The Minnesota Vikings have begun interviewing candidates for their open general manager position, starting with Tennessee Titans executive Monti Ossenfort, per an ESPN report. The expected list of interviewees spans from those with a scouting background like Tampa Bay’s John Spytek, to Browns VP of operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who has a degree in economics and worked trading energy derivatives before entering the football world in 2013, and everyone in between.
The job appears to be an attractive position considering the team’s star talent, facilities and fans, but the new GM will also be taking over a club that has fallen into a rut in recent years. What is the next decision maker really getting? Let’s have a look…
The opportunity to pick a coach
When it comes to the relationship between general managers and head coaches, people often go back to Bill Parcells’ famous analogy about cooking.
“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” Parcells said after leaving the Patriots in 1997.
If we look at the teams that reached the postseason this year, you find a lot of cooks and shoppers who appear to be connected at the hip. It would stand to reason that a GM picking his own coach would allow for both coach and GM to agree on a grocery list from the start. Some playoff teams for example: Buffalo hired GM Brandon Beane shortly after bringing in Sean McDermott as the team’s head coach. Tennessee hired GM Jon Robinson in 2016 and he picked Mike Vrabel the next year. Brian Gutekunst became the Packers’ GM in 2018 and hired Matt LaFleur. The Vikings’ new shot caller gets to select a coach who shares a similar vision of how the team should be built (and of positional value) and what type of players are needed to fit the schemes.
Early in Mike Zimmer’s time in Minnesota, it appeared he and GM Rick Spielman were shopping and cooking together. Spielman found a quarterback that Zimmer liked in Teddy Bridgewater and built a defense that gave him shutdown corners, edge rushing stars, depth role players and a big old run stuffer in the middle. In recent years, however, there was much more disconnect between GM and HC.
There have been reports that the conflict between Zimmer and Spielman was part of the reason for the Wilfs moving on from both on Black Monday. Deion Sanders, a close confidant of Zimmer’s, said in an interview that the two hadn’t spoken in months. Tension within the relationship was evidenced by numerous comments about the team’s lack of depth that came from Zimmer in the preseason and then became glaring when the HC said he had no interest in seeing third-round pick Kellen Mond play after a loss to Green Bay with veteran Sean Mannion in the game.
Now the Vikings get to hit the reset button on the team’s power structure, which starts with the GM forming a duo with their coach. Mark Wilf’s emphasis on the word “collaboration” seemed to speak on the importance of hiring a coach that the GM wants.
Side note: The Wilfs did begin requesting to interview coaches prior to the hiring of a GM. Per NFL Network, that is because the window to interview coaches who have playoff byes like Green Bay’s Nate Hackett closes after this week.
The opportunity to pick a quarterback
The first and most important decision on the table for the new GM and HC is what direction to take with the quarterback position. Naturally, the best situation for a new GM would be to inherit a QB of Aaron Rodgers’ caliber but since that isn’t the case, they’ll have the next best thing: Options galore.
Whether it’s trading Kirk Cousins or extending him or keeping him for one more year and drafting the next franchise QB to sit in waiting, the team will be looking for a situation where the GM, HC and QB are pulling in the same direction, which hasn’t exactly been the case with Zimmer/Spielman/Cousins.
The ideal example would be the Bills with McDermott, Beane and Josh Allen. They made a concerted effort to put weapons around their young QB like Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders and signed top-notch center Mitch Morse to a four-year, $44 million deal. The Bills also hired an offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll who designed the club’s offense based on Allen’s style of play, opening him up to be a playmaker and runner.
The new Vikings brass doesn’t have to make the decision right away with Cousins still under contract. McDermott/Beane waited for one season of Tyrod Taylor before drafting Allen, for example.
Of course, not every team has things fall perfectly into place with their quarterback after hiring a GM and HC the way Buffalo did, but having the option to evaluate Cousins and decide on the direction rather than being saddled with a quarterback for the foreseeable future gives the Vikings an edge as an attractive job for GM candidates.
Offensive weapons and tackles
The NFL draft has not always been kind to the Vikings in recent years but the hits on the offensive side of the ball give the future GM a bevy of talent to work with. That starts with Justin Jefferson.
Over his first two seasons, the first-rounder out of LSU has totaled nearly 200 catches and over 3,000 yards receiving. Those aren’t fool’s gold stats, either. By PFF’s grading system, he’s ranked as the third best receiver in the NFL in back-to-back years. He’s at least locked into the Vikings as their top receiver at an extremely reasonable price for two more years of his rookie contract, allowing some cap flexibility as elite receivers start to approach QB prices around the league.
On the other side, Adam Thielen still put together a strong season with 10 touchdowns and a 130.9 QB rating when targeted. There has been some speculation about his future with a $16.9 million cap hit but he is still very effective.
Thielen is essentially the only older player who qualifies as a key piece on the offense. Right tackle Brian O’Neill is 26 years and just signed a contract through 2026 last offseason. He allowed only one sack this season. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw is coming off a rookie year in which he showed promise toward being an above average-to-very good cornerstone.
KJ Osborn emerged as a viable weapon in Year 2 with 50 catches and Ezra Cleveland put together a good enough year (28th out of 63 by PFF) to expect him to lock in as a starter in the future.
