The media access at the NFL Scouting Combine provides teams with an opportunity to send messages. Whether they choose to play it straight or drop red herrings is up to them.
The Vikings, for instance, laid the groundwork for their pursuit of Kirk Cousins two years ago by remaining non-committal at the combine about their three free agent quarterbacks. Last year Mike Zimmer hinted strongly that Riley Reiff would be moved to guard, which, as he admitted later on, was meant to throw other teams off the scent in the draft so the Vikings could select Garrett Bradbury.
It’s important to take any grand proclamations with a grain of salt. With that said, here’s what the Vikings seem to be signaling after their general manager and head coach spoke in Indianapolis.
THE VIKINGS ARE PRETTY HIGH ON KIRK COUSINS
While there was nothing as forward as, ‘We are signing Kirk Cousins to an extension,’ Spielman and Zimmer painted a picture of a quarterback that improved in 2019 and is expected to improve again with continuity in the offense.
“I think part of the deal is keeping the scheme the same,” Zimmer said, “so now he can go all in. [Gary] Kubiak’s an unbelievable coach. He does a great job with that.
“And secondly, I believe that if we can continually find a way to get better on the offensive line, that’s going to make him even better. I don’t see him taking a step back. I see him continuing to ascend.”
That’s not the tone of a coach who sounds ready to turn the page on Cousins. The buzzword of the offseason so far has been continuity… on the offense side of the ball, that is. While the Vikings are about to undergo their most wide-sweeping defensive changes since 2014, there appears to be a desire to build on the offense that finished eighth in scoring a season ago.
Spielman also projected hope that a second year in the team’s wide-zone, play-action scheme would lead Cousins to take another step, one year removed from throwing 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
“I think the other thing that Kirk answered last year too was can he win the big game?” Spielman said. “When you see him go down there and lead us in Dallas, and then even when we didn’t play very well the first half [against] Denver, for him to bring us back and win that game. And to go down there and have a big signature win in the playoffs against New Orleans in overtime. So you’re seeing things, and I give a lot of credit to Coach Zimmer and Gary Kubiak putting him in situations to have success.”
It’s not impossible for the Vikings to be optimistic about Cousins’ future and still draft a quarterback that can sit for a season, especially since Zimmer didn’t rule out the possibility of a rookie quarterback being Cousins’ backup.
But if Zimmer and Spielman are reflecting the team’s true attitude towards their starting quarterback, then an extension could be coming soon. One holdup, however, could be the ratification of a new CBA, which will influence how contracts can be structured and could allow for the Vikings to save money against the cap up front.
GOODBYE, ANTHONY HARRIS?
There’s little doubt that Anthony Harris is looking at a long-term deal at an eight-figure-per-year salary, possibly between $12-14 million. Of all the free-agent defensive backs on the Vikings’ roster, Harris is the costliest. Strapped by the salary cap a season ago, the Vikings couldn’t sign Harris beyond his one-year restricted free agent tender at a time when extending him would’ve been more affordable. After his remarkable 2019 season as a full-time starter, Harris may be too expensive for the Vikings, who again have little money to throw around.
“I love Anthony. If he doesn’t come back, I think he’s earned whatever he’s gotten,” Zimmer said, “but if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety. We’ll figure out a way if he’s not back.”
Zimmer is correct, however, in saying that safety isn’t the most important defensive position. Corner and pass-rusher would likely rank one and two, in no particular order. Plus, Harrison Smith will continue prowling the back end in what Zimmer described as a potentially bigger role next year.
It appears the Vikings are setting the expectation that they’ll be without one of their high-end safeties. Zimmer already has in mind the qualities he’d be looking for to replace Harris.
“I think the biggest thing is that whoever that is has to have some smarts because those guys do a lot on the back end,” said the head coach.
STEFON DIGGS COULD BE STAYING PUT
Most of the discussions this offseason center around questions of retention and extension. Which free agents should be brought back and which under-contract players deserve a longer term?
