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Playing (and Planning) for Next Season

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Let’s face facts. At 1-5, the Vikings’ post-season hopes are pretty much nil. Sure they could run the table and end up 11-5, as I predicted pre-season, but that just isn’t going to happen. It’s not going to happen because the Vikings haven’t been able to develop their new guys sufficiently in a short time (except Justin Jefferson), and the Vikings defense will be without key people up-front the rest of the season.

The contenders this season seem to share one key ingredient: not much player turnover and /or a key veteran upgrade or two. Packers have basically the same starters as last year. KC too. Bills the same plus Diggs. Steelers the same plus Big Ben back. Seahawks same plus Jamal Adams. Bucs have more turnover, but brought in proven vets, including the GOAT. Titans basically the same as last year, Ravens largely too. That’s been the key to playing better without an off-season: Have starters that don’t really need one.

The Vikings had continuity on offense for the most part, and have the 5th ranked unit according to PFF after 6 weeks. The defense is another story. Rookies and injured/opt-out vets have seen Zimmer’s defense fall to 30th in the league. It hasn’t helped that the young and injured Vikings defense has gone up against the 1st, 2nd and 3rd ranked offenses in the league in their first six games, along with the 13th and 16th ranked. The only offense they managed to beat was the 21st ranked Texans.

In any case, it’s been a funky season anyway, made so by Covid-19, and just a few months ago people were wondering if there would even be a season. Even now with a resurgence of Covid cases, there’s no guarantee how/when the season will end.

And so it makes sense for the Vikings to plan for next season, largely by giving their young players of the future the reps to be quality starters next year. They also need to make decisions on some high-profile vets as they plan for the future.

Play The Young Guys

The best thing the Vikings can do for the rest of the season is to play and develop their young talent. Guys like Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland, and DJ Wonnum have had their problems and rookie mistakes, but the key to improvement is coaching and more reps. Guys like James Lynch and Oli Udoh need to see more reps as well. These players are the future. This is a great time to get them out there and learn, develop, and get better in real game situations. Don’t waste reps on guys that aren’t the future.

Time to Move on from some Veterans

Trading Yannick Ngakoue was the right thing to do. The Vikings don’t have the salary cap to keep him next season, and better to trade him for what they could get than have him take reps away from the guy who’ll be starting next year.

There are other vets too that the Vikings could put on the trading block. Here are a few names that make sense, even though they may not be popular moves:

Riley Reiff. Reiff is having a good season and could fetch as high as a second-round pick, as he’s under contract next year too. A contending team that needs a left tackle may be willing to make the sacrifice. But if the Vikings aren’t able to trade Reiff for a good price, I’d start him at left guard the rest of the season and see how he fits there. If he does well, keep him and maybe even re-work/extend his contract. If not, let him go in the off-season.

Pat Elflein. I doubt many would shed a tear to see Elflein traded, presuming he’s healthy enough to play (how many games should a lineman miss with a finger injury?). Elflein isn’t the future, and should have been let go a long time ago. I doubt the Vikings would get much for Elflein, but something is better than nothing and a team needing to bolster its guard spot may throw the Vikings a 3rd day pick for him.

Harrison Smith. Yes, Harrison Smith. Harry’s been a great safety his whole career with the Vikings, but will turn 32 in a few months. Anthony Harris is 29. If the Vikings keep only one high priced safety, why would it be Smith- who’s only got another year or two left at a high level? Smith could fetch a 2nd round pick.

Kirk Cousins. I’d be surprised if the Vikings could deal Cousins this year before the trade deadline, but maybe the 49ers would make the move? This off-season there could be more interest from other teams, and trading Cousins would be easier on the Vikings’ salary cap- only $20MM in dead cap if they traded him before his 2022 salary is guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year, saving them $11MM in 2021 cap space.

Kyle Rudolph. There are teams that would be interested in trading for Rudolph. He has a good reputation in the league and there are plenty of teams that need a decent, reliable TE that is also a big threat in the red zone. He’s got 3 more years under contract, and could also fetch a 2nd or 3rd round pick.

