Despite persistent challenges of attrition, salary constraints and the lure of the open market, the Vikings pretty much got the entire band back together in 2019.
Defensive end Everson Griffen is still here. Linebacker Anthony Barr is, too. Tight end Kyle Rudolph? Check. Nobody in the secondary was traded? Nope. The Vikings also found a spot for five guitarists, three keyboard players and a tuba player. The whole band, all under one salary cap.
The default mode is to praise the Vikings and executive vice president Rob Brzezinski for the sort of cap wizardry that has allowed them to achieve rare continuity even while adding expensive free agents like quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Maybe another way to look at it is this: Has Brzezinski’s praise-worthy work kept the Vikings from having to make the sort of hard decisions that might, in the long run, give them a better chance at sustained success?
Or maybe even a more cold-blooded question: Has sentimentality and familiarity played too much of a role in the Vikings’ roster construction?
Consider this: The Vikings’ 2019 starting 11-player defense is likely to feature 10 players who were on the roster in 2015: Griffen, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.
Some like Hunter and Harris have grown into far more expanded roles since then. Stephen, too, is a bit of an asterisk, having left for Seattle before returning this year in free agency – though that also speaks to the Vikings and Mike Zimmer’s appreciation for the familiar.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily exclusive to here, but it definitely doesn’t happen a lot,” Smith, the veteran safety who was drafted in the first round in 2012, said at minicamp Thursday. “That being said, every year is its own year. … But it’s obviously nice having some continuity.”
The Vikings have also been among the NFL’s best defensive teams in the last four seasons – including 2018, when they ranked fourth in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed. And they’ve won 40 regular-season games in that span, an average of 10 per year.
So what’s the problem?
The average age of NFL players in 2018 was a shade over 26, and defensive players tend to be a few months younger on average (likely because quarterbacks often play well into their 30s and drive the average up on that side of the ball). NFL players also tend to peak performance-wise in their mid-to-late-20s and experience a drop-off by age 30.
The level of continuity achieved by the Vikings, particularly on defense, is unusual because of those age factors as well as salary implications. Even very good players drafted by a team tend to move on at some point because they either become too expensive, too old or both.
A more ruthless (and successful) team like the Patriots might have moved on from Griffen (age 31), Rudolph (30 in November) and/or Barr (expensive long-term deal added to their salary pinch).
But the Vikings this year kept their core intact – acting, after an 8-7-1 season, like a disappointed pickup basketball team shouting, “run it back!”
In combination with Kirk Cousins’ huge contract, those decisions limited Minnesota’s ability to add much to its core this season — leaving the offensive line with more assets but still plenty of question marks.
And in 2020? The Vikings have 11 players with salary cap numbers set at $10 million or more – including seven of their own former draft picks and undrafted free agent Adam Thielen.
If enough of them experience an age-related decline at the same time, without enough of an influx of talent either from within or from free agency, this could go south in a hurry.
The Vikings have clearly placed their bet on the more pleasant alternative that continuity and past success will lead to good things in 2019 and beyond.
Whether they’re smart enough to outrun both time and their own salary cap remains to be seen.