Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
The NFL promotes itself as a league with parity. Just get into the playoffs and anybody has a shot. But that doesn’t match up with reality. In the NFL, if you’re not first, you’re last.
You can’t blame anyone who is pumped about the league adding a seventh playoff team in each conference this year because more football is good football. But it has been since the Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers at the conclusion of the 2012 season that a team seeded outside of the top two went on to reach the Super Bowl.
To take it a step farther, the last 10 teams to reach the Super Bowl ranked in the top five in points scored on offense.
So if the Minnesota Vikings decide to hold onto talented veteran players because they are hoping for a magical late-season run to the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, they are doing a disservice to their future. And so far, it doesn't appear that they will as they traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens for draft picks Thursday morning.
Following a 40-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week, the Vikings are 1-5 and have no signs of being better than their record, ranking 18th in points per game scored on offense and 31st in points per game allowed on defense.
In the basement of the NFC North, the statistical website Football Outsiders gives them a 5.8% chance of making the postseason. After a loss to an ugly winless Falcons team, that might be generous.
While there are all sorts of explanations and excuses for their struggles -- whether it’s Danielle Hunter’s injury, Michael Pierce's opt-out, rookie cornerbacks or the dreadful play by the offensive guards -- the bottom line is that they have put themselves in a position to be sellers before the Nov. 3 trade deadline.
Failure to trade key players would come across as nothing more than a stubborn unwillingness to live in reality with maybe a hint of desperate self preservation. Few things would do more damage to their future than keeping veterans only to reach seven wins instead of six and miss the playoffs either way.
Usually teams that are 1-5 do not have a whole lot to offer the competitive portion of the NFL for their dreams of playoff glory but the Vikings actually have a number of players who could be pretty darn helpful.
That begins with left tackle Riley Reiff. Pro Football Focus currently grades Reiff as the 25th best pass blocking tackle in the NFL. Over his career in Minnesota, he’s consistently been solid-to-good, depending on health and this year his health has been fine. There are two teams that should be calling the Vikings daily about Reiff: The Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. The Titans lost their left tackle Taylor Lewan for the season with an ACL injury and the Cowboys are down to their third left tackle. The Titans are very much Super Bowl contenders and Dallas is in dire need of a turnaround after their abysmal start to the season (and yet they somehow lead the NFC East).
Even a mid-round draft pick would be better than hanging onto Reiff when he likely has no future in Minnesota. While he’s a quality veteran, the Vikings need his cap space next year and could either play second-round pick Ezra Cleveland at left tackle next season or draft someone to take the spot.
Moving Reiff would give the Vikings a chance to test their other options at left tackle. Can Cleveland play there? Last week he debuted at right guard but offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said that he’s practiced some at tackle. Project tackle Oli Udoh maybe? How about moving Brian O’Neill to left tackle to see how the shoe fits? Put compensation for Reiff aside and that is still better for the future.
Same goes for moving tight end Kyle Rudolph. He is a community staple but a team like the New England Patriots could sure use him. Rudolph’s receiving talents haven’t been fully utilized since Kirk Cousins arrived and he is deserving of a bigger role on a better team. Trading him would also open the door for 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith Jr. to play every snap rather than the No. 2 tight end role.
Dealing safety Anthony Harris makes sense too. He’s a very good player but he’s also set to hit free agency next year and may command a pretty hefty price that the Vikings can’t/won’t/shouldn’t pay. The Cleveland Browns reportedly attempted to trade for him last offseason and they have a 4-2 record and issues in their secondary.
Where it gets tough is with someone like Harrison Smith, who is a borderline Hall of Famer and franchise cornerstone. He’s still performing at a very high level but he’s in a spot to renegotiate his contract as well and he’s on the other side of 30. Someone might give up a pretty high pick for the All-Pro safety.
Reading all of this might feel pretty sad for Vikings fans who saw this time rise from the ashes of a miserable 5-11 season in 2013 to the NFC Championship in 2017 under Mike Zimmer but that’s how the NFL works. Teams get their shot and then have to rebuild. Look at the Falcons or Eagles. Those two teams went to the Super Bowl in 2016 and 2017 and now are in the same spot as the Vikings.
In the long run, moving players who won’t be a part of the team for the next five years now in order to let younger players increase their playing time and get more lottery tickets in the upcoming draft is a much better play that swinging hard for that No. 7 seed in the playoffs.
Rebuilding feels especially odd with a quarterback who is set to carry a $31 million cap hit next year. At some point, the Vikings may need a little extra draft capital to move up in the draft to take Kirk Cousins’s successor. But if Cousins remains, the teardown/buildup process doesn’t have to mean struggling to compete for the next five years. They already have stars in place on both sides of the ball in Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Hunter etc. What’s needed is development of the players who are already here and then a reset of the rest.
Rebuilding might not be fun this year. Sunday’s from hereafter might have to be focused on the progress of young players rather than the final score. But the 2021 offseason could be the most fascinating since the Vikings signed Cousins in 2018.
Failing to add extra draft picks at the deadline and keeping those veteran players the rest of the way, however, wouldn’t even allow fans the ability to focus on the intrigue of the future.