Dalvin Cook and the Vikings hope an infusion of youth can keep in contention in the NFC
General manager Rick Spielman has called the widespread replenishing of this year's roster a natural "evolution" that shouldn't deter head coach Mike Zimmer from reaching the playoffs for the fourth time in seven years and the first time in back-to-back seasons. We'll see.
Eight contributors to last year's fifth-ranked scoring defense are gone, including the top three corners, half the starting line and the No. 3 end. Offensively, as many as nine starters from the eighth-ranked scoring offense could return. But both guard spots are wide open, while disgruntled — and productive — star receiver Stefon Diggs has been traded to Buffalo in a move quarterback Kirk Cousins called a "win-win." Spielman came out of the draft with 15 players, including two first-round picks that produced Diggs' immediate replacement, Justin Jefferson, and a desperately needed cornerback in Jeff Gladney.
"We're not going to cry because we don't have some of those veterans we had," Zimmer says. The Vikings have enough talent and youthful potential to make the playoffs. But there's no room for error considering the league-wide COVID-19 shutdown will have robbed most of the on-field training for key youngsters in this roster "evolution."
Last year's coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, is now the head coach in Cleveland. But the system returns intact and in sync with Zimmer's run-oriented team principles. Gary Kubiak, the Super Bowl-winning coach who mentored Stefanski in his old-school philosophies, moves into the play-calling chair after a year as a consultant. His longtime cohort, Rick Dennison, returns as line coach after getting last year's front to overachieve in Year One of the outside zone run game.
Dennison must identify two starting guards out of what Spielman says will be an "open competition" among unproven young players and disappointing left guard incumbent Pat Elflein. Second-round draft pick Ezra Cleveland is the left tackle of the future but might need more strength before unseating Riley Reiff, who regressed last year. Right tackle is manned by 2018 second-round pick Brian O'Neill, a rising star with impressive athleticism and a nasty side. Center Garrett Bradbury, last year's first-round pick, had a decent rookie season but needs to do a better job holding his ground in the passing game.
Running back Dalvin Cook is a superb dual threat when healthy. Unfortunately, he has missed 19 of 48 games as a pro. Ideally, Kubiak would like to build the offense on top of a foundation that features Cook in the outside zone run scheme and screen game. Cook's vision, quickness, speed and deceptive power make him tough to defend.
If Cook gets on track, Cousins becomes more effective with the kind of arm strength and deep-ball accuracy that make him so good in the play-action game. Where Cousins falls short as a franchise quarterback is his ability to make something out of nothing.
At receiver, the Vikings will miss Diggs' talent but not his attitude. Cousins says "it wasn't a mystery" that Diggs wanted to play elsewhere, adding, "I think it was smart of the Vikings to grant him that opportunity." With the first of four draft picks they received from Buffalo, the Vikings took Jefferson, a polished route runner who clocked a 4.43 at the combine and is coming off a 111-catch season for the undefeated national champs. He'll start immediately along with veteran Adam Thielen, who is trying to return to his 2018 form — 113 catches, 1,373 yards, nine touchdowns — after an injury-marred season. The Vikings also signed Tajae Sharpe, who had four nondescript years in Tennessee. Under Kubiak, the Vikings will run fewer three-receiver sets than most teams. He'll use more heavy sets with fullback C.J. Ham and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., who has breakout potential.
Getting rid of coordinator George Edwards after six years will have no impact on a defense that has always been Zimmer's to organize and call. Adam Zimmer, the coach's son and linebackers coach, will work with respected line coach Andre Patterson as co-coordinators. They'll work well together. One interesting twist this year is the hiring of Dom Capers as a consultant. The longtime 3-4 proponent is working with Zimmer, a career-long 4-3 guy, on ways to add some fresh wrinkles and hybrid game plans.
One player who might benefit most from Capers' impact is Anthony Barr, an outside linebacker with 3-4 size, skills and playmaking potential that has gone largely untapped during a steady but unspectacular career. Former Raven Michael Pierce, the team's prized free-agent acquisition who was expected to replace Linval Joseph at nose tackle, has opted out of playing this season due to respiratory concerns (he has asthma and falls into the high-risk category) during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. His absence will result in some shifting at both tackle spots.
Fortunately, Minnesota still has left end Danielle Hunter, a rising superstar with 54.5 sacks at 25, who is capable of dominating at an All-Pro level in any system. The Vikings decided earlier in the offseason to move on from right end Everson Griffen, a 10-year stalwart, and are thinking big after acquiring Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville two weeks prior to their opener. Unhappy with the Jaguars over a contract stalemate, Ngakoue was set to make $17.8 million under the franchise tender but agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal in order to facilitate the trade with Minnesota, who didn't have a lot of cap space to fit him in. The Vikings sent a second-round pick next year and a conditional fifth-rounder in 2021 that could go to as high as a third-round pick to Jacksonville, so the pressure is on Ngakoue to produce. Behind the starters is Ifeadi Odenigbo's, whose rags-to-riches story has seen him cut three times by three teams, including the Vikings, before returning to Minnesota and notching seven sacks last year. Another option is D.J. Wonnum, a rookie fourth-rounder.
Eric Kendricks was the best middle linebacker in football last year. He'll get only better because his legs are still young enough at 28 to take him where his vision, instincts and film study have already told him to go.
Mike Hughes, the 2018 first-round draft pick, will be the top corner after the losses of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Hughes is up to the task when healthy, but he's often injured. First-round draft pick Jeff Gladney should work his way into the No. 2 corner position. He has the press-coverage physicality and toughness Zimmer desires. Holton Hill, a big corner whose character issues cost the team two four-game suspensions last year, has the skills to be one of the top three corners. But look out for rookie Cameron Dantzler, who stands 6'2" with long arms and sound tackling skills.
Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are two of the league's best safeties. Smith is Zimmer's favorite game-planning tool, while Harris' instincts and ball skills led him to a league-high six interceptions last year. The depth behind them coming out of the draft consisted of rookies Josh Metellus, a sixth-rounder from Michigan, and Brian Cole II, a seventh-rounder from Mississippi State. Cornerback Harrison Hand, a fifth-rounder from Temple, also has the versatility to play safety.
A year after their kicker, holder/punter and snapper positions were in question, all is well with kicker Dan Bailey, holder/punter Britton Colquitt and long snapper Austin Cutting. Working together last year, that unit made 27-of-29 field-goal attempts. Colquitt brought much-needed experience and a sense of calm to the operation. The coverage units are led by linebacker Eric Wilson and cornerback Kris Boyd. Keep an eye on rookie fifth-round draft pick K.J. Osborn. He was drafted as a returner. Incumbent kick returner Ameer Abdullah is average, while punt returner is vacant.
The Vikings took a step backward in terms of experienced talent but have enough grizzled firepower and quality youth to earn a wild-card berth and push the Packers in the NFC North. The offensive line is lacking overall and needs to keep improving after overachieving in its first year under Dennison. The season hinges on that because Cousins isn't good enough to offset poor line play. Defensively, there's enough talent left over from the offseason exodus, especially following the Ngakoue acquisition, but the unit's success hinges on Spielman nailing the draft and Zimmer getting his youngsters up to speed quickly.