OFFSEASON REVIEW: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
By Tayyib Abu
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Minnesota Vikings :
The Minnesota Vikings’ season swung wildly between fantastic and terrible. Inconsistency became the byword to describe the men in purple. In Mike Zimmer’s tenure with the Vikes, never did a team bounce so violently from each extreme like the 2020 Vikings. Minnesota finished with a 7-9 record that placed them third in the NFC North. While that was a clear step back from previous years’ high-points, there were some positives and negatives.
The major positive was the emergence of rookie receiver Justin Jefferson. The former LSU Tiger shone as he torched secondaries on the way to a 1,400 yard season. Jefferson combined speed, wonderful route-running and fearlessness to devastating effect. He totalled 15.9 yards per reception, an incredible number in a Kirk Cousins led offense. The franchise that let Stefon Diggs go last year, Rick Spielman and his front office replaced him with one pick; The franchise that gave rise to Randy Moss found their next superstar in 2020.
The other plus on offense was the continued excellence of Dalvin Cook. The fourth-year back enjoyed his career’s best rushing year as he posted a total of 1,557 rushing yards. Cook became a critical focal point of the offense. With Mike Zimmer and the Kubiak’s working in Minnesota, establishing the run is a significant part of their coaching plan. It came to fruition as Cook led the Vikings to a win at Lambeau Field in November. Cook is the blueprint to Minnesota’s success.
Unfortunately, that is where the positives come to a shuddering halt. The defense is Mike Zimmer’s bread and butter. That is his expertise – and quite simply, this unit didn’t show up in 2020. The Vikings finished 29th in scoring defense – in 2019 they finished sixth in that metric. That is a colossal drop, partly down to several rookies like Cam Dantzler struggling in their rookie years. The team also lost key players up front, like Everson Griffen. A truncated offseason programme and an uneven concoction of rookies and vets gave Zimmer too many problems to fix. It all got exposed as Alvin Kamara destroyed the Vikings on Christmas Day. Minnesota must solve this problem if they are to compete in 2021.
The most notable change on the Vikings’ staff comes on offense. Gary Kubiak retired after the 2020 season, his son Clint replacing him. It is fascinating to see how he may differ from his father while aligning himself with Zimmer’s desire to run the football. Minnesota hired Alabama cornerback coach Karl Scott to replace Daronte Jones. It is here where the Minnesota defense requires guidance and improvement. Former Raiders coordinator Paul Guenther arrives as a senior defensive assistant. The experienced coach should provide a fresh set of eyes and knowledge to the struggling group.
On offense, Keenan McCardell joins from Jacksonville. The former Jags coach gets tasked with maintaining and developing Justin Jefferson’s remarkable talent into a top-three wideout. Ryan Ficken gets promoted from assistant to the special-teams coordinator role. His task is mighty as the Vikes’ special teams were terrible in 2020. It is evolution, not a revolution on the Vikings coaching staff. Mike Zimmer will hope that his new-look team of assistants improves the results of the team in 2021.
State Of The Roster
Overall, the Vikings roster is a ‘middle of the pack’ squad. Franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins is what he is. He won’t lose games for Minnesota; however, he probably won’t be the guy to lead a team on a game-winning two-minute drill drive. Dalvin Cook is a fabulous back, and we all know about Jefferson and Adam Thielen. The big holes on offense lie at the tight end and offensive line positions. Minnesota was a below-average line when it came to pass protection. They ranked 18th in that statistic. A statue quarterback such as Cousins requires better than adequate protection to thrive.
Defensively, the Vikings must beef up the interior of the defense. Minnesota was the worst run-stopping team in the NFL last year. Players like Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are still talented playmakers, although they aren’t the greatest run-tacklers if the back penetrates to the second level. Jaleel Johnson and Michael Pierce are not good enough to shackle runners, which is the primary responsibility for defensive tackles in a 4-3 base formation.
The Vikings will stick with the two young cornerbacks on the outside. It is one of the most challenging positions to learn for rookie players. If Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer genuinely believe in them, they will give Dantzler and Gladney time to improve.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
As the great Dwayne Johnson would say, FINALLY, the NFL announced its salary cap. The magic number is $182.5 million, a drop from $198.2 million last year. Per Spotrac, Minnesota currently sits at $187.2 million. Therefore they will cut and release players. Kicker Dan Bailey got released yesterday. They are also moving on from the tight end, Kyle Rudolph. Minnesota will carry $4.2 million in dead cap money with that, but Rudolph is 32, and it is time to move on.
28-year-old Anthony Barr could also fall foul of the dreaded cut. Barr is coming off a season-ending injury, and only time will tell what level he can play at for Minnesota. The Vikings may opt to restructure his deal or cut him altogether.
Tackle Riley Reiff was a surprise cut since the cap was announced. An excellent tackle, but Minnesota saved a whopping $11.75 million on the cap. Like all other teams in this unusual year, more moves will come as they free up funds for some free agency moves and rookie contracts. With today’s announcement, the Vikings must do some work to restructure or release contracted players. Rick Spielman and the front office need to step up and hit a two-out single to fix things.
Anthony Harris is the biggest name on the Vikings’ unrestricted free agent list. The safety played 2020 on the franchise tag, and he will desire a longer-term contract. The physical defender is one-half of a formidable duo alongside Harrison Smith. Minnesota’s two young cornerbacks need experienced guys helping them. and their safety tandem gives them this. Harris’ market value per Spotrac is $14 million. That is a sizeable jump up from the $11 million he made last year. At 29, if Minnesota commits to a long-term deal with a yearly average of $14 million, it is a massive gamble. And it would also force the Vikes to play more salary cap musical chairs.
Luckily for Minnesota, a lot of the other free agents are expendable. George Iloka, Jaleel Johnson and Ameer Abdullah could all test the market out this spring. Depth linemen Rashod Hill and Brett Jones should return. However as role players they won’t ask for a ton of money.
Minnesota needs help at a plethora of positions. The left side of the offensive line needs an overhaul; Minnestoa just can’t protect Kirk Cousins. Wiith Reiff out the door, that need becomes even more critical. Minnesota could draft Alex Leatherwood or Liam Eichenberg to fill the gap at tackle. Guard Joe Thuney is a free agent. Minnesota would need to juggle the cap to sign Thuney; nonetheless, Thuney provides experience and leadership to a unit desperately in need.
Defensive tackle is another position of concern. The Vikings must find a dominant block-shedding, run-stopping animal in the middle of the trenches. Levi Onwuzurike enjoyed a super Senior-Bowl week; he impressed everyone down in Mobile that week. Minnesota may not get him, but they need that style of player to fortify their defensive line.
Lastly, Minnesota may look at safety. The position boasts a ton of depth in the upcoming draft. If Harris leaves Minnesota, the Vikings could consider drafting Talanoa Hufanga or Andre Cisco in the mid-rounds. If Rick Spielman really values the position, he could draft Richie Grant or Trevon Moehrig as they are the standout duo. Grant hits hard when he lines up in the box, and he is a ball-hawk. While Moehrig can fly around the middle parts of the field, tackling anything that stands in his way. Safety is a position that Minnesota must look at when evaluating the draft class.
TAYYIB IS AN AVID NFL FAN AND, AS A FOLLOWER OF THE DETROIT LIONS, IS A PERMANENT RESIDENT IN THE HONOLULU BLUE HEARTBREAK HOTEL. WRITING FOOTBALL ARTICLES SINCE 2019, TAYYIB LOVES EVERYTHING ABOUT THE SPORT EXCEPT THAT WINS ARE NOT A QB STAT. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @TAYYIBABU