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.
The Super Bowl hasn’t even been played yet and the NFL’s offseason is already off to an incredible start.
A quick rundown: DeShaun Watson wants out of Houston. There are reports that the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford have mutually agreed that he will be traded this offseason. The Los Angeles Rams could be looking to trade Jared Goff. The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons may move on from Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan. Drew Brees and Tom Brady could both retire.
Hold on, there’s more.
Aaron Rodgers may either want a new contract or an exit from Green Bay. The Philadelphia Eagles might trade Carson Wentz and the Chicago Bears will reportedly be “aggressive” in the quarterback market. There’s also as many as five projected first-round quarterbacks.
Amidst all the rumors around the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings have avoided the chaos.
Kirk Cousins is under contract through 2022 and coming off a year in which he produced the NFL’s eighth best quarterback rating and ninth highest grade from Pro Football Focus. While he is set to carry a $31 million cap hit, the Vikings’ most likely scenario would be staying the course.
They will probably get back under the cap (they are currently $12 million over, per OverTheCap) by moving on from older players like Kyle Rudolph, Anthony Harris and maybe Riley Reiff. They are likely to add a free agent or two at key positions of need like defensive tackle and left guard. Odds are the Vikings draft a pass rusher, cornerback and trade down enough times to set records for total draft picks.
That’s the status quo offseason for the Vikings and what’s expected. And with everything in flux around them in the NFC, there’s a scenario where that works out great.
If the Lions go into a full rebuild, the Bears botch their QB situation for the 25th season in a row and Rodgers is traded to the Indianapolis Colts (or simply regresses from an MVP season), the Vikings would have a reasonable path to the top of the NFC North. All they would need is to improve to an average defense and have Justin Jefferson recreate his monster rookie season.
With uncertainty in so many NFC cities, it’s hard to come up with seven playoff teams next year that don’t have as many or more questions than the Vikings heading into 2021.
But you have to wonder if there’s a scenario where the Vikings decide that throwing themselves into the chaos is better than riding it out. There has to be some part of the team’s brass that thinks the only way to break the mold of 8-10 win seasons is to take a Mark McGwire-sized swing.
What might that be?
There’s three directions the offseason could go that would drastically take them in another direction (and come along with considerable risk).
1) The Vikings could trade Kirk Cousins to create cap space and draft a quarterback while bringing in a bargain QB like Jacksonville’s Garner Minshew or Las Vegas backup Marcus Mariota.
2) They could trade valuable veterans like Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and/or Harrison Smith for draft picks and completely rebuild that side of the ball.
3) They could pour draft and free agent options into building the greatest group of offensive players this team has had since 1998.
There are benefits and drawbacks to all of the chaotic options. Trading Cousins would give the Vikings flexibility at the position and a chance to build up the rest of the roster. It could also open them up to a possible drop off in production at QB and subsequently less offensive production overall in a year where a window is open to win.
Dealing away veterans would create a heap of cap space and bring in draft capital but make the uphill battle to improve the defense much more difficult.
Spending everything on the offensive side would give Cousins his best chance to produce a top-five offense. But it would mean trying to win every game in a shootout because the defense would still have major weaknesses.
How should the Vikings decide whether to stay put or press one of the let’s-get-crazy buttons?
Well, it depends on what they want out of the future.
Do they want a strong likelihood of a respectable 2021 season? Do they want all or nothing next year? Do they want a long-term plan to create a Super Bowl contender?
It would seem that the safest path to a decent 2021 season is the one that is well traveled. They know exactly what they have in Kirk Cousins and the present makeup of the offense. They know that adding even a little talent on defense and getting a little healthier will result in an uptick in performance, probably enough to get them in the playoff hunt. Add a few made field goals this time and they’re in the dance.
But what makes the other options more exciting for fans is that the reward is higher. Trading away Cousins might result in some difficult short-term days but building a roster around a rookie QB contract is a proven model.
Teams like the Miami Dolphins have sent out veterans in exchange for fresh faces and returned to being competitive quickly. We’ve also seen teams with veteran QBs load up on weapons and have quarterbacks’ performance explode, like the Atlanta Falcons in 2016.
Your excitement for any of those paths, however, is the fear of anyone hoping to hang onto their job.
Which brings us to somewhat of a bottom line about the Vikings and offseason madness: The Vikings’ coach and general manager might not be in a position to take roads less traveled.
Giving them the freedom to aim for a Super Bowl long term or the pressure to aim for the Super Bowl next year both seem like reasonable options. Leaving them in limbo has eight wins written all over it.
Even if it goes wrong, at least the offseason would be fun for fans. After all, who wants to sit inside while the rest of the NFC is outside making crazy trades and signings?