As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” COVID-19 landed that punch and now the best-laid plans of mice and men have gone awry. That includes, of course, the NFL.
Precisely what that means in terms of football this fall, we don’t even fully understand at this point. Close to 70 players opted out of the 2020 NFL season due to the pandemic prior to last week’s deadline. Undoubtedly, more players and coaches will be sidelined by the virus in the coming months.
So, put yourself in the expensive shoes of Rick Spielman. The Minnesota Vikings general manager recently signed a multi-year contract extension in the wake of his head coach Mike Zimmer doing the same. The Spielman-Zimmer tag-team is good to go, but making a two-or-three-year roadmap with this many potential potholes is problematic no matter how good your shoes are. The short-term plan – meaning the season that’s supposed to start in about a month – is to react. It’s not much of a plan at all, frankly. Coaches are fond of the “one game at a time” cliché, but it’s more like one day at a time in 2020.
In short, making a concrete strategy for the uncharted waters of 2020 is a fool’s errand. Teams better have a Plan B and Plan C. Heck, they better have a Plan Z. And then be prepared to rip it all up and do a re-write like beat writers frantically racing a deadline following a last-second Hail Mary game-winner.
Take every possible precaution to keep everyone healthy, lean on veteran players to carry the load since the rookies haven’t had time to prepare, and hope your team weathers the storm better than the other teams. How’s that for a “plan”?
In reality, Spielman’s actual proactive planning should be focused more on 2021. By then, with any luck and a good vaccine, we’ll be able to get up off the mat from the punch to the mouth. The NFL will be able to get back to some kind of normalcy… whatever that new normalcy might look like.
Undoubtedly, 2021 workshopping has already been taking place for a while now over the Zoom chats of Vikings executives.
So, what priorities will need to be accounted for when peering ahead to 2021?
Any planning starts with the cornerstone players. The key players and the biggest salaries have to be accounted for first, and that potentially includes the Dalvin Cook contract. Zimmer wants Cook to be a team captain and spearhead his run-heavy offense. That would seem to qualify Cook as a short-term priority with long-term ramifications for future seasons.
It needs to be the first domino to fall, and there’s still a chance it falls soon. Among the options on the table: play this season on his current contract and try to sign him to a lucrative new deal after the season or slap the franchise tag on him. Keep in mind the franchise tag is not something Spielman likes to use, despite the fact it’s currently being employed. This becomes a moot point if they ink Cook to an extension this month – presumably one that’s a little front-loaded for 2020 since they have some salary cap wriggle room right now.
Speaking of the franchise tag, the Vikings need to determine how badly they want or need to pursue their 2020 franchise tag player in 2021. Anthony Harris will command big money if he has another Pro Bowl-worthy season. If Cook gets paid or gets the 2021 franchise tag, there might not be room left for Harris under the cap. Something has to give. Consequently, this could be the last season we see Harris in purple.
Keeping Harris is a luxury the Vikings might not be able to afford beyond 2020. If that’s the case, they need their current group of cornerbacks to develop in a hurry. The Vikings are rolling with a lot of youth and inexperience at corner this season, which makes having two of the best coverage safeties in the league a nice (ahem) safety net. Even so, Zimmer is sure to sprout a few new gray hairs dealing with the mistakes that inevitably accompany inexperience at corner.
If the young corners show promise in 2020, the Vikings will be in a good spot. It will alleviate the pressure to re-sign Harris and limit Zimmer’s ulcers. If there’s one position for which the Vikings’ head coach will pound the table during the NFL Draft, it’s cornerback. However, if things go sideways in the secondary this season, Zimmer will probably force this to be a priority again in 2021.
Make no mistake, Spielman’s Achilles heel has been his inability to firm up the Vikings’ offensive line. This problem isn’t going away and should remain a major priority in the 2021 draft. Minnesota has made their share of misfires both in the draft and free agency when it comes to offensive linemen. The mistakes in the draft cost them valuable capital, while the free agency errors cost them in salary cap space because obtaining a lineman on the open market is never cheap.
