did in the Big Ten. Finally, weighing in around the 245-248 pound range, I'm not sure how many more pounds Borland can add to his frame and how much stronger he can get without sacrificing the quickness that served him so well in college.

So why would a short, stubby-armed, and not particularly fast, linebacker interest the Vikings? Because Borland is a tackling machine who has a knack for creating turnovers. You also won't find many players who are as relentless chasing a play down from sideline-to-sideline as Borland. That speaks to the high effort he brings each and every play. It also shows Borland can sift through the trash that gets in his way when he's moving laterally and still make tackles. He's also very decisive in hitting a gap once the ball is snapped. This is a good thing a lot of times, but I found it also put him out of position at other times, and because he has a hard time getting off blocks from big lineman, Borland leaves running lanes that can be exploited when he guesses wrong shooting those gaps.

To get more of a flavor for the kind of player Borland is, check out his performance against Arizona State in this video cutup from the Badgers 2013 tilt with the Sun Devils.



Wisconsin sent Borland on blitzes a lot in the 2013 video cutups I watched, and he blitzes a lot in this game. They often lined him up on the left and right side and got him one-on-one with a tackle. Borland was pretty effective as a blitzer, getting to the QB more often than not and forcing hurried throws. He was especially effective when he used his spin move on blockers or tried to blow by them with speed to the outside (the 4:35 mark of the video). When Borland tried to bull rush his way to the QB (the 3:54 mark of the video), it rarely worked. But this blitzing does show Borland has the quickness to rush the passer and isn't just a one-trick tackling pony.

At the 8:33 mark, you get a glimpse of how Borland's lack of length hurts him sometimes. On this goal line play, he scoots through a small crease along the line of scrimmage and gets in prime position to take down the Arizona State runner for a big loss. But Borland can't close the deal. He dives for the runners legs and whiffs. If his arms were 3 or 4 inches longer, he might make that tackle and save a touchdown.

At the 11:11 mark of the video, we get a glimpse of Borland's effort and ability to make plays in congested areas. He tries to shoot up the middle to get to the ball carrier on this run play, but is met by Arizona State's center. No matter - Borland spins off him, has the awareness to locate the ball carrier and makes the tackle to hold the ASU runner to a minimal gain.  

With his work ethic, smarts and quickness in short areas, Borland has the look of a late 1st or high 2nd  round pick. But when you're a sub-six foot linebacker, have arms like a T-Rex and a decent but not great 40 time, you're probably a day-three selection in the NFL draft.  And although I saw no issues with Borland's pass coverage in the videos I watched, and he shows good awareness playing zone, there's no doubt his lack of height and short arms will hurt him in pass coverage in the NFL. He's probably a guy who will always be a two-down player.

The question the Vikings could be asking themselves right now in regards to Borland is whether they already have too many linebackers on the roster with a similar skill set. Minnesota really needs to find a linebacker who can play, and excel, in all situations, not just obvious running situations. Jasper Brinkley is a two-down run stopper who is weak in pass coverage. Mike Mauti is a taller and perhaps faster version of Borland. And the Vikings also have Audie Cole plugging up the middle linebacker depth chart. Where would Borland fit in if the Vikings drafted him?

Well, the Vikings don't have much invested in Brinkley. He signed a one-year deal that carries an $830,000 cap hit and only $25,000 is dead money. Brinkley can be cut without impacting the Vikings salary cap situation. And while Cole was the starting middle linebacker at the end of last year, it's been said he has the versatility to play either strongside or weakside linebacker as well. Meanwhile, we don't know what the Vikings have in Mauti. He was a very good player at Penn State, but three knee surgeries later, you wonder if he's permanently damaged goods. (Borland comes with some injury baggage himself. He missed pretty much the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury.)

I think selecting Borland with the Vikings second pick in the third round would be very defensible. There are some physical limitations to his game that he cannot fix (height and arm length), and you wonder how well his college game will translate to the NFL when he's up against bigger, stronger and faster men, but there's no denying Borland knows how to play football. And there's no denying he's made plays at every level of football he's played at. I also think he's a better athlete than he's given credit for. He won't be overmatched in that way at the pro level.

