Our voyage through the NFC North comes to a close as our 2019 NFL Preview brings us to Minnesota, where the Vikings attempt to reroute themselves after last year’s campaign ended well short of lofty expectations. After reaching the 2017 NFC Championship Game, Minnesota felt that they were simply one piece away from getting to their first Super Bowl since 1976, taking a major gamble at Quarterback, signing Kirk Cousins in Free Agency. While the Pro-Bowler certainly performed well, the Vikings effectively took a step back, as Mike Zimmer & Co. appeared to have altered their own DNA in order to acclimate Cousins, which had an adverse effect on the Offense as a whole. Now, after making some subtle changes to the Coaching Staff and scheme, will the Vikings return to contender status? Has Cousins in fact changed their identity for the worse? Will the Defense continue to rank among the league’s elite? Let’s take a look and find out…
Subtraction by Addition?
After coming so close to reaching their first Super Bowl since the mid-70’s, the Vikings ultimately came to the conclusion that in order to bridge the proverbial gap they would need an upgrade over their incumbent Quarterback, Case Keenum, who for all intents and purposes enjoyed a career campaign in his first season with Minnesota. However, the journeyman was initially brought in to be a Backup, and only emerged as the Starter after both of his predecessors, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford suffered season-ending injuries. Despite the success, the club ultimately allowed him to depart in Free Agency, largely due to the fact that Cousins (70.1%, 4,298 YDS, 6.25 NY/A, 30 TD, 10 INT, 60.6 QBR) became available, after his former employers, the Washington Redskins, played some serious hardball in contract negotiations. General Manager, Rick Spielman, was all too eager to pounce on what was clearly an upgrade at the position, inking the 30-Year Old to an unprecedented three-year pact worth $84 Million, with that figure being fully guaranteed, which was a first for the NFL. By all means, the veteran performed well, posting career-highs in both Completion Percentage (70.1%) and Touchdowns (30), but the bottom line is that the team he inherited went 13-3 before his arrival, and with him spearheading the attack managed an underwhelming 8-7-1 record, missing the Playoffs altogether. Granted, the Offense was unbalanced and totally one-dimensional, while the Offensive Line regressed at an alarming rate. Fair or not, Quarterbacks are ultimately judged by their success in the Win/Loss column, and at that moment this guy had failed to do what a contemporary who is generally viewed as his lesser managed to do with practically the same supporting cast. At some point, Cousins is going to have start winning more games, for in his seven seasons in the league he has mustered a mediocre 34-37-2 record (.466) as a Starting Quarterback, with just one postseason appearance to his credit. Indeed, the only thing that will likely validate the franchise’s gamble on him will be leading Minnesota to a Super Bowl, either in 2019 or 2020, otherwise, he could very well find himself playing somewhere else in the future…
Rerouting the Ship
While the aforementioned Cousins has received plenty of the blame for the Vikings’ failure to reach expectations, perhaps more of it should be laid at the collective feet of the Coaching Staff, for Mike Zimmer and his lieutenants did a rather poor job of assimilating their new Quarterback into the system. Essentially, they tinkered far too much with their own identity, making wholesale changes to the Offense for the perceived benefit of their Signal-Caller. Surprisingly, their efforts were met with adverse effects. Balance was such a key to their success in 2017, behind a rebuilt Offensive Line paving the way for the league’s Seventh-Ranked Rushing Attack (122.3 Y/G), leading to a unit as a whole that ranked Tenth in Points (23.9 P/G) and Eleventh in Total Yards (367.9 Y/G). Fast-forward a year and you’ll find an unrecognizable group that finished Thirtieth in Rushing (93.3 Y/G), including Twenty-Seventh in Rushing Attempts (22.3 A/G), a year after ranking Second Overall in that particular category. Offensive Coordinator, John DeFilippo, who was in his first season with the club, didn’t last very long, eventually drawing Zimmer’s ire before being relieved of his duties later in the schedule. He was replaced by longtime Vikings’ Assistant, Kevin Stefanski, who immediately installed a much more ground-oriented gameplan, with Minnesota averaging a much-improved 127.7 Rushing Yards over the final three games. While it was too late to save their season, it did however prove to be enough for Stefanski to keep his job, which should parlay into a more balanced incarnation of the attack. Either way, it will be on the 37-Year Old to reintegrate his Quarterback behind an Offensive Line that should benefit greatly from an influx of youth, particularly Rookie Center/Guard Garrett Bradbury (No. 18 Overall), coupled with the healthy returns of fellow Linemen Pat Elflein and Riley Reiff. After all, Cousins was sacked forty times in 2018, translating to 6.25 Net Yards per Attempt, his lowest figure since 2013 when he was a Backup in Washington. Bigger things will also be expected from Third-Year Tailback, Dalvin Cook (133 CAR, 615 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 2 TD), who has battled injuries throughout his brief career, missing most of his rookie campaign with a torn ACL and five more outings the following season with various maladies. Versatility is this guy’s calling card, for in eleven games he totaled 173 Touches for 920 Yards and Four Touchdowns, leading us to believe that if he can stay on the field, then he’ll play an even greater role in the Offense.
