Our 2022 NFL Preview heads north to Minneapolis, where the Vikings usher in a new regime spearheaded by a new brain trust. After missing the postseason for the third time in four years, Minnesota parted ways with the tandem of longtime Head Coach and General Manager, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, with Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah replacing them in those respective roles. And thus, the mandate from the duo has been continuity for an offense that is loaded with talent, while continuing the renovation of a once-fearsome defense. What does their first year together have in store for this new chapter of Viking football, you ask? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Changing of the Guard
After coming up short of expectations and missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, the Wilf Brothers decided to hit the proverbial reset button in Minneapolis, relieving the aforementioned Zimmer and Spielman of their duties. Since the former was hired back in 2014, the Vikings amassed a solid 72-56-1 record (.558), including three postseason appearances and an NFC North title in 2017, culminating in a trip to the NFC Championship Game. However, since acquiring (veteran Quarterback) Kirk Cousins (more on him shortly) in free agency that following Spring, the franchise has largely meandered their way to a 33-31-1 ledger (.507). Simply put, signing Cousins and handing him the first fully guaranteed contract of its kind in NFL history was intended to ELEVATE the northmen into legitimate Super Bowl contender status, not on the fringes of the playoffs. While there were signs of Zimmer’s message becoming stale, this is likely where Spielman ultimately earned his fate, though it was no less a surprise when it was announced. A member of the Vikings’ front office since 2006, Spielman is one of the most respected personnel men in the NFL, which made it all the more imperative that the Wilfs found the right man to replace him. And thus, they landed on Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, a Princeton graduate with a background in Wallstreet. Granted, he also enjoyed a number of years with the 49ers before becoming Vice President of Football Operations with the Browns, which led to his hiring of Kevin O’Connell (pictured) as Head Coach. Though the two spent one year together in San Francisco, O’Connell is the latest member of the Sean McVay Coaching Tree tabbed to lead a franchise, serving as Offensive Coordinator for the (reigning Super Bowl Champion) Rams since 2020. However, arguably the biggest reason that he was hired was his history with Cousins, whom he served as position coach in the nation’s capital back in 2017. With that said, it’s no surprise that in an unprecedented offseason full of Quarterback movement that Minnesota opted to keep Cousins in house by signing him to a one-year, $35 million contract extension, securing his services through 2023, at the least. In fact, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have made very few changes to the roster overall, with designs on the 37-year-old and his coaching staff being able to maximize the talent at their disposal, which is rather considerable on one side of the football…
Tick, Tick, Boom
Since Cousins arrived four years ago, there was a prevailing theory that the veteran Quarterback’s preferences and the aforementioned Zimmer’s ideology were opposed to each other. Indeed, the numbers support that theory; Minnesota ranked nineteenth, eighth, eleventh, and fourteenth in scoring, along with twentieth, sixteenth, fourth, and twelfth in total offense in their time together despite having Pro-Bowlers at various skill positions. However, it’s not like Cousins has underperformed either, completing 68.3% of his attempts for an average of 4,096.8 yards per season on a healthy 6.84 net yards per attempt, with 124 touchdowns in comparison to just thirty-six interceptions in playing all but two games for the Vikings since 2018. Lining up behind him is (three-time Pro-Bowl Tailback) Dalvin Cook, who when healthy is one of the best in the business, rushing for no fewer than 1,100 yards in any of the last three seasons. Furthermore, the Receiving Corps is among the league’s finest, with (Pro-Bowlers) Adam Theilen and Justin Jefferson (pictured) making for a prolific combination. The former may have seen his receptions and yardage dip over the last three years, but his chemistry with his Quarterback remains intact with twenty-four touchdowns since 2020. As for the latter, Jefferson has quickly established himself as a playmaker, reeling in 196 catches for 3,016 yards and seventeen touchdowns since he was drafted twenty-second overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Depth isn’t an issue either, with (Backup Tailback) Alexander Mattison providing a solid compliment to Cook, while the return of (Tight End) Irv Smith after missing all of last season with a torn meniscus, should be a boon to Cousins, who has targeted that position the fourth-most of any passer in the NFL since he became a starter back in 2015. So, with all this firepower on hand, how is that they were largely league average over the past two years, you ask? Consistency in maintaining possession was a real problem in 2021, as Minnesota ranked just twenty-sixth on third down (36.4%), with the persistent fumbling issues of Cousins coming back to haunt them; including the playoffs, the 33-year-old has fumbled EIGHTY-TWO times in his career (129 games), thirty-two of which were lost. Though his protection improved last season (28 sacks in comparison to 39 in 2020), the Offensive Line enters the Fall as a concern, particularly along the interior where (Center) Garrett Bradbury’s job is precarious to say the least. A former first-round pick in 2019, he started every game of his first two seasons as a pro but struggled mightily last year ranking next-to-last in pass-block win rate (90.9%) among qualified Centers, prompting Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell to pass on picking up his fifth-year option.
Now, if you’re REALLY looking for a reason as to why the Vikings regressed over the past four years, it’s not the offense you should be pointing the finger at, but rather the defense, which absolutely peaked during their run to the NFC Championship Game in 2017. Since ranking first in the league in both points allowed and total defense, Zimmer’s troops gradually declined in finishing ninth, fifth, twenty-ninth, and twenty-fourth in points conceded, along with fourth, fourteenth, twenty-seventh, and thirtieth in total yards relinquished over that span. Age had caught up to many members of the defense, while injuries struck in other areas, leaving Zimmer and Spielman to undergo a rebuild on that side of the football that they were never destined to complete. However, it doesn’t appear that there needs to be wholesale changes made in this department, for after all, this is a unit that amassed fifty-one sacks (2nd Overall) and ensnared sixteen interceptions (10th Overall) in 2021. (Defensive End) D.J. Wonnum really flashed as a sophomore with a team-high eight sacks, while another year removed from a herniated disc in his neck should see (former Pro-Bowler) Danielle Hunter return to form, with the arrival of (former Packer) Za’Darius Smith likely to ensure that the pass-rush won’t suffer. The Secondary though, is another story. This group was a point of emphasis for the previous regime, and it continued to be for Awoso-Mensah and O’Connell, who spent their first two picks in the 2022 NFL Draft on (Defensive Backs) Lewis Cine (pictured) and Andrew Booth Jr. The former was a thumper for (National Champion) Georgia and has shown an aptitude in diagnosing plays that has earned him rave reviews from the coaching staff during camp. As for the latter, Booth fell to the second round due to injuries, but his speed and playmaking should be a welcome complement opposite (aging veteran) Patrick Peterson. If these debutants can hit the ground running, then there is a great chance that the defense, now helmed by the venerable Ed Donatell, should be in for a real rebound year.
Projected Finish: 9-8
Though it was indeed surprising to see both Zimmer and Spielman get the axe, it was probably time for a changing of the guard in Minneapolis and given how the offseason has played out thus far, there is a good chance that it leads to positive results. O’Connell’s pedigree and history with Cousins should inspire an already loaded offense to become more consistent, while the infusion of youth in the Secondary could lift a defense that flatlined back to respectability. If those things happen, then the Vikings should challenge for the NFC North, though it remains to be seen just how potent they’ll be in the playoffs.