Rick Spielman laughed. And he kept laughing. The question I’d asked the Vikings general manager wasn’t funny, exactly, but it brought memories of the past six or so months of the most complicated NFL offseason ever. I’d asked Spielman whether it seemed like his job felt like a completely different one than the one he had before.
The answer, of course, was a resounding yes. Literally, laughably so. The sport has changed so much this year that every football executive has had to adapt their roles dramatically. Spielman proceeded to list all the things he’s thinking about now that he hadn’t before. He said with a chuckle that he never thought he’d have to watch players during walkthroughs to try to glean something about their play, as he did during the first few weeks of training camp when players couldn’t wear pads. He spent the early part of camp helping to educate players and staff on the league’s COVID-19 protocols. “We had to get into the flow of the new challenges we face, from the testing, to taking your temperature, to following one-way hallways and not going outside of the restricted Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas, to everyone getting accustomed to the [contact] tracers.” He rattled off how many people are permitted to enter the team’s restricted areas, which includes the locker room, and which Vikings staffer does which task when it comes to COVID-19 safety.
“There’s just a lot,” he said. “Then, at nighttime, I get to actually watch tape.”
There was a slice of normalcy within the Vikings organization on Sunday, in that the team made an interesting move before the start of the season, something they’ve done routinely in recent years. The team traded for Jacksonville star pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, giving up a second- and a conditional fifth-round pick. Ngakoue, who is playing under the franchise tag this season, is going to rework his deal to play for the Vikings. He has 37.5 sacks in his four-year career and is a talented defensive player joining a team full of them, and will play for a coach in Mike Zimmer who knows what to do with talented defenders. Ngakoue, 25, is a veteran, but one who fits nicely into the Vikings’ plans. Minnesota is retooling its roster: wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Everson Griffen, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, among others, are gone, but a solid and experienced core remains. On offense, that includes quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Adam Thielen; on defense, that means linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, defensive end Danielle Hunter, and safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. The average age of Minnesota’s defense last season, when adjusted for playing time, was 27.2 years old, tied for fourth-oldest in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. That number will go down this season—the team selected nine defenders in the draft—but there are enough veterans to maintain continuity. The Vikings have long believed in the power of keeping their core intact—it’s why they value keeping so many players they’ve drafted and developed into their second contracts. Before Sunday, every defensive player projected to start for the Vikings had been drafted by them or signed as an undrafted college free agent. They’ve also augmented the roster with outside players to fill holes as needed.
Ngakoue is the latest in a long line of Jaguars stars to leave Jacksonville, and he will be in line for a big-money extension after this year. The Vikings can deal with that part later. For now, they’re making a bet that they’ve retooled their roster enough to compete for the NFC North in 2020, one season after beating the Saints in the playoffs and losing to the eventual NFC champion 49ers in the divisional round. Obtaining Ngakoue is a statement trade.
The team he joins has been built in a unique way. I think the Vikings exist at the intersection of old-school scouting and new-school analytics in a way that makes them one of the sharpest teams in the sport. When we spoke earlier this month, I asked Spielman whether there was an advantage in building a team around the same coach, quarterback, veteran core, and general schematic system (offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski left to coach the Browns, but new coordinator Gary Kubiak was an assistant head coach on staff last year) in a disjointed year.
“I think if you’re in a situation where it’s new, not only are you dealing with a situation where you’re trying to establish your culture, your program, but now you’re dealing with [an adjusted offseason], which is another giant layer. From a continuity standpoint, that’s very important. You can’t control injuries or what might happen during the season, but I think continuity is very important because everyone understands how everyone works and how we work together,” Spielman said. “I know Zim is going to have our football team ready to go.”
This, he thinks, trickles down to inexperienced or new players. “The young guys that are coming in can rely on the vets who are already here. They understand it. They can get some extra tutelage there. It’s just another layer.”
