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Zulgad: Wait Till Next Year: Vikings’ decisions should be made for future, not the present

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates after sacking Detroit Lions quarterback David Blough (not pictured) during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings will enter Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium with a chance to “improve” to 2-4 on the season. It’s a game the Vikings should win, given the fact the Falcons fired their general manager and coach after losing to Carolina last Sunday, and, if they do, there will be talk about how the Vikings could be 3-2, if only games against Tennessee and Seattle hadn’t slipped away. The pro-Purple folks will point to the addition of a seventh playoff spot in each conference as evidence that hope for a postseason berth remains alive.

But as the Vikings enter their bye week in a so-far disappointing season, there should be only two things that matter at TCO Performance Center: How much improvement have the team’s young players shown, and how much of a priority should be put on keeping key injured players on the sideline?

Let’s start with the second item. Defensive end Danielle Hunter has gone from having a tweak in training camp — that was the word used by coach Mike Zimmer — to having a neck injury that reportedly has some doctors telling the standout pass rusher that he should skip the season. If that’s what the doctors are saying, Hunter and the Vikings should be listening.

There is nothing the Vikings are going to do this season that makes gambling on Hunter’s health worth it. Nothing. Hunter is a marvelous young player (25 years old), has 14.5 sacks in each of the past two years, is signed to a team-friendly contract and should be protected at all costs. If there is even the slightest doubt about Hunter’s neck, the Vikings should err on the side of caution and announce he will miss the rest of the season during the bye week.

Whether Hunter needs surgery or just rest isn’t clear, but there is no such thing as a minor neck injury and this clearly is extremely serious. The Vikings should accept their losses now and hope to have a healthy Hunter to open the 2021 season.

While running back Dalvin Cook’s recent groin injury doesn’t come close to being as concerning as what Hunter is going through, this is another situation in which the Vikings’ chances for 2020 have to be weighed against the potential of having Cook do significant damage, if he returns too early. The Vikings are going to make Cook’s status sound like it’s week-to-week — which is fine, let them have their fun — but you have to think the smart move would be to shut him down well into November.

This is where it’s tricky with Cook. He’s one of the NFL’s best running backs when he’s healthy, but far too often that isn’t the case. Cook, who was injured early in the third quarter of last Sunday night’s loss in Seattle, leads the NFL with 489 rushing yards. He’s also a very good receiver and can pass protect. That’s why the Vikings rewarded him in September with a five-year contract extension that made him the fifth-highest paid running back in the NFL with an average salary of $12.6 million per year.

But when Cook misses Sunday’s game, he will have sat out 20 of a possible 54 regular-season games since he was taken in the second round of the 2017 draft. Alexander Mattison, a third-round pick in 2019, will replace Cook for an undetermined amount of time. I’ve been in favor of getting Cook as many touches as possible, given the race against time when it comes to the health of a running back, but there could be a case to be made here that you now save Cook as much as possible for 2021 and hope that’s the first season in which he can play all 16 games.

Is it perfect? No. But making Cook’s injury worse in a largely lost season doesn’t seem like a wise move. The good thing is that getting a long look at Mattison in the No. 1 running back role wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Zimmer has frequently talked about his lack of patience, but this is a season where he has no choice but to be patient.

It was the Vikings decision to go with all young cornerbacks this season, and it’s clear they aren’t coming off of that plan. That’s fine but it also means there are going to be some serious growing pains for guys like Mike Hughes, Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney and Holton Hill. Some of them will learn and develop and some might prove they don’t belong, but you are committed to finding out who can do what. The Vikings spent the past four weeks watching Dru Samia struggle at left guard, after Pat Elflein struggled in Week 1 and then got hurt.

A team that’s committed to making the playoffs, wouldn’t be holding what amounts to an open audition to protect its highly paid quarterback. There would have been a better plan in place. But on Sunday, it looks as if second-round pick Ezra Cleveland will replace Dakota Dozier at left guard and Dozier will slide into Samia’s spot after he was injured in practice this week.

Cleveland, drafted to play left tackle, might have some issues initially at guard, just as the young cornerbacks continue to learn. But that shouldn’t bother the Vikings at this point. The key will be making sure that young players’ struggles in 2020 serve as valuable experience for 2021, and that Hunter and Cook are ready to go when it matters again.