“The Future of the Vikings” is a series of articles looking at everything from strengths and weaknesses to draft and free agent options to schemes and trends heading into 2017 and beyond. Read Part 1 on quarterbacks here, Part 2 on the running backs, Part 3, the wide receivers, Part 4, the offensive line, Part 5, the defensive line, Part 6, the linebackers, Part 7, the defensive backs, Part 8, the head coach, and for the final part, the front office…
The Sam Bradford trade
The Minnesota Vikings’ front office was defined in 2016 by a couple things: The offensive line’s issues, the lack of contribution from the draft class and the trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Sam Bradford. We’ll dig into each storyline, but as far as the future of the Vikings goes, the Bradford trade and pending decisions surrounding the veteran quarterback will have more impact on the team’s results than any other choice the front office makes.
So, let’s start there.
In a vacuum, trading a first-round pick for Bradford wasn’t a good deal, either at the time or in hindsight.
Bradford’s history suggested his production wouldn’t be much more than some of the other replacement options. In 63 career starts before the 2016 season, he had a 25-37-1 record, 81.0 quarterback rating and averaged 6.5 yards per attempt, the lowest among active starters.
The result of the trade was a step backward from an 11-5 season in 2015 as the former Eagle and Ram posted a 7-8 record, with a 98.0 quarterback rating and 7.0 yards per attempt, which ranked 19th in the NFL, just ahead of Broncos QB and former seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian.
That’s the before and after if we remove all context.
A closer examination paints a different picture. Bradford had played for bad teams in St. Louis and suffered two devastating ACL injuries. In Philadelphia, his final seven games had yielded a 97.0 rating and 7.6 YPA. He was finally healthy and was making the throws that were expected when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft.
The Vikings also felt they were a legitimate contender in the NFC. They had won the division with most of the same players who were on the ’16 roster and built up a top-notch defense over several years in the draft and free agency.
The team also felt that Bradford would have good circumstances to work with – the best of his career. A quality No. 1 receiver in Stefon Diggs and a future Hall of Fame running back who was coming off a rushing title made it appear that Bradford would simply have to be average for the Vikings to get back into the playoffs.
Bradford was partly to blame for the Vikings coming short of that expectation. He threw two interceptions on potential game-winning drives and ranked third lowest in Yards Per Attempt on third down. The same shortcomings that had led to a low career YPA showed up throughout the year.
But it wasn’t his fault alone. There was poor clock management that cost the Vikings in their first matchup with the Lions, an Adam Thielen fumble at the goal line on a punt return against Dallas, a lingering eye issue with the head coach, the resignation of an offensive coordinator and one of the NFL’s least competent offensive lines, which had nine different combinations throughout the year. That’s not to mention averaging 3.2 Yards Per Carry in the run game.
The results of the Bradford trade are yet to be written.
He is set to be the starting quarterback in 2017 as the Vikings have given no indication that Teddy Bridgewater will be ready to play at the beginning of next season. The deal becomes much more justifiable considering the Vikings needed a two-year option at QB when they acquired Bradford.
How the Vikings handle Bradford from here will shape the next half decade of the team’s roster building strategy. The front office has the option to let him walk after next season, try to re-sign him to a big-money, short-term deal or to go all-in on Bradford as the future.
Last offseason the Chargers signed Philip Rivers to a four-year contract extension worth $83.25 million with $37.5 million guaranteed. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill signed a four-year extension worth $77 million with $21.5 million guaranteed. It would seem these two deals would set the starting point from Bradford’s side.
The Vikings might look for something similar to what Bradford signed in Philadelphia – a highly guaranteed short-term contract for two years, $35 million with $22 million of that locked in.
Keeping Bradford also locks in that the Vikings’ quarterback play will be good enough to compete on a yearly basis. The downside is that it locks in that the Vikings won’t have one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL and will be dedicating a good chunk of cap space to a good-but-not-great player at the most important position in sports.
Instead they could choose to hope Bridgewater returns to full strength and is back to start in 2018 or draft another quarterback this offseason and hope that QB has a chance to become just as good, only with a much lower cap hit.
Whichever direction the front offices chooses will open up a whole new set of possible outcomes. Their choice will say a lot about how they view the near future of the franchise.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told reporters midway through the year that he was not concerned with the fact that his 2016 draft class was making virtually no impact on the team because they were getting valuable experience. We will see in the long run how that works out, but as for their immediate impact, the Vikings’ picks were the least valuable in the NFL.
The draft is a strange and mysterious beast. Teams spend all kinds of money sending scouts to scour the Earth for the right players to select, and they are now spending more and more on analytics to find diamonds in the rough, but all they can really do is slot players properly in terms of round. Teams do not have the ability to persistently know which players will turn out better than others.
University of Pennsylvania professor Cade Massey, who has done mathematical studies for NFL teams, recorded a 20 minute lecture on whether teams could repeatedly make good draft picks. He found that there is “essentially no relationship” between a team’s results from year to year.