Looking at Borland, he reminds me a bit of Zach Thomas. He may not start right away, but not many third-day selections do in the NFL. But give him some time to acclimate himself to the NFL and I think he'll find a way to be productive. One other thing - he should be a strong special teams contributor from day one. 

Picking Borland isn't a sexy way to improve the Vikings linebacking corps, but it could be an effective, low-risk, and fairly high-reward way to do it.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rick Spielman's quarterback dilemma

So Vikings general manager Rick Spielman opened up the kimono (sort of) by talking recently with SI's Peter King about this draft's quarterback class and what he thinks of them.

Keeping in mind that NFL GM's are known to be less than truthful this time of year, I still find Spielman's comments in the King column interesting, particularly his quote that there's "no Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning" and no "sure thing" at QB in this draft.

One way to view this is that Spielman's been keeping his eye on all the mock drafts on the Internet that have Ted Bridgewater falling to the Vikings at #8 and he's decided it's time to change the narrative a bit and create more doubt that the team likes Bridgewater enough to take him at that spot. That's a sound strategy if that is what Spielman is doing. 

But a part of me does worry that Spielman, and perhaps other members within the Vikings organization, could be overly cautious about drafting another QB early because of what happened in 2011 when the Vikes drafted Christian Ponder #12 overall.

Let's go back to Spielman's "sure thing" comment. If Spielman is waiting for a "sure thing", he could be waiting a long fucking time. Take a look at last year's passing yardage leaders and tell me how many of these guys were considered a "sure thing" coming out of college. Drew Brees (one Super Bowl ring)? Nope. Matt Stafford - he was drafted first overall in 2009, but wasn't considered a can't miss guy from what I remember. How about Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers? I don't think so. Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco or Eli Manning - who have 8 Super Bowl rings between them? Nope.

Basically, the "sure thing" guys since 1998, a 16-year span, have been Peyton Manning and Luck.

I realize the top QBs in this draft - Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Derek Carr - all have warts that make them risky picks. But as I mentioned at the end of my "Get to Know 'Em" post on Bridgewater, considering how poor the quarterbacking has been for the Vikings over the past decade, if Spielman and his scouts feel strongly that one of the Big 4 will be, at worst, a good QB in the league, I think if that guy is still there at #8, the Vikings have to take him. With the offensive weapons already in place in Minnesota (Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Adrian Peterson), even getting good quarterbacking on a consistent basis could elevate this offense greatly and make the Vikings a much better team. And how sure can Spielman be that he'll get a shot at a similar or better talent in 2015 or 2016? He can't be.

I'd also encourage you to read this post by Arif Hasan at the Vikings Territory blog, where he points out how much better the odds are of getting a "successful" QB with one of the first 13 picks of the draft compared to waiting later to do it. 

Anyway, this is likely another Spielman draft ruse. He is sowing doubt in the minds of everyone about every draft-eligible college prospect out there so nobody has any clue whom the Vikings might draft with their first round draft pick. But considering how high I think the stakes are for Spielman if he swings and misses on another highly-drafted QB (it could get him fired), there is a strong possibility he could play it extra safe in this draft on the QB front.

While I can understand being cautious, the Vikings fortunes won't change for the better until they get a good QB. They didn't get that QB when they drafted Ponder three years ago. But that doesn't mean their guy isn't available this time around.

Friday, April 18, 2014

How quickly can the Vikings' new quarterback get the job done?

(* Note: Jason Winter has submitted another guest post or this blog. This time, the creator of the dearly departed Defensive Indifference Vikings blog wonders how quickly the Vikes should start the young quarterback the team is surely going to draft.

The Minnesota Vikings will draft a quarterback this year. It might be with the #8 pick. It might be with a higher pick, if they trade up, as some say they will do. It might be in the second round. It might be Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Zach Mettenberger – hell, I think even Paul Crewe and Shane Falco have worked out for the team.

But they will get a quarterback. And, given that the other options for the team are Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, that quarterback will see the field sooner, rather than later. But how realistic is it to expect a young QB to take his team to the promised land early in his career, or even to be successful? Adrian Peterson's not getting any younger, so the window is short, and Vikings fans would love to see him experience the ultimate level of success while he's still wearing purple.

