With talent out the door, 2020 will test Vikings’ coaching and systems

Head coach Mike Zimmer’s era with the Vikings can best be described as “solid” — a six-year, 100-game run (including playoffs) that has produced wins in almost 60% of the games (59-40-1), three trips to the postseason, two playoff game victories and one NFC title game berth.

And the backbone of that solidity has been continuity among the organization’s best players — particularly on defense.

The Vikings have been able to keep together that solid core through a series of extensions, renegotiations and a philosophy that rewards in-house talent.

At some point, though, things have to change. Veteran players get more expensive and bills come due. They get older and skills decline. They decide they want a change of scenery.

That is the story of the 2020 Vikings offseason-to-date — one which, frankly, has surprised me in terms of just how much the Vikings seem to be willing to remake themselves on the fly and make a lot of painful salary cap decisions all at once coming off a playoff year and heading into what seems like a pretty important season.

Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Linval Joseph have already signed elsewhere, among others. Everson Griffen is as good as gone, as is Xavier Rhodes. Stefon Diggs pushed his way out the door via a trade to Buffalo.

As Ben Goessling wrote over the weekend, the moves were foreshadowed in Mike Zimmer’s comments shortly after the season ended with a lopsided playoff loss to the 49ers.

At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man’s game,” Zimmer said at the time. “The more that we as coaches can help develop these young guys, the quicker that we can help develop them, the better it is for them.”

Even if you took Zimmer at his word at the time, the offseason has been dramatic. Losses that I thought were “or” situations turned out to be “and” situations — Waynes AND Alexander; Griffen AND Joseph.

The second part of that quote, though, underscores the challenge ahead. Out of necessity more than arrogance — but certainly with a healthy mix of both — the Vikings will be leaning on their coaches and systems now more than ever.

On defense, Zimmer’s history of developing players — particularly in the secondary, where the Vikings are dramatically remaking their cornerback group — and putting them in schemes that emphasize sound techniques plus third down efficiency will be put to the test. There figures to be an influx of talent with two first-round picks and 12 choices overall, but it will by definition be raw talent that needs to grow up in a hurry in a young man’s game.

On offense, trading Diggs figures to cause the Vikings to lean even more heavily on the run-first, multiple tight-end, play-action approach they used often last season. Ironically, seeing Diggs thrive as the clear No. 1 target in that system while Adam Thielen missed almost half the regular-season snaps (six full games and parts of two others) might have convinced the Vikings that they could trade Diggs. But Diggs is clearly talent out the door, and the onus will be on Gary Kubiak to do more with less.

All the moves and cuts added up to more than $20 million in dead money — cap hits for players no longer on the team — in 2020, another serious departure from past seasons.

Some of it was by necessity. Some of it was the result of a seeming willingness to take a lot of medicine all at once instead of nudging problems down the road.

Time will tell if some short-term pain preserves the only real continuity that matters: winning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *