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Zulgad: Vikings need to ditch idea of “competitive rebuild” in order to reach the ultimate goal

The Minnesota Vikings’ roller-coaster season ended with a thud on Sunday afternoon in Detroit. A 30-20 loss to the NFC North champion Lions left coach Kevin O’Connell and his players attempting to answer questions about the future, while acknowledging the disappointment of a 7-9 finish that came after O’Connell’s first season in which the Vikings won 13 games and a division title.

The truth is no one wearing purple on Sunday knows where things are headed, only that this could be the Vikings’ most eventual offseason in several years and that general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will be faced with making decisions that have a long-term impact on the franchise. These decisions also will help to decide whether Adofo-Mensah is in Minnesota for the long term.

A plan for the Vikings will take shape in the coming weeks as Adofo-Mensah, O’Connell and other members of the football operations department begin to form a strategy that will be shared with owners Zygi and Mark Wilf.

Considering those are the two who sign the checks, they will have plenty to say about the potential direction of a team that opened its season by going 1-4 and closed it by losing four in a row. In between that bad start and brutal finish, the Vikings put together a five-game winning streak and got themselves into the NFC playoff picture with a 6-4 record.

The amazing thing about that surge is that the final two wins came with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins out because of a season-ending Achilles’ injury and all five wins came with Pro Bowl wide receiver Justin Jefferson on the sideline because of a hamstring injury.

Ultimately, those wins proved to be more mirage than reality as O’Connell used three quarterbacks (Josh Dobbs, Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens) and the team’s season-long turnover issues went from losing fumbles to backup QBs throwing interceptions.

There was nothing pleasant about the last month, but it does provide an opportunity for Adofo-Mensah to make his case for how this team needs to be built as he enters the third offseason of his tenure. The most important thing for Adofo-Mensah will be changing his messaging to the Wilfs and the fan base by ditching this notion of a “competitive rebuild.”

The Vikings tried that in 2022 by running things back and it worked in the regular season but came crashing down in a first-round playoff loss to the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium.

What Adofo-Mensah, and O’Connell, both need to sell is that the Vikings need a serious retooling. Rebuild is a nasty word in professional sports because it conjures up images of being bad for an extended period. But that’s now how it has to work — if you know what you’re doing and draft right.

The Vikings have many crucial decisions to make on veterans, beginning with Cousins and extraordinary pass rusher Danielle Hunter, who finished the season with a career-high 15.6 sacks. Cousins and Hunter are set to hit free agency this offseason and while many would like to see both return is that realistic? Especially with Jefferson set to receive a massive payday before he ever sets foot on the field to play on his fifth-year option in 2024.

The Vikings are set to select 11th in the first round of the draft. The last time they picked that high was in 2015, when they took cornerback Trae Waynes. They could look to strengthen a defense that needs help, whether coordinator Brian Flores returns, or this could be the year they grab a quarterback and decide to move on from Cousins.

Adofo-Mensah will be in prime position to move up, if he and O’Connell want to try to grab one of the top quarterbacks and give themselves the possibility of having a guy like LSU’s Jayden Daniels on a rookie contract for five seasons.

Look through the Vikings roster and it becomes clear that retaining Cousins assures you of nothing. There are many key positions at which this team has question marks — defensive line, pass-rushers, cornerback and interior offensive line — and hoping that labeling this a “competitive rebuild” will buy you time isn’t a sustainable strategy.

What the Vikings need to do is face the facts. Being competitive might satisfy some, but winning a Super Bowl is the only way to get approval from the masses. For that to happen, Adofo-Mensah must convince his bosses that some tough and unpopular decisions need to be made. Will that involve some risks? Absolutely. But that is the only way the Vikings will ever be able to hoist that elusive Lombardi Trophy.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com.

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire