A Tale of Two GMs: How to Sit Back and Trust Rick Spielman

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

It was the epoch of testicular fortitude, it was the epoch of testicular degeneration.

It was the spring of “We traded our star but at least we have two first-round picks”, it was the winter of “We traded our star and still don’t have a first-round pick”.

We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

We were all going direct to Valhalla, we were all going to root for the Titans.

Much can be said about the free agent dealings over the past few days to open the league year. In a frenzy of activity that is far from slowing down, many teams have made waves with both the shrewdness and stupidity of their decision-making.

General manager Rick Spielman and the Minnesota Vikings are a team that most people are plugging into the”shrewd” category thus far with their decision making.

Despite a number of free agent signings and cuts, the major news has been with the team parting ways with their star wide receiver, Stefon Diggs.

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Stefon Diggs seen here preparing to get mad two balls weren’t thrown to him on this play

Diggs was famously cryptic with social media posts and interview answers during the last two years on the team, leaving many to believe he was unhappy with his situation on the Minnesota Vikings. The fan base seemed to be split, some were convinced he wanted out, and some were convinced he was being dramatic and attention-seeking. In the late hours of Monday night, the pessimists reigned supreme.

Stefon Diggs and a seventh-round pick was traded to the Buffalo Bills for a first-round (21st overall), fifth-round, sixth-round, and 2021 fourth-round picks. Diggs is now the clear number one receiver for Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, a bona-fide deep-threat who, just starting the prime of his career, has the potential to become a consensus top-10 wide receiver.

In executing the trade, the Minnesota Vikings showed they both (a) viewed two star wide receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as a luxury in their Gary Kubiak-led run heavy offense, and (b) acknowledged there was “trouble in paradise”, opting to gain sizable draft capital and potentially entering a soft rebuild rather than continuing life with a disgruntled receiver.

Many fans woke up Tuesday morning with disappointment and frustration, but a very large portion of those fans were comforted by their draft pick haul and left with an optimistic future for the franchise.

General Manager Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans are a team that most people are plugging into the “stupidity” category thus far with their decision making.

Despite a number of free agent signings and cuts, the major news has been with the team parting ways with their star wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.

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Why didn’t we trade for this guy?

Hopkins was the epicenter of a high-powered Houston offense led by himself, Deshaun Watson, and (when healthy) deep threat Will Fuller. While having a down-year by his standards, Hopkins tallied 1165 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in his 2019 campaign, good for 11th and 16th in the league, respectively. The three-time all-pro is not a stranger to putting up numbers, as five (and nearly six) of his seven years in the league he has eclipsed the 1000-yard mark, even with the likes of Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, and Brock “We will give you a second-round pick just to take him off our hands” Osweiler throwing him the ball. Hopkins has firmly cemented himself as a top-five receiver in the league even by conservative standards.

DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick was traded to the Arizona Cardinals for David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. Hopkins is now the clear number one receiver for Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, no doubt set to have an outstanding year alongside the newly re-signed Larry Fitzgerald in the high powered Kliff Kingsbury offense.

In executing the trade, the Houston Texans showed they both (a) don’t care about their fan base in the slightest, and (b) acknowledged they have absolutely no idea what they are doing, essentially swapping DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and a second-round pick.

Many fans woke up Tuesday morning with disappointment and frustration, but a very large portion of those fans were comforted by the fact that they could go out and voluntarily contract coronavirus in an attempt to end their suffering before they have to see the product Bill O’Brien intends to trot on the field week one.

Shockingly (or, not shockingly), this is very on brand for Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans as of late.

After playing the 2019 season without a permanent general manager, the Texans thought the best man for the job was their interim GM, Bill O’Brien, who already had two horrendous trades under his belt.

In his short tenure as an organizational decision maker, Bill O’Brien has managed to set the team back years and undue any progress and asset retention that the previous regime laid out for him.

The comedy of errors started last year in his very first year of power when he needed to acquire an offensive lineman, as well as figure how to part ways with star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. O’Brien set his eyes on offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil of the Miami Dolphins, and first attempted a trade involving Clowney and Tunsil.

