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Coller: Vikings vs. Jags is a battle of retool vs. rebuild

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

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.

On Championship Sunday of the 2017 NFL season, football fans across America started the day thinking they might see Case Keenum and Blake Bortles battle it out in the Super Bowl.

Instead the Jacksonville Jaguars blew a late lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and the Minnesota Vikings fell apart in Philadelphia to the tune of a 38-7 loss.

Both teams believed they would be back the following year. They each brought back their entire defenses, the Vikings paid out an $84 million fully-guaranteed contract to improve at the quarterback position and the Jags thought Bortles’s playoff performance was just the beginning.

The Vikings struggled to repeat their 2017 offense and missed the 2018 playoffs on the final day of the season with a miserable loss to the Chicago Bears and the Jaguars completely imploded, going 5-11 and ranking 31st in points scored.

While they both had disappointing results, the two teams went in different directions from there. The Vikings remained largely status quo. Every defensive player who started the playoff game against San Francisco in 2019 was also on the team from two years earlier. They didn’t add major pieces on offense, rather relying on Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s scheme to improve their production.

The Vikings earned the sixth seed in the playoffs and beat New Orleans before falling to San Francisco and then they went into retool mode. Key veterans from the first Mike Zimmer era like Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes left but they maintained talent by signing Cousins to a contract extension and franchise tagging Anthony Harris.

Jacksonville, on the other hand, completely went into the tank. They traded star corner Jalen Ramsey and saw nearly every member of the 2017 defense walk out the door. Since their attempt at finding a solution at QB in Nick Foles failed miserably, they turned to sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew to lead a season that inevitably would set them up to draft high in 2021.

Where the two teams merge is Yannick Ngakoue.

The Vikings traded for the Pro Bowl pass rusher prior to this season because they believed he would enhance their pass rush in a season in which they believed young cornerbacks could catch on quickly and give them enough for Zimmer to scheme the rest. Neither of those things happened. Ngakoue was traded at the deadline and the Vikings’ defense ranks 24th in QB rating allowed this year.

As they get set to match up on Sunday, the fully-rebuilding Jags at 1-10 are staring at a road that very likely leads them to their future franchise QB, whether that’s Trevor Lawerence or Justin Fields or Zach Wilson will be determined by how many games they lose the rest of the way (and if the Jets pull off a victory or two). The Vikings at 5-6 are one game back of the newly-invented seventh playoff seed and fighting on Sunday to get back to .500 after a 1-5 start to the year.

The juxtaposition of the two 2017 Championship Sunday runners-up has to have Vikings fans wondering how they would feel if the shoe was on the other foot -- if their team had embraced a full rebuild.

Imagine a world where the Vikings didn’t extend Cousins, traded Zimmer to Dallas and traded away Harris, Harrison Smith and everything else that wasn’t nailed down. In that world, they might not have bounced back from 1-5 and would probably be looking at Sunday’s matchup as a battle for draft position.

The question is: Would the Vikings be in a better position to win long term if they had gone the route of the Jaguars? Would it be more advantageous to be scouting the top four QBs in the draft, who are all projected as potential franchise players, or is it better to have Cousins locked in at quarterback and try to make tweaks and trades and develop the rest of the roster?

There’s a case to be made that the best thing a team can have is a quarterback on a rookie contract. Look at how well Carson Wentz performed when the Eagles could spend on everything around him in 2017 compared to how he’s playing now with a shoddy roster. And look at the Eagles and Rams, who went to the Super Bowl with flawed QBs on rookie deals.

But the other side of that is the Bears with Mitch Trubisky. They went all-in on forming a terrific defense and spent huge on Khalil Mack only to have their franchise thrown into disarray by missing on the draft pick.

We think this year’s QB class is great. We thought that about 2018 too and Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen are all highly questionable. The book isn’t written on Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, either.

So there are no guarantees that Jacksonville will return to Championship Sunday sooner than the Vikings will just because they have draft capital and cap flexibility. It is, however, a hard road for the Vikings to build a roster strong enough to play for the Super Bowl when they have so much money tied up in 2021 that they are over the projected 2021 salary cap already, per OverTheCap.

Is the blank canvas more exciting than a picture that’s nearly completed but needs its finishing touches?

The side you pick might depend entirely on how much you believe in Cousins, who will carry a $31 million cap hit in 2021 assuming the Vikings do not cut him before the third day of the league year when his contract becomes fully guaranteed for 2022.

In recent weeks, Cousins has been terrific. He posted the highest quarterback rating of any QB in November and has jumped to Pro Football Focus’s fifth ranked player at the position. He’s using his mobility more, making off-schedule throws and even leading a game-winning drive.

The bigger picture, however, is that Cousins has been given great weapons and strong overall teams and the Vikings have won 23, lost 18 and tied once during his tenure.

Projecting the future has a sample size to draw from with Cousins, it doesn’t with whatever is about to happen in Jacksonville.

None of this adds a whole lot of excitement to Sunday’s underwhelming matchup but it does make you think about the ways in which the different franchises are going about getting back to the top. It’ll take a few years to really know which team did it right. 

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