Spielman, Vikings staff successfully navigate a virtual NFL draft

There was a moment of online levity last week as the Vikings huddled together but separately on the eve of the NFL’s first all-virtual draft.

The team’s IT department staffers were wearing matching T-shirts in a playful nod to an NFL ruling last month. To prepare for this most unusual of drafts, the league deemed only IT personnel as essential employees who could enter team facilities closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The shirts said, ‘I’m an essential employee,’ ” said Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman. “And then they made a T-shirt for me. I’m sitting there in this big black T-shirt with white letters. It said, ‘Non-Essential.’ ”

Spielman laughed. It was Monday, two days after the draft came off without a hitch. Two days after a three-day whirlwind in which he started with 12 picks, made four trades and ended with 17 picks, including two in 2021.

“Actually,” said Spielman, “things went just as smooth as when we’re all together in one room.”

Spielman guessed it took Paul Nelson, the team’s director of football information systems; Cheryl Nygaard, the director of information technology; and their people well over 100 hours to get everyone’s houses equipped.

“All while also setting up our virtual offseason program, which [started Monday night] with our first team meeting with the players and everybody,” Spielman said. “So those people have been burning both ends of the candle.”

For 21 straight days in April, the Vikings held their usual draft meetings for 12 to 14 hours a day. By the end of that stretch, everyone — coaches, scouts, personnel people, Assistant General Manager George Paton, Executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski and Spielman — were adept and maneuvering the screens in front of them.

“We practiced it so much,” Spielman said. “It was pretty flawless by the end of our draft meetings. Everybody knew what to do.”

Human error: Spielman

The only real “glitch,” as Spielman put it, was human error. The human’s name was, “Rick Spielman,” according to Spielman.

It came during one of the four trades. Spielman won’t say which one but says not to worry because the trade went through as planned.

Since Spielman, Paton and Brzezinski are the ones who field and solicit trades, they had a separate virtual chat room just for them. Brzezinski was the point person with the league, so he was in charge of turning in trades.

“I was sitting there screaming at Rob because we had two deals going at the same time,” Spielman said. “I started jumping up and down, and he’s just sitting there looking at his other screen. I’m like, ‘Why can’t he hear me?’ And then I realized, unmute your damn button, Spielman.”

The homes of Spielman, Paton and Brzezinski required extensive in-person work by IT personnel. Everyone else was given the equipment and instructions on how to set it up.

Luke Burson, manager of football information systems, set up the Spielman house. Nygaard was with Spielman during the draft. Another IT person was with Paton during the draft while Brzezinski flew solo “because Rob thinks he’s an IT expert,” Spielman joked.

“I had backups to backups to backups,” Spielman said. “We had two different internet lines coming into the house. I had a generator right outside ready to plug in just in case something happened.

“We don’t have landlines in our house anymore so we had to get landlines run into the house. They’re drilling holes through my walls to get the landlines run in. I got four different screens in front of me and our big draft board behind me, which is six screens into one. And my wife’s like, ‘Just so you know, the Sunday after this is over, all this stuff is gone.’

“She wants her house back.”

Calling the Bucs at 14

During a normal draft, the Vikings have landline phones with speed dials that will connect Spielman, Paton and Brzezinski directly to their corresponding personnel on every other team.

“Our homes didn’t have the capacity to do that,” Spielman said. “So Cheryl put that on our cellphones. When I wanted the GM for a team, all I had to do was touch the helmet icon.”

Spielman confirmed a line in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column that the Vikings called the Buccaneers looking to trade up to the 14th overall pick.

So who, pray tell, were the Vikings looking to take. Tackle Tristan Wirfs? One of the top receivers?

“I don’t know,” Spielman said with a laugh. “Could have been anyone. But, seriously, we’re always calling teams ahead of us and behind us. That’s just standard procedure.”

The Bucs dismissed the Vikings quickly because they actually were looking to move up to get Wirfs, which they did at 13.

Meanwhile, Spielman said the Vikings still were discussing trade options for disgruntled Washington tackle Trent Williams. They also were talking contract figures with Williams’ agent, Vincent Taylor.

