While the Minnesota Vikings have posted four consecutive winning seasons under head coach Mike Zimmer, they missed out on last year's postseason despite a second-place finish (8-7-1) in the rugged NFC North. Losing four of their final seven games proved to be very costly. But there were some positives to take from the 2018 campaign.
Minnesota posted a winning record against NFC opponents (6-5-1), averaged 23 points per game, and had a winning record at both home (5-3) and against their divisional rivals (3-2-1). Here are five reasons to expect the Vikings to improve in 2019.
1. Kirk Cousins is back under center
Cousins was impressive during the first year of his fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. He trailed only Drew Brees in completion percentage in (70.1), was 10th in passing yards (4,298), ninth in touchdown passes (30), and threw a total of 10 interceptions. The Vikings' front office used this past offseason to bolster the weakest spot on the offensive side of the ball, which should only work in Cousins' favor. If he can stay healthy and be just as effective again, Minnesota's offense will be hard to stop in 2019.
2. New blood on the offensive line
As good as Cousins was for the Vikings last year, he also took 40 sacks, placing him in the top 10 in the NFL in that category. Nearly half of those (16) came in the final seven weeks, a 3-4 stretch that ended Minnesota's playoff chances. As a result, general manager Rick Spielman made the offensive line was one of his top priorities this offseason.
In the draft, the Vikings selected three offensive linemen, a trio headlined by first-round pick (No. 18 overall), NC State center Garrett Bradbury. The first center drafted in the first round in team history, Bradbury played 900 snaps last season for the Wolfpack and didn't surrender a single sack.
Besides Bradbury, Minnesota used a third-round pick on Oklahoma guard Dru Samia and took tackle Oli Udoh from FCS member Elon in the sixth round. Samia was a crucial part of a Sooners offensive line that paved the way for the past two Heisman Trophy winners — quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. Udoh may be more of a project considering the level of competition he faced in college, but he has appealing size (6-5, 323) and the Vikings obviously like his potential.
Besides the rookies, Minnesota also added to its depth up front in free agency, signing a pair of guards in former Tennessee Titan Josh Kline (started 46 games in three seasons there) and Dakota Dozier, who was a member of the Jets the past five seasons.
If all of the new pieces can gel with holdovers Brian O'Neill, Riley Reiff, and Pat Elflein, then this offense can be even more effective and dangerous.
3. Depth at running back
When Adrian Peterson departed Minneapolis after the 2016 season, the Vikings selected former Florida State back Dalvin Cook in the first round of the 2017 draft to fill the void. Cook's rookie campaign ended after just four games due to a knee injury. And last season Cook only posted 615 rushing yards with two touchdowns in 11 games during another injury-hampered campaign. Latavius Murray was serviceable (578 yards, 6 TDs) as a complement and fill-in for Cook, but he left via free agency and is now in New Orleans.
To fill Murray's spot, Minnesota drafted Boise State running back Alexander Mattison in the third round. Mattison was highly productive (2,829 rushing yards, 33 touchdowns) in his three seasons with the Broncos and could carve out a significant role in this offense in fairly short order. Other running backs on the roster at the start of training camp include Ameer Abdullah, Mike Boone and De'Angelo Henderson.
The Vikings remain high on Cook, who will get another opportunity to show he can be a feature back in the NFL but are hoping the backfield isn't just a one-man show, especially if Cook struggles to stay healthy yet again. A strong running game will not only take pressure off of Cousins, but also add another element to this offense.
4. A two-headed monster at tight end
First, the Vikings made sure to re-sign Kyle Rudolph (3,787 receiving yards, 41 TDs) to the tune of four years for $36 million. From there the team decided to complement Rudolph by drafting former Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the second round (50th overall). Smith was quite productive in his two seasons with the Crimson Tide. He caught 58 passes for 838 yards (14.4 ypr) and 10 touchdowns. He also won a national championship (2017) and two SEC titles (2016, '18). Now just imagine the problems that these two can give opposing defenses when they're on the field at the same time.
5. A solid mixture of both youth and experience on defense
Arguably the biggest reason why Minnesota has been in contention these last few years has been its defense. And this year the Vikings will have another strong unit that is hungry and ready to take the NFC North by storm. Minnesota will once again lean heavily on their veterans such as defensive ends Everson Griffen (66.5 career sacks) and Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks last year), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (12 sacks since 2014), linebackers Anthony Barr (338 career tackles) and Eric Kendricks (100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons), along with defensive backs Harrison Smith (18 total pass deflections in the last two seasons) and Xavier Rhodes (10 career INTs, 67 career pass deflections).
Complementing these guys could be the likes of cornerback Mike Hughes, the team's first-round draft pick last season whose rookie campaign was cut short after just six games by a torn ACL, and this year's draft class — linebacker Cameron Smith, defensive tackle Armon Watts, safety Marcus Epps, and cornerback Kris Boyd. The Vikings also signed defensive tackle Shamar Stephen in free agency after losing Sheldon Richardson the same way (he's now in Cleveland). It'll be fun to watch Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards put all of these pieces together this year.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.