In the NFL, every decision has a butterfly effect. You can trace back every draft pick, signing, extension and trade for years and see clearly in hindsight the impact of each move.
The simplest type of example might be something like the Minnesota Vikings’ 2015 draft. We can easily figure out what Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs led to the Vikings becoming a Super Bowl contender in 2017.
It gets more complicated when we look at the ripples of moves that weren’t made (meta, I know). Think about how the Vikings elected to keep Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and Kirk Cousins heading into the 2020 season. We can paint a picture of the universe that might have existed if they took a different direction. The most likely leadership combo would have been current Broncos GM George Paton and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. At quarterback? Who knows. Would it have worked? Who knows.
Studying the effect of the first offseason operated by new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will be about both the moves that were made and the moves that weren’t. The Vikings signed veterans Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, Za’Darius Smith and Jesse Davis as projected starters and kept all their other veterans save for Michael Pierce. While Adofo-Mensah said in his recent press conference that sometimes the right choice is to not make a move, extending Cousins and restructuring the contracts of Adam Thielen are moves, even if they didn’t result in movement. The same applies to keeping Danielle Hunter on his present deal. These decisions will have butterfly effects on the roster and cap down the road.
They will also alter the futures of inexperienced players, who are now less likely to see the field.
Last season the Vikings’ defense was stacked with veterans. Only three players on rookie contracts saw more than 350 snaps (DJ Wonnum, Cam Dantzler and Armon Watts). In the 2021 offseason, they added veterans Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Nick Vigil, Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander and Sheldon Richardson. Because they chose to go the veteran route, we aren’t sure where recent draft picks stand in their development.
Is Cam Dantzler a building-block player? Can any other young guy play corner? Can Cam Bynum start? Are Blake Lynch or Chazz Surratt future options at linebacker? Is there any potential for Kenny Willekes or Patrick Jones to be legit pass rushers? Is Armon Watts an every-down player? Hard to say because we simply didn’t see much of them.
That’s just on the defensive side. We barely got a look at weapons Kene Nwangwu or Ihmir Smith-Marsette last season and it’s not 100% clear that Wyatt Davis is a real person.
Does that mean all of them would have fulfilled their potential and become future key pieces? No. But the price of playing short-term veterans is not having any idea where the inexperienced players stand later on. Certainly there are player evaluators in the building and practice/preseason tape to work with but we have seen in the past that players can rise to the challenge when called upon. The Vikings didn’t think Justin Jefferson or Ezra Cleveland were ready to start Week 1 in 2020. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen had to wait their turns. Anthony Harris sat behind Andrew Sendejo for years before getting his shot and becoming a quality player. Tom Johnson came from the CFL as a backup, got a chance and then played 70% of snaps on the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
By leaving the roster as is, the evaluations on players from the last two rookie classes and the 2023 class will be trickier, except for when opportunities are created by injuries. That doesn’t mean the future is ruined, it’s only to say that we might be asking one year from now if Surratt can play next to Kendricks (or in his place?) or Smith-Marsette can be WR2 or WR3 and not be sure at all.
What if the Vikings had walked away from their moveable veterans and decided to roll out all the prospects?
Here’s what the lineup on defense would have looked like…
- DL — Willekes/Rookie pass rusher — Watts — Tomlinson
- LB — Surratt — Kendricks — Lynch — Wonnum (OLB)
- CB — Dantzler — Hand — Rookie CB
- S — Bynum — Metellus
- OL — Darrisaw — Cleveland — Bradbury — Davis/Udoh — O’Neill
- WR — Jefferson — Osborn — Smith-Marsette — Rookie WR
- RB — Nwangwu — Mattison
- TE — Smith Jr.
That doesn’t look like a better team than the one the Vikings are about to have in 2022. Not particularly close. But it is a lineup that has a lot of intrigue and answers about the future.
The idea here isn’t that the Vikings should have run this squad instead of the one they are set to play but if they are indeed doing a “competitive rebuild,” there needs to be more opportunity for these players than they saw under Zimmer. The Vikings need to know whether they have something in their young group.
Rushing Dalvin Cook 300 times while Nwangwu watches from the sideline or leaving Smith-Marsette on the pine because he hasn’t mastered the route tree like a veteran or pulling Dantzler from the starting lineup for a June veteran signing are not wise plays for a team that is looking for ways to straddle between competing for the playoffs and setting themselves up for 2023 and beyond.
That’s easier said than done. Development takes patience and a plan. With so many veterans on the team, it won’t be easy to tell any of them to take a seat for an unproven player. But they can’t lose sight of the potential positive butterfly effects of giving inexperienced players a role.
The current offseason route, of course, has not eliminated opportunity for everyone. Bynum and Dantzler appear to be in line to start in the secondary. Smith-Marsette and Nwangwu can pave the way to situational opportunities in training camp. Wyatt Davis can win the starting job. Wonnum, Willekes, Jones and Robinson could force Ed Donatell’s hand into giving them rotational roles. Rookies should be filling positions of need and seeing playing time, too.
Still we may end up wondering what we could have learned with more snaps for the youth movement. We’ll decide how the butterfly effect played in hindsight, as always.