No go. Clowney didn’t want to play for Miami.

In that case, the only feasible thing to do was to attempt two different trades, one to get rid of Clowney and one to acquire Tunsil, right? For a logical, experienced, dedicated general manager that shouldn’t have been a problem. For Bill O’Brien it was a train wreck.

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Both the Seahawks and Dolphins knew O’Brien was in over his head and both knew they had leverage over him. First the Texans traded their Pro-Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and some scraps. Next, the Texans traded multiple first-round picks, a second-round pick, and two players to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills, a fourth-round pick, and a sixth-round pick. Tunsil, it must be added, was not signed to a contract extension before the trade was executed. Meaning he has all leverage over the Texans in contract negotiations going forward and will command an extremely inflated price tag for the team to keep him in Houston.

Bill O’Brien’s new masterpiece is trading away fan favorite, team leader, and arguably the best receiver in the league for an oft-injured past his prime running back and a second-round pick. Also, if you didn’t connect the dots let me say here that the team traded two superstars without getting back a first-round pick.

After Bill O’Brien’s three inexcusable disasters in a year of tenure, it is fair to ask, “Is he actively trying to fuck up the franchise or is he just this incompetent?”

Now, going back to the Minnesota Vikings and the Stefon Diggs trade, this type of decision is very on brand for Rick Spielman and the Minnesota Vikings as of late.

It has now come to light that Diggs really did not want to be in Minnesota. Rather than keeping a disgruntled receiver in the locker room, the team was able to acquire significant draft capital for a player who clearly wanted out. This isn’t a panic move. This isn’t a red fag for a complete re-build. This isn’t Spielman running around like a drunk with no plan. Of course there is a plan. The plan is to get value for a disgruntled player while he STILL HAS VALUE. Bad GMs ignore disgruntled players hoping things get better (Does Tom Thibodeau being in denial and holding on to Jimmy Butler for too long thereby tanking his trade value ring a bell, Timberwolves fans?). Good GMs address the situation and get significant value while they still can.

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A first, fourth, fifth, and a sixth-round draft pick is an outstanding haul for a player of Diggs’ caliber and allowed the team to clear cap space while also “re-tooling” and adding additional rookies to build for the future.

The Vikings got four draft picks (including a first-round pick) for Stefon Diggs and the Texans got a second-round pick and an expensive, oft-injured running back for DeAndre Hopkins. And the team is still without a first-round pick. There’s really no comparison.

Let’s look at other notable Rick Spielman trades:

In 2013 Spielman turned Percy Harvin into a first, third, and seventh-round pick. This turned into Pro-Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes and reliable running back Jerrick McKinnon.

In 2015, with two subsequent trades he essentially turned the corpse of quarterback Matt Cassel into wide receiver Mike Wallace and two seventh-round picks.

The only blemishes on Spielman’s record are trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford in 2016 and trading a fifth round pick for kicker Kaare Vedvik (who they promptly cut) in 2019. However, both trades were made out of pure desperation as the team had no other options. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a gruesome almost career-ending injury just before the season started in 2016, and the Vikings needed to attempt to improve their kicking game after a disastrous 2018 season in which they kicked field goals at 68.8%.

Notice the lack of incompetence? Notice the lack of trading star players for peanuts? Notice the lack of mismanaging assets?

Making trades is a great area for Rick Spielman, but where he really shines is the NFL Draft. Since taking sole responsibility of general manager duties in 2012, Spielman has been on a drafting tear that many fans take for granted.

It is too early to look at the 2018 and 2019 draft classes and make assumptions, so lets base this on years until 2017.

From 2012-2017 the Minnesota Vikings had 12 first and second-round picks. Of those 12 picks, eight have made the Pro Bowl at least one time in their career. In other words, if Rick Spielman has a first or second-round pick, there is nearly a 70% chance that player will become a Pro-Bowler. Of those four players who didn’t make the Pro-Bowl? The only notable whiff is wide receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The other three players include defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, whose career was derailed due to injury, cornerback Trae Waynes, who was a three-year starter on the Vikings before recently signing with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Mackensie Alexander, who was the team’s starting nickel cornerback before – also – recently signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

As it stands at the writing of this article, in the 2020 NFL Draft the Vikings have two first-round picks (#22 & #25) and one second-round pick (#58). According to Spielman’s five-year sample size, drafting two Pro-Bowlers this year in those three picks would not be out of the question.

