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Vikings 2020-2021 Outlook

Last week I talked about the road ahead for the Atlanta Falcons, and this past Sunday, the Vikings took an absolute beating to those same Falcons. The Vikings have showed more promise than their record indicates, but it doesn’t matter: their 1-5 and have a 5% chance at making the playoffs: 

Going into the 2020 season, the Vikings had a league-high 12 selections in the 2020 NFL draft. Of course, they had high aspirations going into the year after knocking off the 13-3 Saints in the divisional round in the 2019 playoffs. But given the constraints this COVID-riddled offseason presented, maybe our expectations for Minnesota were ill-advised. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski left for the Browns head coaching job. Yes, new OC Gary Kubiak was a consultant for this squad in the past, but it is still a new system in a limiting offseason. 

Some of their draft choices including rookie sensation Justin Jefferson are playing great football, but this team as a whole is really young in certain spots and did not get the reps/preseason action that would’ve greatly benefitted them. Compound that with core veterans like Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce who are hurt, and that’s why the Vikings are where they are. 

I’d be remiss if we didn’t address how inconsistent and just downright brutal QB Kirk Cousins has played at times. Last game, he didn’t even give Minnesota a chance with three first half picks. He now leads in the league in interceptions with 10. However, the issues lie deeper than that just Cousins’ performance; here are some moves the Vikings should consider for the rest of this season going to the 2021 offseason:

  1. Go young where you can

As I highlighted above, this team is really young in a few spots which may be hurting them in the short term but it’s important to get some of these guys reps moving forward. The Vikings have an aging core and need to pass the torch to some of the young fellows at certain positions. For starters, second rounder Ezra Cleveland made his first start this past weekend but was out of position: 

The left tackle made his first start at RG for the struggling and injured 2019 4th round selection Dru Samia. This offensive line has been a huge disappointment in their pass protection where they rank 27th in adjusted sack rate. OT Riley Reiff was on the chopping block in the preseason after the selection of Cleveland, but they decided to keep the veteran around. Besides RT standout Brian O’Neill, Reiff has been a pleasant surprise on this OL. However, they need to mold Cleveland into a OT rather than wasting him in the interior just for the sake of experience and necessity. Furthermore, they can bump Reiff into the interior and move forward with their tackles of the future: Cleveland and O’Neill.

CBs Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler have seen nearly every snap since starting CB Holton Hill went down in week 4. These are two intriguing prospects who could use as much experience as possible in one of the harder positions to adjust to in the NFL.

4th round DL D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch have each seen an uptick in snaps the previous two weeks. They need to continue to cycle in Wonnum at especially without Danielle Hunter. Over the years, the Vikings have had their struggles at 3-tech, and the Vikings need to see if Lynch can be apart of the solution.  

  1. Lock up Ngakoue, sit Hunter

The Vikings made a splash towards the start of the season when they relinquished their second round pick and a conditional fifth for the services of Yannick Ngakoue. A very reasonable price for one of the game’s best, young pass pushers, the one caveat is Ngakoue’s contract is up at the end of this year.

The Vikings need to prioritize extending the 25 year-old. He has 5 sacks through 5 games and teamed up with Hunter should create one of the more fearsome DE duos in all of football.

Now, their cap situation is not ideal; they are $9 million over the cap going into 2021. There are a few ways the Vikings can get creative in order to clear cap space to extend Ngakoue such as a few potential trade candidates (see below).

On the other side of the coin, Danielle Hunter has been eligible to return since week 4 when he was placed on the IR before the season. Nevertheless, Hunter still hasn’t suited due to a cervical spine disc herniation.

This back injury should be treated with the utmost care and caution. This cervical herniation results in the pinching of nerves resulting in intense pain that shoots down that entire side of your body. The back is not something to mess around with, the Vikings need to rest Hunter and get a 100% Hunter going into 2021. There is no short-term reward in throwing Hunter back out there.

  1. Deadline

The NFL trade deadline is less than two weeks ago and the Vikings are obvious candidates to sell. The deadline may be a little different this year as COVID has thrown a few wrinkles in terms of acclimation and hoops that teams have to jump through when acquiring someone. Despite that, the Vikings have a lot of talent that stands out as potential trade candidates. Here are a few players they should consider moving on from for the right price:

Riley Reiff: We touched on Reiff earlier but with Cleveland, he’s pretty expendable and now is the time to cash in as he’s playing well. You could get a decent haul for Reiff with a contender like Tennessee who just lost Taylor Lewan for the year or even the Dallas Cowboys who’ve lost both La’el Collins and Tyron Smith for the season. Because tackle is at such a premium and Reiff is locked up through 2022, I think Minnesota could yield a 3rd rounder for his services.

