As the Vikings off-season unfolds, we can slowly begin to see some of the results of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s year-end evaluations and plans for the coming season.
What was known from the beginning was that the Vikings had an $11 million salary cap deficit once the new league year began, and a number of free agents that had been long- time core players.
And so it was clear the Vikings would move on from some core players, But which ones were they ready to part ways with, and which would they try to retain, and why?
To answer those questions, and gain some insight into the plan for the draft and next season, let’s begin by reviewing what has happened so far this year.
Season Ended in the Trenches
The Vikings crossed into January not exactly standing tall, but ready to face the tall order of winning three road games in a row to make it to the Super Bowl.
The regular-season had ended in somewhat disappointing fashion, having lost the division crown to the Packers, and while coming away 10-6 and making the playoffs, the only playoff team they’d beaten was the Eagles, the weakest team in the playoff field. They’d lost to the Packers twice, the Seahawks, the Mahomes-less Chiefs, and the Bears - twice - although they played their B-squad against them week 17 having already had their playoff seeding determined.
They came away with a big upset of the Saints to win the wild card game and avoid a one-and-done fate, before succumbing to a 49ers team that beat them in the trenches en route to a convincing victory.
Looking back on the season, most of the Vikings’ losses could be attributed to getting beat in the trenches, to one degree or another. Such was the case in the first Bears defeat, as well as against the Seahawks, the Packers week 16, and the 49ers to end the season. It was a factor in the Chiefs loss (giving up a 91-yard TD run) as well.
Late in the season, it was more often the defensive front not being able to hold it’s own against the opponent’s ground game, but the offensive line was also outmatched in many games too. Throughout the season, there were occasional missed assignments in coverage as well. Those often led to big plays for the Vikings’ opponents.
Those shortcomings are reflected in the Vikings’ PFF grading for the season.
For example, despite it being a costly position group, no starting cornerback graded above #46 in the league. The Vikings’ best interior defender ranked #42, and although there was some variance, the average rank among the Vikings interior linemen (adjusting for the center position) was #42 as well.
On the positive side, the Vikings had a number of players in the top 10 at their position according to PFF grading:
QB Kirk Cousins (#6), S Anthony Harris (#1), S Harrison Smith (#4), FB C.J. Ham (#5), LB Eric Kendricks (#2), DE Danielle Hunter (#8), K Dan Bailey (#10), and P Britton Colquitt (#3).
The addition of Colquitt, who is also the holder, proved to be the solution to the Vikings erratic field goal/extra point performance in recent years, as well as the improved punting game.
All of these factors, positive and negative, during the 2019-20 campaign appear to be driving the actions the Vikings have taken so far this off-season.
Defensive Coach House Cleaning
After the Vikings season ended, Mike Zimmer announced he would take some time to reflect before doing his end of season evaluations. At that time there had been a rumor that his defensive coordinator, George Edwards, would not be retained. That turned out to be foreshadowing of what was to come.
Not only was Edwards not retained, neither was defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. The tone of Zimmer’s comments was basically it was time to move on.
George Edwards Allowed to Walk
Edwards was really a defensive coordinator in name only, as it has always been Zimmer calling the shots and calling the plays on defense. Edwards seemed to be more of Zimmer’s chief implementation officer of defense, executing the things Zimmer wanted done.
But the relationship between the two soured, apparently, and Zimmer’s only comment about not retaining Edwards as his contract had ended was, “it was time.” Meaning time to move on. The fact that Zimmer hired Dom Capers as his Assistant to provide new ideas, rather than looking to Edwards, suggests he didn’t feel Edwards was the right man for that job. At the same time, he promoted both Andre Patterson and his son Adam to Co-Defensive Coordinators, which maintains something of the hierarchical status quo, if that makes sense, allowing him to maintain his role as de facto defensive coordinator.
Bottom line, Zimmer still wants to call the shots as defensive coordinator, but wanted new ideas to improve his scheme. Edwards wasn’t the guy for that.
Jerry Gray Not Retained Either
Like George Edwards, Jerry Gray was hired by Zimmer when he first came to Minnesota. But it seems he was more effective coaching safeties than he was cornerbacks.
I have a lot of respect for Jerry Gray, but at the same time it must be noted that he was coaching 3 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, and probably at least a 3rd round talent in Holton Hill, and none of them improved their PFF grade last season. And no CB on the roster had an overall PFF grade over 70, or a coverage grade above 64.1. At some point that has to weigh on his evaluation, and whether to keep him on.
He’s now the Packers’ defensive back coach.
Dom Capers Hired as Senior Defensive Assistant
Despite the fact that the Vikings are one of only two teams (Patriots) to have a top 10 defense in points allowed each of the last five seasons, toward the end of the season Mike Zimmer said he wrote down that he wanted to get some new ideas on defense.