Has Spielman been a perfect GM? Of course not. However, fans don’t appreciate how competent he is.

“We know his defensive track record, but he’s bad at drafting offensive players, notably offensive line and wide receiver.”

Past draft selections of Matt Kalil, who mysteriously crashed and burned after an outstanding rookie year, T.J. Clemmings, and Willie Beavers highlight past failures. However, recent selections of Brian O’Neill and Garrett Bradbury may very well turn this narrative around as both players, particularly O’Neill, seem poised to become stalwarts of the Vikings offensive line for years to come.

In regard to wide receivers, removing first-round picks Corderrelle Patterson (successful pick) and Laquon Treadwell (big whiff), Speilman has never drafted a wide receiver before the fourth round. Of the eight late-round receivers drafted, there were two successful players in Olabisi Johnson and Jarius Wright and one superstar in Stefon Diggs. Saying Spielman is bad at drafting wide receivers because he hasn’t hit on a late-round star other than Stefon Diggs is disingenuous at best.

“He has no direction – he traded our star receiver and is sending us into a rebuild!” 

I already addressed the Diggs situation, but let me now address the rebuild accusations.

Let’s play a game of WWBBD, or, What Would Bill Belichick Do?

Rule number one of the Bill Belichick handbook: DON’T OVERPAY OR PAY FOR PAST PERFORMANCE.

WWBBD about Everson Griffen, a 32-year old defensive end fan-favorite coming off a good year and a bad year before that, wanting a contract around $10 million?….. HE WOULD LET HIM WALK

WWBBD about Trae Waynes, a starting caliber cornerback that is seeking a top level contract? ….. HE WOULD LET HIM WALK

WWBBD about Linval Joseph, a soon to be 32-year-old defensive tackle that lost a step and is looking to be seeking $8+ million a year? ….. HE WOULD LET HIM WALK

Bill Belichick didn’t win six Super Bowls by giving away “loyalty” contracts and holding on to players past their prime or value just because of the fear of losing players and fear of the unknown. He won six Super Bowls by accurately assessing player value, not overpaying, and moving on from the player if they ask for too much money.

Let me be clear. This may very well send the Vikings into a “re-tool” where we regress from last year, but it is not a conscious effort to rebuild. It is a conscious effort not to give out stupid contracts for the sake of familiarity and loyalty.

“I don’t like his decision to sign and keep Kirk Cousins” 

Would you rather NOT have had consistent, top-10 quarterback play? Who do you want? Tavaris Jackson? Samantha Ponder’s husband? The corpse of Matt Cassell? Do we need to sit down and run through all the Vikings quarterbacks since Daunte Culpepper?
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And if you tell me you would have preferred to bring back the 7-17 over the past two years Case Keenum I will reach through this screen and punch you in the face right now.

Going into the 2018 season Kirk Cousins was by far and away the best quarterback available. It was the only option as a team to compete. Now, Cousin’s recent two-year extension reduced the team’s cap hit by $10 million this year, and Spielman negotiated a parachute in the contract if things go wrong. There is no longer a no-trade clause attached to Cousin’s contract, and the dead money for the last year of his deal is $10 million. In other words, if the team doesn’t like where they are going with Cousins, they can trade him, or cut him in 2022 for a loss of $10 million.

That is the mark of a competent GM.

In the wake of the Diggs trade, when players are leaving for other teams, all seems lost and the team is poised for a “re-tooling”, don’t lose any sleep. Rick Spielman has proven time and time again he can be the competent leader this team needs to stay competitive for years to come.

All of you calling for Spielman’s head… competent and successful GMs don’t grow on trees. Would you rather have Bill O’Brien?