It’s been an interesting off-season for the Minnesota Vikings- and a highly productive one. The Vikings have made a number of moves in free agency, and along with a solid draft, have quietly pushed in all their chips on the 2021 season. They now look poised for a return to the playoffs, and potentially a deep post-season run.
Let’s take a look in more detail.
An ‘Also-Ran’ Off-Season ?
The Vikings limped into the off-season, having missed the playoffs and suffering injuries to several key players on defense, which combined with the turnover on that side of the ball and Covid restrictions, sent the Vikings defense to its lowest depths of the Mike Zimmer era.
The national take on the Vikings was, and is, that the Vikings aren’t going anywhere with Mike Zimmer as head coach, and Kirk Cousins at quarterback, and it’s just a matter of time before the team moves on from both - and potentially sooner rather than later.
That’s not the type of setup for a team to attract much talent in free agency. But they did.
First it was Dalvin Tomlinson, the best free agent defensive tackle this off-season, with a draft notably weak at that position. Then Rick Spielman got a call from Patrick Peterson’s agent, wondering if the Vikings were interested in the future Hall of Famer, who wanted to play for Mike Zimmer. Then Xavier Woods opted to sign with the Vikings. And there was also a growing number of former Vikings coming back to the team- preferring the Vikings, given the option. DE Stephen Weatherly, SCB MacKensie Alexander, and now DT Sheldon Richardson all chose to return to Minnesota. Weatherly took a lot more money in signing with Carolina, who then cut him after a disappointing season, and was happy to return to his old team on a low-end deal. Alexander reportedly signed with the Bengals after being upset that he had to play a meaningless week 17 game in which he got injured, but a year in Cincinnati gave him a new perspective, and he was happy to return to the coaching and culture in Minnesota on another low-end deal. Richardson reportedly had a “nice” offer from the Browns to return, but decided he needed a fresh start and opted to return to Minnesota for half his average salary in recent years, and a third of what he was making in Cleveland last year. He mentioned in his press conference today that his year in Minnesota in 2018 is what led to his pay day in Cleveland in 2019.
And then there was CB Bashaud Breeland, who the Chiefs oddly let go in favor of Mike Hughes, who the Vikings effectively traded to get Breeland for less than they would’ve had to pay Hughes.
Lastly the Vikings settled the Danielle Hunter drama, paying him forward some of his later year salary, ending his hold-out, and setting him up for a post-injury prove-it year. Earlier in the off-season they had also restructured Anthony Barr’s contract, which allowed them to keep him on another season.
All these defensive players, given the choice, chose to join, remain with, or return to, the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings didn’t pay them a premium to sign or retain them. Almost all of them are making less than they did last year in choosing to be with the Vikings, in some cases quite a bit less.
Strange that so many quality veterans would choose low-end deals to play for a team going nowhere, with a washed-up coach on the hot seat, and a quarterback that doesn’t deliver.
Unless maybe that prevailing view isn’t quite right.
Vikings Going All-In on 2021
The other view of the Vikings after last season is that the offense was a top 10 unit, with skill position players in the top 10, if not top 5, in the league at QB, RB, and both WR spots. All those players return. The Vikings also have what appears to be an improving offensive line, which has been the weak link in the offensive for years, with younger guys developing, and first-round pick Christian Darrisaw replacing Riley Reiff, and Wyatt Davis replacing Dakota Dozier. The loss of long-time TE Kyle Rudolph may have been addition by subtraction at this point, with the Vikings able to make better use of his salary cap elsewhere, and allowing more athletic and dynamic TEs in Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin to take over. Overall, while the offensive line could be more experienced and proven, the rest of the offensive roster looks as good as any in the league.
Defensively, Mike Zimmer has produced a top-10 unit every year but last year for a decade, and last year’s fiasco was a perfect storm of key injuries/opt-out of key veterans, and turnover with rookies starters without an off/pre-season to prepare.
This year, all the injured veterans return healthy, and the Vikings have acquired quality veterans to compete with younger players both in the secondary and the defensive line. The veterans should become the starters in most cases, and finding a weak spot among any starting position is now a difficult exercise. In fact, most position groups not only have quality starters, they also have good depth- particularly the defensive line and cornerback groups. Overall, while the Vikings could have a more proven edge-rusher opposite Danielle Hunter, the rest of the defensive roster looks as good as any in the league.
The key will be for the Vikings coaching staff to get the most from the talent on the roster. Klint Kubiak will run the offense and call plays as offensive coordinator for the first time, but he’s steeped in the Kubiak scheme and by all accounts seems ready for the job. He’ll have an easier transition than most rookie offensive coordinators, with plenty of continuity and talent to work with.
