Patience has been the name of the game for the Minnesota Vikings 2021 offseason
The old adage “good things come to those who wait” has been in full effect this offseason for Minnesota Vikings fans. After a fairly disappointing 2020 season, the Vikings went into the offseason needing to revamp their offensive line, defense, and special teams with almost no cap space to work with. There are always ways to free up cap space, or as George Bluth would say in Arrested Development, “There’s always money in the banana stand.” However, these ways include cutting solid players or restructuring other player’s deals and pushing future cap issues down the road. Needless to say, it was always going to be a tricky offseason for Rick Spielman, Rob Brzezinski and company, but as they usually are, they were up to the task.
The Vikings started off their 2021 offseason quietly if not unspectacularly. The first real “big” news was the retiring of Gary Kubiak, resulting in the promotion of his son Klint Kubiak to Offensive Coordinator. This domino effect ended up with Andrew Janocko moving from WR coach to QB coach and Keenan McCardell coming on as the new WR coach. While there will always be fans who find a way to complain about each move, most met these moves without many qualms. There has been the occasional cry of nepotism when it came to the Klint Kubiak promotion, but 2021 and beyond will tell if he is up to the pressure of being OC in Minnesota.
March began and so did the cuts. On March 2, in a move that was surely emotional for many involved, the Vikings released Kyle Rudolph. While his recent play on the field definitely did not add up to how much money he was making, Rudolph was a fan favorite and for a good reason. His kind heart and incredible work off the field will have an impact on Minnesota far beyond his playing career. Then came the release of Dan Bailey, which was mostly met with applause from International Falls down to Rochester and everywhere in between. The release of LT Riley Reiff was likely the toughest decision for Spielman and the rest of the front office. While he was one of the few strong links on an otherwise weak Vikings offensive line, his release gave the Vikings enough cap space to make some moves in free agency. Partnered with the restructures of Britton Colquitt and Anthony Barr’s contracts, the Vikings went into free agency having the ability to make a splash or two. Which is exactly what they did.
The first day of NFL free agency went by, and while many a rumor about potential Vikings targets floated around, they went most of the day without a signing. Then as Vikings fans were gearing up for a night of sleep, it was announced they signed former Giants DT Dalvin Tomlinson to a 2-year contract at $10.5 mil per year. While Tomlinson signed for less than Brad Spielberger of PFF projected (https://www.pff.com/nfl/free-agency?season=2021) and he absolutely addressed the Vikings run defense woes of 2020, the overlapping skillset he shares with Covid-19 opt-out Michael Pierce left many wondering why the Vikings chose to address the one area they would already be getting a boost at with Pierce’s return. Minnesota then made their second splash move two days later with the signing of CB Patrick Peterson to a one-year, $8 mil contract. This time, the Vikings overpaid according to Spielberger. Although there is no question Peterson addresses a position of need, $8 mil is a lot of money for a corner coming off one of his lowest graded seasons per PFF. Cornerback is an incredibly volatile position, so there is still reason to believe Peterson can improve on his 2020 season and be of benefit to the Vikings secondary.
So, after the first few days of free agency, Minnesota had spent a lot of guaranteed money on two players without drastically improving a roster that finished 2020 7-9. A lot of fans were upset, but thankfully the offseason is not just a few weeks long. For those who remained patient, they would soon be rewarded. An Adam Thielen contract restructure freed up some more cap space, and more information came out on Barr’s restructure that resulted in more cap space than originally planned. All of a sudden, the Vikings had room to make more noise with still plenty of quality free agents available. They responded with signing CB Mackensie Alexander and S Xavier Woods on back-to-back days, both at very good values according to PFF’s projected contracts. In the blink of an eye, the Vikings now had a reasonable if not solid secondary. The excitement within fans started to pick up and as the draft approached, the optimism was rising as well.
Minnesota entered the draft with some very obvious holes. While the defense had been addressed aggressively in free agency, nothing had been done to the offensive line besides the re-signing of Rashod Hill and trading a 6th round pick to Arizona for G/C Mason Cole, both of which were not needle-moving transactions. Holes at LT and G were glaring, and the Vikings lacked any semblance of a pass rusher opposite Danielle Hunter, and that is with the assumption a disgruntled Hunter was even going to come back. That narrowed the Vikings first-round pick down to either the OL or a pass rusher. A third WR or even a future franchise QB could also be on the table, but those were much less likely, it seemed. After the first round, the word out of TCO Performance Center was that the Vikings badly wanted QB Justin Fields, just not bad enough to outbid the rival Bears for him. That, however, is a conversation for another day.
