The Vikings in the Mike Zimmer era have invested in defense, and they were rewarded with division titles in 2015 and 2017.
What they have lacked for even longer than that is stability at quarterback and enough talent/depth on the offensive line. Teddy Bridgewater's devastating injury in 2016 is the single most-defining moment in recent Vikings history. And the inability to construct a consistently adequate offensive line has been the biggest downfall.
Those two things weren't necessarily linked in the past, but they sure are now. The Vikings went all-in on quarterback Kirk Cousins as a free agent in 2018, signing him to a three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract. Signing Cousins instead of, say, re-signing Case Keenum or banking on Bridgewater's return to health for much lower prices, meant there was less money to spend on defense and the offensive line.
That in turn put pressure on drafting players, striking gold with lower-tier free agents and improving in-house candidates on the O-line. The strategy failed miserably in 2018, even when considering the tragic death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano before the start of the season. For the second time in three seasons, poor offensive line play derailed a potential playoff season.
That lack of success, particularly in the Super Bowl-or-bust 2018 season, has put the onus on GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer to succeed in 2019 or risk losing their jobs.
And that leads to some interesting questions about how the Vikings' strategy in the draft starting Thursday might be impacted as a result.
Zimmer probably enjoys knowing who his quarterback is going to be from year-to-year, but he has also made it clear that he doesn't want it to come at the expense of his defense. At the 2018 scouting combine, as rumors swirled that the Vikings might be able to sign Cousins, he gave the most honest reckoning of that sentiment when he said in regards to spending big on a quarterback: "I want to be really careful about taking away from our strength and saying, 'OK, we're not going to be able to do this and we're not going to be able to do that anymore because of financial reasons or something else.' "
The Vikings spent their first-round pick on defense in 2018 (cornerback Mike Hughes), but Zimmer lost his big three technique tackle (Sheldon Richardson) to free agency this offseason because there's only so much money. He could sure use one of those in the draft. He could also probably use another linebacker, maybe even corner depth (just one more) and probably a safety. Oh, and an edge rusher. Defense is what got the Vikings here, after all.
Or … Will Spielman finally use another first-round pick on an offensive lineman and/or beef up that part of the roster with multiple picks in an attempt to protect his large investment in Cousins? Maybe a tight end would solve a lot of problems? And some running back depth …
The Vikings do have eight picks, though half of them are in the sixth or seventh rounds.
Maybe there's a way to address enough needs to make everyone satisfied, but even within that context this question emerges: Will the pressure on both Zimmer and Spielman to win now cause the Vikings to play it safer with more near-term sure things than riskier picks who could be long-term home runs but might not be ready right away?
Because of the Vikings' limited ability to spend in free agency, there is a lot riding on this draft. The true reality might be somewhere in the middle, but the possible realities are as such: A best-case scenario where the Vikings draft well, make the playoffs and everyone stays employed ... or a worst-case scenario where they draft poorly, jobs are lost and Cousins essentially becomes a high-priced lame duck in 2020.
So no pressure.