There are few constants this time of year. One day the Minnesota Vikings are shopping Dalvin Cook. The next, Austin Ekeler asks out of L.A., and Cook might be staying. Then the Vikings re-sign Alexander Mattison, and Cook could be on the trade block again. Za’Darius Smith says goodbye to his teammates, but Minnesota denies his trade request. Harrison Smith sent a picture of Prince to a reporter who will be covering the Denver Broncos next year.
The only thing we know is that the Vikings have to be cap-compliant when the sun sets every day. And they’ll be paying Kirk Cousins – whether he’s under center, guard, or on his porch cooking weird meat – for a long time. Some things never change.
But next year’s Vikings will be a lot different than the team that lost to the New York Giants in the first round. Eric Kendricks will be playing for the Los Angeles Chargers, and they cut Adam Thielen. They can still trade Cook and Za’Darius Smith. That isn’t to say there haven’t been exciting developments. Signing Josh Oliver indicates Minnesota may run an Andy Reid-type offense next year. And Byron Murphy and Marcus Davenport should thrive in Brian Flores’ defense.
Still, it’s hard to see how the Vikings got better. The cap crunch was coming. Rick Spielman pushed a lot of money into the future, and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s front office continued that trend in the offseason. His “competitive rebuild” worked until it didn’t. Under a new culture and Kevin O’Connell’s situational coaching, Minnesota won 11 one-score games and created unforgettable games. Beating the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. The miracle in Buffalo. Coming back down 33 to beat the Indianapolis Colts. But they knew it wasn’t sustainable, and it was time to reset the cap.
The question here isn’t whether the Vikings will win 13 games again. They probably won’t with a tougher schedule and loss of talent. It’s whether they can still win the NFC North. While no rule dictates that a team that wins its division has to defend its title, Minnesota will try. Adofo-Mensah said he won’t tank, and the Vikings are good enough to win the division with a worse team. The Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers, and the Chicago Bears are still in a rebuild. The Detroit Lions are ascending and nearly beat Minnesota twice last year, but they aren’t a surefire contender yet.
Minnesota can’t take Green Bay and Detroit for granted. Jordan Love has had three seasons to develop, and the Packers feel he’s ready. He also has an intriguing young receiving corps to throw to. But he’s probably going to be less effective than Rodgers, even though Rodgers had a down year last season. Similarly, Jared Goff improved last year and has an impressive set of wideouts to target. Dan Campbell is also building a winning culture. They’re the hardest team to gauge because they had a five-game losing streak last year but also won eight of their last 10 games. Detroit could also be in the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes, which would change everything.
It may take 10 wins to claim victory in the North next year. A lot will change between now and then, but regardless of what happens, the Vikings should be a 10-win team next year. Cousins is still an above-average quarterback who Minnesota is paying out $48.75 million in dead cap. Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill are franchise tackles. Given what Minnesota is about to pay them, Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson should drive winning. And they hired Flores to fix the defense.
Flores might be the most significant factor here. His name alone creates gravity. Imagine what Harrison Smith can do in Flores’ defense. Murphy and Davenport are Flores guys. The Vikings will lean on Flores in the draft. It’s something Minnesota lost when they fired Mike Zimmer, and it’s something few defensive coordinators offer. The Vikings likely would have had to win fewer one-score games if Ed Donatell’s defense had been better last year. They also probably would have fared better in the first round of the playoffs.
Ultimately, the Vikings weren’t a sound defense away from competing with the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers. They wouldn’t have been contenders in a more favorable cap environment, where they could have kept Kendricks and Thielen. The idea behind a competitive rebuild isn’t that they won’t eventually overhaul the roster. It’s that they saw a roster that could win and wanted to avoid perpetual losing. Tanking sounds great, in theory. But for every Joe Burrow or Josh Allen, there’s a Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, or Jameis Winston.
Culture matters. It’s part of why the Vikings can retain stars and add in free agency. And to maintain that, they must continue to try to win. They will need to hit on a quarterback and build out the roster through the draft. But they can still strive to win the North in the meantime. Detroit may eventually get good, as funny as that sounds. Perhaps Love is the heir apparent to Rodgers, and Chicago’s rebuild is successful. Until then, though, Minnesota should be able to hold down the division while it reboots.