New Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah inherited one of the most difficult positions in the NFL.
His quarterback was set to take up $45 million on the salary cap, the team was losing thousands of snaps with players like Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Anthony Barr and Everson Griffen hitting free agency, veteran players were set to carry unreasonable cap hits into 2022 and all the agents and GMs in the NFL were extremely aware of the Vikings’ situation.
When the club overhauled its coaching staff and front office, the expectation was that they would look like a completely different squad by late March. Instead, it looks the same, except worse. ESPN reported Saturday that the Vikings are set to let Danielle Hunter’s cap situation play out, meaning he will earn an $18 million roster bonus that appeared to be designed as a pseudo deadline for an extension or trade. While they can convert that into signing bonus to help the present cap situation, there are implications on the cap down the road.
Over the past few weeks the Vikings have reportedly tried to trade Hunter, Kirk Cousins and the other high-paid veterans to no avail. Cousins, Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith all made changes to their contracts that not only keep them in Minnesota but create cap challenges for years to come.
In free agency, the Vikings have only been able to afford a situational run stuffer and a linebacker that the Cardinals kept trying to replace. They had to cut nose tackle Michael Pierce in order to do so.
Thus far the Vikings haven’t made themselves better in the short term or long term.
If you feel like the purple were close to making the playoffs last year and wonder why running it back with better coaching isn’t a stellar plan, that’s because they won’t be running it back. The depth chart on defense now projects Cam Bynum at safety, Harrison Hand and Kris Boyd as starting corners and Kenny Willekes as the starting defensive end across from Hunter. The cap projects the Vikings have about enough money to call Bashaud Breeland and see if he wants to come back. Last year they finished with a negative point differential and presently have a worse roster.
Vikings fans are confused. Where did the overhaul go? Why is the team doing the same things that you would have expected Rick Spielman to do? Are they going to trade for a kicker-slash-punter next?
The other thing that has popped up in recent days is the quarterback trade market lighting up after Deshaun Watson surprisingly picked the Cleveland Browns. Spurned teams are still looking for options and the Vikings basically opted themselves out of taking offers (assuming Cousins’ no-trade clause kicks in right away in his extension). The Colts still don’t have a QB. Neither do the Panthers or Saints or Seahawks. Would teams have reconsidered the price tag as desperation grew?
The Vikings are now in a position to shop in the bargain bin for the rest of free agency and then hope that either 2021 draft picks take a big step forward and/or 2022 draft picks can step in and make a huge impact right away in order to have a chance to fight for the seventh playoff seed. The NFC may be considered weaker than the AFC but we have seen this movie before over the last two years. Maybe Adofo-Mensah will swing for a home run trade like Spielman did when acquiring Yannick Ngakoue in 2020.
Or maybe there is a different plan that will make everything clear again.
If the Vikings draft a quarterback in the first round, the future will make so much more sense.
Certainly the Vikings have other needs in the draft. Corners, edge rushers, an interior lineman or two and it wouldn’t hurt to find a long-term 1B receiver to Justin Jefferson. But there’s nothing more pressing than setting the stage for long-term success.
Even in an allegedly “weak” quarterback draft class, mock drafters are still projecting between three and five first-round quarterbacks. If the Vikings took one of them — particularly Malik Willis because of his upside — they could prepare to play next season with an eye on making the playoffs while developing a rookie behind the scenes.
If they feel comfortable with their first-round QB after 2022, the Vikings could explore trades for Cousins and work with him on a next location. If they aren’t confident in the rookie, they could draft another quarterback in 2023. They would still have a chance to continue with Cousins if he and Kevin O’Connell clicked in ways that Cousins and the previous coach did not. Should Cousins take them to places they haven’t gone before, the 2022 first-round QB could easily be dealt to another franchise for decent return. Arizona’s Josh Rosen brought in a second-round pick from the Miami Dolphins and he played terribly in his one year as the Cardinals’ starter.
All the cap concessions wouldn’t look so bad if the strategy involved taking a quarterback this April. Per OverTheCap.com, the Vikings earn $17.5 million in cap space by trading Cousins before 2023 (and $30 million if the deal has a post-June 1 designation).
The other players that they chose to keep i.e. Hunter, Smith, Thielen, Kendricks, all create more cap space with a cut this year than they would have this offseason. That won’t matter if Cousins is still expensive. It will be darn helpful if there’s $30 million more to work with.
Should the Vikings give themselves a QB of the future and an opportunity to move out a bunch of cap space, this offseason’s chaos will go long forgotten.
Along the way, there would be plenty to learn. Which young defensive players can play? Who fits in Ed Donatell’s system? How far does Kevin O’Connell need to go as a head coach? Can the rest of the 2022 class fill major spots in the future?
We thought that the moment Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell were hired that the Vikings were going to wash away everything that Zimmer and Spielman did over the last four years right away. That wasn’t the case but it doesn’t need to be, so long as there’s a method somewhere in this madness.
If the Vikings don’t take a future QB option this year, you can still see the roster being retooled down the road but the timeline is so much harder to plot out. Last year the Vikings punted on chances to select a first-rounder and may end up in the exact same spot next year if they pass again.
History hasn’t always been kind to middling teams that run away from picking quarterbacks in favor of filling other needs. In 2020, Washington, Detroit and New York picked No. 2, 3 and 4. Each settled for their QB situations and all missed on Justin Herbert, who is now a premier franchise quarterback. In 2018, the Giants went with a running back and the Broncos took an edge rusher rather than Josh Allen.
That doesn’t mean it always works. Nothing always works. But it has worked brilliantly for many of the teams who we now consider Super Bowl contenders like the Bills, Ravens, Chiefs and Chargers. There’s a lot more evidence in favor of taking a swing at grabbing the right QB out of a “weak” draft than there is to keep running it back the same group of aging players.