“We made the best decision for us,” Spielman said. “He ended up in San Francisco, and we ended up with a tackle [second-round pick Ezra Cleveland] we really like in the draft.”

Williams and Taylor both denied an NFL Network report that Williams said he didn’t want to play in Minnesota. Spielman wouldn’t address the report publicly.

“Cleveland [falling] was ideal for us,” Spielman said. “The draft is always understanding when you have to be patient and what’s coming to you, what’s available, do you think you need to trade up or you don’t.

“That’s all kind of feel as the draft is going on. When you have a guy you really like, those are the most anxious moments until you’re on the clock. As soon as that team ahead of you throws in that pick and it wasn’t your guy, it’s an unbelievable relief.”

Pick No. 105 up for sale

The Vikings started getting calls for their second pick in the third round shortly after they made Mississippi State cornerback Cameron Dantzler their first pick of the third round. Dantzler was the 89th pick. Next up was the 105th pick.

“We actually had three other offers on the table at the time,” Spielman said. “George was working on an offer. I was working an offer. Rob was working on the Saints’ offer.

“The Saints came up with the best deal. I won’t say what they were, but we had some other very interesting offers.”

For the right to pick Dayton tight end Adam Trautman at No. 105, the Saints gave the Vikings four picks, in the fourth (130), fifth (169), sixth (203) and seventh (244) rounds. New Orleans ended up making only four picks the entire draft.

Although the Vikings got four picks in return, Pro Football Reference’s trade value chart assigned 84 points to the pick New Orleans got and 77 points to the picks the Vikings got.

“Everybody has different trade charts, and ours is a little different too because we base it off analytics a little bit,” Spielman said. “We have hot zones on our trade charts. For instance, we look at the 105 pick and whether you can get the same value at [117],” where the Vikings picked next.

“Historically, those players are almost identical in their success in the NFL based on analytics. Now if there is a specific guy you want, then you just stay. But if your board is deep, then why not pick up the extra draft capital?”

The Vikings ended up with defensive end D.J. Wonnum at 117. Then, with the Saints’ four picks, they took defensive tackle James Lynch, a guy who had 13½ sacks last year; versatile defensive back Harrison Hand; tackle Blake Brandel; and Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.

“I really don’t care who the Saints ended up taking,” Spielman said.

Timely internet drop

Like every other NFL person, Spielman never imagined conducting a draft while sitting at home. He never imagined having his family around him. Or his son, Ronnie, at his side working a manual draft board, “just in case the house exploded.”

“I live in a cul-de-sac,” Spielman said. “My neighbor was outside. He had a fire going and these lines set up 6 feet apart so they could have a small draft party. I’m picking players, and I can hear them hootin’ and hollerin’ outside.”

Did they boo any Spielman picks?

“No,” he said. “That would have made my wife mad. And they like her.”

Spielman said the experience will change forever some of the things the Vikings do. For instance, he said the team will go virtual for their draft meetings in December and right before the combine in February.

“We are going to be a lot more efficient and even more prepared because of how smoothly everything worked,” Spielman said. “We’ll still bring everybody in for the April meetings. But, for example, the February meetings, we normally bring everybody in for 10 days, they go home for a couple of days and then we all go to the combine.

“Now, because of how this all worked, those meetings can be virtual now.”

Spielman said the virtual rookie minicamp and offseason program will consist of two-hour meetings that have to be held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Twin Cities time. Players and coaches can huddle virtually as a team before breaking into offense/defense or position groups.

The Vikings even had a virtual post-draft party after wrapping things up Saturday evening.

“I did find it kind of strange that as soon as we got to our post-draft party, my internet dropped,” Spielman said. “It worked great for three days of the draft and a month of meetings. I think someone pulled the plug. I think someone was tired of hearing me.”

But even in that post-draft moment, Nygaard was able to get Spielman back up and running.

“Kudos to the IT department all around,” Spielman said. “They’re the MVPs of this draft.”

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