Minnesota Vikings training camp is less than a month away, and the team still has some roster building to do.
In two months since the draft, the Vikings have curiously left three roster spots open — an odd decision considering how valuable virtual meetings might have been for those three players. One explanation could be a pending trade that has salary cap ramifications.
To add fuel to the fire, Vikings DT Jaleel Johnson cryptically tweeted the initials of former Iowa teammate and current Los Angeles Chargers corner Desmond King on Thursday. ESPN’s Field Yates also tossed out a theoretical King for Riley Reiff trade in a recent story.
— Jaleel Johnson (@leellxvii) June 25, 2020
With just three years of experience, King would instantly be the most seasoned member of the Vikings cornerback group, which lost starters Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander in March.
Let’s examine this potential deal from both teams’ perspectives.
From the Vikings’ Side
As it stands in late June, the Vikings are counting heavily on the following corners: Jeff Gladney, a rookie that hasn’t been given any on-field instruction from the Minnesota coaching staff; Mike Hughes, a third-year corner coming off a concerning vertebrae injury about which details are scarce; Holton Hill, who is one off-field misstep away from a lengthy suspension following substance-abuse and PED violations.
At their best, these three have great potential. But there’s a wide range of outcomes when a team’s projected starters have red flags around inexperience, injury and off-field concerns, respectively. King is a more known commodity with 47 of 48 games played in his career, never missing a game until Week 17 of the 2019 season.
For King, his 2019 campaign was only average. He graded 32nd amongst qualified corners on Pro Football Focus and tied for 31st in the slot, where he spent 56.5% of his snaps. (Alexander tied for 24th in slot coverage grade.) King allowed an 87% reception rate that was second-highest in football, along with a 123.8 passer rating against, which was 11th-highest. A better season from King might’ve prompted extension talks, but instead he found himself mixed up in trade rumors as early as April.
Rewind to 2018 and King was elite. His 91.1 coverage grade was first in all of football, earning him First-Team All-Pro status. King still had his warts, missing 11 tackles and allowing the third-most yards after catch in 2018, but he rarely got beat over the top. King only surrendered over 50 yards in three games that season while limiting receivers to the seventh-lowest yards per reception in the NFL. Considering his rookie year of 2017 was also a top-10-caliber season, there’s reason to believe 2019 was a blip on the radar — and his slot play wasn’t drastically worse than Alexander’s, who had a strong season with the Vikings a year ago.
|SLOT PERFORMANCE||Passer Rating Against||Yards Per Cover Snap||Receptions/Targets||TDs Allowed/INTs|
|Mackensie Alexander (2018)||82.1||1.13||35/54||0/0|
|Desmond King (2018)||79.8||1.00||51/65||1/3|
|Mackensie Alexander (2019)||85.7||1.11||40/57||1/1|
|Desmond King (2019)||114.5||1.19||36/41||1/0|
King, a former fifth-round pick, will count just over $2.2 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie contract. Could the Vikings acquire that contract without shedding any salary? Maybe. Spotrac currently projects the Vikings to be $11.7 million under the cap, but that’s before signing any members of their draft class, rounding out their roster or introducing new money in the form of a potential Dalvin Cook extension.
A trade for Reiff would be risky, but it would be create some compelling salary cap flexibility. On one hand, the Vikings would be forced to trust rookie Ezra Cleveland or swing tackle Rashod Hill as their Week 1 starter. On the other hand, shedding part or all of Reiff’s $13.2 million cap hit this year could give the Vikings more capital to negotiate with veteran free agents. Everson Griffen and Josh Kline are still available, and their cost has likely dropped.
Considering Reiff is likely going to be a cap casualty after the season — and could be trade bait anyway if Cleveland’s development is ahead of schedule — getting King for him, even on a one-year rental, would be a steal while simultaneously upgrading the secondary and opening up more cap space. It could be a big win for the Vikings… unless the left tackle position falls apart.
Even if the Vikings could acquire King for a mid-round draft pick, it could be the perfect bridge while Minnesota’s rookie corners get acclimated to the speed of the NFL.
From The Chargers’ Side
The Chargers signed Chris Harris Jr., to a two-year, $20 million deal in free agency and now have a surplus at defensive back. Harris, one of the league’s top slot corners in 2018, and Casey Heyward Jr., one of the league’s best all-around corners, will get most of the work. Young star safety Derwin James can also creep into the box to play a nickel role. Despite the roaring start to King’s career, he may be the odd man out following his down 2019 season, where he started losing work to James by season’s end.
Los Angeles has the money if it needed to absorb Reiff’s contract, though it’s likely the two sides would bargain on how to split it up. The Chargers have over $20 million in cap space left regardless.
The club already shelled out $30 million to Bryan Bulaga to solidify the right tackle spot, presumably leaving left tackle to second-year man Trey Pipkins, last year’s third-round pick who graded 53rd amongst tackles a season ago in limited work. Reiff would likely provide better protection for Los Angeles’ starting quarterback, whether that’s Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert. The 31-year-old left tackle is coming off a season where he posted his best pass-blocking grade since 2015.
If a Reiff trade isn’t in the cards, however, the Vikings could still be an attractive trade partner given their excess draft capital in 2021. Through trades and compensatory picks, Minnesota already has 12 selections banked up, including an extra third-round pick, two extra fourths and an extra fifth. For comparison, the Giants’ trade of Eli Apple netted a fourth and a seventh-round pick back in 2019, while Quinton Dunbar was recently traded to Seattle for a fifth-round pick.
The Vikings should probably try to get King regardless of Reiff’s inclusion. A player-for-pick swap is a no-brainer if the Vikings can make it work financially. A King-for-Reiff swap is probably safer for Los Angeles than it is Minnesota, but it could enable the Vikings to improve their roster elsewhere with the added cap dollars.
Some might say the riskiest route for the Vikings would be to not improve the secondary heading into 2020. Through that lens, acquiring King should be the top priority, even if it creates a leak elsewhere.