But then there are the trade possibilities, with wide receiver Stefon Diggs at the forefront. Diggs’ potential discontent — and mysterious social media persona — has fueled a February rumor circus around his future: whether he wants to remain in Minnesota, what the Vikings could get in return and where they’d be without him.
As Vikings fans learned in the 2013 Percy Harvin deal, Spielman isn’t afraid to declare a player off-limits as a leveraging technique before pulling the trigger on a trade. Of the two mercurial pass-catchers, though, Harvin was more injury prone, which made extension talks riskier, whereas Diggs is already under contract for the next four years.
“Stefon last year had probably his most productive year,” Spielman told reporters. “And he’s a young receiver we just extended [in July 2018]. He’s not only a major part of our offense and a major part of our organization winning games, but he also does a lot of things for this organization off the field as well. There’s no reason – the rumors, or whatever you’re talking about – to anticipate that Stefon Diggs is not going to be a Minnesota Viking. When you have some of the offensive talent that we have, with him and [Adam] Thielen together, with Rudy (Kyle Rudolph) and Irv Smith, with Dalvin Cook and [Alexander] Mattison, we have a pretty good supporting cast around our quarterback.”
Spielman lays out every reason in the book why the Vikings wouldn’t trade Diggs, and they all make sense. Yet the churn of speculation would indicate there is, at least, some validity. As Diggs famously said last October, “There’s truth to all rumors.”
The Vikings general manager has a tendency to use press conferences as smokescreens, but Zimmer also weighed in about his star receiver, saying, “I don’t see it happening.”
“He’s always happy around me,” Zimmer added. “There hasn’t been, since that little deal early in the season, he’s been great.”
EVERSON GRIFFEN TO RETURN?
When Everson Griffen officially voided his contract before the combine began, it brought a sense of reality that Griffen could leave the team that employed him since 2010. But Zimmer spoke with more confidence about Griffen returning than any free agent he addressed.
“Everson’s a terrific person for us,” Zimmer said. “I think our situation is the right one for him. We expect him to be back. I think he wants to be back, and those kinds of things usually work its way out.”
The Vikings met with Griffen’s agent Brian Murphy at the combine to discuss his client’s future. Based on recent NFL contracts given to pass rushers with Griffen’s production and longevity, the veteran could be owed $8-10 million on the open market. Presumably, the Vikings are confident they can produce that with some pending roster moves, or they believe Griffen will take a hometown discount to remain with the team that supported him throughout a trying 2018 season where Griffen was arrested and missed time to address his mental health.
RILEY REIFF TO GUARD… FOR REAL?
After floating the idea as a bluff one year ago, could the Vikings actually contemplate moving their left tackle inside?
Once again, the Vikings have a need there. Left guard Pat Elflein struggled last season and is entering the final year of his deal. But if the Vikings are striving for continuity, they’d be creating a domino effect by changing Reiff’s position. Not only would they have to train in a tackle as a guard, but they’d need to address the tackle position by either moving Brian O’Neill to the left side or finding a quality new left tackle.
“I have not talked to Riley about moving because we haven’t gotten that far down in the discussions,” Zimmer said. “I think he likes being here. And he’s one of those team guys so I think he’d do whatever we want him to do. But I have not talked to him about it. Everybody is speculating O’Neill is going to left and all these other things, too. You always discuss these things but it’s not like, ‘OK. We’re going to do this.’ We’re going to wait until we figure out where we’re going with everything and go from there.”
The Vikings may hope that Reiff’s team-first attitude applies to contract negotiations as well, considering the 31-year-old is due $13.2 million next year. A move to guard may necessitate a salary reduction.
Spielman referred to the offensive line as a “work in progress,” and Zimmer described how a better line could enhance Cousins’ performance. The Vikings seem united in the idea that addressing the offensive line remains a priority. That could mean making bold decisions and shifting pieces around.