Vikings players returned to work Monday, following the off-week that bisected a loss to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons and a trip to Lambeau Field for the start of three straight division games.
The decision makers for a 1-5 team shipped defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens on Thursday — six weeks after they’d acquired him from the Jaguars — and Sunday brought a series of results that left the Vikings at least two games behind each of their NFC North rivals, three games back of the new third-wild card spot and tied for the fewest wins in the NFC.
At a news conference Thursday, General Manager Rick Spielman rebuffed talk of the Ngakoue deal triggering a sell-off before the Nov. 3 trade deadline, and the Vikings continued to put on a brave face Monday.
Coach Mike Zimmer said this year’s pre-deadline process is the same as any other year — “It’s not necessarily, ‘OK, we want to trade this guy. We want to do this. We want to do this.’ It doesn’t ever work that way.”
When Adam Thielen was asked whether it’s hard to believe the Vikings, as an organization, are focused on winning in 2020, he said, “No, because we believe it in the locker room.
“We don’t really look too far,” he said. “We want to win games, and we have a bunch of guys in this locker room that are doing everything they can to help this team win and are competitive and want it badly and have worked their tail off through this offseason, a crazy offseason, and worked their tail off through training camp and these first six weeks.
“We know, we believe in this locker room that everybody is in it to win it, and is in it every single week to win, and we’re excited to have another opportunity on Sunday to go do that.”
The game against the 5-1 Packers, winners of three straight against the Vikings, comes two days before a trade deadline that could reveal Minnesota’s true intentions after its dismal start.
It’s also possible the days leading up to the game could see the Vikings ship off another veteran or two, given the six-day process for players to clear COVID-19 protocols before practicing with a new team. Or the Vikings’ rumored efforts to offload pricey veteran contracts could be met with a tepid response that leaves players such as tackle Riley Reiff on the roster.
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As they begin a 10-game post-bye stretch that includes five matchups with division opponents, though, they are dealing with a raft of questions that will define the rest of the season and could shape their future.
Here is a look at several of them:
1. Will Kirk Cousins turn it around?
The future of the Vikings, as currently constituted, might hinge on Cousins more than any other player. He’s followed perhaps the best statistical season of his career — the one that gave him his first playoff win and earned him a new contract — with a league-high 10 interceptions in six games.
Cousins’ deal, which carries a fully-guaranteed $31 million cap number in 2021, would have a $45 million cap hit in 2022 that becomes fully guaranteed in March. The Vikings, in other words, are heading toward an inflection point with the quarterback, and the futures of many others in the organization could hinge on what happens in the next 10 weeks with Cousins.
2. How many of the young players can Vikings build around?
Rookies Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney have mixed flashes of improvement with coverage lapses, but it’s the players in the Vikings’ draft class of 2018 who probably have the most to prove in the coming weeks.
First-round pick Mike Hughes has missed two games because of neck issues (after cracking a vertebra in his neck at the end of last year), and needs to show he can be a reliable part of the Vikings’ secondary with a decision looming on his fifth-year option next spring. Fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes has played a career-high six games and made his first career start this year; Zimmer said Monday that part of the reason the Vikings traded Ngakoue was because they believed players such as Holmes, rookie D.J. Wonnum and 2017 draft pick Ifeadi Odenigbo have earned the playing time.
It’s prove-it time for pending free agents such as Odenigbo, 2017 fourth-rounder Jaleel Johnson and cornerback Holton Hill, who will be a restricted free agent after this season.
3. Who can the Vikings build around on their offensive line?
The team cleared guard Pat Elflein to return from injured reserve Monday, and will have three weeks to see if Elflein — another free agent-to-be — is ready to return from the left thumb injury that put him on injured reserve in September. Dakota Dozier is scheduled to hit free agency after the season, and if Reiff isn’t traded, he could be gone in a move to save cap space after this year. The Vikings gave Ezra Cleveland his first career start, at right guard, against the Falcons, and could take a look at him at left tackle at some point this season.
With only Brian O’Neill (and presumably Garrett Bradbury) set for the future on the Vikings’ offensive line, the stretch of post-bye games will be an important evaluation period for the rest of the group.
4. How many wins will (or should) this group produce?
Defiant statements about not giving up on the season aside, the Vikings will spend a long time trying to ward off complacency unless they’re suddenly capable of a winning streak that jolts them back into the playoff race. Zimmer seemed to hint Monday that the Ngakoue deal was as much about how the defensive end fit on the roster as about a long-term strategic shift, but it’s tough to imagine there aren’t some veterans wondering about what their futures hold.
Reaching the playoffs likely would require at least an 8-3 stretch from the Vikings, who have lost all three NFC games they’ve played. All five of the Vikings’ remaining road opponents are .500 or better. A top-10 draft pick might set them up more effectively than a push to six or seven wins, but there likely will be no public embrace of that idea from a group that came into the season talking about a deep playoff run.
5. How many more changes are coming?
Whether the Vikings make a move before the trade deadline or not, plenty of people could be facing decisions about their future. Zimmer and Spielman are working on new three-year contracts, but the 1-5 start would suggest an offseason of win-now moves came up empty. A high draft pick would invite questions about the quarterback position if the Vikings feel they need to plan for a future beyond Cousins, and Danielle Hunter’s camp hinted to NFL Network at dissatisfaction with his contract after the defensive end opted for season-ending surgery on a herniated disc in his neck last week.
The Vikings have more than $184 million in salary cap liabilities for 2021; the coronavirus pandemic could drop the salary cap in the range of $175 million. Of the high-priced veterans on the roster, few beyond linebacker Eric Kendricks and running back Dalvin Cook would seem safe for the foreseeable future. The next 10 games will have plenty to say about the future composition of the Vikings’ roster, and who will have the final say in that decision.