Officially, the NFL offseason snaps into full effect immediately following the Super Bowl. In reality, for teams and players that have been eliminated, the offseason has already begun in earnest. Coaches are being fired and hired. College players are declaring for the draft. Veterans are considering retirement or demanding trades. Naturally, fans of eliminated teams are busy concocting all sorts of offseason scenarios – most of them recklessly fanciful – for improving their squad so they can be in the final four a year from now.
Yes, this includes you, Minnesota Vikings fans.
It doesn’t help matters when the flames of offseason euphoria are flamed by those in the media with nothing better to do at this time of year than dream up fantastic moves by connecting dots in a vacuum outside of a reality that doesn’t include little things like salary caps or what other teams might realistically do. In everyone’s defense, in the absence of games and other actual news, it’s all any of us – fans or media — have left.
In such an environment, it’s useful to establish expectations anchored in some semblance of realism and science. These expectations are to be utilized as a touchstone when considering what kind of moves your team might make, be they in free agency, trades or the NFL Draft. Thus, now would be a good time to get in touch with those expectations, long before the new league year (and free agency) begins. Though all expectations tend to get lost when entangled in emotion, it’s nice to have them established for reference.
So, what kind of general expectations do you have for the Vikings? Do you think they’re going to be aggressive or conservative as they reshape their team for 2021? Before delivering a final answer, let’s examine what each of those approaches might look like.
This seems to be the initial expectation of the vast majority of fans – not just fans of the Vikings, but every NFL team. It’s just more fun. And when you consider that a good percentage of NFL fans are also MLB fans currently trying to stay awake through yet another painfully cold “Hot Stove” offseason in which only a few teams seem to be making moves and more than 60% of the top free agents are still available with four weeks left until pitchers and catchers are set to report to spring training, it’s easy to understand why fans of all kinds of sports ball are all frothy for some news.
In the case of a team like the Vikings, expectations of aggressiveness on the part of Rick Spielman and his front office of scouts and analysts have manifested themselves into some real whoppers, starting with the Deshaun Watson situation. The Houston Texans’ star quarterback reportedly wants out of Dodge in a bad way, and since he’s a top-five player at his position, fans across the league want in on the action.
An aggressive approach to the Vikings’ offseason therefore must begin with a phone call to the hapless Texans to gauge the asking price. There are about 25 teams that would love to land Watson, so the competition should be seismic. Only a few really bad teams have a shot at landing a top quarterback in what appears to be a top-heavy QB draft class, but every team can make a run at Watson if they so choose.
That includes the Vikings. This is why we’re seeing outlandish trade scenarios being proposed from fans across the league. In Minnesota’s case, this usually includes some kind of six-team blockbuster that lands Watson with the Vikings, Kirk Cousins with the San Francisco 49ers to reunite with Kyle Shanahan, Danielle Hunter in Houston, Anthony Barr somewhere on the East Coast, multiple draft picks flying every direction, Trevor Bauer signing with the Minnesota Twins, Herschel Walker back in Dallas, Pizza Ranch gift certificates for Vikings’ season ticket holders, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
That’s one example of offseason aggression: pursuing big trades for big-time players. And in this specific case, the trade would address the Vikings’ most limiting issue – the large chunk of money they are on the hook to pay Cousins over the next two seasons.
Watson isn’t the only potential target. However, he’s the biggest name on the proverbial trade block right now. An aggressive Vikings offseason could potentially include any number of trade scenarios, not just limited to acquiring veteran help. Another example would be to trade up from the 14th pick in the draft to select one of the top quarterbacks. Assuming Trevor Lawrence goes No. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars followed quickly by Justin Fields within the next few picks, that still leaves prime quarterbacks like Zach Wilson and Trey Lance slipping past the top five picks. To move from 14 to somewhere between six and 10 on the draft board would take a good deal of draft capital. It’s an aggressive move, but it wouldn’t demand a Ricky Williams type of return.
