Rick Spielman sat on his golf cart off the practice field at the Vikings’ 2017 training camp. In a one-on-one interview the general manager discussed the organization’s financial strategy in spending big money on a core of Pro Bowl players in the prime of their careers.
In the previous 15 months, Spielman had authorized $135 million in guaranteed money to re-sign key defensive contributors: Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph.
Spielman and salary cap wizard Rob Brzezinski already had crafted plans to reward Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter with lucrative paydays, too.
“You know that eventually you have to pay the credit card,” Spielman told me that day.
The bill came due. The Vikings paid it. In exchange, those players achieved different levels of individual success and the Vikings reached one NFC Championship Game. Then they grew older, the performance of a few core pieces no longer matched their contract and the team’s front office arrived at an inevitable destination: a page-turning offseason that makes it imperative to strike draft gold this weekend.
The Vikings had an impressive first night in selecting LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson at No. 22 and TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney at No. 31 after trading with San Francisco.
Spielman likely needs to find three immediate starters from this draft class. That’s a tall order under normal circumstances. Nothing is normal right now.
The Vikings’ blueprint is complicated. Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer are entering the final year of their contracts and need a successful season, but they traded one of their best players for draft picks. Rookies will be expected to play pivotal roles, but the COVID-19 pandemic likely will wipe out the entire offseason program, stripping young players of valuable development time.
A roster churn spurred by jettisoning veterans creates the impression of a long play, but Spielman and Zimmer can’t afford to look that far down the road with their lame-duck status.
Spielman described the roster shapeup as standard “evolution” that happens in modern NFL. His word choice could be a case of semantics. Retool is another word. Youth movement is another way to look at it. Rebuild? Not exactly. Not in the classic sense.
The defense lost a handful of long-time starters and trading disgruntled Stefon Diggs leaves a sizable hole in the offense, but the Vikings don’t find themselves in a strip-it-to-the-studs predicament. Far from it.
The payroll is basically maxed out. The roster still features some high-end talent. They have a veteran quarterback in Kirk Cousins. The offensive and defensive systems are largely unchanged. It’s reasonable to expect the Vikings to contend for a playoff spot again.
The draft and personnel additions afterward with trades and/or free-agent signings will go a long way in answering questions about roster holes, particularly on defense. Of course, nobody knows yet when coaches will be allowed to work with newcomers in person, which adds a thick layer of uncertainty.
Spielman talked optimistically this week about the virtual offseason program that Zimmer has put together for players, but that’s not the same as the real thing. Nobody would dispute that. Nothing can replicate hands-on instruction and system installment on the field and in meeting rooms. Trying to predict when football operations will return is guesswork, but Zimmer might not see his players again until training camp, whenever that is.
Rookies already face a learning curve as is. This will be extra challenging.
Not exactly an ideal scenario for the organization’s two most important employees, Spielman and Zimmer, who don’t have the luxury of long-term deals. Maybe owner Zygi Wilf will offer both extensions after the draft, or once the world returns to some semblance of normalcy. Adding a year to their deals would make sense given these unprecedented circumstances, but the pressure to win this season will be there regardless.
One thing is certain: The Vikings will add a large group of rookies to the roster this weekend. Spielman had a strong start. How everything plays out remains murky.