Coller: Are the Vikings making the right bets?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Mike Zimmer

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

What do the NFL offseason and Vegas casinos have in common? Those who play have a good time while they’re making bets but they often don’t end up in the black.

Take last offseason for example. While some of the biggest bets -- like Tom Brady signing with the Bucs, Byron Jones with the Dolphins, Jack Conklin with Cleveland -- paid off quite nicely, many others blew up quickly.

The player who received the third most guaranteed free agent money in the 2020 offseason was Saints guard Andrus Peat, who ranked 44th of 60 guards by Pro Football Focus grade.

The second biggest contract in terms of guarantees went to Teddy Bridgewater. He won five games on a poor Carolina team and now the Panthers appear to be looking to upgrade at QB.

Defensive end Robert Quinn made the sixth most. He finished 2020 with 2.0 sacks.

Kyle Van Noy got the seventh highest deal. He was cut by the Dolphins.

Dante Fowler Jr. ranked eighth in guaranteed money. He was asked to take a pay cut this offseason.

Jason Hargrave was next on the highest paid 2020 free agents. He ranked 47th oh 70 defensive tackles.

As you might expect, that hasn’t stopped anybody from thinking this year will be different. Twelve players have already received more than $25 million guaranteed and numerous others have landed big contracts to be their team’s final piece to the championship puzzle.

The Minnesota Vikings are not a weekend visitor to Vegas who plays for fun with money they can afford. Those are teams with low expectations for 2021 and tons of cap space this year like Jacksonville and the New York Jets. The Vikings are like the person that goes to Vegas needing to win in order to pay their mortgage and kid’s college tuition so they sell the car (Riley Reiff?) in order to have enough to make a big bet at the craps table.

The Vikings are restructuring contracts, adding voidable years and acting like Danielle Hunter’s situation will just go away in order to add big-name players to their defense. On Monday they signed defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $22 million contract and on Wednesday they added veteran corner Patrick Peterson to a one-year, $10 million deal.

No doubt the defense needed improvement. Last year they finished 29th in points, 25th in passing yards allowed and 27th in rushing yards allowed. They gave up six touchdowns to Alvin Kamara on Christmas day and caused Mike Zimmer to exasperatedly exclaim that it was the worst defense he’s ever had.

So now the Vikings are making bets to turn it around. The first bet is Tomlinson, a superb run-stuffing defensive tackle who instantly represents a massive upgrade from the Vikings’ three-technique last season. The gamble is that Tomlinson’s talent for shutting down the middle will combine with Michael Pierce to form a fatter Williams Wall and make it impossible for opponents to succeed on first and second down, thus having a domino effect on the rest of the defense.

The risk to that bet is that his cap space can’t be spent on improving the pass rush, where the Vikings performed very poorly last season. With 23 sacks, they were 33 sacks behind the NFL’s leader and 15 behind the middle of the league. Even if Hunter returns and has a great season, making up that large of a gap would be tough.

They’re also betting on the improvement of players who are slated to grow into situational rusher roles on the interior like Armon Watts and James Lynch.

They’re betting that opponents still run on first down against them.

With Patrick Peterson, they’re betting on getting some version of the old Patrick Peterson. He was once a superstar but last season ranked 63rd of 80 starting corners in PFF coverage grade. At 31, he’s allowed over a 100 quarterback rating into his coverage two years in a row.

They’re betting that Zimmer’s defense will be a better fit and he’ll improve. They’re betting that he can allow Jeff Gladney to transition to a nickel corner and adjust to that role effectively.

While making these big bets, the Vikings are electing not to put a bunch of small wagers all around the casino. Wagers like run-stuffer Derek Wolfe at three years, $12 million or cornerback Justin Coleman, who signed with Miami for $2.75 million or 27-year-old Mike Hilton, whose cap hit will be under $5 million.

Yes, the Vikings could still go this route with their remaining cap space -- in fact, they have no other choice with two missing offensive line spots and needs at defensive end, safety and receiver still lurking. But the serious bets they made will preclude putting a ton of smaller wagers on the table.

Does that mean it will blow up in their face and they will lose the farm? No it does not. Sometimes you roll the dice and win. If Tomlinson and Peterson are terrific in 2021 and the Vikings fill a few more gaps, they could bounce back to being a very, very good defense again.

Last year these bets didn’t hit. Using the franchise tag on Anthony Harris and trading for Yannik Ngakoue did not solve the defense’s problems. Maybe this time they will.

The strategy is utterly fascinating because of the pressure to win on the Vikings’ brass. It may feel like getting two highly talented players is less risky than spreading the money around but when those bets are taking up a lot of cap space that could have been spent elsewhere, the Vikings really have to hope the house doesn’t win here or 2020 could repeat itself.

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