Other than trades, the other vehicle for off-season aggression would obviously be the free agency market. However, any expectations of aggressiveness in this avenue demand to be tempered at least a little by reality. The Vikings’ current contract obligations for 2021 put them millions of dollars over the projected 2021 NFL salary cap. Of course, any trade including players like Cousins, Hunter or Barr could help alleviate that issue. If your expectation includes pursuing a big-time free agent offensive lineman like Brandon Scherff or Joe Thuney or perhaps a defensive lineman such as Leonard Williams or Jadeveon Clowney, salary cap room would need to be created in some way, shape or form. This would almost necessitate a big trade and, more likely, some players such as Kyle Rudolph or Riley Reiff being released. Significant contract restructurings are also quite possible.
So, just how aggressive do you think your Vikings can be? Before answering, let’s look at the offseason approach at the other end of the spectrum.
The “we want aggression!” crowd is either skipping over this section or chanting “Bo-ring!” right about now. For the rest of you, let’s at least consider what a conservative approach to the offseason might resemble.
First off, forget about blockbuster trades that land the Vikings a quarterback. They’re not part of the conservative recipe. The conservative offseason by definition includes working with what you have to a great extent. That means Cousins stays put and there won’t be a trade way up the draft board to land the long-term answer at quarterback.
So, how do the Vikings work around a situation in which Cousins remains on board and the salary cap demands adjustments? Once again, we’re talking about cutting a high-priced veteran or two and/or significant contract restructuring. Boring moves. No fun. But that’s the conservative approach. It assumes they believe they aren’t that far away from making a playoff run. The conservative approach means keeping the key components such as Cousins and, let’s not forget, head coach Mike Zimmer.
An aggressive offseason approach might have included tearing it all down and starting all over – a scenario that, almost definitionally, would have included Zimmer being let go. Last we checked Zimmer is still the coach. The mindset of the conservative offseason includes the expectation (there’s that word again) that several of the Vikings’ defensive cogs will be back in 2021, including the likes of Hunter, Barr, Eric Kendricks and Michael Pierce.
Keep Zimmer and Cousins, get all your defensive stars back, tweak your special teams (e.g., get a new, inexpensive kicker to replace Dan Bailey, who seems to have lost his mojo) and you’ve got a playoff team. After all, the Vikes split with the Green Bay Packers this season, had one-point losses to two other playoff teams (the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks) and still came within a win against the Chicago Bears of making the playoffs even with a hobbled, patchwork defense and a special-teams circus. Plus, the NFC East is a mess, the New Orleans Saints Era is over thanks to being close to $100 million over the projected salary cap… the NFC is wide open (aside from, you know, that team in Wisconsin).
Now, a conservative approach doesn’t preclude all trades. There’s still some fun to be had – most likely during the draft. After all, that’s where Spielman shines. A conservative approach could still include trading back in the draft (a Spielman specialty) or staying put. In either scenario, a really good offensive lineman or a defensive tackle or three-technique player could be had. And as usual, the Vikings have a lot of extra picks outside of the first round. In fact, they already have some of the most 2021 draft capital… and it’s January. There’s plenty of time to add more Day 3 picks.
Exciting? No. Working within your means in a conservative manner? Yes.
Where are you at in terms of expectations for the Vikings this offseason? Do you find yourself optimistically championing aggressive moves and headline-making trades or are you quietly harboring more conservative expectations?
It’s understandable if you find yourself in the clutches of great expectations. It’s human nature. However, considering the circumstances, you might want to temper your enthusiasm several notches. This has all the makings of a ho-hum run-up to training camp in Vikings territory.
Here’s the deal, a franchise-altering trade looks unlikely. A free-agency splash is even less likely. Some aggression during the draft is always a possibility. Perhaps the most aggressive, realistic scenario is a quarterback like Lance sliding out of the top 10 and Spielman making a semi-aggressive move up to get him without dealing a lot of assets.
Spielman might do well to quote the Gin Blossoms with respect to what lies ahead the next several months: “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.” Assuming he doesn’t, Vikings fans would be wise to keep those lyrics in mind anyway.