December 28th is now officially Black Tuesday in the NFL. With the change in league rules, today marked the first day teams can begin interviewing new coaching candidates.
ESPN’s top NFL writer, Bill Barnwell, ranked the best potential head-coach openings. Sitting atop his list is none other than the Minnesota Vikings. Barring some sort of miraculous postseason run, it looks as though Mike Zimmer’s time in Minnesota has come to an end. With a roster full of young talent and a very stable ownership group it’s easy to see why Barnwell believes Minnesota to be the NFL’s top potential coaching destination.
Barnwell assessed Minnesotas situation as follows:
Pros: Talent on roster, patient ownership, veteran quarterback
Cons: Cap flexibility, veteran quarterback
I’m including veteran quarterback as both a pro and a con as a bit of a joke, but I suspect that Kirk Cousins might be a blessing for some coaches and a hindrance to others. His numbers are surprisingly impressive this season, as he ranks in the top four in passer rating, adjusted net yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. There aren’t many people in the NFL who perceive him to be that caliber of quarterback, though, and with a $45 million cap hit in 2022, the Vikings will be paying him as if he were an MVP candidate.
If they do decide to move on from longtime coach Mike Zimmer and/or general manager Rick Spielman, the first thing the new regime will have to do is solve the Cousins conundrum. Trading him would free up $35 million in desperately needed cap space, but the move would also leave them with rookie third-round pick Kellen Mond as the starting quarterback.
What follows next seemingly depends on what the Vikings do at quarterback. If they are moving on from Cousins and rebuilding, there are other veterans who don’t need to be along for the ride. They could shop Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks. Dalvin Cook’s future with the team might be uncertain given the pending lawsuit for alleged assault and battery. If the Vikings are going to blow up the team, they might realistically move forward and head into a serious rebuild.
From another perspective, a new coach might lean into this veteran core. The 7-8 Vikings are still in the playoff mix and have had 14 of their first 15 games decided by eight points or fewer, tying them for the single-season NFL record. Zimmer’s game management hasn’t exactly been the stuff of legend, and a new coach might think improving on special teams and better decision-making could be enough to push them into the postseason in 2022.
If that’s the case, re-signing Cousins would be the move. Doing so would reduce his cap hit, although that would simultaneously come with locking him in as the starting quarterback for two or three more seasons. That alone might be enough to sour some portion of an embittered fan base on a new coach, although others would put more of the blame on Zimmer’s defense.
Leaving Cousins aside, any new Vikings coach would need to either be a defensive mind or hire someone who can develop young talent on that side of the ball. Zimmer did that for years, but disappointing draft picks and investments on the offensive side of the ball have left them relying on free agents this season. Patrick Peterson, Sheldon Richardson, Everson Griffen and Xavier Woods are all unrestricted after the season, while longtime starter Anthony Barr will see his contract voided.
Either way, the Vikings have a lot to offer a possible new coach. Zimmer is a better coach than some frustrated fans might think, but he has made it eight seasons while winning a total of two playoff games. Coaching candidates will notice that and value the Minnesota job accordingly. The Jags might have Lawrence, but the Vikings have enough on their roster to compete as early as 2022. Unless Zimmer can sweep the Packers and push this team back on a trajectory toward the postseason, coaches might view an opening in Minnesota as the most desirable job on the market.
Much the Timberwolves before the arrival of Tom Thibodeau, the Vikings boast the sort of talent and options that would attract any top tier coach. And much like Thibodeau, who the coach is and how they handle the situation will likely dictate if they can make good on one of the leagues best opportunities.