This week, the Vikings surprisingly let go of defensive end Armon Watts and wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsett, two talented players who were expected — at least by outsiders — to play significant roles in 2022. To replace them, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah made two moves. to acquire Ross Blacklock and Jalen Reagor from Texas and the Eagles, respectively.
We can’t know exactly why Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings decided to make these moves, but we can glean some information from his public comments at a press conference Thursday and use educated guesses to fill in the blanks.
Blacklock was the first move. Just minutes after the shocking news broke that the Vikings had waived Watts, it was announced that they traded a sixth-round pick to Houston for Blacklock and a seventh. That amount of draft compensation is almost meaningless, suggesting the Texans wanted to get everything they could for a former high draft pick who has disappointed in his two NFL seasons.
From the Vikings’ perspective, switching from Watts to Blacklock saved them roughly $1.2 million in cap space, which is an important part of the calculation. However, from a footballing point of view, it is a little difficult to understand the logic of the exchange. Watts was arguably a better NFL defender than Blacklock, breaking out last season with 33 pressures and five sacks as Minnesota’s most productive interior pass rusher. Watts, who was claimed by the Bears on waivers, played with the Vikings’ first-team defense for most of training camp.
Money aside, there appear to be three factors that went into the decision to waive Watts and acquire Blacklock: timeline, upside and scheme fit.
Adofo-Mensah likes to use the term “time horizons” when talking about football decisions. Basically, this refers to the idea of not only looking at the current season when making moves, but also planning things with an eye to the future. Blacklock, 24, is two years younger than Watts. He has two years left on his rookie deal, while Watts is heading into a contract year. That means the Vikings get an extra year of control at the position, allowing them to coach Blacklock over the next two seasons and see how he might fit into their long-term plans beyond that.
“You’re really trying to always understand how your team shapes up and fits and the different skill sets you’re trying to add,” Adofo-Mensah said. “We thought it was an opportunity to add someone in Blacklock who has a really good pass-rush skill set, really disruptive at this stage. In the run game, also destructive. So we’re trying to add that skill set. in our time horizon where we’re trying to compete in this league … sometimes these trades make sense.”
Back in 2020, Blacklock was the No. 40 overall pick out of TCU. He was coming off a 3.5-sack, 9-TFL final varsity season and helped his stock by running a 4.9 40 with a terrific ten-yard split at 6’3″, 290 pounds. In his pre-draft scouting report, the NFL .com’s Lance Zierlein described Blacklock as a “relentless pass rusher with elite lateral quickness and change of direction” and said he has “a rare talent for movement and intriguing shooting potential.” Zierlein also cautioned that Blacklock needs a lot of development in his technique, especially when it comes to taking on blocks in run defense.
In two seasons with the Texans, Blacklock’s perceived weaknesses far outweighed his strengths. He played just 254 defensive snaps as a rookie and was rated dead last by Pro Football Focus out of 133 inside linebackers who played at least 200 snaps. Blacklock improved in year two, especially as a pass rusher. He ran over 450 snaps, showing flashes of penetration ability while recording 25 pressures and a pair of sacks. But due to poor PFF grades in the run protection and tackle categories, Blacklock only jumped to 100th out of 145 DTs in terms of overall grade.
PFF grades are an imperfect metric, but there’s a reason the Texans bottomed out on him after two years for next to nothing in return.
Still, the Vikings clearly see Blacklock as a fit for their scheme with the upside to improve in a new situation. The traits that made him a top 40 pick just two years ago haven’t gone away; defensive line coaches Chris Rumph and A’lique Terry will look to help Blacklock continue to develop and make a leap in his third season. And while Watts has gone from a sixth-round pick in 2019 to a promising interior passer, he’s had some issues in run defense as well.
It helps that Blacklock won’t be asked to be a star. The Vikings have a pair of top-tier defensive players in Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson, both of whom are strong against the run. After those two, they like what they have in depth with players like Jonathan Bullard and James Lynch. That means Blacklock doesn’t need to come in and step into Watts’ role as a 1-on-1 backup. The Vikings think he’ll fit in well as an interior pass rusher who can be put in situations that maximize what he does good.