Speaking of which, Riley Reiff has the second-largest cap hit on the team at $13.2 million in 2020. That hit jumps to $13.9 million in 2021, the final year of his deal, meaning a decision needs to be made. It’s one that Spielman might have already made, actually. Cutting Reiff after this season and moving Ezra Cleveland to tackle would make sense, assuming the rookie lives up to his billing. However, Cleveland is going to be used primarily as a guard in 2020, according to the early word out of training camp. Everything on the line flows from what they decide to do with Reiff, so his situation needs to be on the front burner by February.
This is the big one. Literally. What the Vikings decide to do at quarterback triggers the rest of their planning in 2021 and beyond. You might have Kirk Cousins’ cap numbers memorized by this point: $21 million in 2020, $31 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022. Yes, $45 million. That’s a big bag of cash and a big chunk of whatever the salary cap will be for a quarterback who some feel isn’t capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl. But it doesn’t matter what fans and “experts” think. It’s what Zimmer, Spielman and the Wilfs think that matters.
They need to make the determination whether Cousins is their ride-or-die Super Bowl quarterback. If he is, then the task will be to get that offensive line fixed up, give Kirk some more weapons and consider reworking that 2022 deal to make it more cap-friendly. If there’s hesitation on Cousins, who turns 32 this month, then this will be a critical winter to come up with an exit strategy from the Cousins Era.
Should the ultimate conclusion be that Cousins is not the answer, the hunt for an established alternative should kick into high gear. You have to think Spielman has a whiteboard list of attainable veterans – either via free agency or trade — such as Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz. And, no, it won’t be Aaron Rodgers. Putting all your eggs into the basket of acquiring an established veteran quarterback, as they did when they got Cousins in the first place, is a tricky strategy though. This past offseason, where Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Philip Rivers and Cam Newton changed teams, was an outlier.
Just know this: If you think Zimmer has the appetite for a tear-down and rebuild that would accompany starting over with a rookie quarterback, think again. There’s only a slightly better chance of that happening than of the Vikings tearing down U.S. Bank Stadium and rebuilding the Metrodome… and having it solely funded by the Wilfs. Rebuilds almost always take time, and the contract Zimmer just signed might be his final one. He’s 64 years old – the fourth-oldest head coach in a league where hiring 30-something year-old whiz kids is becoming the trend.
As long as Zimmer is at the helm of the Vikings ship, there will be no rebuilding, only reloading. In fact, this past offseason might be as close as we get to a rebuild, but it was more a refurbishing of the defense. That doesn’t really count as a rebuild by anyone’s definition.
However, it should be pointed out that the big-money decisions on defense that began this offseason aren’t over. The Vikings saved some money on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, but 2021 is the final year of Harrison Smith’s contract. Signing him to an extension in 2021 feels like an inevitable, expensive priority. And speaking of expensive, Anthony Barr is slated to cost the Vikings over $15 million in 2021 and 2022 and over $18 million in 2023. How long before he becomes a cap casualty candidate?
Oh, and one more thing: How long before Danielle Hunter looks for a bigger contract? If there’s one young player on the entire roster who Spielman wants to lock in as a Viking for life, it’s probably Hunter. That means he needs to start planning in 2021 for Hunter to come knocking on his door in 2022 for a little chat. Hunter is signed through 2023, but the recent deals signed by fellow elite defensive ends such as Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett dwarf Hunter’s contract. You can bet that didn’t escape the attention of Hunter… or his agent.
In short, Spielman will have a lot to consider in 2021 when the NFL should look a little less uncertain than it does now. You can bet he’s focusing on it already, as any smart GM would. There will be more he can control once things get back to normal. You remember normal, right?
The 2020 season? Just counter-punch your way through the problems. Good luck getting any plan to stick.