Tajae Sharpe. He didn’t make the starting line-up for the Vikings, and the Vikings could perhaps land a late round pick for him from a WR needy team.

That’s a lot of potential trades - and at least a couple would be blockbusters. I don’t expect the Vikings will deal all of these players, but they should be open to it. It’s not just the draft pick compensation the Vikings should be considering- it’s also the salary cap. With the 2021 salary cap going down to potentially $175 million, there could be a number of quality veterans on the market this coming off-season. Clearing some big contracts from the Vikings salary cap could give them the capital to pick up some bargains as teams let loose some quality players to get under the cap.

Tank for Trey? Lose for Lance?

At the moment, the Vikings are I believe #5 or #6 in the 2021 draft order, and that puts them in as good a position as they’re likely to get in terms of drafting a top QB. It would seem the Jets would take Trevor Lawrence, and Justin Fields is another high profile QB from OSU, but I’d be happy if the Vikings could land Trey Lance with their first pick next April. From what I’ve seen and read, he seems to have as much upside as the other top QBs, but coming out of NDSU doesn’t have the visibility of the other two and so may not be either the 1st or 2nd QB chosen.

Beyond the first round, the Vikings will need to replenish their defense. A safety could be the next pick they make. Could also be a DT or LB. Maybe another guard, although it would be nice if they could land a quality vet in that spot to go with all the other young guys.

Time to Re-Tool

This wasn’t meant to be a total re-tool season for the Vikings, but the 1-5 start has turned it into that. I’d call it a re-tool, as young players take over from older ones. In any case, you play the cards dealt and that means giving the young guys a chance to develop at this point. A normal off/pre-season would likely have seen better play from the rookies on defense, and would have given them a better chance to gel. But such was not the case. However, they can take advantage of the next ten games to work out the kinks and improve both individually and as a unit. But without Danielle Hunter and Micheal Pierce this year, it would’ve been an uphill battle on defense - had it been a normal year.

If the Vikings finish as bad as they started the season, they’ll be in a great spot to draft a QBOTF, and they should not hesitate to seize the opportunity, even if they keep Cousins for another year or two. But they also need to manage their salary cap space, and moving on from some older vets and others without a long future with the Vikings makes immediate sense as well.

What About Zimmer and Spielman?

This isn’t a package deal. Zimmer and Spielman should be evaluated separately on their merits.

Spielman has been one of the best drafting GMs in the league since taking over that position, and starting anew there doesn’t make sense. Particularly when it could also mean losing most of the scouting staff. Spielman wouldn’t be out of work for long, and likely would take a lot of his staff with him. That would create a disruption in an area crucial to the Vikings future, and would more likely be a further setback, rather than an improvement.

Zimmer may be a different story. We’ll see how the defense finishes the season, and how well the young guys develop. If Zimmer proves he still has it as a defensive guru, then I’d keep him on. He’s always prided himself on being a good teacher, and picks his defensive coaching staff that way, and that’s what the Vikings need now.

But if Zimmer looks to be going stale in developing his new players, and managing the defensive scheme, the Vikings could consider replacing him as head coach with Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator for the 49ers. Saleh will be 42 in January, and has done a great job with the 49ers defense over the last four seasons. Retaining Gary Kubiak and Company on offense would give Saleh a steady hand on that side of the ball, and allow him to re-work the defense. Saleh worked under Gary Kubiak for several years in Houston. He could potentially bring in Dan Quinn as his defensive coordinator as well - they both worked in Seattle together. He could draw other coaches to him as well.

Be that as it may, I wouldn’t be premature in firing Zimmer, and I’d also make sure a top-quality replacement was secured before doing so. The main thing to determine is if the bad defense is a result of Zimmer and his defensive staff going south, or simply the difficulties of having a lot of turnover in a Covid shortened off/pre-season.

Poll

Is the Vikings Poor Season Mainly the Result of:

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Bad coaching, especially on defense
    (338 votes)
  • 51%
    Covid shortened off/pre-season negatively impacting young player development, along with injured/opted-out key veterans
    (1088 votes)
  • 31%
    Bad personnel moves/draft picks
    (668 votes)
2094 votes total Vote Now