“The differences we observe are not the product of skill, the differences we observe are the products of chance,” Massey.
Massey measured results by starts, contracts and Pro Bowls and got the same result every time.
If you need a more anecdotal example, the Seattle Seahawks were widely criticized for the 2012 draft in which they selected Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson with the 75th overall pick. The Vikings were given high grades for selecting receiver Laquon Treadwell, who caught one pass this season.
So drafting is a big, giant lucky festival.
However, team building is a major part of the draft. Let’s say you know that there is a 50% chance your first round pick becomes a star, 25% in the second round and 25% chance that one player in rounds 3-7 turns into a Pro Bowler, the position of said player will make a difference in how many games you win.
If a team drafts a Pro Bowl quarterback, that team will very likely win more games than the club that picks a Pro Bowl punter.
The Vikings had one of the league’s worst defenses in 2011 and spent the majority of their draft assets thereafter to improve talent on the defensive side of the ball, especially since they hired Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator.
The Vikings picked 10 defensive players out of a total 15 picks in the first three rounds of the draft since 2012. Some of those players have become superstars like cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith, while others have been busts.
Results have reflected where the draft assets were spent. Minnesota has ranked 11th, 5th and 6th in the NFL in points against and 20th, 16th and 23rd in the NFL in points scored since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach.
If there is one area to question the Vikings’ draft strategy it’s that they put their eggs in a defensive basket when the league has turned heavily toward offense. The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking statistic, which adjusts yardage stats for quality of competition, are playing in the Super Bowl this year.
Draft picks were often spent on defensive linemen but rarely spent on offensive linemen. If there was an area that specifically was responsible for the Vikings missing the playoffs this year, it would be on the offensive line.
To take it a step further, a team with a very bright defensive coach might rather have asked its coach to use scheme to get more out of less, rather than doubling down.
Now the Vikings will be looking to swing back and draft more offensive talent this year. They need to set up the offensive line for the future and add a running back, maybe even another possibly playmaking receiver considering Treadwell’s struggles. And whether it works out will be left almost entirely up to chance.
The Vikings tried to fix their offensive line by adding two free agents in Alex Boone and Andre Smith. While Boone worked out alright, the Smith pickup was disastrous. Then a combination of bad luck and lack of resources allocated to the offensive line resulted in a total collapse up front.
Nobody could have predicted that Mike Harris would miss the entire season or Matt Kalil would go down in Week 2, but the backup plans weren’t nearly sufficient. Second year player TJ Clemmings was rated the NFL’s worst starting tackle, yet the Vikings did not try other options at the position. When they did add Jake Long, Clemmings continued to play. To the front office’s credit, they found tackle Rashod Hill on Jacksonville’s practice squad, but he was only given a chance in the final game of the year (and played well).
Like the draft, the Vikings’ free agency money was mostly spent on defense. Here are the free agent pickups over the past few seasons who were regulars on the 2016 team:
|Free agent||Snaps||PFF grade|
Free agency has some of the same luck factor as the draft because of injuries, but future success is much more predictable based on age, circumstances, past performance and regression. Smith’s fall could have been predicted based on several years of fading play in Cincinnati, while Joseph’s excellence was also pretty predictable considering he was in his prime and very talented when playing for the New York Giants.
So how will the Vikings spend their cap room this time around? According to the website Over The Cap, if they let Adrian Peterson walk, Minnesota will sit with approximately $37 million in cap room.
Without a first-round pick, the Vikings are unlikely to fill more than one immediate need in the draft, meaning they will have to find, at a minimum, a left tackle, right tackle, cornerback, running back and possibly a receiver and depth at multiple positions.
This brings us back to where we started: Sam Bradford.
The Vikings will have the choice of pouring a ton of money – maybe even making bad deals – to acquire offensive linemen in free agency. Players like Andrew Whitworth, one of the league’s highest rated tackles last season. He is 35 and may be asking the world. But Minnesota went all-in when they traded for Bradford and will very likely go all-in for free agents again, especially up front.
It is yet to be seen whether they are playing a game of whack-a-mole with offense and defense. They built up the defense over a five years period, but it’s a major challenge to keep everyone together and healthy. If Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman don’t re-sign and first-round pick Trae Waynes and second-rounder Mackensie Alexander fail to reach their level of performance, the Vikings’ defense will slip, while the offense may see improvement because of the offseason investment.
The hot seat
Judging front offices is so hard, not only because of the chance/luck element of the draft but because of the influence the quarterback position has on whether a team wins. Teams can make bad decisions and get bailed out by quarterback greatness and teams can make great decisions and never make it because of quarterback failure.
But here’s the big picture: If the Vikings go any longer without winning a playoff game, especially after making win-now moves like the Bradford trade, then it could mean changes at the top, whether it’s fair or not.