With their 33-27 loss to the Chicago Bears, the Minnesota Vikings have all but put a lid on their playoff hopes this season. It was a remarkable comeback to claw into the mix after holding a 1-5 record in October, but Minnesota couldn’t seal the deal.
You may long to go back in time and tell the Vikings it won’t work out. To pack it in and hunt for a blue-chip draft pick. After all, what’s the point of an 8-8 season, other than to sink your draft capital? This is the curse of purgatory, right? Minnesota is only ever good enough to play their way out of the draft pick that will put them over the top. At least, that’s how the argument goes.
So how do teams escape that dreaded purgatory? The Vikings, 24-21-1 in the last three seasons, should be interested.
Method 1: Tank
That longing to go back in time is a longing to tank. In the NFL, it’s not really possible to lose on purpose. Players and coaches are constantly auditioning for their own jobs. Very few GMs will risk their own careers for draft picks that would go to their successors. Still, fans can root for a better draft position as much as they want.
It’s more difficult than you’d think to find examples of a team wading from the middle to the bottom and coming out on top. In a sustained sense, top-five draft picks don’t correlate much with future success. That’s pretty intuitive since bottom-five teams aren’t too ripe for the turnaround. If ever there were a team to prove that a tank would lead to sustained success, it’d be the Detroit Lions.
Since going 0-16 in 2008, Detroit has made six draft picks in the top 10. But like so many teams at the top of the draft, their problems have been too great for high draft picks to overcome. They haven’t won so much as an NFC North title, let alone made any sort of legitimate playoff run. The gap has been too large to close.
Method 2: a rejuvenating Quarterback
Perhaps the poster child for football purgatory is the Buffalo Bills, who hovered around .500 over the vast majority of a 17-year playoff drought. The Bills are putting together a Super Bowl-caliber season, so how did they get here? A large portion of the credit has to go to Josh Allen, for whom the Bills traded up to select in 2018. They were a playoff also-ran but still found their QB.
In a broader context, this is Buffalo’s sixth or seventh attempt at finding that quarterback. Over the course of that playoff drought, they had similar hopes in players like EJ Manuel, Trent Edwards, or even J.P. Losman. They even went for free agents like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor, only to fall flat each time. Would you prefer the Vikings to go through a similar two-decade search to find a quarterback like Allen? It’s remarkably difficult to find a Patrick Mahomes without suffering through some Daniel Joneses.
Method 3: Nail A Draft Class
Instead of wallowing in mediocrity or suffering through futility, some teams have just made the jump. The difference between a forgettable 8-8 and contending at 11-5 is only three games. An influx of talent can bridge that gap, provided they get a lot of it at the same time. Take the 2011 Seattle Seahawks: They spent seven of 10 seasons in the six- to 10-win range before that draft. After a 7-9 season, they acquired Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Malcolm Smith, and Byron Maxwell in one weekend. Two years (and a third-round QB) later, they took home a Lombardi with a historic defensive performance.
For a more recent example, the 2014-16 New Orleans Saints went 7-9 three consecutive times. In the ensuing draft, they acquired six players who are still starting for them in 2020. Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone and Trey Hendrickson all headline a team that has been elite since April of 2017. They mark the difference between 7-9 and 12-4, and the Saints didn’t have to spend extra to get them. They just had to be good evaluators.
So how does this relate to the Vikings? The 2020 draft class is shaping up to be the difference. Justin Jefferson and Cameron Dantzler are taking the league by storm this month. Jeff Gladney and Ezra Cleveland have shown encouraging progress.
Unfortunately, many of these successes plug holes that were created only recently. If Dantzler can be as good as Xavier Rhodes, and Jefferson can replace Stefon Diggs, it would mean a break-even on an offseason that lost both veterans. Still, those teams weren’t far from genuine contention. If Cleveland can bolster the offensive line, and Gladney can keep pace with Dantzler, it would relieve a lot of pressure on the team. The cap gets easier to manage with all those rookie contracts, their teammates can play more aggressively, and the coaches get access to way more options. With an extra year of experience, the 2020 draft class may well save the Vikings from football mediocrity.