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Zulgad: Flurry of activity creates confusion about direction Vikings are taking

On Monday morning, the Vikings awarded quarterback Kirk Cousins with a two-year, $66 million contract extension (that helped create $10 million in salary cap space) and put the franchise tag on standout safety Anthony Harris. Both moves appeared to be aimed at making sure the Vikings could make a run in 2020. So the plan is for the present, right?

Not so fast.

On Monday night, Stefon Diggs, the hero of the Minneapolis Miracle victory over the Saints, got his wish when ESPN reported the Vikings had traded one of the NFL’s top wide receivers and a seventh-round pick to Buffalo for a first-round pick (22nd overall), a fifth-round pick, a sixth-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

That’s a heck of a return, but unless Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is going to package some of those picks in a trade this is a deal that’s more about the future than the present at TCO Performance Center. The NFL’s “legal tampering” period started Monday and free agency, along with the new league year, will open Wednesday, so it’s possible that Spielman is planning to make more moves, despite having limited cap space with which to work.

Maybe it will take the remainder of this week, or perhaps it will take longer, to figure out the Vikings’ direction, but right now it’s safe to call the team’s plan confusing. Unless something changes, Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer will be entering the last year of their contracts and one would think they would be doing everything to win in the short term.

So why trade Diggs?

It’s possible that Diggs’ Twitter activity on Monday, including a tweet that stated “it’s time for a new beginning,” made Spielman realize that he had little choice but to move the talented Diggs and the Bills’ offer was too good to turn down. But hours after Cousins celebrated his latest haul of guaranteed money from the Purple, he was informed he will be losing a guy who caught 169 of his passes for 2,227 yards and 16 touchdowns in 32 games over two seasons. Adam Thielen and Diggs have been considered wide receivers 1A and 1B for the Vikings the past four years, but we’re about to find out if Thielen is a true No. 1 by himself. More importantly, Cousins is about to find out.

An absolute steal as a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 2015, Diggs made an immediate impact as he became the first Vikings rookie to lead the team in receptions (52). He caught a career-high 102 passes for 1,021 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games in 2018, Cousins’ first season at quarterback, but his reception total dropped to 63 for 1,130 yards and six touchdowns last season in Gary Kubiak’s first year overseeing the offense. Coach Mike Zimmer and Kubiak wanted to run the ball and feature running back Dalvin Cook and, if Diggs didn’t like that, well, too bad.

Diggs made it clear he wasn’t thrilled with the direction of things last spring when he skipped several of the Vikings’ Organized Team Activities. If that didn’t alert everyone to something being off, Diggs made it clear how unhappy he was when he skipped Monday meetings and a Wednesday practice after the Vikings’ loss in Chicago in Week 4 dropped them to 2-2.

Diggs caught seven passes for 108 yards in that game but still decided to protest. The Vikings fined him more than $200,000 for his absences but he played the following week against the Giants in New Jersey and caught three passes for 44 yards. That started a four-game winning streak for the Vikings and they won six of their next seven. Diggs’ emotions got the best of him on more than one occasion during games, but his teammates did their best to say that was just his competitive nature and that he actually was positive on the sideline.

One of Diggs’ most memorable moments last season came in Week 11 against Denver at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings trailed 20-0 at halftime and looked completely lifeless. In the second half, the Vikings trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter when Diggs caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from Cousins in an eventual 27-23 victory. Diggs caught five passes for 121 yards and provided an emotional spark to both his teammates and the crowd. It was as if Diggs was saying, “If Kirk doesn’t have the ability to show the type of emotion that’s needed, I do.”

Now that emotion has been banished to Buffalo. Diggs will get to find out how he enjoys life with Josh Allen and Co. Diggs joins a list of players who have been jettisoned or left the Vikings in recent days, including cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Diggs always will be remembered for his 61-yard touchdown catch from Case Keenum on the final play of regulation in the Vikings’ miraculous 29-24 victory over the Saints in the 2017 NFC divisional playoffs. U.S. Bank Stadium has never been louder and Diggs has never been more emotional.

That Vikings team advanced to the NFC title game and then returned in 2018 with Cousins on board and high hopes of making a Super Bowl run. The Vikings didn’t make the playoffs that year but the direction of that franchise was clear, even if it fell well short of expectations. The direction for the 2020 Vikings? Right now, that’s anyone’s guess.

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