The Green Bay Packers find themselves looking up at the Minnesota Vikings for the first time since the end of the 2009 season. Packers fans will remember that as the season Brett Favre got the Vikings within a minute of the Super Bowl. The Vikings fell off that high as they went 6-10 and then 3-13 over the next two seasons. Then, the Vikings promoted Rick Spielman to General Manager in 2012. This began a three-season long plan to thrust the Vikings back to prominence through aggressive drafting.
It sounds like something Packers fans can recognize, but Spielman and Ted Thompson have very different approaches. Thompson started his rebuilding approach by constantly trading down with the idea that there were so many needs that it was best to get as many choices as possible. In Thompson's second draft, he ended up with two second round picks (Greg Jennings and Daryn Colledge) and two third round picks (Jason Spitz and Abdul Hodge). In his first three seasons, Thompson had double digit picks each year: 11 in 2005, 12 in 2006, and 11 in 2007. It was only in 2009 that Thompson traded up and added both B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews in round one. That move demonstrated how much Thompson believed in that team, and then they won the Super Bowl in 2010.
Rick Spielman has traded lower picks to get top-tier talent. Spielman had two first-round picks in 2012, three in 2013 and two more in 2014. After a few hiccups with Adrian Peterson missing a season, the Vikings showed the promise of that draft strategy by winning the NFC North in 2015 before bowing out in the Wild Card Round to the Seattle Seahawks.
In 2011, the NFL and the NFLPA signed the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which outlined the details of the new Rookie Wage Scale. This is key to the reasons behind the Vikings draft strategy. Rookies are cheaper, and first round rookies come with a team option for a fifth year. The Vikings exercised their options on Harrison Smith and Matt Kalil, their first-rounders from the 2012 draft. Next year, the Vikings will have to make that choice with Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes. This means that starting next off-season, at least two first-round picks a year will enter free agency even if the options are picked up by the team.
The other key part of the CBA is the renegotiation window. Teams and players can renegotiate the initial rookie contract after the third season. While this has not been a great bother on contracts for most draft picks, it has mattered to quarterbacks. Teddy Bridgewater is about to enter his third season. At the end of the year, if he is going to be their answer at starter, the Vikings are going to have to pay him. According to Over The Cap, Bridgewater's cap number is just under $1.87 million this season. That will not likely be the case next year.
The best evaluation on this is to look at the quarterbacks who started off in that 2012 draft class. While Andrew Luck is going to be playing under the option on his first contract, many of his class moved on up. Ryan Tannehill signed a new deal, but the money will kick in this year. From 2015 to 2016 Tannehill will see a raise from $4.8 million to $11.6 million (and then $20.3 million in 2017). Russell Wilson played 2014 at just over $817,000. After negotiating following his third season, he counted about $7 million against the 2015 cap and will account for $18 million this coming season. Let's throw in Colin Kaepernick for good measure. He went from $3.77 million in 2014 to $15.2 million in 2015. The point is, you have to lock up your quarterback. It is just the world we live in.
How did these teams do after these contracts? Well, in Russell Wilson's three cheap seasons, the Seahawks went 11-5, 13-3 and then 12-4. Last year they went 10-6 even with the big trade for Jimmy Graham. Not to mention the Seahawks had to watch Bruce Irvin, Brandon Mebane and J.R. Sweezy all leave in free agency this off-season. In Tannehill's three cheap seasons the Dolphins went 7-9, 8-8 and 8-8. The Dolphins went 6-10 last year and fired their coach. Colin Kaepernick gave San Francisco basically two and a half years of production before his new contract. The Niners went 11-4-1, 12-4 and 8-8 in those seasons. Last year they were 5-11.
Minnesota is going to have to start some negotiations with Teddy Bridgewater this year. If they do not, they would be showing a significant lack of faith in him or demonstrating that they simply are trying to keep him on the cheap. While Bridgewater's numbers are significantly less impressive than Kaepernick's, Wilson's, or Tannehill's at the same stage in their careers, he is still going to draw a big money contract. This will come at a time when the Vikings will have to address the long-term futures of players like Smith, Floyd, Rhodes, Anthony Barr and even recent additions like Captain Munnerlyn.
Whille Rick Spielman has built a team that won a division title, its long-term viability will be tested at the end of this season. That will make this season particularly interesting as the Packers seek to re-assert their dominance in the NFC North. The Vikings are going to have the look of a desperate team. If they can read the signs too, they know the window may not be really closing, but it sure is getting tight. With Adrian Peterson entering his tenth season at the age of 31, a looming contract for their quarterback, the quietly rebuilding Bears roster, and a (hopefully) healthy Packers team, it will be a serious test of whether Spielman bet right in trading up to rebuild rather than taking the Ted Thompson approach.