In the hours after firing Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, Mark Wilf was the focal point of a Zoom call. During the Wilfs’ tenure as owners, they preferred the kind of stability they had seen from their hometown New York Giants. But now they were embarking on a new path to find the future of their franchise.
Wilf was asked if that meant enduring a full rebuild. But he shut that down faster than Zimmer used to dismiss play calls from Klint Kubiak.
“I don’t want to get into a full rebuild conversation,” Wilf said. “Our point is we have high expectations for this football team. We believe we can be super competitive right here in 2022. This is not in that mode of a full rebuild. Again, we have a strong, strong foundation on the field and in the building. So, I wouldn’t classify it as that.”
Wilf’s comments make sense. If he admitted he was tearing everything down, he would have been flashing back to his childhood, where the cross-town New York Jets were a laughingstock. But it’s time we have a serious conversation.
Let’s say it together: This is a rebuild.
Rebuild is a dirty word in the NFL. The Jets do rebuilds. The Detroit Lions do rebuilds. The Jacksonville Jaguars do rebuilds. A team with the Vikings’ track record? They don’t do rebuilds.
But just like they did with the front office, the Vikings have come to a crossroads on the field. They have a team good enough to get into the playoffs but not good enough to be a legitimate contender. If everything goes right, they can have a season like 2017. But Zimmer tried to play that slot machine and went bankrupt.
So how do they take the next step? It starts by letting go of some pieces.
The Vikings enter the offseason $12 million over the salary cap. They could attempt more financial gymnastics to get under that number, but it’s not a realistic path. Instead, they have to part ways with some popular players.
The first contract the Vikings will look at is Kirk Cousins. With a $45 million cap hit, Cousins takes up 21% of the projected salary cap ($208.2 million per Spotrac). The Vikings could allow Cousins to play at this number, but it would come at the cost of several other players.
Some moves are more obvious, such as the $6.2 million the Vikings would create by releasing Michael Pierce. But to sign their rookie class and be a player in free agency requires some difficult decisions.
At $25.9 million, Danielle Hunter has the second-largest cap hit on the team. His $18 million roster bonus due in March was set up more as a checkpoint than an actual salary. With a pair of season-ending injuries, the Vikings may be squeamish about keeping him around. But if Cousins stays, he has to go.
Harrison Smith is a Ring of Honor-caliber player for the Vikings. But he carries a $13 million cap hit entering his age-33 season. With the fourth-highest cap number on the roster, it makes more sense to trade him to a contender — especially if Cousins stays.
Eric Kendricks could also be a cap casualty with a $13 million price tag. That number doesn’t make sense coming off his lowest PFF grade since his rookie season. If Cousins stays, a new regime would have to think seriously about cutting the fat.
If the Vikings make all of these moves, they would have $21.7 million in cap space. But that number would rank 17th in the NFL before teams make their cuts. This also doesn’t take into consideration the projected $9.9 million they would need to sign their rookies.
It leaves the Vikings with $11.8 million to improve the existing roster and replace a superstar defensive end and two Ring of Honor players.
The roster dynamics make trading Cousins more appealing. The Vikings would save $35 million by dealing him. If they release Pierce, that leaves the Vikings with $28.7 million in cap space with the current nucleus intact.
But this is where you have to ask: How good is the nucleus?
The Vikings were 8-9 last season and failed to get into the playoffs. They went 7-9 the year before. Their offense ranked in the middle of the pack. Their defense was one of the worst in the league. Several players are heading toward or are over the age of 30.
Even if Aaron Rodgers leaves the division, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but winning a pillow fight for the NFC North in 2022.
It’s why the Vikings have tabbed 32-year-old Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and 37-year-old Ryan Poles as the finalists for the general manager position. It’s why their head coaching candidates have an average age of 42, including three under the age of 40. And it’s why a team that has one playoff win since 2019 needs a hard reset.