Forgotten Mistakes of the Zimmer-Spielman Era

Last week, former Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman made news through a TikTok video in which he discussed the player he regrets cutting the most: kicker Daniel Carlson. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the era of Spielman and former Head Coach Mike Zimmer was filled with similar mistakes which often go unnoticed due to the failures which occurred on the field. There are plenty of justifiable reasons for why both Zimmer and Spielman were dismissed this offseason, but here are a few more which have received only little recognition recently.

Cutting Daniel Carlson
Until last week, most Vikings fans had moved past the now questionable cutting of Daniel Carlson. After Spielman’s video, however, it is difficult to avoid the thought of cutting a high potential player after just two professional games. The Vikings’ unwillingness to offer Carlson a second chance after his meltdown against the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 of 2018 prevented the team from solving a historically looming issue at the kicker position. Instead, Carlson was signed by the then Oakland Raiders and has blossomed into an All-Pro kicker, leading the league in made field goals in 2021. The Vikings believed in Carlson enough to select him in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but somehow one game completely shifted mindsets in the front office. As the SEC’s all-time leader in total points, Carlson’s talent was undeniable and his fifth round selection was justified. What was not justified was not giving him the time to regain confidence and show off that talent in Minnesota.

Underutilizing Anthony Barr
Linebacker Anthony Barr was the first draft selection under Zimmer, taken ninth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. Although selected before generational superstars Aaron Donald, Odell Beckham Jr., and Zack Martin, most do not view Barr as a poor selection. To be fair, he started nearly 100 games for the Vikings from 2014-2021 and earned a Pro Bowl selection in four of those eight seasons. His career in Minnesota exactly overlapped with Zimmer, and it seemed like Barr was always “Zim’s guy.” However, Zimmer should be partially accountable for Barr being nothing more than a reliable starter. As the Vikings’ highest draft pick in almost a decade, Barr could have been so much more than a solid player. But the often closed-minded Zimmer neglected one of Barr’s most impressive attributes when carving out his role in the defense. Barr had been an exceptional pass rusher from the outside linebacker position at UCLA, totalling 23.5 sacks from 2012-2013 and leading the nation with 6 forced fumbles in his senior season. This high production was the result of his tenacity rushing from the edge, despite a lack of refinement. Instead of building off of the success Barr had in college, Zimmer placed him in a generic 4-3 outside linebacker position. The wildly athletic Barr was forced to develop into a coverage linebacker, which was not his strong suit. He never eclipsed his four sack mark from his rookie season due to limited pass rushing opportunities. Although unknown, Barr’s ceiling as a pass rushing outside linebacker could have been special. His talent was put to waste, a crucial and disappointing mistake by Zimmer.

Undervaluing Cordarrelle Patterson
Barr was not the only Vikings’ first round pick whose talent was not capitalized on. The Vikings traded up late in the first round to select Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013. Patterson was more than a receiver, however. He was an electric weapon on offense and especially on special teams. Vikings fans witnessed sparks of Patterson’s dynamic abilities as a kick returner, as he led the league in yards per return in three of his four years in Minnesota, during which he also totaled five return touchdowns. Despite his emergence as one of if not the best return man in the NFL, the Vikings did not extend Patterson beyond his rookie contract due to his disappointment offensively. Although mainly lined up at wide receiver, he never exceeded 500 receiving yards in a season. The Vikings let Patterson walk without implementing him in the offense in the most effective way. Spielman showed little desire to resign a guy he had traded up for in the draft and Zimmer did not provide him with the best of opportunities. Patterson afterwards excelled in a running back role, first incorporated by Bill Belichick in New England. Once finally handed the full-time starting role last season in Atlanta, Patterson solidified himself as one of the most versatile players in the league. A major increase in touches resulted in 1,166 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Now, even at the age of 31, Patterson poses a major threat to opposing defenses. The Vikings had their hands on a unique talent, but failed to put him in position to have the most success.

Desperate Trade Moves
Spielman has witnessed positive results through some of his trade decisions, but there were several instances where that was not the case. The Stefon Diggs trade overshadows the rest of Spielman’s trade history, which was not as pretty as it seems. In particular, trades during desperate circumstances created lingering regret. In three different years, the Vikings experienced an injury in August which encouraged them to make a trade to fill in that absence. The most significant of these situations occurred in 2016 when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a gruesome knee injury on the last day of August. Within two weeks of the season opener, the Vikings needed to find a starting quarterback. A lack of leverage resulted in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for veteran Sam Bradford in exchange for the Vikings’ 2017 first round pick. Bradford, a former first overall pick, failed to live up to his hype out of Oklahoma and never led a team to an above .500 record. To little surprise, Bradford could not do so in Minnesota either, leaving the Vikings with a mediocre season and no first round pick. The 2017 Vikings reached the NFC Championship, and maybe a first round talent could have taken them further. Spielman did not learn from this mistake in 2020 when defensive end Danielle Hunter was ruled out for the season with a neck injury. To fill his place, the Vikings acquired Yannick Ngakoue from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a second round pick in 2021. Although productive in his short stint with the Vikings, Ngakoue was traded again after just six games as he was unlikely to be extended. In those six games, the Vikings had a 1-5 record and their season was practically over before their bye week. The best they could receive for Nagkoue was a third round pick from the Baltimore Ravens. In total, the Vikings turned a second round pick into a third, just to have Ngakoue in six meaningless games. Lastly, Spielman made the same error last year after tight end Irv Smith Jr. suffered a knee injury during the preseason. The Vikings traded a fourth round pick for Chris Herndon IV who was essentially a non-factor in Minnesota. Receiving a total of four touches and little special teams action, Herndon was a complete waste of a pick. Spielman’s repetitive trade desperation cost the Vikings significant draft capital and hindered the team from acquiring valuable young talent.

Drafting Matt Kalil
Possibly one of the most forgotten mistakes of the Zimmer-Spielman regime was the first. Spielman was promoted to General Manager in 2012, inheriting the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Although Zimmer was not present in Minnesota at the time of this pick, it must be highlighted. After trading down one pick with the Cleveland Browns, the Vikings landed their desired prospect in offensive tackle Matt Kalil from USC. At the time, Spielman appeared to be a genius for gathering draft capital later in the draft and still selecting the guy they wanted. But Kalil was not the player he was advertised to be. Following a promising Pro Bowl rookie season, Kalil heavily regressed. His level of play would never exceed his rookie season performance, as he consistently ranked towards the bottom of offensive tackle ratings. Kalil never took accountability for his issues, either blaming injuries or the coaching staff. Kalil clearly did not have the character to be an elite player at the NFL level. As the Vikings highest draft pick since Chris Doleman in 1985, Kalil’s career was a disaster and a major disappointment. Zimmer and Spielman’s other mishaps have helped cover up the first drastic error of the two’s regime. Hopefully, the new regime can help Vikings fans forget the rest of their mistakes as well.
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