The Minnesota Vikings caught lightning in a bottle in 2017. Riding into the playoffs with a 13-3 record, they had a roster full of young, ascending talent mainly due to a pair of draft classes between 2014 and 2015 that produced several key players.
The Vikings were legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Today the state of the roster is much different. Last year it was the sixth-youngest roster in the league, but they slumped to a 7-9 record. While the team had some redeeming qualities, it had some fatal flaws as well.
So what has happened in the past four years? While there is a growing belief that the Vikings have sunk into football purgatory because of Kirk Cousins’ contract or Mike Zimmer’s old-school ways, the results of the team’s draft classes since 2016 have been just as culpable.
After the 2013 season, Zimmer took over a team that went 5-10-1 in the final year under Leslie Frazier. They needed to find talent quickly to give Zimmer the runway to find success in Minnesota. While some teams like the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins hit free agency to fill out their roster, the Vikings decided to focus on the draft. The results of the ’13 and ’14 classes made Minnesota’s stock soar faster than GameStop’s.
In 2014 they took Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. Third-round selection Jerick McKinnon played a role as a change-of-pace back, and seventh-round pick Shamar Stephen has been a starting defensive tackle for most of Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota.
Then the Vikings supplemented this class with one of the best draft classes in team history in 2015.
They started by grabbing Trae Waynes in the first round and backing it up with Eric Kendricks in the second. Danielle Hunter fell into their lap in the third round before the Vikings struck gold with the selection of Stefon Diggs in the fifth.
The foundation of the 2017 team was formed with Waynes, Kendricks, Hunter, and Diggs all playing major roles. If Bridgewater doesn’t suffer a horrific knee injury before the 2016 season, the Vikings could have been even better and may have pushed their way toward their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 50 years.
While no team should be expected to churn out a class that good every year, their draft success ran dry after 2015. Since Minnesota cashed in on that class, only two players drafted by the team have made the Pro Bowl (Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson). Now, with the entire 2016 draft class off the roster and the financial strain of guaranteeing Cousins’ $84 million contract after Bridgewater’s injury, the Vikings have slipped into mediocrity.
The consequences of this dry spell are significant. Look at how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers built their championship roster. The Bucs landed Tom Brady to solidify their quarterback position last March, but their path to the title started back in 2018.
Tampa landed Chris Godwin in the third round in 2017, then nailed the next three draft classes. In 2018, they took Vita Vea in the first round, added Ronald Jones and Carlton Davis in the second, and Jordan Whitehead in the fourth. All four are starters and became the foundation for their team.
That foundation was enhanced the following year when they selected Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Jamel Dean with their first three picks of the 2019 draft. By adding Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. last year, the Buccaneers drafted themselves into a powerhouse and completed the process by bringing Brady along for the ride.
Cousins is locked into another $66 million over the next two years, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be going anywhere with pressure on Spielman and Zimmer to win now. And with their ability to add pieces in free-agency compromised, the Vikings’ quickest path to get back into contention is executing better in the draft.
The 2020 class was a good start. They acquired four starters in the first four picks with Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland, and Cameron Dantzler. If D.J. Wonnum can continue to develop, the Vikings may have gotten five quality players out of this draft.
But they’ll need to follow that up in 2021.
This means the upcoming draft process might be the most important one of the Spielman-Zimmer regime. If the Vikings can find instant contributors, there’s a good chance both the coach and GM will be involved in the future of the franchise. If not, the Wilfs may replace them a year from now.