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, and listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast or find them here on Friday mornings. Let’s get to it.
Q: Obviously there’s a lot wrong with the Vikings. What are three things fans should be excited/optimistic about? — @DavisTorgerson
AK: Let’s start on the positive side. That’s not the easiest needle to find in a haystack of questions about the 1-5 Vikings, but thank you to Davis for the changeup. Any talk about new stars emerging among the many young Vikings has to start with rookie Justin Jefferson, who leads the highly-touted 2020 draft class with 537 receiving yards (10th among all WRs). We need to wait years to truly pinpoint the greatest receiver from this class, but we can already say Jefferson will be part of the conversation. He’s buried pre-draft speculation he would be just a slot receiver, proving as efficient from the outside (18 catches on 22 targets for 286 yards and two touchdowns) through six games, plus the shiftiness underneath that can shake a defender to convert on fourth down like his 5-yard, out-and-in route in Seattle on a fourth-and-2.
Look at this route in Houston. Jefferson already looks like a veteran on plays like that, with a quick release inside vs. man coverage. He’s got the speed to burn corners on over routes, and his ability to change directions and break those off into corner routes isn’t seen from too many 21-year-old NFL receivers.
Two other positives are the improvements of the top two 2019 draft picks in center Garrett Bradbury and tight end Irv Smith Jr. Neither have avoided the ups and downs of development, but Bradbury has improved as a run blocker while Smith’s role in the passing game has steadily grown.
Q: Will the Vikings retain linebacker Anthony Barr next year since they might be looking to save money and he’s somewhat been underperforming the last couple of years? — @chadm214
AK: I think Mike Zimmer would disagree with the last part, even as I understand where the question is coming from. Barr’s 2019 season, which I broke down at length here, saw him fall from the NFL’s most-effective blitzing linebacker by pressure rate (Pro Football Focus) in 2018 to 32nd, however he posted a career-high 30 run stops and career-low four missed tackles for a Vikings defense that, a year ago, surrendered the second-fewest rushing TDs in the NFL. He only got a little more than one game in 2020 before the season-ending injury, and it wasn’t a great start. But Barr can still play and will be 29 years old next year. His $15 million cap hit is steep, and $7.1 million becomes fully guaranteed on March 15, so perhaps a restructure is in play if both sides are open to extending, not ending, his time in Minnesota.
Q: Of the players seemingly on the trading block (Reiff, Harris, Rudolph, etc.) what is reasonable to expect for compensation based on similar moves in the past? — @JonJonMegatron
AK: For left tackle Riley Reiff, consider the Washington Football Team traded away seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams for a third-round pick and fifth-round pick from San Francisco. They’re of similar age, but not similar caliber. Also consider Reiff’s restructured contract, which trimmed his pay by $5 million last month and means the Vikings wouldn’t save that much by moving him.
Conversely, the Vikings could save roughly $6 million by moving safety Anthony Harris. He makes more sense from Minnesota’s perspective to trade, and perhaps general manager Rick Spielman will come down from the asking price that ultimately prevented a Harris trade they attempted this spring after franchise tagging him. Maybe they could snag a mid-round pick, or be lucky to get a third. They’d have to find a suitor that’s willing to take on a one-year rental at safety, or to pay Harris the long-term extension he’s seeking.
For all the smoke out there regarding receiver Adam Thielen, I do not expect him to be traded. I don’t believe they’re in the business of stripping away assets from quarterback Kirk Cousins at this point, and Thielen remains one of the NFL’s best receivers at age 30 while under contract through 2024.
Q: Eli Apple buzz? — @JustTheRadioGuy
AK: While I can’t rule out the Vikings taking a flier on talent in a seemingly lost season, I’m not sure I’d expect that flier to be taken on former 10th-overall pick Eli Apple, a guy who has only been active for two games due to injuries this season and was last seen walking off the Panthers practice field due to a hamstring problem before Carolina cut him. The Vikings have already tabbed some reinforcements at cornerback, claiming former Nebraska defensive back Chris Jones off waivers from the Lions and signed safety Curtis Riley from the Cardinals practice squad. They probably won’t be the last defensive backs signed, but the Vikings should be looking for guys who can get onto the field and try to contribute.
Q: With no playoff game this year, what does Kirk Cousins have to do to convince them to keep him? — @donraul007
AK: That’s a fascinating question and one only a few people can answer within the Vikings’ hierarchy. There was Spielman’s tepid endorsement of Cousins at the bye week — “I don’t think anyone has lost any faith” — but that can’t necessarily be taken at face value. As we’ve discussed in this space, the Vikings’ most prudent move financially should they chose to move on from Cousins appears to be a trade this spring. Cutting him doesn’t seem to be an option; it’d accelerate an additional $10 million onto the cap, meaning they’d be allocating $41 million NOT to have him vs. $31 million to have him for the 2021 season. By trading, they’d move $21 million in base salary to another team while eating the other $20 million. So what does Cousins have to do to keep us from bringing it up? Turn around his season like he did in 2019, when the Vikings started 2-2 with inept offensive outings vs. Green Bay and Chicago. He then put together arguably the best seven-game stretch of his career (18 touchdowns to 2 turnovers) while the Vikings went 6-1. He needs to show he can overcome another rough start and lift the talent around him to some unexpected wins.