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Vikings polish edges with Gerhart

The Vikings will pair Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, above, with Adrian Peterson. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Here is a measure of Minnesota's confidence in its roster: The Vikings' top two picks of the 2010 draft both play positions with long-term starters firmly in place.

Virginia cornerback Chris Cook faces a season as a reserve/special teams player behind veterans Antoine Winfield, Lito Sheppard, Benny Sapp and eventually Cedric Griffin. Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, meanwhile, will get the touches left over by workhorse starter Adrian Peterson.

So it goes for a team that is expected to bring back all 22 starters from the group that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings didn't find their quarterback of the future on Friday, twice passing up Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and Texas' Colt McCoy, but they still wound up with two players who figure -- at best -- to play secondary roles in 2010.

"We've helped our roster a lot today," said vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, referring to the all-important depth Cook and Gerhart will provide. The way Gerhart ended up with the Vikings illustrates the way Spielman is approaching this draft: As a tool to polish the edges of his roster.

I was totally on board with the Vikings' decision to let veteran tailback Chester Taylor depart via free agency. If the Vikings follow past practice and Peterson stays healthy, their backup running back will get no more than 150 touches in 2010. It would have been irrational to pay Taylor the $7 million in guarantees he got from Chicago for such a limited role.

The Vikings made one run at signing a veteran replacement, but when veteran LaDainian Tomlinson signed with the New York Jets, Spielman quickly pivoted toward the draft -- where it is a more than reasonable expectation to find a complementary running back.

"I knew what was coming out in the draft and I knew the potential runners that could be available to us," Spielman said. "So if something does not work out in free agency, I have a pretty extensive chart.... So you make a run at one. You don't have to panic because potentially you can get something down the road in the draft."

Spielman passed on an opportunity to draft Cal's Jahvid Best at No. 30 overall Thursday night. But he jumped for Gerhart -- giving up his third-round pick (No. 93 overall) to move up 11 spots in the second round. Although Gerhart's 231-pound frame is big enough to be a fullback, the Vikings project him as a traditional (and bruising) tailback in their scheme. Although he didn't fully confirm it, coach Brad Childress suggested Gerhart has the tools to replace Taylor as a third-down back as well.

"I think you see a very versatile athlete there," Childress said. "I know he carried the ball between the tackles [at Stanford], ... but he's exceptional in the pass game. It's not something that was highly emphasized there. I know the system that [Stanford] runs, and he'll come in here and be able to adapt very quickly. He gives you a bigger body, whether it's a backup running back or a special teamer."

Because he has that "bigger" frame and attended Stanford, Gerhart has drawn middling comparisons to former Cardinal fullback Tommy Vardell. But Gerhart runs the 40-yard dash in a legitimate 4.5 seconds, and I think anyone who watched him play in college knows he has a significant burst and tremendous competitive instincts. Even Gerhart said he believes he has "more wiggle" than Vardell and that he can be "more all-purpose."

You'll find no argument here. I might not draft Gerhart be a 20-carry per game back, but that's not what the Vikings need as long as Peterson is on the roster.

"I'm not sure what my role is going to be," Gerhart said, "but I think it's going to be to complement the best running back in football. ... I look forward to finding out more and contributing to the team."

In the scenario I believe the Vikings envision, Gerhart will follow in Taylor's footsteps: About three-to-six carries per game and two-to-three catches in third-down situations. I think that's a fair way to use him, and it's a rotation that Childress and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy established during three years of working with Peterson and Taylor.

Bieniemy, in fact, once recruited Gerhart to UCLA when he worked as the Bruins' running backs coach in 2006. Gerhart planned to commit until the Vikings hired Bieniemy away two weeks before NCAA signing day. Bieniemy had big plans for Gerhart as a feature back then. Now, he'll have him as a finishing touch.

"Kind of ironic," Gerhart said.