It’s time for Kirk Cousins to prove that the Vikings didn’t make an $84 million mistake on him. After missing the playoffs in the first year of Cousins’ three-year, fully guaranteed deal, the Vikings strengthened their offense with an infusion of talent and veteran coaches who have a new, clearer vision that complements coach Mike Zimmer’s old-school philosophy and star-studded defense. Assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison were added to help newly promoted offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski with a run-oriented, play-action attack that Cousins is familiar with from his days in Washington.
Defensively, 10 starters return to an experienced unit that has elite players at all three levels and was together two years ago when the Vikings led the league in yards and points allowed. So, no excuses, Kirk.
The short-lived oil-and-water era of Zimmer and John DeFilippo is now just a painful memory. Since he fired DeFilippo as his offensive coordinator after only 13 games, every move Zimmer has made has been designed to mesh with his philosophy. Why this wasn’t done earlier is puzzling. Now, the question becomes, “Will it work?”
Kubiak won’t coordinate the offense, but essentially this is his system. It’s an outside-zone running attack that will use more multiple-tight end sets with fewer plays out of the shotgun. It will try to be a ball-control unit that strengthens the play-action passing game and takes advantage of Cousins’ deep-ball accuracy and the mismatches that receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. can create.
DeFilippo repeatedly abandoned this old-school Zimmer philosophy because he didn’t think the Vikings had the offensive line to pull it off. And, in his defense, he wasn’t wrong. The line was atrocious physically and also discombobulated after the death of position coach Tony Sparano on the eve of training camp. The Vikings addressed this weak link by allowing Kubiak to bring in Dennison, his longtime line coach and run game coordinator. Zimmer has been impressed, saying, “these guys know exactly the type of player they’re looking for” to fit the outside-zone blocking scheme.
General manager Rick Spielman then spent three draft picks on the offensive line, including Garrett Bradbury, the first center drafted in the first round in team history. He will be a Day 1 starter and improve the interior as Pat Elflein moves to left guard after a poor season. Former Titan Josh Kline provides a veteran presence at right guard, but don’t rule out rookie fourth-round pick Dru Samia getting up to speed fast enough to take either that spot or the left guard position. He’s ideal for this scheme and has a nasty side Zimmer loves. Right tackle Brian O’Neill, a second-round pick last year, should take off in his first full season as a starter, while left tackle Riley Reiff has to rebound from a down year.
If the Vikings keep veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, then the offense will use him and Smith at the same time to create mismatches against base defenses. At running back, rookie third-round pick Alexander Mattison needs work as a pass protector but will replace Latavius Murray’s complementary role as an inside power runner and backup to Dalvin Cook, who has played only 15 games in his two seasons. If he stays healthy, Cook is perfect for this offense. He’s a slasher who can make the proper one cut and accelerate. He’s also good in the play-action screen game.
The salary cap-strapped Vikings got an unexpected boost in free agency when linebacker Anthony Barr backed out of his verbal agreement with the Jets to accept less money from the Vikings. Barr doesn’t make as many splash plays as fans would like, but no player is more in tune with Zimmer’s defense, which meshes assignment-sound gap control with unpredictable blitz packages while having zero tolerance for freelancers.
On the line, left end Danielle Hunter is a future All-Pro with 40 career sacks at age 24, while Linval Joseph remains a massive, immovable nose tackle with the feet of a linebacker.
At linebacker, Barr on the strong side and Eric Kendricks in the middle have been in sync going back to their time together at UCLA in 2013. Kendricks has led the team in tackles in each of his four seasons.
Meanwhile, in the secondary, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and free safety Harrison Smith were first-team All-Pro two years ago. Smith remains a steady, instinctive force who can play in the box, deep or rushing off the edge. Rhodes is coming off a down year and has been challenged publicly by Zimmer, who told the media that Rhodes “needs to play up to his contract.”
Losing under tackle Sheldon Richardson to free agency was a big blow. The Vikings did bring Shamar Stephen back after his one season in Seattle, but there will be a noticeable drop-off there. The other key departure defensively was strong safety Andrew Sendejo. But injuries limited him to only five starts last year, and chances are he would have lost his job to Anthony Harris, a more well-rounded player who’s better in coverage.
Overall, this is a veteran group that moves in unison because of how long it’s been in Zimmer’s system. But there are question marks. When will cornerback Mike Hughes, last year’s first-round pick, be back to full speed from the torn ACL that cut short his promising rookie season at nickel back? Will cornerback Trae Waynes show more consistency in a contract year? Will defensive end Everson Griffen regain his pre-2018 dominance after a down season that saw him miss five games while dealing with mental health issues?
But, barring injuries, Zimmer and his coordinator, George Edwards, should have all the tools they need. They also realized after a slump early last season that they needed to change things up as more teams have copied some of Zimmer’s schemes. Zimmer runs fewer of his Double A-gap blitzes and now experiments with other blitz packages and nickel packages that use an extra linebacker, Eric Wilson, with a three-man line.
The special teams have a new coordinator for the first time since 2011 and a new punt returner for the first time since 2010. Marwan Maalouf, who spent the past six years as Miami’s assistant special teams coordinator, replaces Mike Priefer, who left for Cleveland. At punt returner, a wide-open competition will be held to replace Marcus Sherels, the steadiest and best punt returner in team history. Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson, two rookie receivers, were drafted in the seventh round, in part because of their return abilities. Placekicker Dan Bailey made only 75 percent of his attempts last year but was re-signed in hopes he regains his old Cowboys form as he spends more time with holder Matt Wile and long snapper Kevin McDermott. Bailey was rushed off the street and into the fray last year to replace rookie Daniel Carlson, who melted down with three misses in a Week 2 tie at Green Bay. Ameer Abdullah is unproven as a kick returner but will be given first crack at the job.
Yes, purple hearts have been broken far too many times to recount here. But Vikings fans should take that familiar leap once again and expect this team to take back the NFC North and compete for the Super Bowl. Barring significant injuries, this team has absolutely no excuses not to do so. Cousins is now settled in and will be running a new system with which he’s familiar. The offensive line that torpedoed last season has been upgraded with talent and coaching. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. adds a key mismatch weapon. And the defense is a veteran-laden group that’s been together a long time and is still in its prime. Time to step up and lead, Kirk.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC North
(Top photo by Dane Kuhn/Minnesota Vikings, courtesy of www.vikings.com)