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How Does Kubiak Impact Viking Draft?

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April 23, 2019

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Enjoy a Tuesday notes column focused on the NFL Vikings and NHL Wild.

This week’s NFL Draft will be the first for Gary Kubiak to have influence in his role as Vikings assistant head coach/offensive advisor. Few NFL assistants have the resume of Kubiak, who has 24 years of coaching experience in the league including 10 as a head coach with a Super Bowl win to his credit.

General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer brought Kubiak to Minnesota to improve a faltering offense. Even the most casual of Vikings fans knows the team needs a major upgrade in offensive line talent, but how will the club prioritize its draft choices including their selection at No. 18 in the first round?

Mike Zimmer

Kubiak has made his career specializing in offensive coaching. Zimmer’s background is on defense and in his four seasons as Minnesota’s head coach his coaching direction has been all over the defensive unit. In prior drafts Zimmer’s voice has certainly been heard, as it should be at franchise headquarters, but might Kubiak cast a “second shadow” over Spielman starting Thursday night? Certainly ownership and front office leadership didn’t bring Kubiak to Minnesota expecting him to be a wallflower.

At Spielman’s news conference today about the draft he acknowledged that Kubiak and the other offensive coaches want skillsets in their players that match their schemes.  “There are traits that we’re looking for,” Spielman said.  “As we talk about each one of these players, some players would be very good players, but they may not be very good players for what we’re going to require them to do.”

Spielman said the depth of talent is impressive in the 2019 draft.  He singled out the offensive and defensive line prospects as collectively being “one of the strongest I’ve seen in awhile.”

Some draft forecasters are thinking the Vikings will add a tackle or guard to their roster in the first round. The latest issue of Sports Illustrated offers a mock draft including the prediction Minnesota will use its first round choice on Alabama lineman Jonah Williams, a talented tackle in college who the magazine thinks will transition to guard for the Vikings.

“The Tide got 5.3 ypc (yards per carry) running to Williams’s gap in 2018,” S.I. reported. “That’s an improvement on almost every gap on Minnesota’s front five last year.”

The Vikings likely would welcome Williams falling to them at No. 18, or Florida tackle Jawaan Taylor or Washington State tackle Andre Dillard—all of whom might be drafted before Minnesota finalizes its first round choice. But to be contrary with maybe a nod toward Zimmer, what happens if a stud like Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver or Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker is available when the Vikings draft? Does a scenario like that set up an interesting dilemma for Zimmer, Kubiak and Spielman?

Players like Oliver and Baker are likely to be gone when the Viking select at No. 18, but what if Minnesota moves up on the draft board?A Spielman specialty is making trades during the draft and the possibility is real the Vikings could choose higher than No. 18 on Thursday night.

Because the draft is deep in offensive linemen, the Vikings may not use their first round pick on a tackle or guard. It seems likely the club will take multiple offensive linemen in the draft.

Vikings fans want an offensive lineman chosen in the first round and Spielman offered humor when asked about the angst among Purple supporters.  “She (my wife) said, if I draft another corner(back) don’t come home,” the GM said.

In the later rounds the club could end up with Apple Valley alum Trey Pipkins, a Division II All-American tackle who played collegiately at Sioux Falls. His NFL Draft & Combine page projects him as a fourth round draft choice and future practice squad player. At about 6-feet-6 and over 300 pounds, Pipkins has size, length and athleticism but needs to improve technique, according to NFL.com/prospects.

There will also be other Minnesota natives to follow over the three days of the draft. Former Gophers walk-on Blake Cashman has opened eyes in the last four months, with projections changing for him from potential free agent status to possibly being a mid-round draft choice.

He produced some of the best results of any linebacker at the NFL Combine last winter in Indianapolis. He tied for third among linebackers in the broad jump, was fourth in the 40-yard-dash and 20-yard shuttle, tied for fifth in the vertical jump and tied for seventh in the three-cone drill.

At a minimum, Cashman could provide an NFL team with immediate special teams help. The same is likely to be true of Cashman’s former teammate at Eden Prairie, Ryan Connelly, who was a standout linebacker at Wisconsin.

Other Minnesota names to watch include Iowa safety Amani Hooker from Park Center High School and E.J. Ejiya, the linebacker from North Texas and Spring Lake Park alum. Hooker has made solid improvement at Iowa and projects as a safety and special teams player in the pros with attributes that include his football intelligence. Ejiya ranked among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss in 2018 and seems more likely to be a possible training camp invitee as a free agent rather than draft choice.

Spielman fought back tears in announcing at the news conference that his friend and Vikings college talent evaluator Scott Studwell will be retiring from the organization.  Studwell, who played linebacker for the Vikings from 1977-1990, has been in the front office since 1991 and will retire at the end of May when his contract ends.

Spielman said he likes the progress of cornerback Mike Hughes who is recovering from ACL injury, and is now doing some running.

Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter had been a candidate but now is not one of the three finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. “It is disappointing (news),” Wild owner Craig Leipold told Sports Headliners yesterday.

The trophy is presented annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. It is named after the late Bill Masterton from the Minnesota North Stars.

Leipold has a high regard for Suter, referring to him as a “super person” and great family man who is dedicated to hockey. “He is so into working out,” Leipold said of his 34-year-old star. The two men, Leipold said, may get together for a sushi lunch in St. Paul this summer.

Leipold signed both Suter and forward Zach Parise, 34, to $98 million deals in 2012. While Suter finished the season healthy, Parise was troubled by a foot injury. Leipold hopes Parise will rest the foot in coming months, while noting it’s positive the Minneapolis-born star played last season without a problem with his back.

There is speculation Leipold will create the position of president of hockey operations overseeing general manager Paul Fenton, but not so, according to Leipold. “Never been discussed,” the owner said in refuting the rumor.

Former North Stars general manager Jack Ferreira was named an advisor to Fenton last year and Leipold said he expects Ferreira’s work to continue with the franchise. “I know Paul has a lot of confidence in Jack,” Leipold said.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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