There have been 48 Super Bowls and 96 starting quarterbacks in those games. Here is the list of every QB who threw at least five passes in a Super Bowl during his first through third season in the league. (PFR doesn't include starts in its Play Index.) I'm pretty sure the last three names (Beathard, Eason, and Weese) didn't start their respective games, so that gives us 12 starters out of 96, an even 1/8. Those 12 were an even 6-6 in their contests.

What if we narrow the search to two years? That gives us this list. Subtracting Weese again, that's only six quarterbacks. Kurt Warner is an odd case (on both lists), being 29 years old despite being technically a second-year quarterback. The only rookie quarterback to even throw a pass in a Super Bowl was Elvis Grbac, who threw one in mop-up time in Super Bowl XXIX.

In any event, it's a short list. The chances that a second- or third-year quarterback will lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl is pretty small, and there's no point of even thinking about him doing it in his rookie season. But take another look at that second list. Apart from Marino, every QB on that list is fairly recent. Is this a trend that's become more common in recent years? Could our new QB at least become a solid starter in a relatively short period of time?

I decided to look at the six-year span from 2008 to 2013. That's a little arbitrary of a span, chosen because of the success of 2008 draftees Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, who basically started from day one (though it has another convenience, as you'll see later). More recently, quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and others have stepped into their starting jobs essentially right out of the draft. Could the new Vikings QB pull off a similar feat?

27 rookie QBs threw at least 100 passes in their first season from 2008-2013. Nine of them started every one of their team's games as a rookie. 12 started 15 or 16 games. 18 started at least 10 games, which would qualify the guy as “starter,” in my book.

So, is this a recent trend? Here's the same data from the previous six years, 2002-2007. Only one – David Carr – started all 16 of his team's games during his rookie year. Nine QBs started 10 or more.

The previous six years, 1996-2001, again gives us just one 16-game starter, Peyton Manning, and only six who started 10+ games. And Rick Mirer was the only 16-game starter from 1990-1995, an era where only four rookie quarterbacks started 10+ games.

To sum it all up, taking the data in six-year chunks since the inception of the 16-game season (which helpfully started 36 years ago in 1978):

2008-2013: 16 starts - 9 QBs; 13+ starts - 14 QBs; 10+ starts - 18 QBs
2002-2007: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 6 QBs; 10+ starts - 9 QBs
1996-2001: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 4 QBs; 10+ starts - 6 QBs
1990-1995: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 2 QBs; 10+ starts - 4 QBs
1984-1989: 16 starts - 2 QBs; 13+ starts - 4 QBs; 10+ starts - 7 QBs
1978-1983: 16 starts - 0 QBs; 13+ starts - 1 QB; 10+ starts - 7 QBs

Yeah, young quarterbacks starting early is definitely a recent trend. And the way guys like Ryan, Flacco, Luck, and Wilson have performed, it's been proven to show it can work.

Here's another way to look at it. Over the past six years, nine rookie QBs started all 16 of their team's games. In the previous 30 years of the 16-game schedule, only five rookie QBs managed this. 14 managed 13+ starts over the last six years, and only 17 did that over the previous 30 years. Wow.

All of which brings us back to the Vikings. With this data in hand, I'm actually a little more unhappy about the re-signing of Cassel. Sure, on the one hand, giving our new guy time to get adjusted can't hurt, but it seems that it wouldn't be unusual for him to be able to come right in and perform at a suitably high level, especially with Adrian Peterson to hand the ball off to. And the sooner we get a new QB up to speed, the more time that gives us on AP's ticking career.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

National Friday League: A Simple Look at Sacks Over the Years

Are sacks harder to come by in the NFL today? It's simple enough to look: pro-football-reference.com records data on pass attempts, sacks, and sack percentage going back to 1969. Let's take a look starting at the merger, and starting in '73 let's just skip through every 5th season. We'll look at the team average for pass attempts per game, league sack percentage, team average for sack totals, and the leading team's sack totals (I'll translate the latter two stats into sacks per game so we can compare 14 game and 16 game seasons). This is an imprecise look, but maybe we'll learn something (I can't do advanced metrics: I'm just looking at history to explore curiosity).

