EAGAN, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings have a 1-5 record at their bye week in a season that’s going nowhere.
Yet the word “rebuild” isn’t one general manager Rick Spielman will use to describe the direction the team is heading for the 10 games that remain in 2020.
“No, our goal every week is to go out there and win football games,” Spielman said. “You have to balance out both. I still think we have a very talented team, we have a lot of talent on this roster. The Yannick Ngakoue trade gave us an opportunity to look long term and to add more draft picks as we continue to build this roster. But also from the short-term standpoint, I’m excited to see where this team continues to grow and to see these young guys we’re playing, especially on the defensive side, continue to get better. I know we have some explosive playmakers on the offensive side.”
Admitting to a rebuild often implies a team got something wrong. After all the money spent in free agency and between the extensions doled out to leadership and players, it’s difficult for the Vikings to concede that their plan isn’t working. They entered 2020 banking on offensive continuity to carry the weight of the franchise while the defense went through a period of transition. That hasn’t happened.
The sooner they admit to how they misjudged the roster, the sooner the Vikings can carve out a way to head in the right direction. But it’s difficult for decision-makers to cop to that level of honesty when their own jobs hang in the balance.
The silver lining? Minnesota is in a position to rebuild, not completely overhaul, the team. It has plenty of talented pieces in the fold, from veterans such as Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook to young players including Irv Smith Jr. and Justin Jefferson.
The Vikings aren’t at rock bottom, but they need to shift their focus toward 2021. Soon enough their actions could reflect the notion of the word they refuse to utter.
The Ngakoue trade
There are some very valid reasons the Vikings are in a position to rebuild based on circumstances out of their control.
When they traded with Jacksonville for Ngakoue at the end of August, they thought they’d eventually be able to pair the defensive end with Danielle Hunter and have the most dangerous pass rush in the NFL.
Injuries on the defensive side of the ball — the ones that have a tangible effect (Hunter, Anthony Barr, Mike Hughes), along with nose tackle Michael Pierce’s decision to opt out changed the outlook for this team. Hunter was on injured reserve for months and is set to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
The Vikings traded Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens after just six weeks of work in Minnesota. And it was the right thing to do.
Minnesota was able to recoup most of the draft capital it had initially given up to Jacksonville for Ngakoue. In exchange for the 25-year-old pass rusher, Baltimore sent the Vikings a 2021 third-round pick and 2022 conditional fifth-round pick.
The Vikings unloaded an expensive veteran who they now don’t have to franchise or give a long-term extension and added to a crop of a dozen draft picks they have to work with next April. That’s a clear sign of moving toward a rebuild, whether the team admits it or not.
And with Hunter’s future uncertain beyond this season with the defensive end reportedly wanting to become the highest paid pass-rusher in the NFL, the Vikings wouldn’t have been able to afford keeping both him and Ngakoue. Given where things stand with the salary cap in 2021 and the players the Vikings currently have financial resources tied up in, keeping Hunter around at a considerably elevated price tag is made that much more difficult.
Will there be more?
Spielman said no veterans have asked him to be traded ahead of the Nov. 3 deadline. But Minnesota is in the seller’s market.
Another move toward 2021 would be the Vikings’ trading Riley Reiff. He’s in the midst of a strong season after taking a $5 million pay cut to stay in Minnesota, and his current contract expires after 2021. With Ezra Cleveland drafted to play left tackle (though Spielman wouldn’t comment on his future) next season and Reiff’s $13.95 million cap number in 2021, the 32-year-old lineman is expected to be on the roster next year.
Six games in, the Vikings find themselves in a position to sell while the value of their players is at its highest.
That includes the likes of safety Anthony Harris, who the team franchised in March with the hopes of trading, and tight end Kyle Rudolph, whose usage has gone down since Kirk Cousins arrived.
Unloading expensive veteran contracts in exchange for draft picks will help the Vikings work around their salary cap bind when the cap is expected to drop to $175 million in 2021. And playing young players now helps garner experience that can carry over to next season.
When Spielman is mentioning defensive linemen D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch, it’s a clear indicator the Vikings are focused on the future and using the rest of this season for player development.
What about Cousins?
The quarterback’s 10 interceptions in six games are a serious problem. Spielman said as much when he was asked to reflect upon Minnesota’s decision to extend Cousins on a two-year, $66 million deal this offseason when he had one year left on the three-year fully guaranteed contract he signed in 2018.
But the Vikings can no longer hang their hat on the fact that extending Cousins early allowed them cap flexibility. That doesn’t matter, because the player they spent that freed-up money on –- Harris –- probably won’t be on the roster beyond this season.
Cousins’ play has become a liability, and even the quarterback has said he expects to be benched if the interceptions continue. Is he the player Minnesota wants to keep around while they try to pick up the pieces from a lost season?
His contract put Minnesota in a bind when he signed as a free agent, and the extension continues to loom over this franchise. It’s why the Vikings must make a decision about his future quickly this offseason.
While there’s not a no-trade clause, moving Cousins with the near-fully guaranteed nature of his extension seems impossible given the way he has played this year. His $21 million base salary in 2021 is guaranteed, and his 2022 base salary ($35 million) becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year. If Minnesota is willing to admit Cousins’ contract is a sunk cost, they would have to release him before the third day of the league year next March in order to not trigger the 2022 guarantee.
Aside from the guarantees included in his contract, Cousins received a $30 million signing bonus, so if he were to be cut prior to March 1, 2021, there would also be $20 million ($10 million per year) in dead money to account for, in addition to his $21 million guaranteed base salary for 2021.
Holy dead money.
A move like that, which admits failure at solidifying the quarterback position, would likely cost people their jobs. Ownership, which just gave three-year extensions to both Spielman and Mike Zimmer, would have to be on board for such a drastic change in direction at the position, and the Vikings would have to draft a quarterback with their first-round pick.
It’s a drastic move but one that could help the long-term health of the franchise that Spielman noted in his bye-week availability. But it’s one that carries severe financial ramifications and could hinder this franchise for years to come. However, if the Vikings opt to ride out the next two years with Cousins, they are in a prime spot to continue to build around him.