EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings personnel and coaching staffs have had closed-door meetings that benefitted from open dialogue as the organization finished evaluating 2014 and began preparing for the 2015 NFL Draft.
General Manager Rick Spielman told reporters Wednesday that the past year of working with Head Coach Mike Zimmer will provide enhanced clarity this season.
"I think this is the clearest we've ever been on a direction with the coaches and the scouts all speaking the same language and identifying those same traits," Spielman said. "As you know, with Coach Zim, there's usually not a lot of gray area with him, so when he's sitting there describing things, you listen, but then you remember because you saw it happen in a game and I remember when he corrected that guy out on the practice field. I love to watch them coach because that helps me and our staff learn all the traits and expectations there are for each position. I know I feel very confident that we are heading in the right direction.
Spielman said he spoke with multiple players the day after the season ended, and observed optimism for the future of the program and an excitement to improve on a 7-9 mark that involved overcoming multiple challenges but didn't satisfy loftier expectations the Vikings want to establish.
A year removed from the search that resulted in Zimmer his first opportunity as a head coach after seasons of coordinating top NFL defenses, Spielman has been able to apply the knowledge gleaned by seeing Zimmer's system up close.
"I understand from a defensive scheme point what a corner has to do and what exactly is required of a defensive end," Spielman said. "There are things that, 'He has to do, A, B and C and can he do that on a consistent basis?' The one thing you noticed during the season is our team came so far with where we were at, even though we were having success in the preseason and even during that opening ball game, there was a night and day difference in the technique and all the nuances that these coaches are teaching.
"I think that foundation and that building block that's in place should carry over into the next year as well," Spielman continued, "and now you have guys that have been through the system and understand what the coaches are teaching and what the expectations are so when we bring in our new players for next year to integrate with the current players, it's not going to be 90 guys learning something new all at once. We'll have guys here who have been through the system, been through what's being taught and they'll be able to help that process along with a lot of the new guys that are coming through."
Spielman said the evaluation process began with a thorough review of the season-ending roster. The open dialogue is helpful, he said, because honest opinions can be used as the team identifies specific areas where it most wants to improve.
The examination process includes looking at current and future needs, the players on the roster, if there are players who might be able to do better than someone who is and whether that player will be available through free agency, via release from their current team or in the draft.
Spielman said an effort is made to remove the relationship factor to conduct the most objective evaluation of players on the roster.
"You have to be, 'This is what he is, regardless of how I feel about him with anything else,' " Spielman said. "It's extremely tough because you're trying to eliminate the human side of everything and that's the hardest part of this job, to take the human element out of it and look at it from a pure business perspective. If you're able to do that, as hard as that is, that helps you make the best decisions you can."
Vikings personnel are scheduled to work the Senior Bowl next week to get an up-close look at some of the top prospects and how they practice in pro systems. As the considerations of draft-eligible players continue to the NFL Combine in February and beyond, preparations are also made for free agency in March. Spielman said the Vikings have lists on all unrestricted free agents, as well as players on a "cut, trade, restructure" list.
Spielman then identifies the strengths of veteran players available, as well as the potential depth in the draft.
COACHING DOMINO PROCESS: Spielman was asked about the contract situations for assistant coaches as well as the process in the league if a newly hired coach wants to interview an assistant. Spielman didn't elaborate on contractual matters but did describe the permission process through which the Vikings allowed running backs coach Kirby Wilson to interview for the offensive coordinator position in Jacksonville.
"Basically, what the rule is, if they're interested in one of our coaches, they have to send in a permission slip and we have to give them permission for an interview," Spielman said. "I know Kirby interviewed for the OC job down in Jacksonville. We gave him permission to go down and do that, but it works the same on the personnel side too after the draft. It's the same thing if they have an interest in one of your scouts. There's been numerous inquiries about guys we have on our staff."