By Jason Wisniewski
So why am I optimistic about the 2019 Vikings? I lay out their path to success and reasons for my optimism below.
Establish the run like it’s 2017
The Vikings running game dropped from a 10th overall ranking in 2017 to a 30th overall ranking in 2018. There were 2 major reasons for this. #1-The O-line was ineffective due to downgraded personnel. #2-The loss of their O-line coach right before the season. Let’s take a look at the difference in the O-line & coaching from 2017 to 2018:
The Vikings enjoyed relatively good health on their O-line for most of the regular season. It wasn’t until the 2nd to last game of the regular season that starting LG Nick Easton was lost for the rest of the season & playoffs. It was at this point that the Vikigns first moved Mike Remmers to Guard. Pat Elflein would also get injured in the NFC Championship game but for most of the regular season this unit was good enough to propel a 10th ranked running game and help the team reach the NFC Championship game. They also had Pat Shurmur as OC who believed in a balanced offense with plenty of rushing attempts and use of play action passing & screens to keep defenses honest and off balance. O-line coach Tony Sporano was on staff all season.
This lineup saw Pat Elflein coming off of 2 surgeries which greatly impacted his play in a negative way and also saw Riley Reiff dinged up for much of the year. The loss of Nick Easton to a season ending injury before the regular season started coupled with the retirement of Joe Berger set the Vikings O-line back several steps right out of the gate. The team did not address the interior of the O-line in Free Agency or the draft and was forced to start backup Tom Compton at LG and decided to move RT Mike Remmers to RG, a position he had never played before in college or the NFL. It was a total disaster. Throw in the fact Sporano passed away before the start of the season and new OC John DeFillipo’s pass first philosophy which involved very little balance and made the offense extremely predictable and you have all the makings of a 30th ranked running game. It’s no surprise that due to these circumstances the Vikings would finish 8-7-1 on the season.
What’s different in 2019?
The Vikings thankfully realized their mistake with hiring DeFillipo late in 2018 and replaced him with Kevin Stefanski as interim OC for the final 3 games of 2018 (the Vikings went 2-1 during that time). During the off season they removed the interim tag from Stefanski and hired him as the full time OC. They then went out and hired Super Bowl winning Coach Gary Kubiak to be the Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor which will make him the right hand man of both Zimmer and Stefanski and his offensive scheme will largely shape the 2019 Vikings scheme of which Stefanski will call plays with input from Kubiak. Longtime Kubiak assistant Rick Dennison was also brought in to coach the O-line as well as Brian Pariani with the TE’s & Klint Kubiak to coach the QBs. The Vikings players will get the benefit of a full off season program with their coaches this season and will also get the benefit of play design from one of the NFL’s top offensive minds with a long track record of Super Bowl & playoff success on offense in Kubiak & his assistants. Both Stefanski & Kubiak believe in a balanced offense that establishes the run first and then uses play action to attack defenses. This allows your team to become less predictable.
The Vikings also properly addressed their O-line personnel this off season. They brought in Free Agent Josh Kline to replace Remmers at Guard and also drafted Garrett Bradbury in the 1st rd of the draft to start at Center. This will move Pat Elflein to Guard where he played very well in college. Elflein is also a full season removed from his surgeries so he should be in much better physical condition this season which could help him get back to his 2017 form. Reiff is also healthy as well and after he overcame a foot injury last season he started to play more like the 2017 version which bodes well for his chances to perform well in 2019. Promising RT Brian O’Neill is entering his 2nd year and figures to take another step forward as well. The Vikings also drafted Dru Samia in Rd 4 to challenge for a Guard spot and provide depth as well as re-signing backup Center Brett Jones who filled in nicely for Elflein during the first couple of games last season when Elflein missed time early on. The Vikings also made it a point to acquire players that would fit their new zone running scheme under Kubiak. They also added another piece to the offense to help in the drafting of 3rd rd RB Alexander Mattison who should step in right away as the power back to form a nice 1-2 punch with speed back Dalvin Cook. Both RBs are 3 down players in that they can both catch the ball and pass protect so it will not be a tell when one of them is in the game which is a good thing.
2019 Vikings Projected O-line starters
That looks a lot better already. Reiff & Elflein are healthy now, you have a 1st rd pick at Center in Bradbury who was considered the top interior O-lineman in the draft class and he’s tailor made for the scheme you are going to run. You added a solid veteran in Kline and you have a promising RT coming off a solid rookie season going into year 2 a little bigger and stronger. And now you have a legit coaching staff working with them helping to set them up for success. You also added depth in the draft in Samia and brought back Jones & Hill as backups.
