EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings dug themselves into a considerable hole through their first six games. The amount of time it will take the team to get back to playoff contention depends on the decisions the Vikings make from a leadership perspective, with the current roster, in free agency and the NFL draft.
The way the next 10 games play out could alter the direction of the franchise in the short and long term. As general manager Rick Spielman noted during his annual bye-week news conference, the Vikings (1-5) aren't willing to concede to a rebuild after failing to reboot several areas of the roster during the offseason. They still believe they can win now.
Coach Mike Zimmer echoed those sentiments and alluded to more player development in areas such as the defensive line, with players like Ifeadi Odenigbo, D.J. Wonnum and Jalyn Holmes taking on bigger roles after the Yannick Ngakoue trade to the Ravens last week.
But that doesn't mean there aren't moves worth making to help the team, even if it means more losses in 2020 and a longer rebuild than expected. The Vikings don't appear to be trying to execute a fire sale ahead of the Tuesday trade deadline, but they should be looking toward how they can get back into contention sooner rather than later.
Let's take a look at players who could be on the move by next week and this offseason.
Realistic trade candidates ahead of the deadline
Riley Reiff, LT
Trading the veteran left tackle should be the Vikings' top priority before Tuesday. Minnesota restructured Reiff's contract in a way that makes him easy to part with next season with very little in dead money and $11.75 million in salary-cap savings. That alone would put the Vikings under the cap and give them some flexibility to sign a lower-tier free agent, but why not make the move now and pick up an early Day 3 pick in the process? Any team in contention for the playoffs needing O-line help should be exploring its options with Reiff, who hasn't given up a sack and allowed just five pressures in six games this season. Minnesota drafted Ezra Cleveland to be the franchise left tackle. Trading Reiff and getting Cleveland some meaningful experience at the position is a necessary part of building for the future.
The Vikings placed the franchise tag on Harris in March and tried to trade him, to no avail. Aside from the New York Giants, one of the teams interested in Harris months ago was the Cleveland Browns. Given how thin they are at safety, the Browns could be back in the mix for Harris as they continue their march toward a playoff spot. The Vikings are also dangerously thin at safety, with only Josh Metellus on the active roster behind Harris and Harrison Smith after George Iloka was moved to injured reserve. This move would further concede a rebuild and force the Vikings to use a high draft pick on a safety in April.
Kyle Rudolph, TE
The four-year, $36 million extension given to Rudolph last offseason weighs heavily in the years to come. His usage is down, and the Vikings could turn the reins over to Irv Smith Jr. any time now. Rudolph, 30, is the fifth-highest paid player at his position and making more than $8.4 million this season. I'm not sure how many teams need a tight end at the deadline, but a trade for the 10-year veteran seems as though it would undoubtedly come with a restructure. His salaries and cap numbers continue to escalate in Minnesota in 2021 and beyond. If the Vikings can get good value for him this week, now's the time to part ways.
Pat Elflein, OL
The center-turned left guard-turned right guard is eligible to come off injured reserve after hurting his thumb last month. If the Vikings can find any takers for Elflein -- who became a major liability and will undoubtedly not be with the Vikings after this season -- they should take the draft pick where they can get it.
More of a stretch
Adam Thielen, WR
Trading Thielen does the Vikings no good right now, especially if they believe they can still win. Quarterback Kirk Cousins needs weapons to be successful, and rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson can't be the only one in the passing game. Unless an offer comes in this week that blows them away, the Vikings might wait until the offseason to fully lean into the rebuild and move their star wide receiver to save $8.1 million against the cap and potentially get back a second- or third-round pick.
Harrison Smith, S
He's one of the best safeties in the NFL, but he's also going to be 32 years old next season. It's hard to see the Vikings trading both Harris and Smith ahead of the deadline, and if they wait until next offseason, moving on from Smith would free up $10.25 million and no dead cap. Given his role in this defense, it's hard to picture Smith somewhere else, but a restructure almost seems guaranteed if he stays in Minnesota.
On next offseason's to-do list
Anthony Barr, LB
Coming off season-ending surgery on a torn pectoral muscle, Barr and the Vikings should be back to the negotiating table in 2021. The way they structured his deal when they signed him in 2019 made for absurdly high cap hits in 2021-23. There's no way Barr is on the roster with a $15 million cap hit next season. If he's going to stay in Minnesota, a restructure is on the way.
Danielle Hunter, DE
He could very easily be a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher, but Hunter won't take a single snap in 2020 because of a neck injury that required surgery. The Vikings were going to have to address Hunter's contract, which he has outplayed and then some in becoming the fastest player to reach 50 career sacks after notching 14.5 in consecutive seasons. He's the 18th-highest paid at his position ($14.4 million per year) and was bound to head back into negotiations in 2021. But will the Vikings want to make him one of the highest-paid rushing ends after he lost a season due to injury?