We conclude our trip through the NFC North as our 2018 Regular Season Preview brings us to Minnesota, where the Vikings are loading up for a Super Bowl-or-Bust campaign. For months, the 2017 season looked as if it were to be a magical one for the Vikings, who endured a number of injuries to key personnel in route to winning their division on the strength of a 13-3 record, with the potential of hosting Super Bowl LII (which was played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis) serving as their primary goal. Unfortunately, they fell just short of reaching that mark; after besting the New Orleans Saints in thrilling fashion in the Division Round of the Playoffs, Minnesota was thoroughly outplayed in a 38-7 loss at the eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Rather than spend the Offseason sulking in disappointment, Mike Zimmer and Co. were extremely active, making headlines when they acquired former Washington Redskins’ Quarterback Kirk Cousins to a landmark contract in Free Agency. Clearly there are great expectations for the former Pro Bowler to get this team over the hump, and lead them to their first Lombardi Trophy in Franchise History. Heading into 2018 the Vikings appear to be loaded, with a good deal of top-end talent littered throughout their roster, featuring a wealth of playmakers on Offense, and arguably the league’s most imposing Defense to boot. So with that said, let’s take a look at three storylines that will dictate whether the Vikings have found that piece that ultimately eluded them a year ago, or if the addition of Cousins to a new team and system will prove to be jarring enough to keep the Vikings from reaching their goal once more.
Landing their Man
After falling in embarrassing fashion to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, it became crystal clear that the Vikings were in need of a long-term upgrade at Quarterback, for the Case Keenum Era had come to an end. Keenum (67.6%, 3,547 YDS, 6.78 NY/A, 22 TD, 7 INT, 71.3 QBR in 2017), a journeyman backup Signal-Caller, ascended to the starting position after Sam Bradford went down once again with an injury, shocking everyone with his efficient play in the process. However, no matter how much Minnesota denied it, the feeling was that sooner or later his effectiveness would run out, with 2017 being a contract year making the impending Offseason Decision all the more important. And it’s with that said, that they let the veteran walk, and in turn managed to ink Kirk Cousins (64.3%, 4,093 YDS, 6.46 NY/A, 27 TD, 13 INT, 50.5 QBR in 2017) to a ground-breaking Three-Year, $84 Million Contract that was fully guaranteed, becoming the first player in NFL History to earn a fully guaranteed deal of such value. Of course, with such a payday comes great expectations, and Minnesota is expecting nothing short of a trip to Super Bowl LIII to justify the money that they spent on a Quarterback who has yet to win a single Playoff Game. In his defense, Cousins may not be elite, but he’s been very good since earning the Redskins’ starting gig back in 2015; over the past three years, he’s started every game for a team that has struggled to build a solid Supporting Cast around him, completing 67.0% of his Attempts for an average of 274.5 Yards on 7.00 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eighty-One Touchdowns in comparison to Thirty-Six Interceptions. Cynics will point out that his Quarterback Rating has declined increasingly since his Pro Bowl showing in 2015, but much of that can be attributed to the Redskins allowing a number of his targets to leave in Free Agency, and a porous Offensive Line that allowed him to be sacked a whopping forty-one times last season, for a league-worst 342 Yards Lost. Projecting him in Minnesota’s Offense inspires promise, particularly in the form of a pair of productive Receivers, Stefon Diggs (64 REC, 849 YDS, 8 TD in 2017) and Adam Thielen (91 REC, 1,276 YDS, 4 TD in 2017), a solid running game (122.3 Y/G, 7th Overall), and a stout Offensive Line (27 Sacks Allowed), not to mention playing all home games indoors. Furthermore, the presence of incoming Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo from the Eagles should further ease his transition; DeFilippo will incorporate the Eagles’ version of the West Coast Offense, with Spread Designs and Run-Pass Options that will play to Cousins’ strengths, which include accuracy and mobility in the Pocket. Yes, the expectations are extremely high for this guy, but there is a good reason for that, and this could very well end up being one of those rare cases in which the Quarterback makes that leap into a new tier after changing teams.
When Mike Zimmer was hired back in 2014 it was clear that the longtime Defensive Coach would indeed rebuild the Vikings in his own image, which meant that the Defense would be receiving extra attention. In his four years on the job, Zimmer has done just that, with his charges ranking Fourteenth, Thirteenth, Third, and most recently First in Scoring Defense, while finishing Eleventh, Fifth, Sixth, and First in Total Defense during that period of time. In 2017 it appeared that this unit had reached their peak, leading the league in Points Allowed (15.8 P/G) and Total Yards Allowed (275.9 Y/G), along with placing Second in both Passing Defense (192.4 Y/G) and Rushing Defense (84.6 Y/G). Five different players were selected to the Pro Bowl, with Defensive Backs Xavier Rhodes (56 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD in 2017) and Harrison Smith (78 TKL, 1.5 SK, 5 INT, 12 PD in 2017) elected as First Team All-Pros. Everson Griffen (34 TKL, 13.0 SK, 1 PD, 3 FF in 2017) and Danielle Hunter (45 TKL, 7.0 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017) are nightmares off the Edge, while Linval Joseph (68 TKL, 3.5 SK, 1 FR in 2017) is an anchor on the Defensive Line, with Linebackers Anthony Barr (75 TKL, 1.0 SK, 6 PD in 2017) and Eric Kendricks (113 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD in 2017) proving equally adept at penetrating the Backfield as they are dropping into coverage. Needless to say, there are no real weaknesses to be found in this group. The most frightening prospect though, is the fact that it appears that they’re going to be together terrorizing opponents for years to come, for all but two of Minnesota’s projected starters are under the age of Thirty, with all of the names mentioned remaining under contract for the foreseeable future. And if that isn’t enough to strike fear into the hearts of opposing offenses, they spent a number of their resources bolstering their depth on this side of the football, which eventually became a problem down the stretch in the Playoffs last year. After proving to be a disappointment in Seattle, former Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Sheldon Richardson (44 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD, 1 FF, 2 FR in 2017) was acquired in Free Agency to add pressure in the interior of the Line, while Zimmer quickly snapped up George Iloka (79 TKL, 1 INT, 5 PD in 2017) after the Safety was surprisingly cut by the Cincinnati Bengals during the Preseason. Iloka, who was developed under Zimmer in Cincinnati, will add yet another quality option to a Secondary that is overflowing with them; the Vikings also used their First Round Pick on former South Florida Cornerback Mike Hughes, who could very well end up pushing Trae Waynes (65 TKL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 11 PD in 2017) at starting Cornerback opposite Rhodes. Sigh…. the rich get richer, ladies and gentlemen.
Back for the First Time
Lost in the frenzy surrounding the addition of the aforementioned Cousins, is the return of a player who was expected to be a rather large factor offensively a year ago, and his name is Dalvin Cook. Minnesota selected the young Tailback in the Second Round of the 2017 NFL Draft (41st Overall) to spearhead the running game in the wake of Adrian Peterson’s departure, and there were great expectations for Cook, who rewrote the Record Books at Florida State (which is quite a feat). Unmoved by the expectations and filling the sizeable shoes of a future Hall of Famer, the former Seminole played well at the beginning of the campaign, rushing for an average of 88.5 Yards per Game on 4.8 Yards per Carry, while showcasing his versatility reeling in Eleven Passes for Ninety Yards to boot. Unfortunately, after four solid outings he tore his ACL, effectively ending his rookie season shortly after it began. Granted, the Vikings ran the ball effectively without him on the field, with Latavius Murray (216 CAR, 842 YDS, 8 TD in 2017) providing a steady veteran option between the Tackles, while Jerrick McKinnon (150 CAR, 570 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) made more of an impact catching passes out of the Backfield, catching Fifty-One Balls for 412 Yards and Two Scores. However, neither Tailback really brought the explosiveness that Cook could have provided, with both players failing to average 4.0 Yards per Carry respectively. Heading into 2018, it appears that Zimmer and the Coaching Staff have taken the necessary precautions in bringing the Sophomore along slowly in his rehab, for he is expected to be ready for Week One’s meeting with the San Francisco 49ers, which is coincidentally McKinnon’s new home after Minnesota allowed him to leave in Free Agency, which is a good sign as to Cook’s current progress. Incoming Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo will be incorporating many aspects of the Eagles’ Offense, which should mean big things for this kid as Philadelphia utilized their Tailbacks in a variety of ways, particularly in the passing game.
2018 Outlook: 11-5 (Super Bowl)
Through much of the 2017 campaign, the Minnesota Vikings looked like the best team in the league, which is truly remarkable when you consider that they were doing so with a Backup Journeyman leading the way at Quarterback. However, with the league’s fiercest Defense smothering opponents on a weekly basis, and an excellent Coaching Staff that did a tremendous job of developing young players and getting the most out of the rest, the Vikings very nearly hosted Super Bowl LII, which would have been a first in the long storied history of the event. With the 2018 term on the horizon, it’s impossible not to view them as one of the few legitimate contenders to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, because for all intents and purposes they’re a much-improved team, at least on paper. The addition of Kirk Cousins is huge, and could have a seismic influence on the rest of the NFC, with the Quarterback’s acclimation into his new surroundings, system, and team serving as one of the biggest stories of this upcoming NFL Season. Nothing short of a Super Bowl will justify that contract, though it’s our feeling that he has all the tools (within him and around him) to take this loaded group to where they want to go. Granted, the schedule isn’t a cakewalk and the rest of the NFC North should be greatly improved, but there is no reason to believe that Minnesota shouldn’t be the NFC’s favorite to advance to Super Bowl LIII, which is an opinion that we’ll be sticking to. They may not win as many games this time around, but you can expect to see them in the Playoffs, and for our money hoisting the Lombardi for the first time in Franchise History.