Defensively, the Vikings will have the same coordinators, but what could be a much different scheme. Both Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson have indicated that scheme changes are coming, but to what extent and significance remains to be seen. I did a piece a while back on the possibility of a 4-2-5 scheme, and will probably write another piece or two on other possibilities, but the Vikings have the personnel to run just about any scheme at this point, including a 3-4 or hybrid scheme, and any number of possibilities on the back-end as well. The nice thing about implementing scheme changes is that they have a lot of veteran players that have played in a lot of different schemes and coverages, so that should help in implementing changes. But overall, all we know at this point is what Zimmer said a few months ago, which is that one change was a big one, and there are other, smaller ones as well.
In any case, the Vikings will be returning the 4th ranked offense in yards, and 11th in points, from last season, and if anything have had a net positive roster impact from their off-season moves. On defense, the Vikings are a year removed from a multi-year string of top ten defenses, if not top 5, and are returning all their injured players from last season, acquired a bunch of quality veteran starters and backups, drafted a few promising rookies, and have some younger players developing with more NFL experience under their belt. All that bodes well for a return to a top 10 or better unit again this season.
Having a top ten offense and defense bodes well for the Vikings playoff chances and having a deep playoff run. Last season, the Colts, Bucs, Chiefs, Ravens, Packers, and Saints all had basically top ten units on both sides of the ball. They all had at least 11 wins, made the playoffs, and half of them made it to at least their conference championship game.
Vikings Front Office Taking Advantage of Unique Situations, But Future Challenges and Decisions Await in 2022
Regardless of the outcome of this season, the Vikings’ front office will have plenty of decisions to make next spring.
Rick Spielman and Company didn’t have much salary cap space to work with as the new league year got underway- like next to nothing- and had to make some difficult decisions to get what they had. They released Riley Reiff, Kyle Rudolph, and Shamar Stephen, and didn’t pursue several other free agents, most notably Anthony Harris. They also restructured Anthony Barr’s contract, which allowed him to play another season with the Vikings, and traded Mike Hughes to the Chiefs.
They targeted Dalvin Tomlinson as their top priority in free agency, and landed him right away. They were also helped in their roster-building by having most of the guys they acquired want to play for Mike Zimmer.
But before even their first free agent signing, Rick Spielman said he anticipated more one-year deals in free agency this year, as the salary cap crunch will limit what teams can offer free agents. Many players may opt for a one-year deal given the salary cap situation across the league, and hope for a good season and an opportunity for a pay increase next year. That has certainly been the case, especially with the Vikings, but also across the league to a large extent.
That creates a rather significant off-season ahead for the Vikings in 2022. All of the following players will be free agents at the end of this season: Harrison Smith. Anthony Barr. Patrick Peterson. Xavier Woods. Sheldon Richardson. MacKensie Alexander. Bashaud Breeland. Stephen Weatherly. Brian O’Neill. And Tyler Conklin. Danielle Hunter is effectively on a one-year post-injury prove it deal, while Kirk Cousins has a $45MM salary cap hit next season, which seems unlikely to remain that way, one way or another.
And so, as nice as the one-year bargains will be for the Vikings this season, they may not last more than a year. Certainly the Vikings will prioritize extensions, and I suspect a couple of the one-year deals were signed as bridge players that will give way to developing younger players next year. But there remains a lot of uncertainty as players the Vikings may want to extend could opt to go elsewhere.
Whatever downside there is down the road to taking advantage of a unique salary cap situation and players wanting to sign with the Vikings on one-year deals, at bargain prices, it was smart for the Vikings’ front office to take advantage of the situation to build their roster this year.
Some of the one-year deals may turn into multi-year extensions that could reap longer term benefits, while some may prove to be one-year rentals. Whatever the case, the Vikings front office is charged with putting together the best roster possible, and they’ve taken advantage of this off-season, much more than other teams with similar salary cap constraints, to do so.
It may be something of a misnomer to describe the Vikings as ‘all in’ this season, as they pretty much max-out their salary cap except for a small buffer every year, but it’s not every year that they acquire the talent they have on the roster this year.
Indeed, this may be the most talented roster they’ve put on the field since at least 2017 or 2009, but perhaps going back to the Vikings golden era of the early- to mid-1970s.
It will be up to the coaching staff to make the most of it, and with that and a bit of luck on the field and the injury front, could lead to a rather memorable season.
How talented is this Vikings roster?
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The most talented in the last few seasons
The most talented in the last decade
The most talented this century
The most talented since the 1970s
The most talented in franchise history