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Zulgad: The long view: Vikings' moves indicate team is putting focus on the future

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 18, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (L) speaks with general manager Rick Spielman (R) prior to their game against the Kansas City Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings’ decision to hold off on giving coach Mike Zimmer a contract extension for much of the offseason created a level of uncertainty about what the expectations would be for 2020. Sending Zimmer into the last season of his contract, or even giving him a one-year extension through 2021, would have created the impression that he was coaching for his job.

That would have been fine if Zimmer had a team with many familiar pieces, but that was going to be far from the case. That became clear months ago as the Vikings drafted an NFL record-breaking 15 players in April. Zimmer’s pride and joy, the Vikings’ defense, lost nine players total, including five starters. Starting corners Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander (who played in the nickel) are all gone. The offense also suffered a significant loss when wide receiver Stefon Diggs forced a trade that landed him in Buffalo.

The Vikings’ decision to turn over key parts of the roster could be considered wise by some, but creating a win-or-else scenario for the coach, not to mention general manager Rick Spielman, seemed odd. Turns out that won’t be the case. The Vikings announced Friday that the 64-year-old Zimmer has agreed to a three-year extension that will take him through 2023, and it would be expected that Spielman already has agreed to a similar extension, or will be signing one in the coming weeks.

This should create some clarity around TCO Performance Center as the Vikings’ veterans get set to report to training camp on Tuesday. Rookies and quarterbacks showed up this past Thursday.

While there will be an expectation that the Vikings can be a playoff team this season, especially with a seventh team in each conference now set to qualify for the postseason, it’s also become clear that the Vikings will be trying to build (or rebuild) on the fly in hopes of having greater success in 2021 or 2022.

This is a bit of a balancing act for Spielman and Zimmer because the Vikings are coming off a 10-6 finish and advanced to the second round of the playoffs after upsetting New Orleans in a wild card game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, entering his third season in Minnesota, signed a two-year, $66 million contract extension in March that will run through 2022.

From the day Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million free agent deal in March 2018, there has been nothing long term about the Vikings’ plan. That move, coming after the Vikings went 13-3 and then lost to Philadelphia in the NFC title game in 2017, was all about winning immediately. But Spielman, and to a certain extent Zimmer, can’t be blamed if they have told ownership that they have to at least tap the brakes.

Zimmer had the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the NFL last season, but that came with Rhodes having become a liability and Waynes about to hit a big free agent payday (three years, $42 million from Cincinnati) on the free agent market.

The job of having three new starting cornerbacks already was going to be a tough one, but the task of getting guys like first-round pick Jeff Gladney and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler ready to play will be made even tougher after the coronavirus wiped out Organized Team Activities and minicamps and only allowed for virtual teaching by coaches. The pandemic also will impact training camps, almost certainly wipe out all preseason games and could impact the start of the regular season.

So even if the Vikings are hoping to get a small number of their 15 picks ready for the beginning of the season that’s going to be a difficult task. There has been talk second-round tackle Ezra Cleveland could be moved to left guard, but no matter where you play him in 2020, you’re going to be asking a lot of guy who will be trying to make the jump from Boise State to the NFL and has limited knowledge of what the Vikings’ coaching staff wants from him.

There will be big-time expectations for first-round wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the 22nd pick from LSU, but there is no way he is going to step in from day one and simply replace Diggs, one of the best receivers in the NFL. Plus, Jefferson appears to be most comfortable lined up in the slot, raising questions about who will become the vertical threat for Cousins.

None of this means the Vikings can’t be good in 2020. The offense still has running back Dalvin Cook, assuming he doesn’t stage a contract holdout; wide receiver Adam Thielen is healthy and remains a threat; tight end Irv Smith Jr., should take an important step; and tight end Kyle Rudolph remains a solid player. The Vikings also have their flaws on offense, starting with a line that needs to show improvement in protecting Cousins, especially when it comes to the interior members.

Zimmer appears to be OK leaving that side of the ball to veteran offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and focusing his efforts on defense. Veteran safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris — set to make a combined $19.8 million in base salary this season — will be counted on to help the young cornerbacks get by, especially early in the season, but there’s only so much they can do. Right end Everson’s Griffen’s eight sacks are gone, and it remains to be seen how his departure impacts standout left end Danielle Hunter, who has 14.5 sacks each of the past two seasons.

Michael Pierce was signed to a three-year, $27 million to replace Linval Joseph at nose tackle. It appeared the Vikings severed ties with Joseph before he went off the NFL cliff, but Joseph had been a Zimmer favorite and is only a few years removed from being an outstanding player.

Pierce is the type of guy who might work out, and if Spielman hit on the majority of his 15 picks the Vikings could be in very good shape. But all of this could take time. Nobody should be shocked if the Vikings win 10 games and nobody should be shocked if they are a .500 team.

The issue before the news of Zimmer’s contract extension broke was that a .500 season looked as if it would have cost him his job, with Spielman possibly being shown the door along with him. We now know that time is on both their sides.