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Evaluating Rick Spielman

Let’s kick-off the Vikings off-season evaluations with the Vikings football-related front office staff, led by General Manager Rick Spielman. His top staff include EVP Rob Brzezinski, who manages the salary cap, and VP/Asst. GM George Paton, who leads the scouting groups.

The Vikings Player Personnel / Football Administration staff led by Spielman, Brzezinski and Paton includes a total of 22 staff and 2 interns. They’re generally broken down into three groups: Pro scouting, college scouting, and analytics.

Their primary function, like all NFL team player personnel/football operations groups, is a continuous process of roster improvement. The main set pieces of that process are the draft and free agency over the spring and summer, but the process continues year-round, looking at possible trades, waivers, other team’s practice squads, even other leagues like the CFL, for possible player upgrades or needs when injuries hit a particular position group hard. Their search is typically in concert with the coaching staff, who detail the player traits they’re looking for, and the scouting team then search for potential matches.

Off-Season Free Agency Moves

At the end of last season, the Vikings needed to shed a lot of salary cap to get under the limit prior to the beginning of the league year. In doing so, a number of players were either released or extensions not pursued. Here are some of the more notable releases or players not pursued in free agency:

  • DE Everson Griffen, 32, declined a 3-year option on his contract, saving $13 million in cap space, while incurring $800K in dead cap. The Vikings reportedly had interest in re-signing Griffen, but couldn’t come to terms. Griffen signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Cowboys, but it didn’t work out and was traded to the Lions at the end of October. His overall PFF grade this season is 62.5. Ifeadi Odenigbo’s is 60.7. His salary cap is $813K.
  • CB Xavier Rhodes, 30, ended last season one of the worst performing cornerbacks in the league. It was his second underwhelming season in a row, and the worst of his pro career. He was released on March 13th, saving $8.1 million in cap space, while incurring a $4.8 million dead cap hit. Rhodes signed a 1-year, $3 million deal with the Colts. His overall PFF grade this year is 78.4. Cameron Dantzler, who looks set to replace him as CB1 for the Vikings, has a 70.9 overall PFF grade this season, and a $834K salary cap.
  • NT Linval Joseph, 31, whose play had gone downhill the last two seasons, in part due to a series of nagging injuries, was also released. That saved $10.4 million in cap space, while incurring a $2.4 million in dead cap. Joseph signed a 2-year, $17 million deal with the Chargers. His overall PFF grade this season is 70.2. Joseph’s replacement, Michael Pierce, opted-out, leaving Shamar Stephen to replace him at NT. Stephen’s overall PFF grade this season is 64.2. His salary cap is $5.03 million.
  • CB Trae Waynes, who’d been an average starting cornerback over his rookie contract for the Vikings - somewhat disappointing considering he was the 11th overall draft pick in 2015 - was not pursued for a contract extension after his 5th year rookie contract option was exercised. Waynes signed a 3-year, $14 million average annual value contract with the Bengals, but was on IR most of the season and hasn’t played at all.
  • CB MacKensie Alexander opted for a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bengals. The Vikings reportedly had some interest in extending Alexander, but he was reportedly upset about having to play week 17, a game when he was injured, and decided he wanted a change. His overall PFF grade this season is 60.4. Jeff Gladney, who replaced him as slot CB, has a PFF grade of 49.8. His salary cap is $2 million. Harrison Hand has also played some slot CB this season, and has a PFF grade of 74.9 and a salary cap of $685K.
  • RG Josh Kline was asked to take a pay cut one year after signing with the Vikings, which he refused to do, so he was released. Kline had been a roughly average, or just below, right guard for the Vikings, but also missed time with a concussion and foot injury. The decision to approach Kline with a pay cut, and ultimately release him was a bit of a mystery. His contract and pay cut amount weren’t huge, and he’d been a decent performer, but his medical history may have been a factor. In any case, he remained unsigned this season. Kline’s released saved $1.56 million in cap space while incurring $2.67 million in dead cap.
  • S Jayron Kearse was also not pursued for an extension, despite being a good special teamer and generally filling-in fine when called upon at safety. He signed a 1-year, $2 million deal with the Lions. His overall PFF grade this season is 55.7. The Lions released him this week.
  • DE Stephen Weatherly was also not pursued, and signed a 2-year, $12.5 million deal with Carolina. His overall PFF grade this season is 53.7.

