The Minnesota Vikings are in the middle of a reboot. With a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed last season and an offensive line that ranked 26th in Pro Football Focus’s annual rankings, the Vikings are a team that is two to three years away from competing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
With the Green Bay Packers re-signing Aaron Jones, they are poised to build off back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances and get one more Super Bowl ring for Aaron Rodgers. They are two teams in two different situations, but Green Bay’s window to contend could be smaller than they think and open an opportunity for the Vikings to be better than expected in 2021.
Last year, Green Bay’s draft class was a punchline for analysts. Armed with the 30th overall selection, they could have used that pick to add a key piece to help them get to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade. Instead, they took Jordan Love, who didn’t even suit up last season. In the second round they selected AJ Dillon, who showed flashes toward the end of the season but spent most of the year behind Jones and Jamaal Williams on the depth chart.
Coming into their second year, it’s unlikely Love or Dillon will move up the depth chart dramatically. Love is now buried behind the reigning league MVP, and Dillion only was bumped up to second string with Williams’s impending free-agent departure. The defense for these picks is that the Packers were hedging against their own players. Had Rodgers struggled last year, they would have Love waiting behind him. If the Packers were to lose Jones, they would have an insurance plan. Instead, they now have depth, for what it’s worth.
But the Packers’ championship window could be similar to what the Vikings experienced in 1999 and 2010. Both teams were coming off an appearance in an NFC Championship Game and figured that running it back would result in getting over the hump.
Coming off the 1998 season, the Vikings were ready to add to a legendary team. By acquiring the 11th overall pick in the 1999 draft with the Brad Johnson trade, the Vikings could have added Jevon Kearse to a defensive line that had two players, John Randle and Derrick Alexander, record more than three sacks on the season. Instead, they selected Dante Culpepper. Long-term it worked in their favor, but he didn’t play in his rookie season, and they used a prime first-round pick on uncertainty when they were in win-now mode.
Minnesota filled its need later in the first round when they selected Dimitrius Underwood with the 29th overall pick. Underwood didn’t make it out of training camp, leaving the team having never played a game for the Vikings.
With neither first-round pick contributing, the Vikings went 10-6 but lost to the St. Louis Rams in the playoffs 49-37. The Vikings made the NFC Championship game with Culpepper in 2000 but quickly fell into a rebuilding phase in 2001.
Eleven years later, the Vikings were in a similar situation. After getting to the NFC Championship Game with Brett Favre, they needed to find the final piece to get them to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings held the 30th-overall pick in the draft and could have added Rodger Saffold to solidify the offensive line, Linval Joseph to add depth to the defensive line, or Rob Gronkowski to give Favre one more weapon. But Brad Childress and his staff opted to trade the pick to Detroit, and with the 34th overall selection they drafted Chris Cook. In 40 career games, Cook didn’t record an interception and was out of the league after the 2014 season.
Minnesota still had its second-round pick and could have taken Jared Veldheer to shore up a tackle spot. But they decided that Adrian Peterson needed a backup and selected Toby Gerhart. The Stanford product ran for over 500 yards once in his six-year career and was out of football after a seven-game stint with the Jaguars in 2015.
This left the Vikings flat-footed in 2010. With no protection for Favre, opponents repeatedly smashed him into the turf. Childress was fired, the Metrodome roof collapsed, and they went 6-10.
Like the Packers, both teams were in the middle of a championship window. The draft class following their championship appearances wasn’t the sole reason for their demise, but it shows that the window can close abruptly.
This is good news for the Vikings. If they can find a way to bolster their roster, the Packers’ draft luck could catch up with them. That would give the Vikings their own opportunity to take control of the NFC North and compete for a championship.
This happened in 2017 when the Vikings were coming off a disappointing 8-8 season. Fueled by their success in the 2015 draft class, which included Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings took advantage and went 13-3.
Heading into next season, Minnesota will hope that their 2020 draft class has a similar effect. If Justin Jefferson, Ezra Cleveland, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, and others take a step forward, it could make the Vikings better than expected, and they could overtake the Packers in the NFC North.
It sounds like a much better situation than the Packers’, who will have Dillon and Love keep the benches warm for their Pro Bowl teammates.