Why Doesn't Rick Spielman Draft Golden Gophers?

Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV with a convincing 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, a couple of familiar faces were celebrating on the field: Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tyler Johnson, both former Minnesota Golden Gopher standouts. That got me thinking, why aren’t these players on the Minnesota Vikings, and why doesn’t Rick Spielman draft players from Minnesota?

Scouting can’t be the issue

The reluctance to draft Gophers really doesn’t make much sense. Spielman himself, or any scout on his staff, could take a quick drive over to TCF Bank Stadium on a Saturday afternoon and catch a game. There’s really no excuse that they shouldn’t have extended knowledge of what these players bring to the field, how they fare against top-shelf competition, and what kind of playmaking ability they bring to the table.

They should also get to know these players personally and form relationships that could benefit the Vikings down the road in free agency. Spielman and his staff have to have reels of tape on these players, and there’s no reason to think that they don’t do their due diligence.

If they scout these players, it makes it all the more frustrating when the team decides to look elsewhere on draft day.

Some Gophers the Vikings have missed out on

The Vikings have missed out on some solid contributors by not drafting prospects from their own backyard. They’ve had needs over the years that Gopher alumni could’ve filled, and yet they went in a different direction.

Here’s a quick rundown of Gophers in the past that Spielman could have drafted: defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, linebacker Damien Wilson, cornerback Eric Murray, and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. The biggest sin occurred in 2019 when they passed on linebacker Blake Cashman multiple times.

In 2019, the Vikings needed some linebacker depth, and Cashman kept falling down the board. This was an extremely productive guy in his college career with 183 total tackles, 31 tackles for a loss, and 12 career sacks. He would’ve competed for a starting spot with Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson, and worst case would’ve been an excellent special teamer.

Instead of taking Cashman in Round three, four, or even five, Spielman kept trading down. He opted for quantity over quality, and by the time he was ready to pull the trigger, Cashman was sniped by the New York Jets. The Vikings did end up taking a linebacker, USC’s Cameron Smith, but he was cut in his rookie season, and Cashman went on to play in the NFL the same way he did in college with 40 tackles in seven games before getting injured.

The Vikings’ tendency to pass on Gophers was no less brutal in 2020. The Vikings won’t admit it but are assuredly kicking themselves for passing on Winfield and Johnson. Winfield was there and had the versatility to play corner as a rookie when they took Jeff Gladney. Winfield’s playmaking ways carried over from college: He had three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, and 94 total tackles as a rookie. If Spielman would’ve taken him, they’d have gotten some big plays out of him in Year One and would have had the replacement on their roster for Anthony Harris, eliminating a huge need this offseason.

Tyler Johnson would’ve been a much better choice in Round Four than James Lynch or Troy Dye and would’ve worked his way up the Vikings’ receiving depth chart, especially considering he saw targets playing behind Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. And Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin also would’ve been better choices than who the Vikings ended up taking in the later rounds.

Why won’t Spielman draft gophers?

There can only be two reasons for this. The first and worst reason is that he doesn’t want to be labeled lazy or get the notion that he’s a “homer” for taking players from the Gophers’ program. Maybe Spielman doesn’t want to be seen as a general manager who drafts players for fan service, taking names from their college team that he knows will excite them and be instant favorites. Perhaps though, he does this in what he sees as a favor to these players. Maybe he passes on these prospects to avoid putting them in a situation where the expectations and hopes for success are too high for them ever to match.

Spielman has only selected one Golden Gopher in his tenure as the Vikings’ general manager. In 2010, he used a fifth-round choice on Minnesota linebacker Nate Triplett. This was a bit of a shocker at the time as Triplett was seen as a fringe draft prospect. Nonetheless, hopes were high that he could provide some quality depth while becoming a core special teamer.

Triplett was cut before the season started. He hung around the league for a little while, spending time on the Los Angeles Chargers’ practice squad and eventually signing with the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts cut him in 2011, and the following year he signed with Tampa before leaving the team in the 2012 preseason.

If one of these is the reason for Spielman passing on Gophers, he needs to get over it. The Gophers’ program is in good hands and will continue to churn out successful NFL players. If Spielman continues to pass on these prospects because it would be a “homer pick,” or if the failure of Nate Triplett haunts him to this day, he’s going to miss out on some quality football players down the road.

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