1970: 26.9 attempts per game, 8.2% sack rate
team average: 2.4 sacks per game  leader: Los Angeles 3.8 sacks per game

1971: 25.9 apg, 7.5% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: Denver 3.1

1972: 24.8 apg, 7.8% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: San Francisco 3.3

1973: 24.3 apg, 8.9% sack rate
team average: 2.4  leader: Washington 3.8

1978: 26.4 apg, 7.9% sack rate
team average: 2.3  leader: Dallas 3.6

1983: 31.4 apg, 8.0% sack rate
team average: 2.7  leader: St. Louis 3.7

1988: 31.5 apg, 6.8% sack rate
team average: 2.3  leader: Rams 3.5

1993: 32.2 apg, 6.8% sack rate
team average: 2.4  leader: Houston 3.3

1998: 32.3 apg, 7.2% sack rate
team average: 2.5  leader: New York Giants 3.4

2003: 32.2 apg, 6.2% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: Baltimore 2.9

2008: 32.3 apg, 5.9% sack rate
team average: 2.0 leader: Dallas 3.7

2013: 35.4 apg, 6.7% sack rate
team average: 2.5  leader: Carolina 3.8

I've only recorded every five years here, but I've checked the other years to see if there was anything fluky about these particular years. There really isn't: team averages in '13 were higher than in the previous three seasons (2.2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.3), and this list misses the high sack total seasons ('84 Bears' 4.5 sacks per game, the league average of 2.9 in '84, and 2.9 in '85), and the low point for sack totals  in the 16 game era ('94).

What do we learn? Well, this isn't the advanced metric to determine the relationship between changes in pass attempts and changes in sack rate on sack totals (though it's remarkable how steady the attempts and sack rate numbers are over the last 25 years). But basically, there isn't a whole lot of change in the league average team sack total, or in the team leader sack total total. Whether it's harder or easier to get sacks, the numbers are basically pretty steady and comparable. You can also look at the individual sack leaders year by year since 1982 to see there really are no giant changes up or down. In the 16 game era, it seems fair to compare individual players' sack totals with each other.

Kick Ass Link
I'm a secondary character in this remembrance of a person joining a fantasy football league (Sportzball). This is also hilarious: you'll have fun reading this.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Justin Gilbert

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first three posts in this series looked at Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The fourth post in this series looks at a player some draft analysts consider the top cornerback in this draft - Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.

Every NFL team is looking for big cornerbacks. That's especially true if you play in the NFC North where teams must deal with 6'5 Calvin Johnson (Detroit), 6'4 Brandon Marshall and 6'3 Alshon Jeffrey (Chicago) and 6'3 Jordy Nelson (Green Bay). The Minnesota Vikings play those teams twice a year, and the thinking goes that they would be wise to grab as many six foot-plus corners as they can find.

Justin Gilbert fits that mold. Just a shade over six feet tall and weighing in around 200 pounds, he's got the size NFL teams are looking for to combat today's Godzilla-sized WRs and hybrid WR/TEs with long arms, big mitts and 30-plus inch verticals.

An even bigger plus with Gilbert is he's also got the speed to stick with WRs - big or small - as he runs in the 4.3 range. That size/speed combination, and the fact he finished his 2013 season with 7 interceptions (tied for third-best in college football), could see Gilbert be a top 15 pick and the first corner drafted next month.

I went into the "Get to Know 'Em" process already liking Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard a lot. But after watching several videos of Gilbert's play during the 2013 season, I find myself torn as to what corner would be a better pick for the Vikings.

One thing I'm realizing as the years go by is that being able to run fast doesn't mean you can cover anyone (see Robinson, Josh). But in Gilbert's case, that's not a problem. What you get with Gilbert is a guy who stuck to the college WRs he was covering like glue. You can go stretches of 20 to 25 plays in game videos of Gilbert where opponents don't even try to throw in his direction - a clear sign they wanted no part of this guy. Scouting reports also stress Gilbert is a very "fluid" athlete, who can flip his hips and go from back pedaling to running hip-to-hip with WRs with ease. You won't find the word "stiff" used in any scouting report on Gilbert, whereas that pops up from time-to-time in Dennard's write-ups.

He's also good at mirroring receivers through their various moves and staying on the hip of the guy he's covering even on inside routes. It's rare in a game that you'll find a WR get any separation from Gilbert, and the times it does happen it often seems to be by design - either Gilbert's playing zone or he's just giving his opponent plenty of cushion because Oklahoma State is up a bunch.

