Anything short of their first Super Bowl since Jan. 9, 1977, will be a big disappointment for the Vikings. The team that went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game with journeyman backup Case Keenum playing all but six quarters returns with $84 million man Kirk Cousins at quarterback, a healthy Dalvin Cook at running back and a top-ranked defense that has added a motivated Sheldon Richardson on a one-year contract at tackle.
That being said, don’t assume anything. Not with an NFC that will be even harder to win with Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz returning from injuries, the South looking so strong and the Rams having stockpiled so much new talent.
Cousins and the Vikings’ defense both have something to prove. Cousins has a sub-.500 career record and hasn’t won a playoff game. And coach Mike Zimmer’s vaunted defense gave up 62 points in its last six quarters.
A conference finalist loses three quarterbacks with a combined 146 starts and the league’s hottest offensive coordinator, and yet it has a good chance of being even better than the unit that finished 10th in scoring and 11th in yards under Pat Shurmur a year ago. Cousins is a better, more accurate quarterback with a stronger arm than Keenum. His backup, Trevor Siemian, acquired in a trade with Denver, has 24 career starts, a cap-friendly $1.9 million salary and more trustworthy knees than Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, the other two quarterbacks to leave the Vikings via free agency.
Cousins is coming off three consecutive seasons with at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. The Vikings have had only three players post such a season in their 57-year existence: Daunte Culpepper (2004) and Hall of Famers Warren Moon (1995) and Brett Favre (2009). But, then again, Cousins’ detractors also have a point. The former Redskin has a career record of 26-30-1 record, including 0-1 as a starter in the playoffs.
John DeFilippo replaces Shurmur after two years grooming Wentz and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles as Philadelphia’s QBs coach. DeFilippo won’t make wholesale changes to an offense that struck a nice balance. But he’ll add some of the Eagles’ run-pass option looks that frustrated Zimmer’s defense so thoroughly in the 38-7 NFC title game loss. He’ll also cater the offense to Cousins’ strengths and unleash more deep balls.
The running back position will be better, even with Jerick McKinnon’s third-down skills now in San Francisco. Cook, a second-round pick last year, was even better than expected before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in Week 4. He was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and excelling in the team’s much-improved screen game before the injury. He’ll be at full strength by the start of camp. So will Latavius Murray, the big back who started slow last year because of offseason ankle surgery.
There is no prototypical No. 1 receiver, but the Vikings aren’t complaining with second-team All-Pro Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combining for 155 catches, 2,125 yards and 12 TDs a year ago. Kendall Wright, who never lived up to being a first-round pick of the Titans in 2012, replaced Jarius Wright as the No. 3 receiver, while Laquon Treadwell, a disappointment as the Vikings’ 2016 first-round pick, looks too slow to jumpstart his career. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is a classic mismatch for defenses. He also returns to full strength after surgery to repair the ankle that slowed him late last season.
Up front, the line was most responsible for last year’s turnaround. Left tackle Riley Reiff, the prized free-agent signing, solidified the weakest position on the team, while center Pat Elflein stepped right into the starting lineup and excelled as a third-round draft pick. The only guy up front who didn’t miss a game because of injury was right guard Joe Berger, who retired. General Manager Rick Spielman bucked the experts by drafting a cornerback in the first round rather than addressing the need at right guard. Free-agent acquisitions Tom Compton and Josh Andrews will compete there. Mike Remmers could join the competition but probably will be needed at right tackle. Rookie Brian O’Neill, a second-round tackle from Pittsburgh, probably needs a year to develop.
The Vikings led the league in fewest points (15.8) and yards (275.9) allowed before their playoff meltdown. Last year’s defense had only three missed starts because of injuries. If the defense stays healthy again, the Vikings will again challenge for top honors. The only starter lost from last year was three-technique tackle Tom Johnson, and Richardson, 27, has a much higher ceiling than Johnson. While interior depth is a concern up front, the Vikings have four elite starters. Everson Griffen, a second-team All-Pro, is a play-making pass rusher who also gives full effort against the run. Nose tackle Linval Joseph is a massive wall of strength with quick feet. And end Danielle Hunter is a 23-year-old physical freak with 25.5 career sacks already. Brian Robison, a 35-year-old backup and situational inside rusher, will have his roster spot challenged by fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes, a college end who will get work at the three-technique but also has the tools to play outside.
Zimmer’s vaunted Double-A Gap looks are made more effective and unpredictable because of 26-year-old three-down backers Eric Kendricks in the middle and Anthony Barr on the strong side. Kendricks is trying to become the first Viking to lead the team in tackles in his first four seasons since Rip Hawkins (1961-64). He’s a quick, instinctive tackling machine. Barr is a physical marvel and has few weaknesses when motivated.
The secondary has two first-team All-Pro picks in free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. It also has four first-round picks at corner. Spielman couldn’t resist taking UCF’s Mike Hughes 30th overall. Then, he re-signed Terence Newman, who will turn 40 before the season. Smith’s versatility, instincts and ability to disguise looks make him Zimmer’s favored weapon on third-and-long. Rhodes has not only the long body and speed but also the swagger of having proven himself as an elite shutdown corner. The other corner, Trae Waynes, is still a work in progress but did make strides last year in his first season as a starter. Mackensie Alexander remains an inconsistent nickel slot corner and will be pushed by Hughes and Newman. Strong safety Andrew Sendejo, an overachieving former special teams leader, will try to win a starting job for the fourth straight year.
The Vikings re-signed Kai Forbath for one year at $630,000 in March. In April, they drafted his replacement. Daniel Carlson became the highest-drafted kicker in franchise history when he was taken in the fifth round. He has a bigger leg than Forbath but made a career-low 74.2 percent of his kicks last year at Auburn. Punter Ryan Quigley is questionable as well. His 42.2-yard average ranked last in 2017, but he also had no touchbacks in the regular season. Marcus Sherels, the best punt returner in franchise history, is one of the most sure-handed specialists in the league. He’ll surrender kickoff returns to Hughes, who returned one punt and two kickoffs for touchdowns at UCF last year. Hughes isn’t likely to overtake Sherels at punt returner, but he’s capable of doing both since Zimmer typically doesn’t overload rookie corners with defensive reps.
When the Vikings gave Cousins the league’s richest and first-ever fully guaranteed multi-year contract, they bragged about being “all in.” Well, the pressure is on. Big time. The Vikings hand-picked the franchise quarterback to pair with the league’s top-ranked defense. If the Vikings stay healthy -- a big if given this team’s track record at quarterback the past two years -- nothing short of a Super Bowl will be acceptable. There’s certainly enough talent to get the job done.
Prediction: 1st in the NFC North
(Top photo by Andy Kenutis, courtesy of www.vikings.com)