Win-Now Mode? Rebuilding? Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ Strategy

Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Moves in the offseason can be divided into two philosophies: moves aimed at rebuilding a roster, and moves aimed at winning now. Many moves fall into both categories, making that somewhat of a false dichotomy, but the tug of war between short- and long-term prioritization is apparent in the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason moves so far.

If we look at the moves the Vikings have made so far, with some speculation we may be able to reverse engineer the strategy that Rick Spielman and the Vikings are applying.

Extending Kirk Cousins

The first move of the Vikings’ offseason is an easy one to read. The Vikings signed Cousins to a $66 million extension that reduced his 2020 salary-cap price by almost $10 million. In exchange, the Vikings have Cousins at a fully guaranteed $31 million price tag in 2021, and an all-but-uncuttable $45 million dollar price in 2022. So functionally, it’s another fully guaranteed deal.

The Vikings are going to have a difficult choice about that 2022 season: take the cap hit, kick the can down the road with a restructure or trade Cousins away, creating a need at the single-worst position to have one. There won’t be an easy solution two years from now, but they will reap the immediate benefit of $10 million in salary-cap space. It’s a win-now move that is typical of decision-makers who think that if things go sour, they won’t be around by the time the chickens come home to roost.

Tagging Anthony Harris

At the moment, the Vikings have Harris under contract for about $11.4 million for one year. Barring an extension, this is a move that makes the Vikings better in 2020, but not beyond. This would be an easy evaluation, were it not for the surrounding trade rumors. According to prominent Browns beat reporter Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns and Vikings discussed a trade for Harris for days, one example among many whispers of trade negotiations.

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

Depending on the compensation, this could fall in a more long-term category. Acquiring draft picks or a veteran under a longer-term contract would serve future Vikings teams more than they’d serve the 2020 version. It’s unlikely that a rookie or cheaper starter would outproduce Harris in the short term as well.

So while this is a win-now move as it stands, consider this one subject to change.

Trading Stefon Diggs

The circumstances surrounding this move corrupt the intentions of the Vikings’ roster building. If it were purely about football, Spielman would have wanted Diggs to stick around (something he hasn’t been shy about). But this was a matter of solving a problem of a player who wanted out at the highest possible compensation. So this can likely be removed from the win-now or rebuild dichotomy.

If we were to evaluate this on its effects, this move is much better for the long term. If we assume that the first-, fifth-, sixth- and 2021 fourth-round picks the Vikings received in exchange for Diggs and a seventh is an even trade, those draft picks are likely to take some time to realize their value. Were it not for the interpersonal conflict, the Vikings likely don’t make such a move, so using it as an indication of their offseason plans would mislead us.

Signing Michael Pierce

The first major signing of the 2020 offseason came along the defensive line, where the Vikings replaced Linval Joseph with a similar run-stuffing defensive tackle. Pierce signed a three-year contract, which means he ostensibly improves the 2020, 2021 and 2022 rosters. But his contract structure is the piece that hints at the Vikings’ intentions.

Pierce’s $27 million contract includes a $6 million signing bonus, the cap hit from which is prorated throughout each of the three years of the deal. That means that while he collected $11.1 million in cash this season, his $5.1 million cap hit pales in comparison to his $10.5 million and $11.4 million cap hits in the following seasons. This will make 2021 and 2022 that much harder, suggesting a win-now philosophy from Spielman and his staff.

Cutting Josh Kline

This move is particularly baffling in that it doesn’t help the Vikings much in the short or long-term. The Vikings approached Kline about a pay cut, and when he refused, they opted to terminate two years of an efficient offensive line contract. It’s near impossible to find a right guard of Kline’s quality for the roughly $3.5 million in cap space that cutting him saved. Any move that accelerates a signing bonus can be seen as a long-term plan, but the Vikings will need a right guard in 2021 and beyond, too.

Sep 15, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Minnesota Vikings guard Josh Kline (64) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s also important to consider the Vikings’ first choice — a pay cut for Kline — in terms of what it reveals about their strategy. There’s no information on what kind of restructure the Vikings asked him to take, but similarly to Diggs, the results may not have been in line with the plans that Spielman, George Paton and Rob Brzezinski have concocted. So they may have simply wanted some quick immediate cash, and that went south. Still, this does less damage for the long-term than the short term, so we’ll call it a long-term move that they would have preferred to be short-term.

Letting Unrestricted Free Agents Walk

The Vikings have allowed Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Everson Griffen, Jayron Kearse, Stephen Weatherly and even Laquon Treadwell to sign with other teams. These moves don’t particularly lend themselves to short- or long-term benefit, and are more about evaluations of those players. If they wanted to re-sign them to short or long-term contracts, they would have back in February and early March. Some of these players do generate long-term value in the form of compensatory selections, though that is not the primary purpose of declining a $14 million per year contract for Waynes, for example.

In this case, the win-now vs. rebuild dichotomy fails as a heuristic.

Cutting Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph

Unlike Kline, cutting Rhodes and Joseph saved substantial cap space in the lead-up to free agency.

Upon first glance, this is a win-now move; cut players on multi-year contracts to save space for their immediate needs. But the cap relief is greater in future years, when the $7.2 million dead cap penalty incurred by the two releases expires. Further, the Vikings likely didn’t expect much in the long term from Rhodes and Joseph, who will be 30 and 32 in the 2020 season, respectively.

Assuming they’re right about Rhodes and Joseph and how much they’ll miss out on, these moves have utility in both the short- and long-term. So the Vikings aren’t making much of a choice between one or the other, and these moves can’t help us determine if they’re winning now or building for the future. Either way, they make the same choice.

Signing Tajae Sharp and Anthony Zettel

The Vikings will likely sign a number of small, one-year deals aimed at improving only the 2020 roster. These moves are low-risk, however, and don’t put the team’s long-term future on the table as part of that risk. They don’t make the team choose between short-term and long-term, so it’s impossible to use it as evidence of either.

On the whole, the Vikings have made a few win-now moves, and the moves that don’t support a win-now strategy were caused by breakdowns in negotiations or interpersonal conflicts. The Vikings appear to be a team trying to make a push for the promised land, even at the cost of future years. It’s difficult to untangle the intentions from the results when a win-now plan goes wrong in significant ways, like with Kline, Griffen and Diggs.

If Mike Zimmer and Spielman are indeed resting their careers on the backs of 2020, they have a lot of work to do, with no answers in sight at cornerback, wide receiver or even a way to upgrade the ever-problematic offensive line. The roster has moved further away from a 2020 Super Bowl title, so a win-now philosophy is difficult to buy into. Perhaps 2021 will see the return of elite Vikings play. That is, if Zimmer and Spielman are still in Minnesota to see it.

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