The Vikings were able to shed a total of $33 million in salary cap overall, avoided overpaying mediocre players, while picking up some compensatory pick(s) in the process. Of all these players, either released or not pursued, only Xavier Rhodes has done well this year and played above his replacement level.

Other Deals, Transactions

  • Kirk Cousins’ contract was extended by two years on March 16th, with an AAV of $33 million (7th among QBs), with $30 million from his existing contract converted to a signing bonus, freeing-up $10 million in 2020 cap space. Cousins was the 5th highest PFF graded QB in the league last season (ahead of Mahomes), and this season he’s 9th overall.
  • The Vikings used the franchise tag on Anthony Harris, extending him another year for $11.4 million, which was less than his estimated market value. Harris was the 2nd highest PFF graded safety in the league last season.
  • Converted $6 million of Eric Kendricks’ 2020 salary into a signing bonus, freeing-up some cap space this year, but kicking most into future years.
  • Vikings also converted $8 million of Danielle Hunter’s 2020 salary into a signing bonus, freeing-up $6 million in 2020 cap space, but adding $2 million in each of the next three years.
  • Riley Reiff was also asked to take a $5 million pay cut, which he agreed to, saving that much cap space, and more in-line with Reiff’s market value. To his credit, Reiff has played well and earned $2 million in incentives based on % of snaps played.
  • The Vikings acquired 27 year-old NT Michael Pierce in free agency during the off-season, signing him to a 3-year, $27 million deal - roughly the same AAV as 31 year-old Linval Joseph’s deal with the Chargers. Pierce, 6’0”, 340 lbs., ramped up during his rookie contract to elite level in 2018 (91.0 PFF grade) before falling off in 2019, largely due to an on-going ankle injury. Pierce, who suffers from asthma and is Covid high-risk, opted out for the 2020 season, pushing his contract forward one year, with a $335K stipend for this season.
  • Dalvin Cook was extended on a 5-year, $63 million deal, with an AAV of $12.6 million. A somewhat controversial deal at the time - why pay a RB? - Cook has earned his extension this year with a Pro Bowl performance, leading the league in yards from scrimmage, rushing TDs, and second in rushing yards. His AAV is 5th highest among RBs, behind McCaffrey, Elliott, Kamara, and David Johnson - and just above Derrick Henry. The deal is structured so the Vikings could get out of it in 2023 if need be. Cook was the 5th highest graded RB in 2019, according to PFF, and is 2nd highest this year.
  • Extended K Dan Bailey and P/H Britton Colquitt, on a 3-year $10 million deal, and a 3-year $9 million deal, respectively. Bailey and Colquitt seemed to combine to solve the Vikings kicking problems last year, but they’ve cropped up again at times this season.
  • The Vikings also extended: FB C.J. Ham on a 4-year, $12 million deal; LB Eric Wilson on a 1-year, $3.259 million, 2nd round tender; OT Rashod Hill on a 1-year, $1.05 million deal; QB Sean Mannion on a 1-year, $1.05 million deal; signed WR Tajae Sharpe and OG Dakota Dozier on 1-year, $1 million deals, among other minor deals.

Stefon Diggs Trade

Of course the big splash during the off-season was the Stefon Diggs trade. The Vikings sent a disgruntled Diggs and his $14.4 million AAV contract, along with a 7th round pick to Buffalo in exchange for a 2020 1st round pick (#22 - Justin Jefferson), a 2020 5th round pick (traded for a 2021 4th round pick), and a 2020 6th round pick (traded for a 2021 5th round pick).

The Diggs trade has been widely seen as a win-win trade for both teams. Diggs has helped the Bills’ offense improve with excellent production, while the Vikings used the Bills’ #22 pick to draft Justin Jefferson, who’s exceeded Diggs’ production with the Vikings last season, and basically matched it this season.

The trade was clearly a win-win - both players have helped their teams quite a bit this year - but the Vikings are the clear winner of this trade. Why? Justin Jefferson is 21 years old, while Diggs is 27, and Jefferson’s contract AAV is $11 million/year less over four years - and Diggs’ contract may be restructured upward. Ultimately that results in the Vikings getting a much younger player - with perhaps ten years of prime remaining- with roughly similar production expectations, while also having $11 million in salary cap to buy another quality player. So the Vikings clearly came out ahead on the deal, and I doubt there is a GM in the league, with the benefit of hindsight, that wouldn’t make that trade every single time. We still don’t know the two others players the Vikings will get for Diggs as well.