As his 7 INTs in 2013 indicate, Gilbert's ball skills are very good - something the Vikings could use in their secondary. He can come out of his backpedal and close on long sideline throws to make a play on the ball, and on deep throws he's got great hands for a defensive back. He attacks the ball in the air and goes for interceptions rather than just trying to bat balls away. 

Oklahoma State's 38-13 win over Texas last year provides ample evidence of Gilbert's talents. The video is only 8 minutes long (Gilbert is wearing a white #4 jersey), so I suggest giving it a look.


A few highlights from the video I'd like to point out:

1) At the 0:57 mark of the video, look at how Gilbert easily stays with the Texas WR on this slant pattern and knocks away the pass with his left arm without drawing a pass interference penalty.

2) At the 4:43 mark, Gilbert makes the first of his 2 INTs in the game against Texas QB Case McCoy (Colt McCoy's younger brother.) Gilbert appears to sit on the route, breaks on it nicely and then he has great extension to pluck the ball out of the air on this sideline throw, gather himself and then race down the sideline untouched for a pick-six. That's pretty sweet hands and athleticism on display.

3) Speaking of hands and athleticism, check out the 7:02 mark of the video as Gilbert picks off McCoy again on a deep throw down the right sideline. Who was the wide receiver here? Gilbert's running stride for stride with Texas WR Kendall Sanders, extends to catch the ball and doesn't lose it even though Sanders is trying to rip the ball out the entire time. Impressive stuff.

One area where Gilbert needs a lot of work, however, is in his tackling. The Texas game was one of his better efforts, so there is nothing too heinous to point out in this video. But watch enough video from his 2013 season and you'll notice something - for a guy who is over six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, Gilbert is not a very physical or willing tackler. He tends to tackle players around knee-high. The player goes down, but always falls forward for an extra yard or three. Gilbert also doesn't shed blocks well at all. When an opposing player gets his hands on Gilbert, the OSU star often gets pushed backwards three or four yards and can't get off the block to make a tackle or help on a tackle.

Although Gilbert will be paid in the pros for his pass defense, this timid tackling and problem fighting off blocks is not a small issue if he plays for the Vikings. The WR screen - where offenses run bunch formations and the ball is thrown to a WR near the line of scrimmage with one or two other WRs blocking - is a staple play for Green Bay and Chicago. Remember how much mileage the Packers got out of those screens in the 2012 season finale once Antoine Winfield left the game with a broken hand? That's a play Gilbert - with his current tackling mindset and lack of ability to shed blockers - will be victimized by time and again at the pro level if he doesn't fix those issues. 

However, the rest of the skills are there. Gilbert's got that kind of long, rangy build that reminds me of Champ Bailey and Antonio Cromartie - two pretty good corners. He's a different player than Dennard. Whereas Dennard's strategy is to beat up WRs at the line of scrimmage (and sometimes beyond), Gilbert seems to rely more on his fluid motion, speed and ability to stop and re-start on a dime to blanket receivers. And whereas Dennard played a bunch of press man-to-man, Gilbert wasn't asked to do this much. He's usually playing off the WR by a few yards in the videos I saw and then he relies on his speed and quick hips to stay with his man. That's not to say Gilbert can't play press coverage, just that he wasn't asked to do it much from what I saw in 2013. Oh, one other thing about Gilbert, I saw very little evidence of Gilbert grabbing WRs jerseys to stay with him (the kind of thing Dennard does frequently) on deep throws.

Having eyeballed both Gilbert and Dennard, I'd have to say Gilbert is the better corner on pass defense, but Dennard is far superior in defending the run and the screen game.

I love Dennard and would be happy if the Vikings drafted him. But after watching lots of Gilbert video, I think I would prefer if the Vikes drafted him instead. With the 6'1 Xavier Rhodes and the six-foot-and-a-bit Gilbert, the Vikings would have two tall and long-armed corners to mix it up with the Calvin Johnson's and Alshon Jeffrey's of the NFL. And if Gilbert can be taught to be more aggressive and physical in his tackling and shedding of blocks, he could develop into a much better player in that area, eliminating the biggest weakness in his game.

* To watch more videos of Gilbert, check out his landing age on the Draft Breakdown site here.