Maintaining an Identity
While an identity crisis on Offense ultimately sunk their season, make no mistake that the Vikings’ greater identity as a team is that of their Defense, which will likely continue to be the case as long as Zimmer remains in charge. Let us not forget that this is the same guy that coached a Playoff Game in freezing temperatures with basically one eye following surgery. The longtime Defensive Mastermind has built one of the league’s finest units, ranking in the Top-10 in Points Allowed every season since 2015, while finishing in the Top-4 in Total Defense in each of the last three seasons. Littered with Pro-Bowl talent consisting of players either in their prime or entering it, Minnesota remains a problem for just about every opponent on this side of the football; in 2018 they allowed 21.3 Points (9th Overall) on 309.7 Total Yards (4th Overall), including 196.3 Yards versus the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (4th Overall), and another 113.4 Yards against the Run (15th Overall) on 4.1 Yards per Carry (8th Overall). Furthermore, they were the stingiest group to convert against on Third Down (30.5%), while permitting a Touchdown on just 44.9% of their opponents’ opportunities in the Red Zone (3rd Overall). They also ranked Third Overall in Sacks (50), and that came with Everson Griffen (33 TKL, 5 TFL 13 QBH, 5.5 SK, 1 PD), who had previously accumulated 43.5 Sacks from 2014 to 2017, missing five games due to a lingering personal issue. In his place, Danielle Hunter (72 TKL, 21 TFL, 19 QBH, 14.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD, 2 PD) emerged as a menace, meaning that this unit should only be more fearsome now that they’re at full strength entering 2019. Minnesota also resigned veteran Linebacker, Anthony Barr (55 TKL, 8 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD), who at one point look destined to leave via Free Agency, but eventually decided to stay with the only franchise that he’s ever played for courtesy of a five-year, $67.5 Million Contract with $33 Million in total guarantees, assuring that a certain level of consistency will remain amongst a group consisting of the likes of fellow Linebacker Eric Kendricks (108 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 7 PD), along with Defensive Backs Harrison Smith (84 TKL, 9 TFL, 5 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 INT, 6 PD) and Xavier Rhodes (47 TKL, 1 INT, 7 PD), all of whom have been selected to a Pro-Bowl or All-NFL team in the past.
2019 Forecast: 9-7
After advancing all the way to the NFC Championship Game two years ago, the Minnesota Vikings were nothing short of a disappointment in 2018. Yes, their expectations were through the proverbial roof, but that’s what happens when you take a team absolutely loaded with talent and give them a bonafide upgrade at Quarterback, which by all means is exactly what the addition of Kirk Cousins represented. However, Mike Zimmer’s Staff tinkered with the scheme so much in an attempt to integrate their newest toy that they effectively lost their identity on Offense in the process, and by the time Zimmer finally made changes to correct their issues, it was far too late. So with additions along the Offensive Line hopefully strengthening them in the trenches, the Vikings had better hope that new Offensive Coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, can bring back the balance on that side of the football that made them so effective in 2017 when a journeyman named Case Keenum nearly piloted them to a Super Bowl. A return to balance will only help Cousins, who took far too many hits in his first season with the team, while affording the Defense some time to rest every now and then. Speaking of that Defense, if they remain healthy then there is no reason that they can’t return to the summit of the NFL. And if that happens, then the Vikings will very much be in the hunt to not only win the NFC North, but contend for a Super Bowl once again.