Thank you for submitting questions for this week’s Vikings mailbag. You can always send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on Twitter or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast or find them here on Friday mornings. Let’s get to it.
Q: Looking at the Vikings upcoming 2021 free agents, Eric Wilson seems to be a big one? Do you see him sticking around? — Danny
AK: Eric Wilson has played every defensive snap since stepping in for Anthony Barr in Week 2’s first half at Indianapolis. The fourth-year linebacker has been one of the pleasant developments, flashing with big plays — three interceptions, three sacks and a forced fumble — and showing some consistency in coverage. He isn’t the same disruptive run stopper as Eric Kendricks, but Wilson is showing he can be a starter, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere. With this kind of year, he should overshoot a contract like ex-Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who got $7 million per year last offseason from Las Vegas. Maybe he’d aim as high as eight figures? Ex-Packers linebacker Blake Martinez just got $10 million per year from the Giants. Wilson is the type of player and person the Vikings prioritize keeping long-term. But can they give a third substantial contract at linebacker, especially as defenses mostly play three cornerbacks and two linebackers in today’s NFL? Perhaps if they move on from Anthony Barr, but right now I don’t see that happening.
Q: Are things leaning towards Irv Smith starting by the end of the season? And being the guy for next year? You think the Vikings keep Kyle Rudolph? — @chadm214
AK: The Irv Smith Jr. hype train got derailed just as it was really leaving the station. Smith has been held back by groin and back injuries, which kept him from practicing Thursday. Before that, he was already outpacing Kyle Rudolph in snaps against the Falcons (79% to 68%) and Packers (79% to 75%) in games bookending the bye week. In the following game against the Lions, he left with the initial groin injury after his second touchdown catch. While Smith returned from a one-game absence to play 52% against the Cowboys, it wasn’t the role he had before his injuries. Perhaps he’ll need to miss more game time to get right and become “the guy” at tight end sooner than later. Coaches have commended Smith’s improved run blocking, which will keep him on the field when healthy.
Rudolph, 31, is quietly leading the Vikings tight ends room again in his 10th season, with his role as a receiver reemerging due to Smith’s injuries. Finances might be the only thing keeping Rudolph from staying in Minnesota, unless he agrees to a reworked deal this offseason. While he has three years remaining on the current contract, there is no guaranteed money left. His $9.45 million salary cap hit in 2021 currently ranks fourth at the position, and might be a target for a Vikings front office seeking cap space.
Q: Hi chaps. What does it say about the Vikings training sessions that they thought Dru Samia was a better option than both Ezra Cleveland and Brett Jones? — @donraul007
AK: I think it says there’s a lot you can’t learn from camp, especially the 2020 shortened version without a preseason. Perhaps more to your point, why did it take four starts and a Dru Samia wrist injury to make the change to second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland? The Vikings had/have hopes for Samia, and he’s still very young as a 2019 fourth-round pick. Coordinator Gary Kubiak talked about “sticking” by guys through early struggles, but he might’ve stuck by Samia a bit too long earlier this season. Cleveland has been a welcomed change, and is expected to start again whenever he’s recovered from an ankle injury. Rookies also don’t cut in line often on Mike Zimmer’s depth charts if there’s a viable option with more experience on the roster. Eric Kendricks and Stefon Diggs waited behind less talented players in their 2015 rookie season. Brian O’Neill had some ups and downs in his rookie camp and didn’t start in 2018 until injuries necessitated it. But this year, it was clear Samia wasn’t cutting it, so why wait four games to make a change?