Thank you for submitting questions for this week's Vikings mailbag. You can always send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on Twitter or email@example.com. Listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast. Let's get to it.
Q: A win against the Bears hurts draft position and strength of schedule for 2022 by finishing second in the division. Please tell me management is aware of this. — @hickoryslick
AK: Well, the Vikings are already locked into a second-place finish in the NFC North because the Bears can't overtake the strength-of-victory tiebreaker. I believe a Bears win on Sunday leaves the two franchises tied in every tiebreaker category – 7-10 records; 3-3 in division; 5-7 in conference; 5-9 against common opponents – down to strength of victory. At that point, the Vikings have the edge that can't be overtaken in the season finale. You're right, however, that a Vikings win hurts draft position.
If your lone interest is draft position on Sunday, what should you be rooting for? Here's your guide for the weekend.
- Broncos win vs. Chiefs
- Bears win at Vikings
- Washington win at Giants
- Falcons win at Saints
- Seahawks win at Cardinals
The only betting favorite on that list is Washington. The Vikings are currently 12th in the draft order. I believe they could fall from 13th to 16th with a win. If everything comes up Milhouse, they could jump into the top 10. Maybe as high as the seventh pick depending on the strength of schedule results.
Q: Trade idea: Kirk Cousins for Baker Mayfield. New start for both, Cousins' reunion with Kevin Stefanski behind a good offensive line, possible upside for the Vikings, and cap benefits with a healthy Mayfield. What do you think? — @donraul007
AK: Those pieces come together until you get to whether the Vikings, and whichever decision maker is pulling the strings this offseason, want Baker Mayfield. I'd say that's especially unlikely if general manager Rick Spielman stays in his current role. Mayfield has been an erratic, and recently injured, quarterback despite having some coveted traits. He was also horrendous at U.S. Bank Stadium despite leaving with a 14-7 win against the Vikings in October. The only way I see that coming together is under a new Vikings regime that has ties to Mayfield and thinks its staff can make him a consistent quarterback. Trading Cousins might not be a farfetched scenario with so much uncertainty around the organization, but doing so for Mayfield doesn't seem like the most likely play.
Q: Tiering the current players: elite, above-average starter, average starter, below-average starter, backup level, fringe roster. At what tiers does this team lack the players to be contenders? Elite is a little light, but feels like the roster drops quickly to below average. — @scapar100
AK: We discussed this on the Access Vikings podcast (shameless plug) on Wednesday, and settled on four consensus "elite" players on this roster in Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks. Safety Harrison Smith was left out mainly because he'll be 33 in February, and this is an outlook for the 2022 season and years beyond. Brian O'Neill is close. They'd fall into this "above-average" tier to varying degrees, along with other starters like Patrick Peterson (pending free agent), Adam Thielen, Kirk Cousins and Michael Pierce (when available).
I'd agree with you, that it seems the Vikings are light in the "average" or middle class of the roster, which is indicative of how Spielman built the thing. They went out and spent market rate for a quarterback while spending to keep talent around him. Back in September, I looked at the contracts for every NFC team and found the Vikings' eight players making at least $10 million per season is tied for the most – but with six other teams. What stood out is only three other NFC teams – the Cowboys (52.5%), Packers (48.3%), and Bucs (47.6%) – allocated more of this year's salary cap space to those stars than the Vikings (46.7%). Spielman had a lot riding on their top players from Smith and Kendricks to Hunter and Anthony Barr. Spielman's stopgaps, from Bashaud Breeland to Everson Griffen, also didn't work out in 2021.
Q: Both the Vikings and Patriots overhauled their defenses this past offseason. The Patriots have had great success; the Vikings, not so much. Is this because of coaching, injuries, or just getting better free agents? — Tim
AK: Let's look at that Patriots' third-ranked defense. Cornerback J.C. Jackson is making about $3.4 million this year on a restricted free agent tender because he was a 2018 undrafted free agent. He's about to make a lot of money this spring, but that's a cheap reward for Bill Belichick, the general manager and the coach, for finding and developing an undrafted talent. That's organizational success, from scouting to assistant coaching, not just Belichick. Another Patriots defensive leader, linebacker Matt Judon, has 12.5 sacks after the ex-Raven signed a four-year deal with $30 million fully guaranteed last offseason. Two other top defensive backs, Kyle Duggar (second-round pick) and Adrian Phillips (free agent), were additions in the 2020 offseason. Linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley was a 2018 fifth-round pick, but he's about to rank top two in tackles on the team for a second straight season.
The Vikings haven't drafted an above-average defensive starter since... maybe Danielle Hunter in 2015's third round? They've leaned on 2020 fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum, who has been learning on the job, and they took Mackensie Alexander in 2016's second round. But the top-end contributors in the draft have dried up after taking Barr, Kendricks and Hunter in the 2014 and 2015 classes. So they've spent in free agency, where Pierce has played 8 of 32 games since signing. Barr stayed on a restructured deal and has played 12 games in the same span. Offenses often threw away from Peterson while Breeland was a disappointment. The pass defense was erratic with no consistent four-man pass rush or coverage, speaking to the lack of talent/development among edge rushers and cornerbacks.
Q: Got a fun question: Which current Vikings player on an expiring contract do you want to see back next year, and why? — @joeycriollo
AK: Selfishly as a member of the press corps, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is one of the more candid players who is often professional, if not always available, to reporters. But my opinion doesn't matter. The Vikings' front office might want him to stick around because he was one of a few veteran defenders available every week. Only Richardson, safety Xavier Woods and Alexander suited up for the first 16 games of the season on veteran contracts. And Richardson changed positions, moving to defensive end when injuries exposed their lack of depth, doing well despite having limitations as a defensive tackle playing out of position.