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Clear Direction of Scheme Important for Best-Assessing Players

Offseasons provide NFL teams, especially those undergoing changes to the staff, with the opportunity to ask innumerable questions of draft-eligible.

Ideally, one of them isn't, "How are we going to fit a square peg into this round hole?"

In that analogy, players are the pegs and the holes are the schemes on offense and defense.

With an influx of offensive assistants added to the mix to work with first-time Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski, the Vikings have spent significant time making sure everyone is aligned with the philosophy and approach for filling the roster with the best fits for schemes.

The Vikings have been meticulous in meetings to prepare for this week's NFL Scouting Combine, where they can get in-person looks at 337 draft-eligible players, free agency, which will open on March 13, and the 2019 NFL Draft, which will be hosted in Nashville from April 25-27.

"This [time of] year is always the most exciting time because of the opportunity to improve your ball club. I'm really looking forward to the draft and free agency," Spielman said on Wednesday as he made the rounds at the combine. "We've had a lot of productive meetings with the new coaches, from a schematic standpoint, it always goes hand-in-hand, 'Let us know the traits you're looking for at the positions, and let us identify those traits on players that are coming up in free agency and the draft. Let's hone-in on those players and hopefully continue to select the good players.' It always goes hand-in-hand from a schematic standpoint."

Since Mike Zimmer's hire in 2014, and with the high level of continuity among defensive coaches, the Vikings personnel department has been able to fine-tune its focus on players that best fit Minnesota's defense.

"I know exactly the type of players and everything, the consistency and physical traits we're looking for on defense," Spielman said. "So with [the offensive hires] coming in, we had all of our scouts in the meetings with all of the coaches and as we'd talk about the players, it's a continuing process because coaches just now start watching the college tape. When we get back to our final draft meetings in April, I think our staff, from [Assistant General Manager] George Payton to our directors on down have a pretty good understanding on the traits, especially on the offensive line and what they're going to be able to execute.

"I think when you're drafting players, you want to draft players that have those traits, and there may be players that are very good players but they might not fit in that scheme, so they could be a very high-level player in another scheme, but if you put him in a scheme that his physical traits, he can't do what we're going to ask him to do, then he's probably going to be a very mediocre player," Spielman added. "It's nothing on the player. It's more of just making sure that everything is in alignment, and that's the process of why you have these meetings, because we have to identify the players that we think are going to fit the scheme."

One example that Spielman brought up is the different skill sets that allow players to thrive in zone schemes (mobility is high on the list) or gap scheme (mountain-moving strength) are sometimes exclusive characteristics and rarely occur at an elite level in one player.

"If it's an outside zone scheme, that's a different skill set for an offensive lineman than a gap scheme and double-team and go forward, because there may be guys going forward that are what you want to call road-grater-type run blockers, but they're not going to be able to execute some of the things that you want to ask them to execute in an outside zone running scheme or where we end up from an offensive scheme standpoint," Spielman said.

So the Vikings are simultaneously assessing players under contract to return, Vikings whose contracts are set to expire, pending free agents who played for other teams in 2018 and the draft-eligible prospects to evaluate personnel.

"But also from a schematic standpoint that we've talked about, too, 'Are there things that we can do to maybe help the offensive line be more efficient, as well?' " Spielman said. "It goes hand-in-hand, the coaching, the scheme, 'Can we do things differently to maybe help them but also improve the personnel?' "

When he was introduced last week to Twin Cities media members, Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak was asked how much a particular scheme can impact the performance of offensive linemen.

"Well, that's a tough question," Kubiak said. "You've got to do what your players do best, you know what I mean? Obviously the word 'zone' comes up a lot when you talk about us offensively and what we do. We've got to run some gap schemes, too. You can't be so predictable. So I think we had to take a look at our guys and see how they fit and how we want to go about this, but I think that's why this offseason will be so important. Our ability to catch up and teach and be good teachers starting on April 15th is extremely important."

Returning players and any free agents signed by the Vikings are scheduled to begin the offseason workout program on April 15 at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

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