On Jan. 13, while the Vikings were less than 48 hours removed from their season-ending divisional playoff loss to the 49ers and still weeks away from the peak of subterfuge season, coach Mike Zimmer gave what might have been the most telling assessment of how the team’s offseason was going to go.
“At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man’s game,” Zimmer said. “The more that we as coaches can help develop these young guys, the quicker that we can help develop them, the better it is for them.
“You always like to see guys have success, whether it’s a young guy that you’ve grown and he becomes a free agent and goes to have success with some other team, or it’s a guy that’s here that you’ve helped develop to become a good player here. All those things are important to us.”
A frenetic first week of free agency brought to light what Zimmer was hinting at back then: Linval Joseph signed with the Chargers days after the Vikings released him. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander — free agent corners the Vikings decided to let hit the open market — got new deals from Cincinnati. And on Friday, defensive end Everson Griffen posted a goodbye message to Vikings fans on Instagram after the team and its longest-tenured player mutually decided to part ways.
With Joseph, Stephen Weatherly, Waynes, Alexander and Andrew Sendejo already on different rosters and Xavier Rhodes and Griffen still on the open market, a defense that’s enjoyed remarkable continuity will have more new starters than in perhaps any season since Mike Zimmer’s first year in 2014. And the Vikings’ success in 2020 could hinge on their coaches’ ability to develop players quickly.
The Vikings converted $8 million of Danielle Hunter’s base salary into a signing bonus and created another $6 million in cap room with that move. The Vikings have standard language in their player contracts that allows them to make such a move with only an e-mail or phone call to the player or his agent, and they could clear more room by either working out a long-term deal with Anthony Harris (who received a franchise tag worth $11.441 million last week) or trading the safety. Beyond that, though, the Vikings will have to be judicious with the rest of their free-agent moves; they had less than $14 million in cap space as of Saturday afternoon, with the value of tackle Rashod Hill’s one-year deal still unknown.
The Vikings — who carried the smallest amounts of dead money in both the 2018 and 2019 league years, according to Over the Cap — are already set to carry $20.42 million of it in 2020. That’s currently the fifth-most in the NFL, and it means the team’s roster will have a different feel in 2020 almost out of necessity.
Minnesota added former Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce to replace Joseph last week, and the Vikings could fill some of their openings on defense with bigger roles for players like Ifeadi Odenigbo. But a defense that’s boasted tremendous institutional knowledge will have a number of new contributors, especially at cornerback.
Mike Hughes is returning from a broken vertebra in his neck, though the team has expressed optimism about the third-year cornerback’s recovery. Third-year player Holton Hill and second-year man Kris Boyd could have to do more in 2020, and the Vikings — who have used four first- or second-round picks on corners since 2013 — could use one of their early picks on a corner this year.
“They’re still a ways away a little bit,” Zimmer said at the combine of his young corners. “But one thing that I think, especially those [three] guys, Hughes and Hill and Boyd, they have the ability to do it. Like, during the season I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that’s half the battle.”
Key draft ahead
Trading Stefon Diggs to the Bills netted the Vikings two more picks in this year’s draft, including Buffalo’s first-rounder, and last year’s free-agency losses gave the Vikings three compensatory picks. All told, Minnesota has 12 choices in the 2020 draft, including five in the first 105 picks.
On offense, the Vikings will need a new right guard after releasing Josh Kline in an effort to save cap space. They could ask second-year guard Dru Samia to take on a starting role, or look to move left tackle Riley Reiff to guard, if they’re able to find a left tackle in a draft that’s thought to have several good ones (such as Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs) near the top of the board. They’ll also need a receiver — whether that’s second-year man Bisi Johnson or a rookie from a deep receiver draft — to emerge alongside Adam Thielen.
The list of open spots creates a heavy burden for the Vikings’ 2020 draft class, in addition to whatever sensible pickups the team can make before the start of the season.
“As much as we’d like to keep everyone, I know that’s not always going to be the case,” General Manager Rick Spielman said at the combine. “I do know, with the strong coaching staff that we have under Coach Zimmer, and even some of the coaching staff changes that he made this year, that we have a lot of young guys in the pipeline, when their opportunities come up, they’re able to step in and we don’t miss a beat.”
How correct Spielman’s assessment proves to be could ultimately tell the tale of the Vikings’ season.