Upon first glance, it appeared as though the Minnesota Vikings took a half-hearted approach to their offseason. Moving on from aging, expensive veterans on defense signalled rebuild, especially since the team also traded star receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills.
Many of the other moves, though, suggested that Minnesota was gearing up to give 2020 a legit shot. Kirk Cousins was extended, Anthony Harris was signed to the franchise tag, and Dalvin Cook received a hefty contract extension.
Many fans (and writers) were left wondering whether Minnesota had a strong vision/plan. Which one is it? Are they rebuilding or are they giving this a shot? The answer is both. Minnesota’s plan was to both rebuild and compete. If things had gone a little differently, it might have even worked.
Two Strong Phases and One Transitional Phase
Minnesota’s plan was to be dominant on offense. We know this because that’s where they spent their money and that’s where their established veterans are. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, and Riley Reiff are all highly-paid players. Moreover, several of their recent high draft picks — Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., and Ezra Cleveland — were all significant factors on offense. This talent, for the most part, stepped up.
At the end of the season, Mike Zimmer praised his offense. “I do believe,” Zimmer explained, “offensively, we’ve gotten to the point where we have a chance to be a really, really good football team.” He went on to explain: “for the first time in my seven years I thought we had a very, very explosive offense.” The offense was good with Pat Shurmur and Kevin Stefanski, but Zimmer obviously feels like the Kubiak/Cousins/Cook love triangle was a good one.
Overall, Kirk Cousins had a strong season. He took several positive steps forward, most notably in regard to his pocket presence. The result has been an increased ability to keep his eyes downfield. At times, Cousins forced things, making his offensive line look worse because of his indecisiveness. Nevertheless, fans should feel encouraged about Cousins’ progress.
Justin Jefferson burst onto the scene as a top-tier NFL receiver, Adam Thielen – though underused – continued his excellent play, and Dalvin Cook looked like a legitimate MVP candidate for a long stretch of the season. The Vikings felt that a step forward from Cousins alongside the elite trio of skill players would result in a deadly offense. Some notable exceptions aside (I’m looking at you, Atlanta game), the offense fulfilled their end of the bargain.
The Special Teams
The special teams, similarly, received ample financial attention. They also had the benefit of established veteran players – Dan Bailey and Britton Colquitt – at important positions. Partnered with relatively aggressive draft investments, like picking a punt returner in the fifth round, and the special teams was supposed to be among the NFL’s best. Unlike the offense, the special teams did not live up to expectations.
Recently, Zimmer very bluntly informed the media that he’s looking for a new special teams coordinator: “Yeah, Marwan’s contract ran out and so I told him I was not going to renew it.” The Minnesota Vikings thus head into their offseason needing a special teams coordinator who can get the most of this group.
In fairness, the special teams did navigate a lot. All the injuries meant that players who are usually special teams stalwarts were instead being borrowed to play defense, as Zimmer explained: “A lot of the guys that should have been playing on special teams were playing on defense, but we are going to shore up that area. That will be a major emphasis as well.”
Excuses can only go so far; special teams was atrocious. The kicking was inconsistent, the coverage was lacking, and the returns were non-existent. The special teams thus put Minnesota in a tough field position on a consistent basis. That wasn’t the plan. Zimmer and Rick Spielman expected this unit to be among the league’s best, a phase that would make life easier for both the offense and the defense.
It’s pretty safe to say that if the special teams went from horrible to even above average, Minnesota would be in the playoffs. The Bears got in at 8-8. The Vikings finished at 7-9. One more game and we are in a playoff position. It’s hard not to think that the special teams pretty easily accounted for at least a game or two being lost.
The plan was for the defense to struggle early, but Zimmer was confident that the combination of elite talent and youth would result in an above-average group. For the most part, this plan flopped. Zimmer admitted that he miscalculated: “I probably miscalculated some things going into the season when we lost all the guys that we lost the year before, the two corners, the nickel back, the backup safety, the backup defensive end, starting defensive end, the starting nose tackle.”
