Kevin O’Connell, the Minnesota Vikings head coach, clarified something Monday afternoon. He had been talking about his team’s future at quarterback. That conversation morphed into a discussion about how he and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah are working together to allocate the team’s financial resources.
“We signed up to live in this dual world that can sometimes feel like it’s competing against each other a little bit,” O’Connell said.
The “dual world” is the team-building approach Adofo-Mensah previously called a “competitive rebuild.” From the time the two men arrived in early 2022, they have attempted to build the organization by winning in the present and optimizing for the future. O’Connell’s comment cemented the reality that, as sensible as the approach may be, it’s also quite challenging, especially at times like these.
The Vikings are 4-4. They occupy the seventh seed in the NFC. And they no longer have their franchise quarterback.
Kirk Cousins’ Achilles injury leaves Vikings teammates emotional despite win over Packers
Finding a new premium quarterback would require major capital, much of which is being saved for the future. Is it worth opening the treasure chest now for a confident team with a chance to compete for the playoffs? Or would Minnesota be better off saving its assets for the years ahead?
These questions hover over Tuesday’s trade deadline for the Vikings. Ahead of the 3 p.m. ET deadline, here are five big-picture thoughts:
The short-term quarterback dilemma
This is not a conversation I expected to be having. For all the uncertainty surrounding the Vikings’ future — and, boy, a lot of uncertainty existed — penciling in Kirk Cousins for the rest of the season seemed like the safest bet.
In the aftermath of his torn right Achilles tendon, the Vikings essentially have three options:
1. Sign a veteran free agent.
2. Acquire a rental for the remainder of the season.
3. Swing for the fences on a long-term option.
The first path is the least complex. The Vikings would have to first identify a quarterback who could run O’Connell’s offense in a pinch and add to the team’s QB room. Rookie Jaren Hall might be likeliest to start this Sunday, and longtime backup Nick Mullens could factor in after that. The incoming veteran could serve as a sounding board and additional depth. He could also play if called upon.
The Vikings would keep their draft capital and avoid any extended commitment. They would be making a minor short-term deal for maximum future flexibility.
The second route is not as simple. The Vikings would have to first assess who, if anyone, is a worthwhile upgrade over veteran Mullens and Hall. If they identify a solid target, trade conversations would commence. If they agreed on a deal, the Vikings would be making a moderate short-term commitment for moderate future flexibility.
The third option is swinging for the fences. Acquiring a high-end quarterback would be a solid answer both now and into the future and would align with that approach. There’s just one problem: High-end quarterbacks are both hard to find and expensive. There aren’t many available guys who make sense.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is a fun name, but his dead-cap hit would hover around $46 million, according to Over The Cap. Arizona does not have sufficient cap space to make such a deal work. New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones may sound like a viable option, but would Bill Belichick really hand the reins to Bailey Zappe for the rest of the season? Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields is compelling, but what are the odds general manager Ryan Poles would trade a quarterback within the NFC North?
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The long-term quarterback dilemma
For so long, the potential solutions to this roster-building question appeared to be binary. Either the Vikings were going to extend Cousins or move into the future with an intriguing youngster on a rookie contract.
Now it appears there are several other outcomes potentially in play. The Vikings could re-sign Cousins to a mid-level deal. This would create more roster flexibility, and the team could use its draft capital to take a shot on a budding, young quarterback.
The question then becomes: How high do you draft Cousins’ eventual successor? Is it worth mortgaging multiple first-round picks for a premier option like Drake Maye or Caleb Williams? If so, it would behoove the Vikings to maintain control of their assets at the deadline.
Conversely, if the Vikings decided they could wait to select a young quarterback, they could trade their more valuable picks for proven talent this season or use them to draft other cost-effective players with upside.
If all of this feels intertwined — the cap space, the draft capital, the potential additions — it is. This brings us to the trade deadline.
Over the summer, the talented edge rusher’s camp decided he was not going to play on his $4.9 million base salary. After months of negotiations and a hold-in, Hunter and the Vikings agreed to restructure his contract with a clause that prohibits the team from using the franchise tag on him after this season.
He will become a free agent at the end of the season. And because he leads the NFL in sacks (10), he should be in line for a nice payday. This places the Vikings in a precarious position. Their defense is peaking. Brian Flores’ unit ranks 10th in the NFL in DVOA, which accounts for strength of schedule. Minnesota has held each of its last three opponents under 20 points, all wins.
Understandably, Hunter is a focal point of the defense. His pass-rushing presence gives Flores the confidence to drop eight defenders in coverage. Hunter’s ability also affects the way opposing offensive lines have to protect. The Vikings believe they can push the Detroit Lions in the NFC North, and if that’s the case, they’re going to need Hunter, right?
But does that decision make sense in the long haul?
The question boils down to the value Hunter brings to this 2023 team versus the value he could generate for the future. This is, in essence, a situation-specific test of the competitive rebuild. If the Vikings hold on to Hunter, they’ll be in line for a third-round compensatory pick in 2025 if he leaves after the season. The alternative is trading him and potentially recouping a high-end pick for the upcoming year’s draft that could be used on a quarterback or another position of need.
Also relevant: If the Vikings traded Hunter, what would that do to the locker room?
Vikings’ Danielle Hunter, subject of trade deadline talks, is feeling better than ever
Which other Vikings players are movable?
It’s tempting to categorize NFL teams as “buyers” or “sellers,” but who’s to say the Vikings won’t pursue both options? They have excess in some areas that could be advantageous for other teams and a dearth at other spots.
One area of surplus is at left guard. Ezra Cleveland, who has not played the last two weeks due to a foot injury, is in the final year of his rookie contract. Given Dalton Risner’s excellent performance over the last two weeks, as well as O’Connell’s steadfast praise of backup Blake Brandel, why not move Cleveland to a team in need of guard help?
The Vikings also have an abundance of options at safety. They use three on most defensive downs and at times even four. The staff thinks highly of Theo Jackson. Adofo-Mensah drafted Jay Ward in the fourth round. Lewis Cine was a first-round selection in 2022. If a safety-needy team needs assistance, the Vikings have what it takes to amass some additional draft capital.
Whom could the Vikings target?
Last week, I mentioned eight players the Vikings could go after at the deadline. The themes among those players still hold. Minnesota could use depth at cornerback. Fortifying the edge rusher position matters both in the present and future. Adding a pass-rushing presence on the interior of the defensive line could help Flores’ defense.
As we wrote Sunday, the Vikings had been poking around, looking to add talent on defense. There’s always a chance that Cousins’ injury — and the team’s overall outlook — alters the direction of any potential moves. That said, just as Adofo-Mensah did last year when he acquired tight end T.J. Hockenson, the potential exists for him to find a player who could help both in the short and long term.
(Photo: Tork Mason / USA Today)
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