Is There A Move the Vikings Can Make To Escape the NFL's Middle Class?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Late in the 2022 season, it felt like the Minnesota Vikings had finally broken through. They were 13-4 and winners of the NFC North. The Vikings were on their way to a home playoff game with the New York Giants. And with a series of aggressive moves, they were on their way to creating a championship window.

But the thing about the NFL’s purgatory is just when you think you’ve escaped, it pulls you back in.

The playoff loss to the Giants revealed several harsh truths, and the Vikings were suddenly in the same position where they had entered the year. Good enough to be relevant, but not good enough to be a contender.

With the loss, Minnesota’s priority should be to find a way to escape the middle class. But as the offseason has progressed, it’s clear there not might be an easy fix.

The real story of the 2022 Vikings can’t be told in wins and losses. Yes, they won 13 games. Yes, they had eight fourth-quarter comebacks. But the Vikings also were eerily similar to their 2021 counterparts, who scored one more point and allowed one fewer point but finished 8-9.

The culture Kevin O’Connell created was touted as the reason for the five-win difference, but the Vikings were the same team they were a year ago. That shouldn’t have been surprising considering they brought back most of the 2021 team to prove Mike Zimmer wrong, but the season also revealed that they were due for regression.

Regression came early in the playoff loss to the Giants. Eric Kendricks couldn’t keep up with Saquon Barkley. Adam Thielen couldn’t get open. Patrick Peterson couldn’t cover Isaiah Hodgins. Harrison Smith angrily watched 20 yards behind the play, handcuffed by Ed Donatell’s defense.

Minnesota’s first moves in free agency rectified these issues. Kendricks and Thielen departed to create cap space and flexibility for 2024. The Vikings replaced Donatell with Brian Flores to bring a more aggressive scheme to the defense. But neither of these moves are likely to get Minnesota out of the middle class.

Even if Thielen and Kendricks weren’t as good as they used to be, they still served a role. With the Vikings likely to move on from Za’Darius Smith and Dalvin Cook in the coming weeks, they need to find replacements. Therefore, they may be losing ground on the contenders that got better this offseason.

The Vikings made a couple of signings to offset this, including Marcus Davenport as an edge rusher, Byron Murphy Jr. to replace Peterson, and beefing up the running game with Josh Oliver and Alexander Mattison. But none of these signings had fans rushing to purchase Super Bowl tickets in Las Vegas.

Compare what the Vikings have done this offseason to teams that have vaulted into contention over the past three seasons.

The Kansas City Chiefs were stuck in the middle for years before they traded up for Patrick Mahomes. The move helped them win a pair of Super Bowls (2019, 2022) and make another appearance in 2020. They are a perennial contender with Mahomes.

The Los Angeles Rams used a different approach to reach the Super Bowl, but they jumped out of the NFL’s middle class when they traded for Matthew Stafford. They made several other moves to create a one-year championship window, and it paid off with a title in 2021.

The Philadelphia Eagles were stuck in the middle after winning the Super Bowl in 2017. But a three-year plan helped them find a new quarterback (Jalen Hurts) and a top receiver (A.J. Brown) to get back to the Super Bowl last season.

Looking at these moves, it’s hard to imagine which one is the right path for the Vikings to take – especially if they want to compete in 2023.

The Mahomes route is a favorite of all fans because he has become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. The Vikings have done their due diligence on quarterback heading into the draft, so the possibility of trading up for their own version of Mahomes isn’t out of the question.

The only problem is that the odds are slim that a quarterback could help the Vikings this year. C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young are pro-ready prospects, but they are likely to go in the top four of the draft. Anthony Richardson and Will Levis could join them, but both players seem like they’re a year away from hitting the field – especially with Kirk Cousins returning as the starter in 2023.

The Vikings could also try to land a big-time player in a trade, but even that has its obstacles. With Cousins already in the fold and sporting a $48 million cap hit if he’s traded or released, it’s unlikely to see they will be parting ways with him.

Even then, it’s hard to find a player who can make an impact. Lamar Jackson is one possibility, but the cost of a fully guaranteed contract and multiple first-round draft picks isn’t something the Vikings can afford. They could also trade for 30-year-old Odell Beckham or DeAndre Hopkins. Those moves would generate headlines, but they might only raise the floor to a nine-win season.

With this in mind, Philadelphia’s plan might be the best one to emulate. The Eagles didn’t have immediate success on the field during their reboot, but they built an infrastructure that could eventually become a contender.

The Eagles took a quarterback (Jalen Hurts) in the 2020 draft even though they had Carson Wentz. The Hurts pick kick-started Philadelphia’s plans for the future as they cleared cap space and started to accumulating draft picks.

The strategy paid off during the 2021 draft when they traded up to select DeVonta Smith and again the following year when they traded for A.J. Brown. They used the cap space to fill out the rest of the roster and, despite losing several pieces this offseason, they have the draft capital – including two first-round picks in this year’s draft – to replenish that talent and continue to build a long-term window.

Of course, undergoing a reboot could lead some fans to believe the Vikings will fall into the same abyss that the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, and Detroit Lions have lived in for the past 20 years. But the NFL’s rules to maintain parity make that hard to do.

The team with the worst record gets the No. 1 pick and subsequently the best player in the draft. The NFL uses a salary cap so teams can’t spend heavily to keep their talent. There’s even a salary floor in place so teams can’t completely gut their roster to tank.

These measures even thwart the best tanking strategies. Brian Flores willed a Miami Dolphins team that had its eyes set on Joe Burrow into a five-win season. The New York Jets beat a lifeless Los Angeles Rams team to play themselves out of Trevor Lawrence. Even last season, the Houston Texans played themselves out of the quarterback of their dreams by beating the Indianapolis Colts in Week 18.

That leaves a majority of the NFL in its middle class, which arguably is a worse position to be in. The Vikings would like to find a way to leave that behind, but there isn’t a one-year solution.

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