There is still time for the Vikings’ offseason plan to become clear and start making sense. Maybe general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer have a vision for the franchise that only they can see. Right now, however, the Vikings’ moves in the past week have created confusion and provided little confidence.
Exactly what are the Vikings doing? Are they trying to still win games in 2020, or is this all about the 2021 season and beyond? And if that’s the case, then why hasn’t the team announced Spielman and Zimmer have been given contract extensions beyond the coming year?
The mixed messages started on Monday when quarterback Kirk Cousins, entering the last year of his three-year, $84 million contract, was rewarded with a two-year extension worth $66 million that will run through 2022. There had been speculation that the Vikings should let Cousins play out the final season of his contract to see how things went, but that didn’t happen. Then there was the decision on Monday to place the franchise tag on safety Anthony Harris, who will be paid about $11.4 million if he isn’t traded.
Those two moves served as an indication the Vikings remained all in for 2020. Only that evening the Vikings sent disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for a haul of draft picks that could serve the team well in the future. The problem is in the short term the trade jettisoned one of the Top 10 wide receivers in the NFL and cost Cousins his best receiver.
Diggs joined cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who were released, in what has become The Eagan Exodus. Also gone since Monday are cornerbacks Trae Waynes (signed as a free agent with Cincinnati) and Mackensie Alexander (signed as a free agent with Cincinnati); safety Jayron Kearse (signed as a free agent with Detroit); defensive end Stephen Weatherly (signed as a free agent with Carolina); and guard Josh Kline (contract terminated). Defensive end Everson Griffen, who elected to void his contract last month, also announced via social media on Friday that he would not be returning.
The Vikings did sign run-stuffing defensive tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million free agent deal and kept punter Britton Colquitt and kicker Dan Bailey on a pair of three-year deals. There were a few others retained — such as fullback C.J. Ham — but the Vikings’ direction or plan has never been more unclear.
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The number of players who left isn’t a big of a surprise. The Vikings needed to let some of their aging players depart (Griffen, Rhodes, Joseph), and Waynes was grossly overpaid by the Bengals at three years, $42 million. The decision to release Kline after one season was only surprising because it didn’t create substantial savings, and the Vikings’ left guard last season, Pat Elflein, was far worse than Kline was at right guard.
But where this really fails to make sense traces back to the decision on Cousins. We have all seen enough of Cousins to say that the plan for him to be the final piece of the Vikings’ Super Bowl puzzle simply did not work. He’s a good quarterback and a great box score, but he’s not a championship level quarterback unless he’s surrounded by a top five offensive line and several top-level skill position guys, one of whom was Diggs.
There are two reasons why the Vikings might have panicked and extended Cousins.
The first is that extending his contract created $10 million in additional salary cap space and the Vikings were in desperate need of that room to make any moves. Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ executive vice president of football operations, long has been one of the best salary cap guys in the business, but not even his mathematical genius can save this situation.
Too many players were kept around for too long, and too many guys (Anthony Barr, for instance) were brought back when they should have been allowed to walk. Now, there is a price to pay. The Vikings reportedly were able to restructure defensive end Danielle Hunter’s contract late in the week and now have $13.96 million in cap room, putting them 23rd in a 32-team league.
The second reason for keeping Cousins is that Spielman and Co., have realized that as good as they are at finding players at many positions there have been too many swings and misses at the most important spot in all of sports and, for all Cousins’ issues, he’s a second-level quarterback who rarely is going to be embarrass you. The one confusing thing is why Spielman and Zimmer don’t get out of the way and let offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak pick the quarterback, but the level of panic about job security might make this an issue that comes down to a ticking clock.
But if you are going to keep Cousins, and subtract Diggs, how good is your offense going to be? Adam Thielen is a very good receiver, but Diggs’ presence made him far more dangerous. The offensive line has to be improved and, if you’re going to trust Cousins, his blindside protection has to be substantially improved. Cousins has absolutely zero ability to sense pressure and move in the pocket (unless it’s scripted) and is such a fumbling machine that by late in the 2019 season it was clear he was being told that if there was any doubt he should tuck the ball and fall down.
Zimmer’s love for running the ball likely means that running back Dalvin Cook is in for a big contract extension but giving him a rich, long-term deal like Dallas gave Ezekiel Elliott (six years, $90 million with $50 million in guarantees) would be a mistake. Cook, entering his fourth season, is a marvelous player, but he has yet to prove he can stay healthy and he plays a position at which production is usually limited to a very brief period of time. Plus, Diggs’ absence means that even more focus can go on Cook.
So what are the Vikings doing?
The unknown is the fact that after the Diggs trade they have 12 picks in the upcoming draft and that could increase if Harris is moved. The Vikings now have the 22nd and 25th picks in the first round and five in the first three rounds. This could enable Spielman to get into the Top 10 in the draft and take an immediate impact player, or possibly make a trade for a veteran left tackle, such as Washington’s Trent Williams.
These type of moves wouldn’t turn the Vikings into a Super Bowl favorite, but it might bring a bit of clarity to what Spielman and Zimmer have in mind. For the time being, their plan, if they have one, remains a mystery.