Vikings Won't Admit to Rebuilding, But Ngakoue Trade Might Not Be Their Last
Thursday morning presented the first piece of evidence that the Vikings have accepted their new reality. It might not be the last. It shouldn't be the last.
Less than six full weeks into a season that began with high expectations, the Vikings are in disarray. A team with continuity at quarterback, head coach, and in the front office is arguably the biggest disappointment in the entire NFL. Their highly paid QB leads the league in interceptions, their defense has been ravaged by injuries and a COVID-19 opt-out, and a 1-5 start is the franchise's worst during the seven-year Mike Zimmer era.
Heading into their bye week, it has become unavoidably clear that changes need to be made. So the Vikings took the first step toward building for 2021 by pivoting from buyers to sellers, trading a player they acquired less than two months ago when their ideas about the season were entirely different. Just six games into the year, they shipped star defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for a third-round pick next year.
“These are always very difficult decisions," GM Rick Spielman said after the trade was announced. "Part of my responsibility overseeing the football operations is to not only look at the short-term goals but the long-term goals as well. This was an opportunity that I felt would accomplish both the short and long-term as we move forward."
By sending their second-rounder to Jacksonville for Ngakoue in August and getting back the Ravens' third-rounder, the Vikings moved back roughly 50 spots in next year's draft–and are forced to eat $6.8 million in dead cap—in exchange for a six-week rental that resulted in one single victory.
On the one hand, the optics of that aren't great. But Ngakoue was set to hit free agency next spring, so if there was a chance he wouldn't be in Minnesota in 2021, it made sense for the front office to acknowledge their misjudgment and salvage some immediate draft capital instead of losing him for a potential compensatory pick in 2022.
Should the Vikings have anticipated that they would struggle on defense with their nose tackle opting out and young cornerbacks being forced to play right away, thus making the initial Ngakoue trade an ill-advised one? Maybe. But they also didn't realize Danielle Hunter's injury would keep him out for all of 2020, nor did they anticipate losing Anthony Barr for the year.
"What you envision sometimes unfortunately doesn't always come true," Spielman said. "To have a Yannick and Danielle coming off the edges, to have an Anthony Barr and the way [Zimmer] has schematically used him to create pressure on the quarterback, that's how we envisioned it. Unfortunately it didn't work out like that."
In light of these unforeseen circumstances, the Vikings decided it was best to move on. Perhaps they didn't think Ngakoue would re-sign with them next year, or perhaps they were underwhelmed by his six games in Minnesota and made the call that they wouldn't want to give him a big contract ahead of a 2021 season where the salary cap could be affected by the pandemic. Ngakoue had five sacks and two forced fumbles during his brief stint with the Vikings, but he's a poor run defender who wasn't generating constant pressure.
Spielman talked about this move helping the Vikings out in the short-term and the long-term. From a football standpoint, it clearly doesn't make the team better for the final 10 games of the year. But what it does do is allow the Vikings to continue seeing what they have in players like fourth-round rookie D.J. Wonnum, who saw a career-high 33 snaps at DE in Week 6. From a long-term perspective, they recouped a Day 2 pick and no longer have to worry about breaking the bank for Ngakoue next year.
A trade like this leads to a critical, pressing question: is this a sign that the Vikings are starting to tear things down and commit to a rebuilding phase? Spielman says no, but actions like this one suggest otherwise.
"Our goal every week is to go out there and win football games," he said. "I still think we have a very talented team, we have a lot of talent on this roster. I know the situation that came up today gave us an opportunity to look long-term and to add more draft picks as we continue to build this roster. 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."
"We’ve got two good receivers, we’ve got a pretty talented tight end situation. When you have probably, if not the best, one of the top running backs in the league and what a special play maker [Dalvin Cook] is, I don’t know if you call that a rebuild or not.”
Spielman doubled down and made it clear that his focus is on winning games this season.
"As we move forward into the season we still have 10 games left and a lot of football left," he said. "No one here in this organization thinks that the season is over right now...our whole focus in this entire organization is what do we have to do to go up and beat Green Bay next week. When we get into the offseason and decisions that are going to be made and what’s the landscape of the cap and everything else coming down the road, we’ll make those decisions at that time. Right now our main focus short term is how we get better and how we’re going to win some games down this stretch here.”
The mistake the Vikings made this offseason was trying to straddle the line between rebuilding and contending; they thought they could reload their roster on the fly and still play at a high level. While certain things like injuries have been out of their control, it's clear that they were wrong. Now they need to make sure they don't make that same mistake again, and Spielman's comments are extremely concerning in that sense.
It's fine to not publicly admit to rebuilding, but the reality is that the Vikings don't have any realistic shot at turning things around and contending for a playoff spot. They currently have a 5.8 percent chance at a postseason berth, but anyone who watched them get embarrassed at home by the winless Falcons last Sunday would tell you that the odds feel even lower than that. The focus here needs to be on 2021 and beyond. Spielman's words don't make it seem like he understands that, but his actions are what matters.
Regardless of what Spielman says, the Ngakoue trade shouldn't be the last one the Vikings make before the November 3rd deadline. Riley Reiff, Anthony Harris, and Kyle Rudolph are all veterans who make sense as trade chips, and moving them would allow the Vikings to clear future cap space and open up expanded roles for young players.
The Vikings don't need to tear everything down and panic, but they're at a difficult crossroads right now. The sensible move is to accept the reality that this is a very bad team at the moment, and to take whatever steps are necessary to improve things heading into next year. Trading Ngakoue was a good start, but more work still needs to be done.
Vikings ownership still appears to have faith in the direction of the franchise with Spielman and Zimmer leading the way, but that could change quickly if the team gets caught in the purgatory between rebuilding and trying to contend.
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