While George Edwards was let go, with Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer splitting Edwards’ old job, that left Zimmer still looking for someone to provide fresh ideas for his defensive scheme. That search led him to hire Dom Capers.
Capers isn’t exactly in the vanguard of innovative ideas for NFL defenses, but he is sort of an elder statesman of defensive coaches, and one that has taken a different approach schematically over the years compared to Zimmer. Sort of the ying to Zimmer’s yang, if you will. He may not necessarily bring new ideas to the Vikings defensive scheme, but he has a long background using different ideas that could be implemented.
Capers served in the same role last season in Jacksonville, advising defensive coordinator Todd Wash, who brought the Seahawks’ defensive scheme with him from Seattle (4-3 Under front, Cover-3 zone).
Daronte Jones Hired as Defensive Backs Coach
Jones comes to the Vikings from Cincinnati, where he was DB coach for two years. He was assistant DB coach in Miami for two years prior to that, and DB coach for the Wisconsin Badgers before that. In all those places they played a lot of Cover-3 while Jones was there.
Roy Anderson was also hired as assistant DB coach. He was a defensive analyst with LSU last year, but before that was safeties coach under Vic Fangio in Chicago for two years, and basically followed Chuck Pagano for about ten years prior to that, going back to the Colts and Ravens.
Offensive Status Quo
Offensively, Zimmer and the Vikings took a different tack: maintaining the status quo. The Vikings offense had it’s best ranking in points scored since Brett Favre was QB back in 2009, and the scheme fit QB Kirk Cousins and RB Dalvin Cook well, so maintaining scheme continuity made abundant sense.
Gary Kubiak named Offensive Coordinator
With Kevin Stefanski having been selected as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns, the Vikings needed a new offensive coordinator. There was widespread speculation that offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, whose scheme and assistant coaches the Vikings took on last year, would become the new offensive coordinator. And that turned out to be the case. Mike Zimmer offered Kubiak the job, and he accepted a day and a half later, he said. Zimmer was happy with the performance of the offense overall, which reached a high-water mark in the Zimmer era for points scored ranking, QB passer rating, and was committed to running the ball.
The Vikings also brought in assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher from Washington, who is much more experienced developing offensive lineman than Andrew Janocko was. Rauscher had worked with the Kubiak clan previously in Denver. Janocko was moved to become the new wide receivers coach, as former WR coach Drew Petzing left to become the Browns’ new TE coach. Janocko had previously been an assistant QB coach.
Setting the Tone
But Zimmer’s decision to move on from defensive coaches seemed to set the tone for the off-season, and signaled things to come defensively.
Releasing Salary-Cap Underperformers
The first move from a roster standpoint was the release of Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph.
Most immediately, that freed-up around $18 million in salary cap space the Vikings needed to get under the salary cap and give them some room to work with. Both Rhodes and Joseph had been going downhill in recent years, getting up there in age, and carried 8-figure cap hits - not a good combination.
Releasing both Joseph and Rhodes did not come as a big surprise, considering the above, but the Vikings next moves, or lack thereof, were a bit more telling.
Letting Free-Agent CBs Walk
The Vikings had two remaining cornerbacks as free-agents, and didn’t do much to retain either one. I’m not aware of any discussions the Vikings may have had to extend Trae Waynes. And with Mackensie Alexander, there was an offer made, but no real effort to keep him around. Alexander seemed to want to move on anyway. Both CBs signed with the Bengals.
Instead, the Vikings elected to franchise-tag top safety Anthony Harris (although there have been rumors he may still be traded), and signed 3-4 nose tackle and former Raven Michael Pierce.
That suggests that the Vikings felt their salary cap dollars were better spent on Harris and Pierce, and/or they were more comfortable with their depth at CB than at S or NT, and/or they didn’t feel their starting CBs last year were as good a fit for the team going forward.
In any case, Zimmer and the Vikings didn’t seem overly concerned with parting ways with all three of their starting cornerbacks last season.
Griffen Not a Salary Cap Priority
Zimmer did express some hope of retaining defensive end Everson Griffen, and thought he’d be back, but ultimately those talks didn’t get too far as Griffen said the Vikings didn’t have much salary cap and were using it elsewhere. He has since moved on, although he has yet to sign with a new team.
Somewhat Surprising Moves on the Offensive Side
On the offensive side, the Vikings made a couple of surprising moves. First, they released right-guard Josh Kline (their best interior lineman last year) after he declined to take a pay cut, which saved them only about $2 million in cap space. It seemed unusual that they would press Kline, who they just signed last year, to take a pay cut as he wasn’t making big money anyway - $6 million. But like some other moves, that may be more a reflection on how they view their depth at that position, or their ability to replace Kline’s performance one way or another, for less money.