Yannick Ngakoue Deals

The Vikings also made a deal to acquire DE Yannick Ngakoue from the Jaguars, probably spurred by Danielle Hunter’s injury, and not coming to terms with Everson Griffen, although reportedly the Vikings had expressed interest in Ngakoue at least a month prior to the trade being done. In the end, the Vikings sent a 2021 2nd and 5th round pick to the Jaguars in exchange for Ngakoue, who signed a below-market 1-year deal for $12 million.

Ngakoue played in six games for the Vikings, but his production wasn’t proving to be worth his $12 million salary cap, and at 1-5 the Vikings decided to cut bait, trading him to the Ravens for a 3rd and 5th round pick in the 2021 draft. He ended up a $6.8 million dead cap hit. I suspect that Ngakoue wasn’t proving to be a good fit - Andre Patterson was trying to change the way he played, and that may not have been going well. At the same time, Ifeadi Odenigbo and D.J. Wonnum may have shown enough that keeping Ngakoue - and extending him - wasn’t worth it. Ultimately, the Ngakoue experiment cost the Vikings about 45 spots in the 2021 draft - going from picking around 45th to around 90th.

2020 Draft

Prior to this draft, Spielman has been among the most successful GMs in drafting players since he became GM back in 2012. This year the Vikings ended up with a historic, 15 pick draft haul - the most since the NFL draft moved to a 7 round format, and the most since the 1992 Patriots had 17 picks. Of those 15 picks, four have become regular starters for the Vikings - Justin Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland and Cameron Dantzler. D.J. Wonnum has seen extensive playing time in rotation, while Harrison Hand has done well in more limited snaps - just over 100 so far. Only one pick - 7th rounder Brian Cole II - is no longer with the team.

Additionally, Spielman made a number of trades during the draft this past April, which also added value to the Vikings draft haul. Spielman has proven one of the most prolific draft-day traders of any GM, and has generally added value by to the Vikings draft in this way.

The initial grades for the Vikings draft were excellent - they had the best overall grades from several media outlets - and after 15 games, that doesn’t appear to have changed.

Justin Jefferson so far looks like the best pick in the draft- certainly from a value standpoint at #22 overall. He is the highest PFF graded rookie at any position this season. He remains in contention for OROY award, based on having one of the most productive rookie seasons for a WR in NFL history.

CBs Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand rank 4th and 2nd in passer rating allowed when targeted among rookies this year with at least 75 coverage snaps. Jeff Gladney ranks 15th (out of 22). Harrison Hand has the highest overall PFF grade among rookie CBs with at least 100 snaps, and Cameron Dantzler is 4th. Jeff Gladney is 15th.

Ezra Cleveland is the 2nd highest graded rookie guard this season, according to PFF, among those with at least 150 snaps. He’s also the 5th highest graded offensive lineman in the entire draft.

D.J. Wonnum has the highest pass rush productivity among rookie edge rushers with at least 200 snaps - better than #2 overall Chase Young - and tied for 2nd most pressures among rookie edge rushers this season. His overall PFF grade is much lower, however, due to poor tackling and run defense grades. But he still grades better in pretty much every category than K’lavon Chaisson, who was taken #20 overall by the Jaguars. And for a 4th round pick, he’s showing a lot to build on.

The rest of the draft picks either haven’t played much and/or have been injured, so still not much to go on. One interesting note, however: the Vikings elected to protect practice squad C/G Kyle Hinton a week or two ago. Under the new rules this year, one practice squad guy can be protected from being poached each week. Given Hinton’s extremely low visibility, it would seem the Vikings would protect him because of his development - a good sign for the 253rd pick in the draft.

Overall, it looks like the Vikings will end up with six or more quality starters from this draft, and probably no fewer than three. Given the Vikings began the draft with a total of 12 draft picks, and traded a couple of them for higher-round picks in 2021, this is shaping up to be an enormous draft for the Vikings, in both quantity and quality. Rick Spielman’s hit-rate could be over 50% when we look back on this draft in another couple years, which would be about 2.5x the average hit-rate for quality starters.

