Following season’s end, the Vikings ownership decided to move on from head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. When it came to selecting a new general manager and head coach, the Vikings search committee opted first for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to replace Rick Spielman as GM, and with his help and input, selected Kevin O’Connell later as head coach. Both selections were well received across the board- fans, media and players alike.
But from the get-go, even before the GM and HC hires, there was a consensus among the Vikings local beat reporters and talk show hosts that the new GM and head coach should be focused on blowing-up the roster- getting rid of expensive and/or older players for whatever draft picks could be gotten in trade- and committing to a multi-year rebuild. That consensus was shared by the staff at Pro Football Focus (PFF), and a few others in the national media.
The rationale is that the Vikings simply don’t have the roster to be a Super Bowl contender, and that given the salary cap commitments to the current roster, there really isn’t much hope for the Vikings to become contenders from here. Support for that view comes from both history and examples of what a couple other teams have done. History is that the Vikings have, with rare exceptions, always been just around the cusp of making the playoffs- sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t- but were never really Super Bowl contenders. And such has been the case for decades. Fair enough. Such has been the case, with rare exceptions, for decades- really going back to the 70s and the golden age of the Purple People Eaters. So why continue along the same path? It’s the Einstein definition of crazy: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.
The same group embraced Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (KAM) as an analytics guy - one of them - and predicted or expected him to proceed according to their plan- blow up the roster and start over.
Only he didn’t.
Kwesi and the Competitive Rebuild
The key difference between a competitive rebuild and blowing up the roster is whether you are sacrificing current strengths in the hope of developing a better roster down the line. Sacrificing current strengths comes in the form of trading or releasing good players to open up salary cap space and gain additional draft picks. In the case of the Vikings, players like Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Dalvin Cook could all be sacrificed to build the necessary salary cap space and draft capital needed to build a better roster over the next couple-three years.
But instead of trading Kirk Cousins for a first-round pick and change, KAM opted to extend Cousins an additional year, converting some base salary into a signing bonus and locking up Cousins for two more seasons, including a no-trade clause in his contract. Freeing up salary cap space in the process.
Moreover, it had come out that in the interview process, Kevin O’Connell (KOC) had sold himself in part on being able to work with Cousins, whom he had worked with previously in Washington, like he did with Matthew Stafford in their just completed championship season. At his introductory press conference KOC said not only did they envision working with Cousins, they’d already been working on systems, etc. to build around Cousins’ strengths. Kirk Cousins echoed that view recently on the Pat McAfee Show, when asked if a trade had ever been discussed with him or his agent. Cousins said the discussions had always been about working together and finding ways to make that happen.
KAM’s next significant moves weren’t to release or trade core players like Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter. Instead, he replaced Michael Pierce with Harrison Phillips, added Jordan Hicks and most notably made a splash by signing Za’Darius Smith- the top remaining edge rusher free agent. He did restructure Thielen’s contract, lowering his cap hit but also likely to keep him with the Vikings for at least the next couple years. Similarly, he converted Hunter’s $18 million roster bonus to a signing bonus, freeing up more cap space this year, but also likely keeping Hunter with the Vikings for the next couple seasons. A longer-term deal is rumored to be under discussion as well.
This has been something of a buzzkill for the blow-it up crowd, who expected more from their analytics GM- namely to do what they wanted him to do and blow up the Vikings’ roster.
At his press conference yesterday, KAM addressed the subject of roster building and he said he didn’t approach it as a binary choice- either ‘tearing down and rebuilding’ or ‘all-in.’ Instead, he approaches building the roster with a view toward both worlds- competing today and building for tomorrow. This is the traditional approach taken by most GMs, including his predecessor, Rick Spielman.
Competitive Rebuild vs. Blow It Up
The rationale behind a team’s off-season roster moves typically comes from a bottom-up assessment of the roster, player-by-player, contract-by-contract, rather than a binary top-down assessment - blow it up because we’re not competitive and won’t be without sacrificing strengths or competitive rebuild because we’re competitive but need to improve in some positions and can do so without sacrificing strengths.