What the Vikings DID do on draft night was create more optimism around the team. Armed with pick 14 in round one, most fans and experts alike expected Minnesota to go with OT Rashawn Slater if he was available, OT Christian Darrisaw or OT/OG Alijah Vera-Tucker. Slater went to the Chargers at 13, and Rick Spielman lived up to his “Trader Rick” nickname, trading pick 14 and 143 for picks 23, 66 and 86 from the Jets. The Jets went with Vera-Tucker, and by some combination of luck, the Raiders continued drafting ineptitude, and maybe a bit of pixie dust, Darrisaw was still on the board at pick 23 and Vikings brass surely sprinted their card to the podium. Minnesota fans went to sleep on Thursday April 29, 2021 with a smile on their face as they appeared to have their LT of the future. The next day the Vikings took OG Wyatt Davis at pick 86 and in the span of 24 hours the team appeared to have a potentially acceptable offensive line! Minnesota left the draft with 9 other picks, highlighted by QB Kellen Mond at pick 66, but Darrisaw and Davis are the two slated to play the most year one at a position that has caused Vikings fans pain since the days Steve Hutchinson manned the LG spot. While there is no guarantee Darrisaw and Davis prove to be capable NFL starters, it finally feels like there is hope for the Minnesota Moving Company.
The draft left Vikings fans even more optimistic than before, but there still were holes to fill. Chad Beebe does not blow anyone away as a WR3, and Stephen Weatherly/DJ Wonnum are not anyone’s ideal starting edge defenders. As always, Slick Rick Spielman still had moves up his sleeves. A month after the draft, the Vikings even further bolstered their secondary with the signing of former Chiefs CB Bashaud Breeland. Breeland ranked quite highly in 2020 in multiple coverage metrics and was PFF’s 39th most valuable CB last season. If 2020 was any evidence to Minnesota, coverage is a weak-link system and having just a few decent corners (or at times, none at all) will not cut it in today’s pass-happy NFL. Even with Jeff Gladney’s future looking blurry, the Vikings now boast a CB room of four guys with starting experience with Patrick Peterson, Cameron Dantzler, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander. Then there is Harrison Hand who by no means was a push over in his snaps as a rookie in 2020. With good health, that group should have no issue improving on the team’s coverage metrics from last year’s nightmare. June then brought Minnesota coaches, players, and fans alike the best news yet of 2021.
On June 14, the state of Minnesota had no idea the elation they would be feeling in a matter of hours. With the Vikings having mandatory minicamp on the horizon, everyone with any rooting interest in the Vikings wondered whether or not Danielle Hunter would show up. He had not spoken to the media since he was declared out for the season in 2020 with a neck injury that was initially diagnosed as a “tweak.” Rumors floated around that he was seeking to rework his contract to make him one of the highest paid pass rushers in the NFL. While when healthy he certainly deserves it, the obvious issue is whether or not his neck is healthy enough for him to return to form. Then on June 14 there came reports Hunter would be showing up at minicamp, and a few hours later it had been officially reported he had reworked his deal with the team to make both sides happy. The Land of 10,000 Lakes turned into the Land of 10,000 Fist-Pumps as everyone around Minnesota heard the news. The Vikings star edge rusher was back.
Not only was Hunter back, but his newly altered contract freed up even more room, and with the cap space that freed up along with Kyle Rudolph’s post-June 1 designation, Minnesota was not done yet. Shortly after the reports Danielle Hunter was coming back to the team came out, more reports came out that former Vikings DT Sheldon Richardson might be coming back to Minnesota as well. The next day it became official and in a span of two days the Vikings defensive line had gotten a tremendous boost, especially to their pass rush that was so putrid in 2020 it made Vikings fans long for the days of Kenechi Udeze. With over $13 mil in cap space left per overthecap.com, Minnesota has the room to further address their remaining holes, whether that be WR3, an edge rusher opposite Hunter, or any other depth around the roster.
Now that the offseason has hit July, the confidence of the fans of all 32 teams has hit sky-high levels (or maybe just 30 teams, sorry Lions and Texans fans). This feeling is natural and happens every summer. Training camps begin at the end of the month and everyone believes their team has done what it takes to compete for the Lombardi Trophy come February 2022. The 2020 offseason did not do the Vikings many favors, and that resulted in them finishing below .500 for the first time since 2014. However, it is hard not to feel as if Minnesota’s 2021 has started off quite a bit better. The offseason started off slowly and discouraged many Vikings supporters, but for those who remained faithful, they were rewarded with an offseason that has set the team up well for success. The only question being, how much success? Minnesota has not even been in a Super Bowl since the 1970s, and the team has surely put their fanbase to the test over the years. Who is to say 2021 will not be Minnesota’s year? As an old adage states, good things come to those who wait.