The possible future paths of the Vikings are best understood by looking at the past. The biggest trick is knowing when to stop going backward, but 2012 seems like as good a candidate as any.
That season, the Vikings had two first round picks, choosing offensive tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick and grabbing safety Harrison Smith at No. 29.
It remains the only time between 2003 and 2018 that the Vikings have taken an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft. Kalil played at a high level as a rookie, helping pave the way for Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yard rushing season and a surprise playoff berth under second-year QB Christian Ponder. But injuries started a downward spiral for Kalil. Instead of being a 10-year anchor on the offensive line, he was gone after 2016.
Smith, on the other hand, has become one of the NFL’s best safeties. He started a run of defensive stalwarts plucked from the draft – joined by Xavier Rhodes (2013), Anthony Barr (2014), Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter (2015), that together with head coach Mike Zimmer (hired in 2014) formed the identity of the Vikings. They invested in defense, and they were rewarded with division titles in 2015 and 2017.
What they lacked was 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 the last seven years of Vikings history. And the inability to construct a consistently adequate offensive line has been the biggest downfall.
Those two things weren’t necessarily linked for many of those years, but they sure are now. The Vikings went all-in on Kirk Cousins as a free agent QB in 2018, signing him to a three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract. What they bought was the idea of a consistent upgrade over 2017 starter Case Keenum and the potential for stability with a QB in Cousins who is a bona fide starter and a durable one at that. It was a fair gamble, but it came with a risk.
Signing Cousins instead of, say, re-signing 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 head 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 — which we discussed on this week’s Access Vikings podcast.
Zimmer probably enjoys knowing who his quarterback is going to be from year-to-year, but he’s 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:
“I think it’s really, really important that we understand — and I’m not just saying this — we’ve won 40 games in the last four years. We’ve done that by being pretty good on defense. This year obviously the offense was much better, but part of the reason we’ve been winning games and staying in games is because we’ve been playing good on defense and we’ve been a smart team and all those things. 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.’”
At the same gathering, Zimmer exhibited a crystal clear understanding of how important the QB decision was going to be. He said: “It’s important for myself and Rick and the organization that we pick the right guy that is going to help us to continue to move forward. If we don’t do that, then I’ll probably get fired.”
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:
Best-case scenario: The Vikings find TWO offensive line starters in the first three rounds, and their offensive line moves back to 2017 territory – adequate, and good enough to win. They use their other top-three pick on an interior defensive lineman, and they rebound in 2019 to make the playoffs and resume an upward trajectory. Cousins solidifies his long-term future and extension talks start for Cousins, Zimmer and Spielman.
Worst-case scenario: The Vikings fail to adequately address (known immediately) or choose poorly (known as 2019 wears on) in their quest to upgrade the offensive line. The season plays out similarly to 2018, and possibly worse, with the offensive line being a major contributor. The Vikings miss the playoffs. Spielman and Zimmer are fired. Cousins is set up for the third and final year of his contract – a 2020 season where he has a guaranteed salary and $31 million – as somewhat of a lame duck under a new regime and yet another offensive system (his third in three years with the Vikings).
So no pressure.