A bottom-up assessment, characterized by individual player evaluations and their contracts, inevitably leads to 53 decisions on what to do with a given player and their contract situation: keep him as is, release/trade him, or restructure his contract. Sometimes for players nearing the end of their contract, the decision to extend them is also there. In the case of new free agents, the decision is to re-sign, let go, or franchise tag. Those decisions are influenced by player performance, their salary cap vs. market value, and some estimate for trending performance. Sometimes a scheme change can result in an otherwise good player being traded or released because he no longer fits the scheme, but for the most part performance and salary cap vs. market value are key to these off-season evaluations.
In some cases, the sum of those individual decisions can result in a roster blow-up. A team with a mediocre quarterback and several under-performing or expensive and older core players may look to trade or release those players in search of better value in the draft or free agent marketplace. Similarly, a team with a star player that also has several holes at other positions, may find the best way to be more competitive is to trade their star player for draft picks and/or salary cap space for players to better fill-out their roster. But in those cases, what may appear as the GM taking a top down approach and opting to blow up the roster is really a compilation of individual decisions that leads to greater turnover.
In general, it’s a best practice for a general manager to avoid ‘going off a cliff’ when it comes to managing a team’s roster and salary cap. That is, avoiding a situation where one year the team is forced into losing players it doesn’t want to lose for salary cap reasons, or having a lot of turnover for any number of reasons- salary cap, age, performance - that is difficult or impossible to replace in a single off-season. When a team or general manager is successful in that way, they tend to avoid the ‘blow it up’ situations which can lead to 2-3 years (or more) of uncompetitive teams, which in turn makes it more difficult to attract and retain good players at competitive salaries. The fan base is also eroded, and should a coaching change accompany that period, it can make attracting good coaches more difficult too. The best players and coaches typically want to go to successful teams, not those in transition or rebuilding. Maintaining a positive culture can also be problematic for a team not positioned for much success during the rebuilding years.
Blow It Up Can Often Backfire
And so blowing up the roster is a high risk strategy. Most of the teams that have been cellar-dwellers have blown it up at one point or another. Detroit. Giants. Jets. Miami. Cleveland for over a decade. Jacksonville. Houston. Carolina. This off-season, the Bears and Seahawks appear to be in more of a blow-it-up mode than a competitive rebuild. None of these teams have been any closer to a Super Bowl than the Vikings in recent years. Most have been non-factors enduring some degree of dysfunction within the organization. For every Cincinnati success story, there are at least a half-dozen other teams who’s blow it up strategy backfired.
At the end of the day, being successful after blowing up the roster depends on the same things as being successful after a competitive rebuild- drafting well and picking up good free agents at competitive prices. Only when you blow it up, even more so. Teams that blow it up typically are looking for a top quarterback as part of the rebuild- most often through the draft. Everything hinges on that. And the odds of drafting a top quarterback,
looking at recent history of first-round drafted quarterbacks, are very poor. Looking at first-round drafted quarterbacks this century, a team has about a 15 percent chance of drafting quarterback that allows them to be Super Bowl contenders- provided they’re successful building a team around him as well. Of the 60 quarterbacks drafted between 2000 - 2020, only 5.5 won a Super Bowl for the team that drafted them (the .5 is Carson Wentz in 2017). That’s less than 10 percent. Over half were busts. So, if the goal in blowing it up is to rebuild the roster around a drafted quarterback that wins a Super Bowl, or even to become a Super Bowl contender, the odds are heavily against it. This is why teams with a non-elite quarterback, but one still in the top 10-12 or better, tend to keep them and focus on building a better team around him. Getting a first-round pick or two in trade for Kirk Cousins is no guarantee you’ll land a better replacement. The odds of doing so aren’t in your favor.
Is a Competitive Rebuild Really Crazy?
For the proponents of a blow-it-up strategy for the Vikings, two things are clear: 1) the Vikings cannot be Super Bowl contenders with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and this roster; and 2) doing the same thing with the Vikings roster year after year (i.e. competitive rebuild) isn’t going to make them Super Bowl contenders either. Einstein’s definition of crazy- doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result- is the prevailing wisdom. The only way to get a Super Bowl contending roster is to blow up this one.
