The Vikings’ 26-20 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for three huge signings orchestrated by General Manager Rick Spielman and aided by the salary cap work of the front office and executive vice president Rob Brzezinski.
The team, which was struggling under salary cap constraints, was able to bring back tight end Kyle Rudolph, linebacker Anthony Barr and rework the contract of defensive end Everson Griffen, which changed the entire season.
Rudolph made the biggest play of his career when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Kirk Cousins in overtime against the Saints on a fade route on third-and-goal. He finished the game with four receptions for 31 yards, second most on the team to Adam Thielen’s seven catches for 129 yards.
Barr was second on the team with eight tackles (to Harrison Smith’s 11), including a tackle for loss on Saints running back Alvin Kamara in the first quarter.
Griffen was part of a dominant defensive line effort in rushing Drew Brees. He finished with three tackles, 1½ sacks and three quarterback hits.
What makes this Vikings team unique is how long many of these players have been here, and how many of them were drafted and developed in this organization — including Barr, Rudolph and Griffen.
There’s no other club in football that has worked so hard to build a stable roster, but before this season started, there was reason to believe some of their key players might be leaving other clubs.
Barr was the first domino to fall and probably the most surprising, given that all indications were that he was going to sign a lucrative deal with the Jets.
Instead he signed a five-year, $67.5 million deal on March 12, 2019, with incentives that could raise the contract to $77.5 million.
Two days later, Griffen reworked his contract to open up cap space by bringing his cap hit in 2019 to $7.9 million.
Rudolph was the last big signing.
Everyone knew he wanted to find a way to finish his career as a Viking, but after the team picked Irv Smith Jr. in the second round of the NFL draft, there were rumblings Rudolph could be on the trading block. And the New England Patriots, who had lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement, were viewed as a likely suitor.
Instead, the two sides landed on a four-year, $36 million contract that will keep him with the club through 2023.
Rudolph told me last month that he doesn’t regret his decision at all.
“Yeah, we love it here. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.
There’s no doubt the Vikings feel the same way, and at the end of the day, there’s no question the loyalty between the players and the franchise made a big difference in keeping all three players on the roster for this season.
Pressure hurt Brees
Griffen and the defensive line really dominated against the Saints.
Brees, who has been sacked only 12 times all season and thrown only four interceptions, was sacked three times, threw an interception and had a forced fumble — all rare occurrences for the future Hall of Famer.
Griffen said defensive line coach Andre Patterson told him he had to play his game.
“He said that I just had to go out there and play my style of football for my team. All the guys came to play [Sunday],” Griffen said. “We did it together as a team, and it was a great team win.”
Rudolph, meanwhile, said he knew going into the contest in New Orleans that the whole team had to buy into the game plan, and there’s no doubt having this roster together for so long played a huge part of that.
“I’m just so proud of our guys,” Rudolph said. “I’m so happy — so many guys in that locker room, this is what we play for. This is why we work as hard as we do. This is why we have done everything from April 15th until now is to play big in the playoffs.”
The 49ers are going to be a much different matchup because they play a similar offensive style to the Vikings, and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins are quite familiar with each other after working together with the Redskins for four seasons.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Monday he thinks that could be beneficial for the Vikings as they prepared during a short week before playing Saturday afternoon on the West Coast.
The NFC divisional-round game opened with the 49ers as eight-point favorites but that has dropped to seven.
“Some of the [offensive schemes] are similar, but they all have their own wrinkles,” Zimmer said. “But hopefully, yeah [it will help].”
Fleck talks redshirt
The Gophers football team is going to have a lot of players to replace, especially on defense after losing All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL draft this week. But the team has a lot of freshmen ready to start their careers after redshirting in 2019.
Coach P.J. Fleck talked about how important it was for several Gophers freshmen to play in four games and still keep their redshirt.
“We made sure guys like [linebackers James Gordon IV] and Donald Willis that we did not break their redshirt years,” Fleck said. “I wanted to play them more, but we did not want to break their redshirt year — don’t sacrifice what you want down the road for what you want right now. Guys like that, we played them four games and then some others, we played two or three.
“Guys like [running back] Cam Wiley got some action until he got hurt. We’re just going to continue to look at that, evaluate that … and then get onto next year.”
Gordon was ranked as the No. 57 outside linebacker in the Class of 2019 by 247Sports.com; Willis was ranked No. 58.
Wiley, meanwhile, will get a chance to play alongside redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 140 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries in the Gophers’ 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, now that Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are out of eligibility.
Wiley played in three games this year, rushed for 32 yards against Georgia Southern and also returned kickoffs against Iowa and Northwestern. He was ranked the No. 80 athlete in the country by ESPN.com.