A day later, the Vikings made a similar surprise move turning a deal for Reagor and then the release of Smith-Marsette, who seemed in line to be their No. 4 receiver after Bisi Johnson’s ACL injury. They sent the Eagles the seventh-round pick they got from the Texans in the Blacklock deal, plus a conditional 2024 pick that will be either a fourth- or fifth-round pick, depending on whether or not certain unspecified stat points are reached. Smith-Marsette, like Watts, was scouted by the Bears, giving him a chance to potentially get revenge on his old team for years to come.
Reagor was famously selected one spot ahead of Justin Jefferson in the first round of the 2020 draft. While Jefferson rose to superstardom almost immediately, becoming the first player in NFL history with 3,000 receiving yards in his first two seasons, Reagor struggled to establish itself in Philly and was declared a failure.
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When it comes to this move, the “time horizons” explanation doesn’t work the same way. Reagor is eight months older than Smith-Marsette and was elected a year earlier. He almost certainly won’t pick up his fifth-year option in 2024, meaning the Vikings traded a player with three years remaining on his rookie contract for a player with two years remaining on a significantly more expensive rookie deal (max. $1.8 million this year, $2.4 million cap reached next year).
It’s about fit, good and special teams. Reagor is just 23 years old and was a super-exciting prospect coming out of TCU, where he was teammates with Blacklock, former Vikings first-round pick Jeff Gladney — who tragically passed away in May — and Vikings offensive lineman Austin Schlottmann.
Reagor broke out as a junior in 2018 with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns despite shaky quarterback play. He has 4.47 speed, a solid build at 5’11”, 197 pounds and remarkable explosiveness. Zierlein noted in his preliminary scouting report that Reagor is inconsistent in his focus and route running, but described him as a “smooth athlete with blazing speed” and “electric with the ball in his hands”.
That never materialized with the Eagles. Reagor has a measly 64/695/3 line over two seasons and was charged with four falls last year. He averaged just 0.67 yards per route in 2021, ranking 134th of 139 receivers with at least 20 targets.
Like Blacklock, the Vikings are banking on Reagor, who has potential he can unlock in a new situation. He has shown some promise as an intermediate receiver and can be dangerous as a gadget weapon due to his natural skills as a ball carrier. Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell is excellent at his job, so maybe he can help Reagor become a more complete player.
“We’re always looking for opportunities – we call it ‘unturned stone,'” Adofo-Mensah said. “We are always looking for opportunities to improve the team. We saw Jalen as a guy who has a really great individual skill set, but also how he complements that (receiver) room and then our offensive football team. So at the end of the day, when the value proposition fits what you have in mind in terms of the vision, you make those decisions.”
It’s been a disappointing start to his career for Reagor, but he’s still young and talented. He should come in as the Vikings’ fourth receiver behind Jefferson, Adam Thielen and KJ Osborn, and his speed and YAC ability give them someone with a slightly different skill set than what they already have. After catching passes from Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts in Philly, Raygor will play with Kirk Cousins, who has more experience and arm talent than any of his previous QBs.
With both Blacklock and Raygor, the Vikings balanced what their scouts and coaches saw in them as draft prospects with what they became in their two seasons in the NFL.
“Kevin and I get together with our new team and our coaching staff and talk about the player that we saw coming out and the new information that we got,” Adofo-Mensah said. “It’s all combined into our decision, and at the end of the day, it’s not a perfect science, it’s a little art, a little science, and we like the decision we made.”
Perhaps the main area where Reagor can contribute right away is as a punt returner. He averaged 17.8 yards per return and scored two touchdowns in that stretch at TCU, and averaged 9.2 yards with one TD in the NFL. He needs to become a little more consistent in catching the ball cleanly, but Reagor has the natural instincts and athleticism to be dangerous as a punt returner.
“We’re going to give him every opportunity to do that,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said. “We have some other guys on the roster that we feel good about if needed, but Jalen is excited about this opportunity. I think he’s got a good track record of that, obviously some real flashes of doing that at a high level. We’ll get him going from day one today and see where he’ll go in Green Bay. If he’s comfortable going back there and we think he’s our best option to give us a chance to impact the game, he’ll go back there.”
Overall, the Vikings used a sixth rounder and a fourth or fifth rounder to go from Watts and Smith-Marsette to Blacklock and Reagor, two reclamation projects that entered the league with far better draft pedigree than the players they replace.
If it works out and the Vikings can help Blacklock and Reagor have their best NFL seasons in Minnesota, the payoff could be quite significant. If it doesn’t — and if Watts and Smith-Marsette become important players for the division-rival Bears — this collection of moves could go from surprising to regrettable.
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