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Zulgad: Face the facts: Vikings need to begin accepting the reality of their situation

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Dec 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) fumbles after a sack by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings began the NFL’s legal tampering period on Monday morning targeting a list of top-tier free agents that they felt could help them bounce back from a 7-9 finish in 2020. Defensive ends Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson were on the list. So was cornerback Shaquill Griffin and guard Joe Thuney. Simply landing one of those players before the NFL’s new league year began on Wednesday afternoon would have been considered an accomplishment.

Instead, the Vikings went 0-for-4.

As free agency opened, the team announced it had signed defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, linebacker Nigil Vigil and then cornerback Patrick Peterson. Tomlinson, who agreed to a two-year, $22 million contract, will provide another big presence alongside nose tackle Michael Pierce, who sat out last season because of  concerns about the pandemic after being the Vikings’ marquee free agent signing a year ago. Peterson, signed to a one-year, $10 million deal, will serve as a veteran presence for a still-young cornerback group but he’s well past his prime.

The Pierce-Tomlinson combination — a combined 658 pounds — means that a Vikings run defense that finished a putrid 27th in the NFL last season should be much improved. But getting better against the run was only a part of the plan for a team that wanted to add a defensive end to help a pass rush that finished 28th in the league with 23 sacks. Griffin could have helped a young cornerback corps that lacked veteran leadership last season, and Thuney would have brought much-needed stability at left guard.

Lawson elected to take a three-year, $45 million offer from the Jets. Hendrickson, the Vikings’ Plan B if Lawson went elsewhere, got four years and $60 million from the Bengals. Griffin took advantage of all the salary-cap room in Jacksonville to negotiate a three-year, $44.5 million deal, and Thuney, one of the bigger prizes of the 2021 free agent class, locked into a five-year, $80 million contract with Kansas City.

Perhaps the above contracts were too rich for the Vikings. The salary cap dropped 8 percent from last season to $182.5 million for 2021 because of the pandemic, meaning many teams had less to spend than they expected. But the Vikings had worked to create cap space by releasing Kyle Rudolph (signed with the Giants) and Riley Reiff (signed with the Bengals) and restructuring Anthony Barr’s contract. There were negotiations as well to free up more room by making adjustments to Adam Thielen’s contract, and Harrison Smith could be in line for an extension that will help.

While it’s easy to blame the cap for the Vikings’ problems, it’s also worth asking how eager top-level free agents are to sign in Minnesota right now? Let’s make one thing clear: Money almost always wins out, so if the Vikings had lots of space under the cap they almost certainly would have had a few big-time signings to announce on Wednesday. But with quarterback Kirk Cousins set to eat up $31 million of cap space in 2021, the franchise found itself having to cut corners to try to get under the cap.

Defensive end Danielle Hunter, who missed last season after having surgery for a herniated disk, already has the second-highest cap hit on the Vikings for next season ($17.25 million) and he has made it clear he wants the last three years of his current contract replaced with a new one. The Vikings could work to bring Hunter’s 2021 cap figure down with a rich new deal but it’s unclear when that might get done.

Will Hunter show up at training camp next July without a new contract? That is only one question that the top-level free agents the Vikings pursued could have asked before deciding to head elsewhere. There also are questions about the security of general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer, who are signed through 2023 and could be shown the door if the Vikings don’t make it to the playoffs this coming season. There is the possibility that a single playoff win wouldn’t be enough to satisfy owners Zygi and Mark Wilf this time around.

Spielman and Zimmer are clearly looking at the 2021 season as one in which the Vikings should not only make the playoffs but also have the potential to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history. That seems like a pipe dream to us realists. The Vikings’ run to the NFC title game in 2017 was followed by the all-in move of signing Cousins as a free agent.

It was the right move at the time because Case Keenum was never going to repeat his magical 2017. Unfortunately, it did not work and the Vikings have made only one playoff appearance in Cousins’ three seasons. Meanwhile, a defense that was a huge part of the Vikings’ success has grown old and either been replaced or has declining players.

The Vikings might not want to acknowledge it, but their window for championship success is closed. Everyone around the league knows it, including the top-level free agents that Spielman and Co., have tried to recruit. Ask yourself this: What’s the Vikings’ main selling point right? What would excite a free agent about playing here?

Getting a chance to play with Cousins in a run-first offense that often looks like something out of 1995? No. Getting an opportunity to play with an organization that has made it clear the offensive line is rarely a priority? No. How about a defense that was once one of the best in the NFL and is now being rebuilt? No, again.

Ultimately, of course, the Vikings did land a few players and should be more competitive in 2021 than they were in 2020. But what they aren’t is an attractive destination for players who can make a major difference.