We can reasonably figure Dalvin Cook into the equation. Despite a down year in comparison to his last two seasons, he still gained 1,149 yards at 4.7 yards per carry.
Draft picks from 2021 Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed some flashes of having potential roles in the future.
There are still holes along the offensive line at center and guard and more weapons could be added to the mix but New GM X walks into the job with an offense that either has a high floor if they keep Cousins in place, or a high ceiling with what the next quarterback could do with this supporting cast.
Ownership that is willing to spend
In recent years the Vikings’ brass may have gotten a little too liberal with using ownership’s money but the Wilfs certainly showed they are willing to doll out whatever dollars the GM needs. Aside from the obvious questionable big contracts given to Kirk Cousins, Anthony Barr, Dalvin Cook etc., another example would be how often the Vikings converted base salary into signing bonus in recent years. In that situation owners have to put up the cash to the player in a lump sum and the Wilfs were willing to do that repeatedly.
Knowing that no cost will be too much for the owners gives the next GM freedom to spend as they wish to get the team back into contention. Whether that privilege is used to the benefit of the roster is up to new GM X.
Time to build
Mark Wilf said that he does not see the team as needing a full rebuild. That may be true but there isn’t a Super Bowl-or-bust vibe to the hire. After two years of the roster talent slipping and culture sliding into toxicity, the next front office leader will be expected to have the team headed in the right direction toward being a legitimate contender next season and the work environment in the building to be much improved. That expectation gives time to go whatever way the new GM wants at the quarterback position and to spend next year showing growth. That doesn’t mean they have to set the bar lower than the playoffs, only that there may be a transition year and everybody involved seems to recognize that.
Underwhelming amount of cap space and draft capital
While the Wilfs are helpful in allowing their front office to move money around, the Vikings are in one of the worst spots in the NFL with cap space. They are presently projected as $10.7 million over the cap per OverTheCap.com. The only teams with less space are the Cowboys, Packers and Saints.
There are options for creating cap space to spend on the roster, including trading Kirk Cousins, which opens up $35 million, and re-working Danielle Hunter’s contract or cutting him. They could create another $6.5 million by moving on from Michael Pierce.
Of course, with everyone that goes out the door, that’s another hole to fill and the Vikings are already up to their horns in holes to fill. They have 20 free agents, including players who filled key roles like Anthony Barr, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander, Tyler Conklin and Greg Joseph.
Filling immediate needs through the draft isn’t often an effective approach — see: Davis, Wyatt — but the Vikings don’t have a ton of draft capital to do that even if they wanted to go that direction. They have a first, second, third, fifth and three sixth-rounders to work with. They could add to that significantly by trading Cousins and other veterans like Harrison Smith or Dalvin Cook, but those moves would lean more in the rebuild direction than it feels like they want to go.
Simply put: It will take time to balance the books.
A defense that needs rebuilding
If the Vikings’ fresh-faced brass finds a way to keep Hunter, they will still likely have to fill at least two cornerback spots, one safety, one linebacker and one defensive end. That’s not even counting depth spots like No. 3 linebacker and situational D-linemen and DBs.
Recent drafts have not yielded many starting-caliber players on the defensive side. In fact, since 2015 the Vikings have drafted 28 players on defense and 2020 third-round pick Cam Dantzler and 2021 fourth-rounder Cam Bynum are the only ones who have a serious chance to start next season. Armon Watts and Kenny Willekes showed some potential in 2021 to play roles in the future.
The Vikings’ No. 1 defense in 2017 was built over four drafts from 2012-2015 in which they picked up Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter. It won’t be a quick fix to fill the bare cupboard that has been left by the previous regime.
Tricky veteran contracts
The Vikings presently have six non-QB players set to make more than $10 million. Five of them are fan favorites. You may feel like it doesn’t matter who fans like at this point since they’ve won 13 games total in the last two years (subtracting meaningless games in the final week) but it might not be easy to roll into town and cut Danielle Hunter and trade Smith, Cook, Thielen, even if some of those moves make sense with cap vs. return value.
If the owners want a quick return to prominence within the next two years, are the odds better of doing that if they trade everything for draft picks or if they keep them and those veterans decline with age? That’s a really difficult question to answer.
A very frustrated fan base
The crowd in Week 18 was downright surreal. There were a lot of people in US Bank Stadium, yet the place sounded like it was empty. Since Brett Favre retired, the Vikings have won two playoff games. Vikings fans may be a loyal group but they have also been through years and years of their team trying to pass off mediocrity as success and they have grown exhausted of it. It culminated with them booing their own team in victory formation on the final day of the Zimmer era.
Being in the hunt for the playoffs isn’t competing for a championship. Out of 22 teams to reach the Super Bowl since 2010, 15 of them won 12 games or more games in the regular season. Ten of the 22 won 13 or more. The Vikings weren’t a field goal or a fumble away from 12 wins. They did it once in the entire Zimmer era. If you were born in 1980, you have seen three seasons in which the Vikings had the requisite number of wins to be considered an average team that reaches the Super Bowl. Just like every kicker who shows up in town carries the weight of Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh, so does the incoming GM of the haunting words, “we’re only a couple of pieces away.”