The problem with that outlook is that both points are wrong.
The first point was proven wrong in February, when Matthew Stafford won the Super Bowl with the LA Rams. There is nothing statistically about Matthew Stafford’s career that indicates he is a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins. An objective view of both quarterbacks suggests their individual performance is better than their win-loss record would indicate- largely by being on mediocre or worse teams most of their career. Other QBs with individual metrics worse than Cousins and Stafford have won the Super Bowl in the past as well. The difference between the Vikings and Rams last year was in the quality of the roster around the QB- particularly offensive line and on defense- and the coaching and team culture situation.
The second point- going in circles with competitive rebuilds- is really the same process that most teams perform- comparing player performance, market vs. contract value, performance trends and making decisions based on them. Sometimes a disgruntled player forces a decision outside those parameters, and sometimes contract terms override a decision that otherwise might be made. Injuries can be a factor too. This process is the same one used by numerous Super Bowl winning teams over the years. The process itself is entirely logical and sane. What’s different is how well teams can execute it.
The process of roster building is, to use the most popular word in the Vikings front office these days, a collaborative one. The coaching staff led by the head coach and the player personnel staff led by the GM evaluate existing player performance- the latter looking at contract and salary cap considerations as well. Based on that, decisions on existing players are made. Following those decisions, priorities are made based on input from coaches, tempered by the GM and his staff based on salary cap and contract constraints. Coaches and player personnel staff evaluate free agent and/or trade options, make inquiries based on those evaluations and team priorities, and table offers based on those priorities and salary cap/market value/position value considerations. Then they move on to the draft and repeat the process, only this time setting their draft board rather than tabling offers. Following the draft, and signing undrafted free agents, they move back again to free agency, and to the extent they still have holes to fill and suitable players and salary cap available, they continue to build the roster until it’s time to cut it down to 53 players at the end of training camp. Additional transactions may happen after that, to the extent potential upgrades cut by other teams are available and affordable. That continues until the trade deadline in mid-season. Then at the end of the season the cycle starts over again.
Every decision makes a difference. Which players are released, traded, kept, restructured. Which players are acquired in free agency and their contract terms. Which players are drafted, signed as undrafted free agents, even late additions or subtractions can have an impact. And that’s only half of the process.
The other half is coaching. How well are players developed? How well do they fit the scheme? How well are their strengths maximized and their deficiencies minimized? How well are they put into positions where they can succeed? How well is player health maximized and injuries avoided? How well are players taught fundamentals, their role, the scheme, the plays, their opponent, the game plan? Add to that other key coaching tasks such as oppo research and game planning, in-game management, and player motivation.
The Vikings replaced nearly the entire coaching staff and the general manager, so all the key decision-makers associated with this process will be new ones- with new perspectives, new priorities, and new methods. And, as we see every year in the NFL, different people using the same process to make the same decisions leads to different results. That’s not crazy. It may lead to crazy off-seasons and crazy transactions- as we’ve seen this off-season- but that’s all due to differences in perceived value and different priorities- players, coaches, and general managers alike.
That’s all well and good, the blow-it-up proponents argue, but the fact is that the Vikings simply don’t have a good enough roster to begin with, and don’t have the wherewithal to build a Super Bowl contending roster given their existing salary cap space and draft capital. The only way for the Vikings to build a Super Bowl contending roster is to sacrifice good players now in order to gain the necessary cap space and draft capital to (hopefully) build a Super Bowl contending roster in a few years, if all goes well. There is no other realistic way to get there from here.
How strong the Vikings’ roster is, is subject to interpretation, but ruling out the current roster as unable to make a Super Bowl run is at best pessimistic, and at worst reckless abandon.
