Vikings

Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ Investment in Avoiding Another ‘Wide Left’ Debacle

Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch (USA Today Sports)

This has been a tough week in Minnesota, to put it mildly, so it might not be the best time to dredge up painful memories of past Minnesota Vikings heartache. On the other hand, remember when something as trivial as a missed field goal could ruin your week? Those were the days, huh? Good times.

Of course, the most infamous miss since the 1998 NFC Championship Game came during the 2015 postseason. It was the wide-left miss from 27 yards out by Blair Walsh with 26 seconds remaining in the Wild Card Game against the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 10, 2016. The Vikings lost 10-9 as a direct result.

Walsh was brought back the next season, but struggled even more and was released following a missed extra-point attempt in Week 10. Head coach Mike Zimmer couldn’t take it anymore. Nothing gets a head coach’s blood pressure boiling like missed kicks, and Zimmer has never hidden his frustration very well in such situations.

Playing well enough to win for 59 minutes only to come up short due to a missed kick can zap the mojo right out of an organization. Thus, avoiding another “wide left” debacle has been one of the underlying goals of the Vikings ever since it cost them a playoff game on the frozen tundra of TCF Bank Stadium four years ago.

Walsh was the Vikings’ sixth-round draft pick in 2012 – the first draft with Rick Spielman as general manager. The Walsh selection paid enormous dividends at first, as he earned All-Pro honors as a rookie. It worked so well that it might have been the inspiration to spend a 2013 fifth-round pick on punter Jeff Locke. As with Walsh, however, the 2016 season was Locke’s final one in purple and gold.

The search for a solution to avoid future “wide left” scenarios has taken myriad twists and turns since then, and you’d probably stop reading if I proceeded to recall every chapter of the saga at this point. So, rather than detail the Kai Forbath, Ryan Quigley and Matt Wile Eras, let’s cut to the chase.

Suffice to say the Vikings might have finally stumbled on a winning combination in 2019.

Placekicker Dan Bailey converted 27 of 29 field-goal attempts and 40 of 44 extra-point attempts last season, earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week three times last season – his second with the Vikings. He was re-signed to a three-year contract in March.

Just prior to the 2019 season, the Vikings signed veteran punter and holder Britton Colquitt following his release by the Cleveland Browns. Colquitt did a fine job punting, setting a new Vikings single-season record with 42.6 net yards per punt and finishing the regular season without a single touchback. Just as importantly, he stepped in and did a spotless job as the holder for Walsh.

Flashback: On the wide-left kick, Walsh wound up booting the laces. Remember that? It was still a makeable kick, but the hold was sub-optimal in the eyes of Ray Finkle and many others. A good holder makes a difference.

As they did with Bailey, the Vikings signed Colquitt to a three-year contract in March. Both are signed through the 2022 season and both will make $1,050,000 as a base salary in 2020 per overthecap.com.

Long-snapper Austin Cutting completed the Vikings’ three-man specialist crew when Spielman spent his fourth and final seventh-round pick on him in the 2019 draft. His rookie season was pretty uneventful — which is precisely what you want from a long-snapper. Cutting is also signed through 2022.

So, it would seem at long last that the Vikings have their specialist crew solidified. The long-snapper, kicker and punter/holder all did quality work in 2019 and all are signed for three more seasons.

But at what cost?

Let’s take a look at the draft capital it took for them to arrive at this point first. Remember, Spielman went against the grain by spending picks on Walsh and Locke in his first two drafts as GM. Many general managers prefer not to spend draft capital on kickers, punters and long-snappers, opting to sign them as UDFAs or grab them off waivers or as street free agents. Walsh was a hit for a while until he wasn’t, and Locke was never more than breathtakingly ordinary.

In 2018, Spielman’s draft-a-kicker strategy struck again when he spent a fifth-round pick on kicker Daniel Carlson. He only lasted two regular-season games (1 for 4 on field goals) before Zimmer’s head exploded.

Then, of course, a seventh-rounder was spent on Cutting in 2019. Don’t forget, however, Spielman traded a fifth-round pick from the 2020 draft to the Baltimore Ravens last August for the opportunity to watch fabled kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik miss kicks in preseason games. His Vikings career lasted 20 days. Another swing and miss. In essence, the Vikes spent that fifth-rounder to conclude that Bailey was their man. And as it turned out, Spielman wound up making a record 15 picks in the 2020 draft, so the fifth-rounder spent on Vedvik was a borderline moot point. That’s a good spin, right? It sounds better that way.

Bailey and Colquitt were obtained as free agents after other teams let them go. Maybe a lesson has been learned here.

Next, let’s look at what it’s actually costing the Vikings in terms of salaries to forge ahead with their specialists inked for another three seasons.

We’ll start with Cutting, who is playing on his rookie deal and, as a seventh-round long-snapper, doesn’t cost the Vikings much. His cap number is $693,644 this season, according to overthecap.com and will max out at just under $1 million in 2022.

Colquitt has cap numbers of $1.8 million in 2020, $3.2 million in 2021 and $3.9 million in 2022. Bailey’s cap numbers are $2.1 million, $3.8 million and $4.05 million the next three seasons.

Adding those cap hits together puts the Vikings at about $4.7 million invested in their LS/P/K combo for 2020. That’s not too shabby. According to a nifty chart on spotrac.com, only 10 teams have a lower combined cap hit from their specialists in 2020 as of this moment.

Obviously, as the Vikings have shown repeatedly, there can be a lot of turnover among kickers and punters across the NFL, so the numbers will move around. Even so, to have two dependable veterans like Bailey and Colquitt on board and still rank in the bottom third of the league in terms of what you’re spending on specialists has to make Spielman and Zimmer sleep better at night.

If you look ahead to 2021 and 2022, with the salaries of all three going up each season, the Vikings don’t rank nearly as low in terms of money spent on specialists. However, most teams don’t have their kickers and punters under contract for three seasons right now, not to mention also having their long-snapper under contract for several years. And again, the specialist landscape is always a fluid situation, so the Vikings should continue to be in good shape in terms of a financial investment when compared to other teams.

Now all they need is for Bailey, Colquitt and Cutting to have another quiet, boring, dependable year so that Zimmer doesn’t have smoke coming out of his ears and Spielman isn’t forced to scramble for yet another combination.

If they do, and if the Vikings make the playoffs again this season… laces out and split the uprights. It’s a solid plan at a good price.

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Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch (USA Today Sports)

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