Following the departure of Everson Griffen in the offseason, the Vikings were in need of a pass rusher to play opposite of their stud Danielle Hunter. This prompted GM Rick Spielman to go out and spend some of the team’s draft capital to get another Pro Bowl caliber defensive end in Yannick Ngakoue. The 2021 second- and fifth-round pick given up while acquiring Ngakoue seemed like chump change for a team that once again had playoff aspirations heading into the year.
A month and a half later, however, it’s safe to say it’s not all sunny in Minneapolis.
The Vikings now sit at 1-4, a position that only 13 teams since the merger have been able to come back from and make the playoffs. While a run towards a Wild Card spot isn’t out of the question for Mike Zimmer and Co., it will be an uphill battle.
Ngakoue is not the issue with Minnesota. The 25-year-old already has five sacks to his name this season and has been the only player who has consistently created pressure in the trenches. Ngakoue is currently on a one-year contract. However, he likely won’t be willing to take another $6 million pay cut moving forward.
This leaves Zimmer and Spielman at a crossroads. Ngakoue is one of the only bright spots on a defense that has been struggling, and the Vikings have to decide whether or not they are willing to give him a long-term deal that would likely be in the neighborhood of $18 million annually.
Hunter already restructured his contract for this season, which means next year he is set to earn over $17 million. If the Vikings give Ngakoue a contract, they would be using roughly 20% of their 2021 cap space on defensive ends. To complicate matters even more, as of now Minnesota literally has negative cap space going into 2021. To make the math work, they’d likely have to cut someone like Riley Reiff.
In an ideal world, the team would wait until Hunter returns to see what the tandem looks like on the field. But, Hunter has reportedly been advised by one doctor to sit out the rest of the season, so the waiting game might not even be available if he decides to follow that advice.
If the Vikings decide that they want to move on from Ngakoue, there will be plenty of suitors that’ll be interested in acquiring a premier pass rushing talent by the Oct. 29 trade deadline. Whether or not they’d receive a draft haul equal to what they gave up is unclear, but at the bare minimum Spielman would be cutting his losses on the gamble.
What the Vikings absolutely cannot do is keep Ngakoue around without long-term plans in place. Giving up a second- and fifth-round pick for a year of service on a team that is struggling this much is unacceptable, especially considering how valuable draft assets are.
It would be one thing if Ngakoue was the missing link on a Super Bowl contender and the move was made, but the Vikings haven’t displayed that kind of potential five games through the season. Are they better than their record shows? Arguably yes, but the Vikings ship isn’t sailing towards the playoffs just yet.
Dealing Ngakoue wouldn’t send a great message to the locker room, and that’s why it would be smart to sit on this decision right up until the deadline. Although it might be a tough pill for Minnesota to swallow, expectations for the team have changed. If you think the Vikings proverbial window is still open, you keep Ngakoue around. But with Zimmer’s defense posting the worst defensive numbers of his career, it may be time to reevaluate the team’s needs.
There’s no easy answer for Spielman, and time is not on his side. Sunday’s game against the Falcons should be very telling, as they might be the only team in the league that has struggled to close out games more than the Vikings. It’ll also be Minnesota’s last game before the trade deadline on Oct. 29. A loss would essentially shut down any remaining playoff aspirations and allow them to build for the future. More importantly, it could signal to Spielman that it’s time to cut his losses on the Ngakoue experiment.