QB Kirk Cousins & 2 TE sets
Cousins wound up breaking the Vikings franchise record for completions in a season in 2018 and also became the first QB in NFL History to throw for 4,000+ yards, throw 30+ TDs, throw 10 or fewer INTs and complete 70+ percent of his passes in the same season. What makes it even more remarkable is that he did this behind a bottom 5 O-line accompanied by a 30th ranked running game. This season the Vikings will surround Cousins with the protection, weapons and coaching staff that will help him get the team back to the playoffs. The Vikings of 2017 were usually able to control the pace of games due to having a balanced offense and the 2019 Vikings offense figures to attempt to do that with the new coaches and new personnel that was brought in. Even though Cousins put up good numbers there were flaws to the Vikings passing game that were exposed about mid way through the season. The Vikings abandoned their running game and forced Cousins to throw more often than you’d like your QB to throw each game and then with teams knowing the Vikings would pass they began to double team BOTH Stefon Diggs & Adam Thielen and the Vikings did not have a consistent answer for 3rd and 4th receiving options. This season the Vikings will run more 2 TE sets that will feature new 2nd rd rookie TE Irv Smith JR who’s speed and athleticism make him a mismatch against LBers in the NFL as well as Kyle Rudolph who remains a solid red zone threat and short passing game threat. With the Vikings being able to create mismatches using 2 TE sets (run at a Nickel defense, throw against base personnel) it will create more favorable opportunities for Kirk Cousins in the passing game like he had in Washington with Vernon Davis & Jordan Reed as a TE duo. Throw in that this offense is one Cousins has previously run before with great success in Washington (Kubiak’s system is the same as what Kyle Shanahan ran in Washington with Cousins) and you have a recipe for a great year from Kirk Cousins in 2019.
The Defense is back
The Vikings are bringing back all but 1 starter form last season and they replaced that 1 starter with a 2017 starter they had lost in FA in 2018 in Shamar Stephen. Stephen is actually a better run defender than Sheldon Richardson and it’s part of the reason the Vikings ranked #1 vs the run in 2017 with Stephen starting vs a #15 overall rank vs the run with Richardson starting in 2018. Yes Richardson is a nice pass rusher but you can’t rush the passer as much when a team is shoving the ball down your throat using it’s running game. Zimmer wanted to get bigger in the trenches and they did so with this move. The Vikings also were able to keep LB Anthony Barr and DE Everson Griffen on board which will help with continuity on defense. Griffen will also be in better physical and mental health this season which bodes well for a bounce back season from him. The Vikings will also get promising young CB Mike Hughes back this season after Hughes suffered a torn ACL in week 6 of last season. Safety Anthony Harris took a major leap forward in his development last season and only figures to get even better in 2019. The same can be said for starting CB Trae Waynes who logged his best season as a pro in 2018 as well as Nickel/Dime CB Mackensie Alexander who filled in extremely well at Nickel when Hughes went down for the season. The Vikings also have added CB depth with Holton Hill who will come off the suspended list after week 4. All Pro CB Xavier Rhodes had a down year last season as he battled through injuries but figures to be healthy this season so he should be solid in 2019. Harrison Smith & Danielle Hunter remain at the top of their games at their respective positions and this is a unit that has consistently finished in the top 5-10 during Mike Zimmer’s tenure and that doesn’t figure to change this season. Add in that Zimmer has carved out a unique role for Jayron Kearse as a Big Nickel defender who has the versatility to play Safety, Nickel or LB and the Vikings may have a few fresh wrinkles Zimmer can employ defensively with guys like Kearse & Barr this season. It all adds up to a recipe for success for the Vikings defense.
New ST’s coordinator Marwan Maalouf is here but there is continuity with the Kickers as Bailey & Wile are still on board. Zimmer is rumored to be looking for a special kicking coach for Bailey to help him regain his consistency. There could be a change at Long Snapper if 7th rd rookie Austin Cutting can get a deferment from the Air Force to play football this season. He would likely replace Kevin McDermott if that comes to fruition. The Vikings will have a myriad of players fighting for return man spots at KR & PR. Ameer Abdullah handled Kick returns last season and figures to be in the mix again to do it this season. Other candidates at KR & PR include 7th rd rookies Dillon Mitchell & Bisi Johnson as well as veteran WRs Chad Beebe, Jeff Badet, Bradnon Zylstra, free Agent signing Jordan Taylor and a slew of UDFAs attending camp this off season. The Vikings will have some large shoes to fill with departed PR Marcus Sherels but they have the talent and a high enough number of candidates to where they should be able to get the job done.
The Vikings attacked the weaknesses of their team this off season. The O-line was addressed, they added another weapon in the passing game for Kirk Cousins and the coaching staff will have a more balanced offensive philosophy than in 2018. Defensively they got bigger upfront at 3 tech which will help them stop the run more effectively and they added some depth across the defense in the draft on Day 3. Special teams is an area to watch as it has the most question marks but the talent is there for that to be a solid unit as well. All in all I can see the Vikings winning 11 games in the regular season and winning the NFC North if they can stay relatively healthy.