One thing that can’t be held against him, though, are all the injuries on defense. Indeed, Zimmer’s goal was to marry elite talent and young talent; unfortunately, the young talent was left standing at the altar. Most of the elite talent was lost due to injury. As Zimmer noted, the Vikings “had 130 missed games to defensive players that were on IR this year.” For context, the offense only had eight. Fans should also remember that this is only the IR games. Players who were out for a week or two, and thus not placed on injured reserve, don’t count toward this number.
So the plan was for Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce to be dominant. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks would be great. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill were supposed to take a big step forward in their third year. None of this worked out, and none of it is really anyone’s fault. The defense simply couldn’t improve as the season went on. Instead, they got more and more hurt. The result was increasingly awful play.
The Vikings got what they planned for on offense. They didn’t with their special teams and defense. It was too much to overcome. Where do they go from here? Well, it can be hard to predict, but the safe money rests in Zimmer trying to return to his initial plan and give it another shot.
Mike Zimmer’s Stubbornness
If the Minnesota Vikings actually turn this thing around and win it all, it will primarily be because of Mike Zimmer’s stubbornness. If the Minnesota Vikings continue their downward trend and fully succumb to a rebuild, it will be because of Mike Zimmer’s stubbornness. Quite often, someone’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.
Zimmer has succeeded because of a stubborn determination. He isn’t bothered by NFL trends, instead opting to continue with his defensive-first, old-school approach. In 2017, Zimmer nearly leveraged this approach into a Super Bowl appearance. There are also downsides to such stubbornness. The defense, as we’ve already discussed, took a big step back this year. Zimmer’s effort to rebuild the defense on the fly simply didn’t work. One also wonders how much the head coach contributes to the issues with the special teams, especially with the kickers.
The 2021 season is going to be a critical year for the Vikings. Anything less than a playoff berth, and then some success in the playoffs is a massive disappointment. We can feel reasonably certain that Zimmer is going to pursue a similar strategy heading into 2021. A dominant offense, dangerous special teams, and a defense that is buoyed by the elite/young talent. Will it work?
Will the Vikings Succeed in 2021?
I’ve been mostly hopeful about Minnesota’s chances in 2021. The salary cap situation is far from crippling, and the roster is blessed with a lot of young talent.
Consider, for instance, the young corners. Cameron Dantzler may end up being the best pick in the entire draft. It’s hard to find a shutdown corner at any point, let alone the third round. Dantzler isn’t there yet, but he has a ton of potential. His ceiling is very, very high.
As Will Ragatz recently noted, “From Week 11 to 15, Dantzler had a PFF grade above 90, trailing only Xavien Howard among all NFL corners. Over that span, he allowed 12 catches on 26 targets, intercepted two passes, and forced and recovered a fumble. Dantzler’s passer rating when targeted over those five weeks was 28.2.”
Gladney didn’t play as well overall, but he still had a nice rookie season. In a recent conversation with Paul Allen, Zimmer was complimentary of his first-round corner. Zimmer noted that Gladney was essentially tasked with learning two positions: outside and slot corner. No rookie corner, Zimmer noted, has done that for the Vikings over these past several years.
Indeed, Zimmer is largely positive about his young corners heading into next season: “I don’t think, they would be as far along next year as if they didn’t play all of the plays that they did this past season, so I think it’ll be really good for them in the long run.” Their continued growth is a massive part of Minnesota’s future success. The same can be said for D.J. Wonnum, who has the ideal build for an NFL defensive end. Assuming these young players can continue their growth, Minnesota’s defense should take a sizable step forward next year.
After their 0-3 start, we wrote that Minnesota was “far too talented to finish last, but it’s entirely plausible that they’ll end up in the bottom ten teams.” We were off by a little, but not by much. They ended up finishing with the draft’s 14th pick. Minnesota will have an opportunity to get a really good player here. It’s hard to overstate how important it is for the Vikings to hit on this pick. Getting a day-1 contributor will be a massive part of their success next season.
Every indication is that Minnesota’s Leadership Trinity is going to have the chance to get this thing going in the right direction. They’ll need to be smart with how they handle their roster cuts and then free agency. If they are, then this is a team who will have a chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
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