On Thursday, Rick Spielman was scheduled to talk to Minnesota reporters for the first time about trading for Yannick Ngakoue on Aug. 30.
A half-hour before Thursday’s session started, the Vikings general manager traded the defensive end to the Baltimore Ravens.
Minutes after Spielman finished his half-hour news conference, word leaked that defensive end Danielle Hunter had opted to have season-ending surgery on the herniated disc in his neck that had kept him out since Aug. 14.
In between those events, the general manager spent his bye-week media availability attempting to simultaneously defend two theses: that a Vikings team which talked boldly of contending in 2020 hadn’t given up on the year despite a 1-5 start, and that the team’s young defenders need more time to develop.
Spielman said the Vikings’ decision to send a second-round draft pick and a conditional fifth-rounder to Jacksonville for Ngakoue was based on the hope of pairing him with Hunter.
“We didn’t know where Danielle was at the time — what you envision sometimes unfortunately doesn’t always come true,” Spielman said.
But trading him to the 5-1 Ravens, for what sources said are a third-round pick and conditional fifth-rounder, did not represent a belief the Vikings are playing for the future, Spielman said.
“I know the situation that came up today — the trade — gave us an opportunity to look long-term and to add more draft picks as we continue to build this roster,” he said. “But also from the short-term standpoint, I’m excited to see where this team continues to grow and to see these young guys we’re playing, especially on the defensive side, continue to get better.”
Only two teams in 30 seasons overcame 1-5 starts to reach the postseason when the field had 12 teams; the NFL is expanding to 14 playoff teams this year, but all three teams currently in line for NFC wild-card spots (the Packers, Rams and Cardinals) have at least three fewer losses than the Vikings. Still, Spielman repeatedly rebutted the idea the Vikings have given up on the 2020 season.
“Look at some of the things that we have done,” he said. “We’ve got two pretty good receivers, we’ve got a pretty talented tight end situation. You’re seeing Irv Smith and some of the playmaking ability that he has. When you have probably, if not the best, one of the top running backs in the league and what a special playmaker he is. So I don’t know if you call that a rebuild or not.”
The general manager’s first synopsis of the Vikings’ 1-5 start centered on the “momentum” he saw from the team in a three-week stretch that included the team’s lone victory, over the Texans, sandwiched between blown leads that turned into one-point losses against the undefeated Titans and Seahawks.
He pointed to improvement from second-year center Garrett Bradbury and third-year tackle Brian O’Neill, saying the Vikings are “one of the top rushing teams in the league because of the scheme fit.”
Spielman called for patience with the team’s young cornerbacks and said injuries to linebackers such as Ben Gedeon (who hasn’t played since last season because of concussion issues) and Cameron Smith (who had surgery after a coronavirus test detected a heart condition) combined with Anthony Barr’s torn pectoral muscle to send the Vikings “scrambling to fill voids as best you can” — which the general manager said has been more difficult this year because of COVID protocols that delay a player’s ability to start practicing.
“I don’t know why we played so bad in the Atlanta game,” he said of the Vikings’ 40-23 loss to the previously winless Falcons on Sunday. “It wasn’t the same team you saw the week before. But I know that’s why the coaches are really trying to work and figure out right now. Like I said, that three-game stretch that we had, there were so many positives and it just looked like everything was getting ready to click over.”
Outside of the GM’s media session, the first true off-day of the Vikings’ bye week brought with it some cold realities, with Ngakoue traded, Hunter’s season over and sources saying safety George Iloka tore his ACL during the team’s final practice of the week on Wednesday.
Minutes after the general manager declined to answer a question about Hunter’s status, league-owned NFL Media reported Hunter would have surgery, adding that the defensive end would demand a trade if he did not become the league’s highest-paid player at his position this offseason.
The five-year, $72 million deal Hunter signed in 2018 appeared friendly to the Vikings at the time, and a rush of lucrative contracts for pass rushers means he is only the 18th-highest paid edge rusher in the league.
Sources have said the team has no interest in a contract standoff with Hunter, who has been a force on the field and an exemplar of the team’s standards off it.
It’s worth watching whether the curious circumstances around his injury — the Vikings have publicly downplayed it, refusing to discuss it publicly in terms more specific than coach Mike Zimmer’s now-famous “tweak,” since Hunter last practiced on Aug. 14 — has exacted any toll on the relationship between the player and the team.
Spielman said he speaks with the Vikings’ owners almost daily, adding the Wilfs “have been extremely supportive. They understand everything that’s going on, and just like all of us, [they’re] looking forward to the challenges coming ahead of us.”
Those challenges include three straight division games out of the bye, including road trips to Green Bay and Chicago. Is a Vikings roster, weakened by trades and potentially headed for more changes before the Nov. 3 trade deadline, strong enough to confirm Spielman’s thesis it can still win this season?
“We’ll find out pretty quick,” he said.