Mike Zimmer has no incentive to play unproven players who might be part of the Minnesota Vikings’ future in this week’s meaningless game against the Chicago Bears because he might not be part of the future. Zimmer is surely aware that when people look up his coaching record, they will not ask whether the wins had playoff implications or not.
Asked whether he plans to play all the available starters on Sunday, Zimmer simply responded with: “Yes”
Asked whether he wanted to get a look at some of the younger players, he said, “no.”
For the organization’s sake, there’s a strong case to treat the game like a preseason contest.
That argument starts with the fact that fans would likely prefer seeing the next generation to getting one last look at the starters who let them down this season. Last week fans pined for rookie quarterback Kellen Mond to start against the Green Bay Packers. With a sliver’s chance to reach the playoffs remaining, the Vikings understandably went with their No. 2 quarterback, veteran Sean Mannion.
This week, however, the Vikings would at least have a chance to see their third-rounder in action and get some sense of how much he’s improved since his rough preseason.
“He’s the third-team quarterback,” Zimmer said of Mond on Monday. “He’s improved. He’s improved throughout the year. He’s got a chance to be a good player. But he’s third on the depth chart so we kind of knew that.’’
If he has a chance to be a good player, it might benefit the team to get a peek at how far away from “good player” he currently stands.
The odds of Mond becoming the team’s franchise quarterback some day aren’t particularly high based on his draft status alone and the fact that the coaching staff would prefer a backup with a limited ceiling and very little experience like Mannion doesn’t bode well. However, having a cheap backup that’s capable of starting in the future would be beneficial. If Mond were to show against Chicago that he could manage an NFL game, that would allow the Vikings to lock him into the No. 2 spot rather than having to spend on a backup. If he played poorly, they would know that they need a better second stringer next season.
Week 18 isn’t entirely about Mond. There are numerous recent draft picks who could get more in-game reps — players who they won’t be able to see again until next preseason. Last year’s draft picks Wyatt Davis, Chazz Surratt, Cam Bynum, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kene Nwangwu have barely seen the field this year. There’s no harm in getting them 50 or 60 plays to use as a barometer.
While it’s true that you can’t make broad evaluations based on a game where neither team has anything on the line, it can at least give the Vikings a hint about players’ development throughout the season. In 2019, defensive tackle Armon Watts shined against the Bears. This year he emerged as a solid situational pass rusher. Oli Udoh played well in that game. They may have made a mistake moving him to right guard, but Udoh does appear to have turned out to be a viable swing tackle option.
Even if you could give or take getting a look at the next generation, it’s hard to dispute that injury risk vs. reward does not add up for key players. Receiver Justin Jefferson is the most important player in the organization at the moment. If he suffers an injury that sets him back for 2022, how could anyone justify him playing in the game? The same goes for Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Dalvin Cook, Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill.
It’s possible the Vikings may be looking to move on from some players i.e. Kirk Cousins this offseason. Cousins, who was activated off the COVID list on Wednesday could see his trade value plummet if he were to have a long-term injury.
There’s also draft implications. PFF's Brad Spielberger tweeted this on Tuesday:
"One year ago today, we were all discussing how the Eagles threw a game As a result, the Eagles jumped from pick No. 10 to No. 6 They added a 2022 1st-round pick from Miami because of draft position And they made the playoffs the next season Guess it didn't destroy the culture"
You would never tell a group of players not to play as hard as they possibly can but losing the game would be better for the Vikings’ draft status.
Last year the Vikings beat Detroit in Week 17. On draft night they picked in the middle of the first round and couldn’t muster enough trade value to deal for quarterback Justin Fields. (If you forgot, it was revealed that they called the Panthers about a trade up last year, reportedly to pick Fields).
The Vikings are sitting with the No. 12 pick right now. They could get into the top 10 with a loss and a few other lowly clubs winning.
The Vikings playing for a win that will only harm their draft status is a pretty on-the-nose way to describe why the Vikings are where they are. In many instances where they should have been thinking long term, they have been stubborn and aimless. Whether it was trading a second-round pick for Yannick Ngakoue or signing Harrison Smith to one of the NFL’s most expensive contracts despite his age, they haven’t been pragmatic in recent years. Often times in the NFL teams with a more broad view of where they stand are rewarded.
That doesn’t mean it’s a major issue for the future of the franchise that the Vikings play starters, so long as everyone stays healthy. But it isn’t doing much on the positive side. If you recall, when the Vikings beat the Lions in Week 17 last year, they talked about carrying over the win into the next year. Yet here we sit, watching another game just like it.