In-Season Transactions

In addition to the Ngakoue deal already mentioned, the Vikings made a number of player transactions in the course of the season. Some of the more noteworthy:

  • Waived G Pat Elflein, CB Holton Hill, LB Ben Gedeon. All three had been with the Vikings for multiple seasons. Elflein’s release was long overdue, but once Ezra Cleveland looked okay, there was no reason to keep Elflein around, who never had even an average season over his three years with the Vikings. The Holton Hill gamble was finally played out as well. The promising UDFA could never seem to get things right, and was set to become a starter this year, but didn’t perform well and then was injured. And with rookies improving, he was made redundant. Ben Gedeon hadn’t played much in the past couple seasons due to injury, and was finally released.
  • Acquired CB Chris Jones and LB Todd Davis. Jones struggled quite a bit early on after he was acquired by the Vikings, but seemed to improve and settle down a bit thereafter. He could prove a decent backup next year if he’s extended, and I expect he will be (he’s an ERFA which enables the Vikings to extend him for minimal salary). Todd Davis looks like he could become the starting base linebacker for the Vikings next season, if he’s extended, and I expect he will be too (he’s a UFA). More of a traditional run-stuffing linebacker, but not terrible in coverage either. He could prove to be a solid replacement for Ben Gedeon.
  • Replaced LS Austin Cutting with Andrew DePaola. After Cutting seemed to get the yips as long-snapper, he was cut loose in favor of DePaola, who looks set to keep the job into next season.

Bottom Line

This past year has been a transition year for the Vikings defensive roster. They needed to shed older players not earning their salary cap to get under the limit, and they needed an influx of young talent to replace them. Overall, it looks like Spielman accomplished that goal, just not entirely this year.

Michael Pierce may well replace or improve on Linval Joseph’s production, but not until next season. The three rookie CBs the Vikings drafted could end up being quality starters next year after ramping up their performance this season. Ezra Cleveland looks set to upgrade a guard spot, while D.J. Wonnum could improve to be a starting defensive end next year. Justin Jefferson has replaced Diggs and his production, and looks like the Vikings WR1 for many years to come.

For Rick Spielman and Company, they look like they had perhaps their best draft ever. After the first year, it looks at least as good as 2015, when Spielman drafted the best three players in that entire draft: Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Stefon Diggs.

They did what they needed to do in free agency and were aggressive in addressing the salary cap. Looking at the players they released or didn’t pursue, their salary cap numbers, and how they’ve performed this season, not much regret in any of those decisions, nor with the Stefon Diggs trade.

The Yannick Ngakoue trade didn’t work out, and I suspect was made more out of perceived necessity as much as opportunity. Better to realize it early and cut losses, however, than continue with it to no advantage. Not every deal a GM makes will be a good or successful one, just like not every investment will bring a profit. The key is to ride the good ones as long as they deliver, while limiting the losses on those that don’t.

Other than the Ngakoue trade, however, no other more significant deal leaps to mind as a particularly bad one. Some will question the Cousins extension, but $33 million is market value for Cousins’ production, and the deal allowed the Vikings to kick $10 million in salary cap down the road, which was needed this year. Locking up Dalvin Cook for 5 years, with the option to get out in 2023 if need be, also proved to be a good deal for the Vikings.

All in all, when you consider the main job of a GM - building and maintaining a competitive roster within the salary cap - Spielman has done a good job this year bringing in new talent, and moving on from others not performing in-line with their salary cap.

Ideally, this transitional year on defense would’ve gone much smoother on defense had Pierce, Hunter and Barr not been lost for the season, and veteran CBs like Mike Hughes and Holton Hill had held the starting jobs while the rookies ramped up, but such was not to be. On top of that, Covid restrictions limited off-season development, which was a killer for teams with rookies looking to fill starting roles. In 2019, there were 51 defensive rookies with at least 100 snaps with PFF grades over 60. This year there were only 31 - a 40% drop.

Harrison Hand and Cameron Dantzler were two of only twelve defensive rookies with at least 100 snaps this season with overall PFF grades over 70. No other team had more than one, and 21 teams didn’t have any.

Poll

How would you rate Rick Spielman’s performance this past year?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    One of the best GMs in the league
    (789 votes)
  • 47%
    Top half of GMs in the league
    (1029 votes)
  • 10%
    Bottom half of GMs in the league
    (232 votes)
  • 5%
    One of the worst GMs in the league
    (108 votes)
2158 votes total Vote Now