Just how badly do all those injuries hurt? The answer might be different for now compared to the future.
As Minnesota Vikings fans lament the state of the team after losing four offensive starters to long-term or season-ending injuries, coaches, players and the front office are stressing a “no-excuse mentality.”
It is a three-word phrase uttered twice early in a conversation with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. Head coach Mike Zimmer has referenced that thinking often in the past month and a half, ever since QB Teddy Bridgewater fell to the grass of the east practice field at Winter Park on Aug. 30 as he tore multiple ligaments in his knee.
“The thing that sticks out to me the most is that this team has really taken on the personality of Coach Zimmer. It’s that team-first mentality that he preached day in, day out. It’s the no-excuse mentality, it’s holding each other accountable, it’s the work ethic and the preparation that they put in each week,” Spielman said last week as he assessed the state of the team and the season to date. “And it’s about how we’re going to win this game; that’s the only thing they’re concerned with. I think Zim and the coaching staff have done an outstanding job with that.”
There is little doubt that injuries invoked concern over how successful the Vikings could be this season. As Bridgewater laid on the turf, the emotions from teammates ranged from irate to serious concern, over the status of their quarterback and the future of their team.
But is it possible that injuries to some of the players that were believed to be key components of the offense this season – Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith – might actually help the team in the long run? It might, if they are willing escape their comfort zone and embrace the possibility of pursuing something different and potentially better out in the talent pool.
For years, the Vikings have viewed Peterson as the face of the franchise. He was the most exciting offensive weapon they have had since drafting him in 2007, save for perhaps Brett Favre’s best year as a pro in 2009. However, the Vikings’ best opportunity at reaching the Super Bowl since Peterson was drafted was when Favre was slinging the ball and the coaching staff didn’t feel forced to feed Peterson the ball.
This year, despite what they say, the Vikings offense has transitioned from a run-first team into throwing the ball more. Once they have learned to do that more on first down, it has extended drives and increased scoring. They were forced into that concept when Peterson was lost for at least two months with a Week 2 knee injury that he elected to have surgically repaired.
He may or may not be ready to return in December, but either way the Vikings will have a decision on their hands regarding his contract in the offseason. The reality is that it’s really not much of a decision at all.
Peterson is scheduled to make $18 million next year. He won’t. The Vikings would be fools to spend that much on any running back, especially one that will be 32 years old by then. The question is whether Peterson’s pride will allow him to be realistic about his market value. Truth be told, it’s likely less than half of that and might closer to one-third of that.
The average on Peterson’s contract is $14 million per season. No other running back in the league – those more productive and those younger – is averaging more than $10 million per season and the more productive ones are around $6 million. If Peterson isn’t willing to accept that – and he’s unlikely to find a similar deal elsewhere – it’s time to thank him for the excitement and commitment he brought in the past and move on.
For years, the Vikings have been intrigue with the potential of Kalil at left tackle. He showed it nicely in his rookie season … and hasn’t consistently been back at that level since.
The best left tackles in the league are making $12-$13 million per season. This year, in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, Kalil is making $11 million. Not only is he on injured reserve after a hip injury, he hasn’t been one of the best left tackles in the league since his rookie season when the Vikings invested a first-round pick on him in 2012.
Overall, the Vikings offensive line has been a mess the last two years. Last year, the season-ending injuries to John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt contributed to a bad season of quarterback protection. This year, Kalil and Smith are out, forcing the signing of Jake Long, who would seem likely to start at left tackle as soon as he is ready.
Kalil has played through a lot of injuries in his previous four seasons, so it’s been a difficult evaluation process. Further complicating matters is that NFL-ready offensive linemen seem harder to find as NCAA offenses move further away from the concepts of the NFL.
“I think it takes longer than most positions to develop,” Spielman said. “… So I think that’s just the process of offensive linemen and to me, out of all that three-year rule, that applies to them the most on how long it takes them to develop. And whether it’s them coming out of the college systems that they’re playing in or the lack of time that we have now in the offseason as far as working especially with the offensive linemen, I think that all plays into it a little bit.”
Even so, the Vikings may find themselves ready to move on without Kalil after this season and make their rebuilding priority on the offensive line in 2016 their positional priority once again in 2017.
When it comes to Bridgewater, the Vikings will have to make a decision on his fifth-year option early next year. Only two months ago, it seemed likely they would exercise that option and look to negotiate an extension.
Now? All bets are off.
They can still have Bridgewater for 2017 at a very reasonable $2.1 cap hit. Sam Bradford, meanwhile, will cost them $17 million in 2017.
The easy answer is that Peterson’s scheduled salary for 2017 could pay for Bradford. That’s oversimplifying the case, but with a roster getting better by the year since Zimmer took over in 2014, the Vikings won’t be able to afford them all.
It’s not always easy parting with veterans that have done a lot (Peterson) or still have talent but haven’t been consistent (Kalil), but when looking at it from a completely unattached view that examines production and salary, it looks like the right answer.
Zimmer is simply trying to win week by week. If he can shorten the offseason with a deep playoff run, all the better. Meanwhile, it’s Spielman’s task to constantly plan for the future. He is part human resources and part financial planner. In this case it might be time to sell high on some, buy low in the draft and spend more on others with contracts coming up in the next two years (Bradford or Bridgewater, Anthony Barr and Xavier Rhodes among them).
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“At the end of the season … we’ll assess everything, where we’re at,” Spielman said. “I have looked a lot at what our 2017 roster is going to look like and some of the significant contracts we may have coming up and some of the guys we may not be able to afford to keep. So you’re always planning to look ahead from that front.”
The injuries to several key guys weren’t what the Vikings wanted, but, just like it has caused the offense to morph, those injuries may help them take a different approach for the future.