The uncertainty surrounding the upcoming NFL season has slowed the transaction business a bit in recent months, but right now it appears as if teams will report to training camp in late July and hope that the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t brings things to a halt.
This creates an interesting situation for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer as they look to strengthen their roster in a few areas. This almost certainly includes the cornerback spot, where outside starters Xavier Rhodes (signed with the Colts after being released) and Trae Waynes (signed with the Bengals as a free agent) and nickel starter Mackensie Alexander (signed with the Bengals as a free agent) are all gone.
The Vikings have potential replacements in 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes, as well as Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney and 2020 third-round pick Cameron Dantzler. What’s missing is a veteran who can be plugged in to help stabilize things and give at least one of the kids more time to learn. Or, in the case of Hughes, step in if he continues to have injury issues.
There remain options on the free agent market — Darqueze Dennard, Logan Ryan and Dre Kirkpatrick — but ESPN’s Field Yates recently had another idea about how the Vikings could improve their secondary. Yates suggested a deal that would send left tackle Riley Reiff to the Los Angeles Chargers for nickel corner Desmond King II. Yates, writing for ESPN’s Insider account, suggested the Vikings pay $3.8 million of Reiff’s base salary in 2020 to make the deal work.
Yates wrote: “The Vikings drafted Ezra Cleveland out of Boise State, their heir apparent to Reiff, in the second round of this year’s draft, which makes a trade of Reiff more viable. Now, it’s likely that Minnesota would want to maintain its veteran presence in protecting Kirk Cousins’ blind side (particularly with a limited, at best, offseason), but the Vikings are navigating a tightrope with the salary cap because of a roster featuring many excellent players. In trading Reiff (even while paying a portion of his salary this season), Minnesota would free up salary-cap space and acquire a versatile defensive back in King.”
The 25-year-old King was a fifth-round pick in 2017 by the Chargers out of Iowa and is due to make a base salary of $2.1 million in the final season of his rookie contract. Why would the Chargers be willing to part with King? After a solid first two seasons in the NFL, King took a step backward last season as opposing quarterbacks had a 114.5 passer rating against him. That placed King 47th in the league; he also gave up an 87.8 completion percentage in coverage. King’s struggles were concerning enough to the Chargers that they signed veteran cornerback Chris Harris to a two-year, $17 million in March.
Despite his struggles in 2019, there are reasons King makes sense for the Vikings. It starts with Zimmer’s success with cornerbacks and his ability to get the most out of them. King has the ability to be used as a safety blitzer — he has 6.5 sacks in three seasons — and also has been an effective run stopper. That’s a potentially attractive skillset. While Zimmer has the ability to develop young defensive backs, he doesn’t like to rush them and putting too much on Gladney or Dantzler’s plate in their rookie season could backfire.
While it appears as if Hughes would be the choice to play inside in the nickel, King’s presence would change that and free up Hughes to take over for Rhodes or Waynes. That, in turn, would take some of the pressure off one of the younger players.
Bu here’s the issue with Yates’ proposed deal. Reiff might not be the most popular player among Vikings fans, but do you really want to subtract him from an offensive line that continues to have question marks when it comes to protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins? Cleveland might turn into a very good left tackle, but subtracting Reiff at this point seems like an unecessary gamble.
The better move would be to offer the Chargers a draft pick for King. Spielman is no stranger to obtaining and dealing draft picks. Right now, it’s projected the Vikings will have 12 picks in the 2021 draft, including the expected compensatory selections they will get for the departure of free agents. One projection has the Vikings likely with three fourth-round picks, two fifth-round selections and two more in the sixth.
Doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult to offer the Chargers a fifth- and sixth-rounder and see what they say. Best case, King bounces back in 2020, provides the Vikings with excellent play inside in the nickel and now you have to make a decision about signing him for 2021. Worst case, it doesn’t work and you let him walk after paying him a very reasonable salary for one year.
That seems like a gamble worth taking and we’re willing to bet that, either way, Spielman won’t be lacking for draft picks next April.