A few days ago, I did a Vikings roster breakdown and compared it to Super Bowl contending teams from last season. From where the Vikings roster is now, the Vikings need to bolster their interior offensive line and cornerback groups to field what is realistically a Super Bowl competitive roster- similar to those of a year ago. The Vikings have the cap space and draft capital to achieve those goals now without sacrificing good players and committing to a multi-year rebuild- being uncompetitive during that time and with no greater likelihood of success down the road.
Like all teams every year, the Vikings will need good luck with injuries and to see net positive player performance compared to last season, but this is not unrealistic either.
One of the key misconceptions regarding the Vikings roster, which produced a losing 8-9 record last season, is the missing parts last season that are here for the coming season.
The Vikings best player on defense, Danielle Hunter, played only 7 games last season. Michael Pierce played in only 9 games at a PFF grade similar to Harrison Phillips. Cam Dantzler, the Vikings best cornerback the last half of his rookie year, and again this past season, started only 8 games. Irv Smith Jr. missed the entire season. Christian Darrisaw started only 10 games.
We should also recognize the low bar for improvement at cornerback. MacKensie Alexander had the lowest PFF grade in the league last season. Bashaud Breeland was 5th worst.
Lastly, we need to consider the impact of the new regime on the roster. Kevin O’Connell is bringing the culture blueprint from the Rams to the Vikings this year. Will the new coaching staff, new culture, etc. lead to improvement in the Vikings roster? This is intangible- there are no statistics to measure or forecast- and yet the impact of these elements on a team and roster is real. As we know now, the Vikings coaching staff under Mike Zimmer was a definite negative for team culture last season, in addition to all the other elements that were going downhill. Fourteen of the Vikings games last season were decided by one score. The Vikings went 6-8 in those games. By contrast, the Rams had ten one score games last season including the playoffs. They went 8-2 in those games. That’s nearly double the winning percentage the Vikings had. Going 3-0 in those games in the playoffs is how they won the Super Bowl. Considering all these factors, it’s not unrealistic for the Vikings to field a Super Bowl contending roster this season.
Blowing it up may have only yielded long odds
It’s also far from certain that blowing up the roster now will lead to any better result down the road. The Vikings could’ve traded Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter, and presumably got a couple first-round picks in the process and freed up salary cap space in future years as well. But then they’d have two extremely valuable positions to fill- which would require a couple first round picks and extremely good luck to draft replacements that play to their level. The chance of getting both draft picks right is very small, while the likelihood of both resulting in lesser performance is pretty high, considering the bust rate among first-round draft picks is roughly 50%, and even a non-bust may not perform as well as the players they replace. Not hitting on one or both draft picks- the most likely outcome- would mean the Vikings would have to pay a top free agent to fill the void- erasing the rookie contract cap savings.
Given their contract value relative to market value based on performance and/or age, it’s unlikely the Vikings would’ve got anything significant had they traded Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, or Harrison Smith. Releasing them wouldn’t have saved much cap space this year, but would’ve freed-up more in future years. But they’d need that cap space to pay their replacements. This creates something of a wash and with a degree of uncertainty as well. Would the new players result in a better value-for-money situation than the old ones?
All this results in roster turnover with unfavorable odds for improvement, while producing an uncompetitive team on the field. KAM’s alternative, keeping good players at competitive prices and building around them, makes more sense.
It’s worth noting that Kirk Cousins’ new contract puts him at an average annual value (AAV) of $35 million. That compares to other recent deals of Aaron Rodgers at $50 million, Deshaun Watson at $46 million, and Matthew Stafford at $40 million- which Stafford characterized as a discount. Meanwhile Adam Thielen restructured his contract, reducing his pay, although the exact terms have still not been released. Danielle Hunter’s remaining AAV is $17.2 million. This compares to TJ Watt at $28 million, Joey Bosa at $27 million, Myles Garrett at $25 million, Khalil Mack at $23.5 million, and Von Miller at $20 million. Keeping those players at those prices gives the Vikings extra cap space to help build their roster and add free agents like Za’Darius Smith and others to help improve it.
Were KAM and KOC correct in pursuing a competitive rebuild rather than blowing up the roster?
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