Minnesota, New Orleans, and Kansas City form a sort of holy trinity of teams that reliably dunk on the salary cap. On the surface, the Vikings’ cap will be bursting at the seams as it tries to accommodate the $12 million Ngakoue is due this year. (He can’t sign a long-term deal because the franchise tag deadline has passed.) They’ll have to restructure existing deals to make it work. And they will. Like the Chiefs and the Saints, the Vikings make nearly everything they want to do work financially. Pro Football Focus on Sunday morning said Minnesota’s roster construction would be “a sight to behold.” Next year, Cousins, who signed the largest fully guaranteed deal in NFL history with the Vikings two years ago, is due $31 million, and star defensive lineman Danielle Hunter is due $17.8 million. These salary bumps will come in a year when the cap is expected to grow less than in previous years, due to COVID-related revenue shortfalls. In the weirdest offseason in sports history, the Vikings are back to normal: taking calculated risks, adding talented players, and making everything fit under the cap.
“We have our business principles and how we structure our contracts; we always try to plan out two or three years ahead,” Spielman said. “Who potentially is coming up, the rookie contracts we want to keep here.” Spielman credited the team’s salary cap guru, Rob Brzezinski, as instrumental in allowing the team to manage the cap. “Rob does a great job from a budget-planning standpoint, from a cap standpoint. We’ve definitely looked at that. No one knows what the final cap number is going to be, but we’ll have a plan in place.”
One thing Spielman emphasized is how many different little corners of the sport these COVID-related adjustments will touch this season. Obviously, safety is the top priority and concern. The reality for football operations means that all meetings and offseason activities from March until August were done remotely. There are no preseason games, tryouts were dramatically scaled back, and rosters were reduced by 10 players per team for the bulk of camp. Pads didn’t come on for practice until mid-August.
Roster-building in this environment is a different type of challenge. These changes mostly involve the nuances of the sport. Spielman thinks, for instance, that a valuable part of preseason games is not just seeing live reps on offense and defense, but on special teams, a unit that will rarely engage in full contact in practice. “We are not going to knock the heck out of a player in a practice like a preseason game,” he said. Special teams play is a huge part of determining whether a player on the roster fringes makes it.
“It’s also going to be hard as teams cut down. Usually, everyone is studying the preseason game—claim a guy here or there. You aren’t going to have tape to evaluate any other teams’ players. Then with [an expanded] practice squad, teams will be able to keep better players,” Spielman said.
Adjustments to this new reality include increasing the internal scouting of his own team. “We’ll have an all hands on deck, more than a couple of sets of eyes in our evaluation when we’re finalizing our 53 and our practice squad.”
The Vikings have already made adjustments: The team added 15 draft picks to, as Spielman called it, “alleviate stress” in a chaotic undrafted free agency market. He’s been talking to scouts throughout the spring and summer about what they are doing differently and had them working on projects with the time freed up by not visiting college campuses. Spielman spends a lot of time thinking about how to work more efficiently—he once told me he has a detailed history of scouts’ evaluations to see which are best in which areas. The lessons the franchise learns this year will carry over into future seasons.
“We did a lot of things differently,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out if colleges play in the spring, do we move our draft prep up earlier? We had to do the draft differently. We had to come up with new ways of thinking. Scouts can’t go to campuses right now, so how do we get the body types?”
As colleges canceled pro days, the analytics department was left with incomplete data sets before the draft, so they built different models to account for that missing data. “Everything from realistic modeling, to how much time we spent on interviews when they were virtual, to the offseason program, I think we found a lot of ways to do things that we were forced into, but you look back on it and say, ‘This was great because it helped us grow,’” Spielman said.
The Vikings leaned on their IT department more than ever to make remote meetings more efficient. “The staff here is incredibly resourceful and the best thing to do is give them freedom, and have them come to me with ideas and if it’s not a good idea, at least it’s an idea. Try it and make adjustments. We learned a lot,” Spielman said. “We probably ended up functioning more efficient this year.”
In the weirdest offseason ever, the Vikings swung a big trade and got an elite defensive lineman. It all seems so normal.