Kyle Rudolph: Rudolph has played at a high level ever since he was selected in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft. A true all-around tight end, Rudolph was never the fastest guy but he’s always been very reliable as a receiver and a blocker. Teammates laud him for his professionalism and toughness; this is not an easy call but it is time for the Vikings to move on from Rudolph and solely focus on 2019 2nd rounder Irv Smith. Smith came on late last year and showed some serious promise. However, his usage in the first four games in 2020 was rather confusing. Smith, a really tough and explosive tight end only had two catches through four games. The last two games they’ve finally gone back to Smith as he combined for eight catches for 119 yards in weeks 5 and 6. Moving Rudolph would save Minnesota $3 million in cap and they could probably receive a 4th or 5th rounder for him to the right team. I’d look in the direction of a team like New England or Green Bay who could use a veteran at the position that would be asked to block more than receive.

Anthony Harris: This seems like the most logical player to be moved. Harris, one of their best players, has been a ballhawk ever since his arrival. But he really broke through last year; he only started 11 games between 2015-2018, but he started in every game he played last season: he ended up co-leading the NFL in interceptions with 6.

Unfortunately, Harris is a free agent after the season, so the Vikes might as well try to get something out of him before he tests the market. Trading Harris wouldn’t pile on any dead cap and would save their salary cap over $11 million. The UDFA out of Virginia has produced at a really high level and has formed one of the best safety duos in the NFL alongside Harrison Smith. Harris is still just 29 years old and has a few good years ahead of him.

There are teams who are in the thick of playoff contention and could use another safety like Cleveland or Las Vegas. The Vikings could potentially get a 3rd or a combination of day three picks for Harris.

  1. 2021 draft

Besides shipping away their 2nd round pick in the Ngakoue trade, GM Rick Spielman has accumulated another haul of picks:

1st round pick

3rd round pick

4th round pick

4th round pick via Bears

4th round pick via Bills

5th round pick 

5th round pick via Steelers

5th round pick via Ravens

6th round pick

7th round pick

The Vikings do not have as many needs as you’d think for a 1-5 team. The main focus needs to be the interior offensive line; besides C Garrett Bradbury, there aren’t any long-term solutions there at the moment. 

Whether the Vikings decide to move on from Harris at the deadline or not, safety becomes a huge need as well as Harris is slated to be a UFA in 2021 and Harrison Smith isn’t getting any younger. 

If the Vikings end up accumulating more picks at the deadline, GM Rick Spielman will have an abundance of picks to package together and be aggressive in moving up in the draft. The Vikings already have 10 picks and could acquire more, but Minnesota needs prospects that are ready to play right away at certain spots.

The Vikings are 17th in NFL DVOA through 6 weeks:

They are seeing a ton of production in the run game, hit a home run with the Justin Jefferson pick, and despite all their injuries, are playing competitive defense. This roster doesn’t need a complete makeover but touch-ups are necessary.

  1. Go Get Sam Darnold

I haven’t really addressed the elephant in the room: QB Kirk Cousins. Cousins has been inconsistent to say the least. He currently leads the NFL in interceptions.

Cousins was going into the last year of his contract but the Vikes elected to extend him through 2022. This contract is an absolute nightmare to move; the Vikings would have to pay $62 and $41 million in dead cap if they were to move on from Cousins in 2020 or 2021 respectively. In short, they are stuck with him.

Many fans want the Vikings to actively tank for Trevor Lawrence but that’s just not happening. Teams like the Jets, Giants, Jaguars, and the Football Team are in actual contention for that top spot.

If the Vikings were to pick in the top 10 and select a QB, say Trey Lance, and have him sit behind Cousins for a year, that could be a long-term solution at QB.

But why not go after Darnold? If the Jets secure that top spot, they’ll certainly move on from Darnold. His value won’t be any lower than it is after this disastrous season for the Jets. He is still just 23 years old and only two years removed from being picked in the top 3.

He has still has those tools that made him a top-tier QB prospect: he’s tough, mobile, and has arm strength. His decision-making and inconsistency are two glaring flaws in his game but he’s also being coached by Adam Gase with the worst supporting cast of OL and skill players in the NFL.

With all the picks Spielman has accumulated, he can afford to be aggressive in the Darnold sweepstakes and sit him behind Cousins for a year. He can get acclimated in their zone scheme that puts a huge emphasis on play-action.

This would be a real long-term solution at the position that is bare of any real future presently.

  1. Summary

It’s been extremely disappointing for Minnesota to start off 1-5 after such a strong finish in 2019. But let’s not forget, this team is without Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce. They could easily have won against Tennessee and Seattle in weeks four and five, which would make them .500 going into their bye. 

But they didn’t win those games. Some pundits are calling for the Vikings to go through a dramatic roster overhaul similar to Miami or Las Vegas. This is a definitely a knee-jerk reaction for a team that is two possessions away from being 3-3 with all their crucial injuries.

The Vikings front office cannot panic; yes, they are stuck with Kirk through at least next year, in more likelihood through 2022. But they can figure out a long-term solution with someone like Sam Darnold without using a first pick round to get their next quarterback. 

The Vikings need to put an emphasis on upgrading the interior of their offensive line while focusing on the back end of their defense. 

If this team can retool and rebuild properly, they will be right back in the playoffs in 2021.

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