But of course the bombshell was the decision to trade Stefon Diggs. This was not a performance or salary cap value issue - Diggs was one of the best wide receivers in the league last year, and the most productive one on the Vikings roster. And his contract was well below market value. Trading him was, however, a percolating issue as Diggs was disgruntled with his role with the Vikings, and the Vikings had several teams interested in trading for him.
Ultimately Rick Spielman decided to sell the remaining four years on Diggs’ contract to the Buffalo Bills, freeing up some cap space this year (but incurring a $9 million dead cap hit) and $12 million in each of the next 3 years, along with the #22, #155, and #201 pick in April’s draft, plus a 4th round pick in next years draft, parting ways with pick #229 as well.
The decision was both a question of priorities and the disgruntled nature of the player. Would Diggs become more of a locker room cancer if he remained with the Vikings? Would his performance decline? Maybe. He was fined over $200,000 in October for conduct detrimental to the team - I believe the first player to receive such a fine in the Mike Zimmer era - and continued to express his displeasure with the Vikings in a cryptic way via social media. Apparently all that was enough for the Vikings to view him as an increased risk and part ways with him.
But perhaps more importantly the salary-cap-strapped Vikings could shed some of their cap problem while also picking up significant draft capital to acquire new talent on cheap rookie deals.
On balance, the choice to trade Diggs makes sense short-term, and long-term, given the Vikings salary cap situation and team needs. But the Vikings will have to make the best out of the draft picks to really come out ahead.
Not All Cuts - Some Extensions Too
But is hasn’t been all cuts on the Vikings roster so far. There have been some notable extensions - Kirk Cousins in particular. The one thing in common for all the extensions among starters: they were all ranked in the top 10 in their position group according to PFF.
Extending Kirk Cousins, who had the best season of his career last season, including the 2nd highest passer rating in Vikings’ franchise history, not only added two years to the contract of PFF’s 6th ranked QB last season, it also was structured to free-up salary cap space this year, giving the Vikings a little more salary cap breathing room, allowing them to extend other top performers.
Those included #1 ranked safety Anthony Harris, #5 ranked fullback CJ Ham, #3 ranked punter Britton Colquitt, and #10 ranked kicker Dan Bailey. They also made a tender offer on LB Eric Wilson, extending him another year. In addition to their duties on offense and defense, both Ham and Wilson have been top contributors on special teams units.
More recently, some other backups have been extended, and some inexpensive free agents acquired, which helps give the Vikings some options in case prospective draft picks don’t materialize as planned or hoped, to compete for key backup or rotational roles, or perhaps even win a starting job - although in most cases that doesn’t seem likely.
Those include WR Tajae Sharpe, OLB DeMarquis Gates, DE Anthony Zettel, C Brett Jones, T Rashod Hill, and G Dakota Dozier. All these players were signed for $1 million or less on one year deals. There are reports that the Vikings may be interested in acquiring at least one free agent cornerback as well, with some interest in Darryl Roberts and Kevin Peterson.
The Vikings may also be interested in acquiring left tackle Trent Williams from the Redskins, who could be an upgrade at that position over Riley Reiff. If successful, they could potentially upgrade the left tackle spot for about the same salary cap they were paying Reiff, maybe a million or so more.
Method to the Madness
So there is a method to the madness after all. The Vikings cut, or didn’t pursue, players that weren’t earning their salary cap, extended players performing at the top of the league in their position, and parlayed a top performing, but disgruntled, receiver into another first-round draft pick and a few others - saving more salary cap in the process. They also appear to be pursuing affordable upgrades via free agency or trade as well.
That process, which the Vikings and most teams go through every off-season, hasn’t changed this year. Only the results have. The Vikings salary cap situation this year mandated a somewhat more aggressive approach toward cutting players under-performing their salary cap, and left a player the Vikings may have otherwise extended - Everson Griffen - outside their budget constraints, but the process itself remains unchanged.
Thinking about the player losses - Pro Bowlers Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Xavier Rhodes, corners Trae Waynes and MacKensie Alexander, and top receiver Stefon Diggs, you’d think the Vikings have really taken a major body blow to the quality of their roster.
And yet when you look at the performance of the next man up currently on the roster, the only real loss has been Diggs - and a whole lot of salary cap. And there is a reasonable chance Diggs’ performance can largely be replaced, and other positions upgraded, via the draft, free agent acquisitions, and promising backups ready to step up.
Examining the Roster
Next up is an examination of the Vikings roster, and also some more insight into potential changes in the Vikings scheme, primarily on defense, but new wrinkles on offense as well.
With all the changes in the Vikings roster this season, do you think it will be improved over last season?
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