Shortly after trading defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday morning for two draft picks, Rick Spielman balked at calling the move the start of a rebuild and pointed at the quality players who remain on the roster of a 1-5 team that is coming off an embarrassing loss to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons. Spielman is entitled to spin the truth however he pleases, but what he has to realize is that doesn’t mean any of us will buy what he’s selling.
What the Vikings’ general manager started on Thursday, and what is likely to continue until the NFL trade deadline arrives a week from Tuesday, will be a tear down that should provide future assets (in the form of draft picks) and leave coach Mike Zimmer with a roster that will have enough players to field a team each weekend and little more. Ngakoue, acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars on Aug. 30 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick, landed the Vikings a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick.
Was it an ideal return? No. But Ngakoue is in the final season of his contract and with the NFL salary cap potentially set to decrease by $23.2 million next year, Ngakoue likely was going to want a deal the Vikings could not afford. Ngakoue had a team-leading five sacks in six games, but that meant little in a lost season. Spielman’s upcoming housecleaning should include tight end Kyle Rudolph, safety Anthony Harris, left tackle Riley Reiff and others. Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated reported Thursday afternoon that the Vikings have “let teams know they’ll listen on anyone,” in potential trade talks.
Breer’s list of available players included right guard Pat Elflein and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, but those two don’t figure to get much, if anything, in return. What the Vikings need to be willing to do is shop safety Harrison Smith, who has one season left on his contract after this and would be incredibly valuable to a contender.
Spielman’s attempt to play let’s make a deal wasn’t the only notable thing involving the Vikings on the Thursday of their bye week. It also was reported that standout defensive left end Danielle Hunter will have season-ending surgery to clean up a herniated disc, meaning an injury that Zimmer described as a “little tweak” in training camp actually was a very big deal. The report came from Ian Rapoport of NFL Network via Twitter and included this line: Minnesota has a decision this offseason: Make Hunter the highest-paid defender in football or trade him. Have we seen the last of him in a Vikings uniform?
If that sounds ominous it should, given that Hunter still has three years remaining on the five-year, $72 million extension he signed in June 2018. That was a team-friendly deal, but Rapoport’s tweet sounds like Hunter is tired of being the 18th highest-paid defensive end in the NFL with an average salary of $14.4 million and wants a pay day that reflects his value and the fact he became the fastest player ever to reach 50 sacks in a career.
Coming off a neck injury and with the salary cap set to go down, will the Vikings give Hunter what he wants or try to trade him, too? If this sounds like a mess, well, that’s because it is. That’s also why Spielman’s words won’t carry nearly as much weight as his actions.
Those actions should be making sure the Vikings lose as many of their final 10 games as possible. Draft position is everything in this case, and any feel-good victories that come for the remainder of 2020 are only going to get in the way of what should be the ultimate goal for owners Zygi and Mark Wilf. That will be finishing high enough in the draft order to grab a top quarterback who can replace Kirk Cousins.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is considered the top quarterback in the upcoming draft and figures to be the likely target of the woeful and winless New York Jets. Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance are the second and third ranked QBs, respectively. The Vikings’ issue is that while Spielman can shed many veteran contracts for mid-round draft picks, getting rid of Cousins is going to be impossible during the season and extremely difficult and expensive after it.
In a perfect world, Cousins would be in the final season of the three-year, $84 million deal he signed with the Vikings in March 2018. But that isn’t the case because Cousins was given a two-year, $66 million extension last March that enabled Minnesota to free up $10 million in salary cap space to sign defensive tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million free agent contract. Pierce opted out of this season because of concerns about COVID-19, and Cousins has spent the first six games playing some of the worst football of his career. It’s a definite lose-lose.
Walking away from Cousins after this season would be ideal, but cutting him before June 1, 2021, results in a $41 million hit on the Vikings’ salary cap. A trade before June 1, would lower that to a $20 million cap hit and after June 1 the figure is $10 million. But who is going to want Cousins’ contract? It gets worse. If Cousins is on the Vikings’ roster on the third day of the league year in 2021, his $35 million base salary for 2022 will become fully guaranteed.
This is a massive headache and the question now is who gets the honor of handling it? Spielman and Zimmer received three-year contract extensions before the season began, and are now signed through 2023, but Cousins’ contract could (should?) cost Spielman his job and the Vikings’ performance (especially the no-show we saw against the Falcons) could get Zimmer shown the door. (Hey, does Dallas still want to make that trade for Zimmer?)
There is a case to be made that Spielman has run out of chances to make decisions on who should be the Vikings’ quarterback. What does make sense, in the short term, is for Spielman to be allowed to continue to trade veterans for draft picks. Spielman almost certainly would like to get as many picks as possible to replenish the roster. This is a guy who made 15 picks — a record for the seven-round draft — last April.
The Wilfs might have other ideas. A GM with a better understanding of quarterbacks — and a head coach who is offensive minded (somebody like that kid in Cleveland, Kevin Stefanski) — could look at the plethora of picks Spielman lands in the coming days and package many of them together to move up even higher in the draft and enable the Vikings to finally solve their quarterback issue.
Perhaps then the Vikings can begin to get themselves out of the mess they’ve created.