The Vikings made it clear in no uncertain terms and actions that Mike Zimmer and his old-school defensive coaching style were the problem the past two years and that Kevin O'Connell, a 37-year-old first-time head coach, brings from the Super Bowl-champion Rams a new-school offensive approach that finally will make Kirk Cousins more than just a vastly overpriced .500 quarterback.
"I certainly believe even moreso now that we've got our leadership in place," co-owner Mark Wilf says. "We're going to work with Kirk as our quarterback … and for 2022, for sure, we're going to be super competitive."
The Vikings tinkered with the idea of trading Cousins and doing a total teardown. But O'Connell's offensive acumen and history with Cousins in Washington convinced ownership and new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to extend Cousins' contract, lowering his salary cap hit from $45 million to $31 million, as the first of many moves designed to run it back with much of the same roster. Perhaps Adofo-Mensah, the NFL's first general manager from a purely analytics background, coined a new term when he described the process as a "competitive rebuild." Sans Zimmer, of course.
For Cousins, this is a much-needed reboot with a head coach who was his position coach in 2017, the year that helped him get the NFL's first fully guaranteed multi-year contract with the Vikings. O'Connell says his offense, rooted in the Sean McVay/Mike Shanahan system, will bring out the best in Cousins, who played in the system under Shanahan and McVay in Washington and Gary and Klint Kubiak in Minnesota.
O'Connell didn't call plays in L.A. but will do so with the Vikings. Wes Phillips, who coached tight ends with the Rams, is the offensive coordinator and can carry the offensive vision while O'Connell oversees the entire team during the week. The Rams used three-receiver sets a league-high 83 percent of the time, but O'Connell doesn't see that happening in Minnesota, where he's got one of the league's best fullbacks in C.J. Ham and deep-ball mismatch opportunities with tight end Irv Smith Jr., who's healthy and ready for a breakout season after a knee injury wiped out 2021.
Justin Jefferson is a rising superstar poised to become the highest-paid receiver in league history in a couple years if O'Connell can take him to a Cooper Kupp level. Adam Thielen will be 32 by the start of the season but remains a viable weapon, especially in the red zone, and young K.J. Osborn proved more than capable as a No. 3 receiver when injuries forced him into that role last season.
The biggest question mark is at center and right guard. Center Garrett Bradbury is down to his last shot to prove himself worthy of a first-round pick. It will be interesting to see how his smaller frame does as the Vikings transition from an outside-zone running scheme to more of a mid-zone attack with more power and gap schemes. Of course, running back Dalvin Cook is capable of excelling in whatever running scheme and screen game O'Connell throws at him.
O'Connell says he trusts Bradbury but has launched a wide-open competition at right guard, a perpetually unsettled position that's contributed to the Vikings starting 17 different guards the past six seasons. In free agency, the Vikings landed two experienced starting guards in Jesse Davis and Chris Reed. Also in the mix are 2021 third-round pick Wyatt Davis, last year's primary starter Oli Udoh and rookie second-round pick Ed Ingram.
For the first time in 62 years of Vikings football, the defense is coming off back-to-back seasons of allowing 400 or more points. Zimmer's 4-3 defense has been completely scrapped in favor of an entirely different 3-4 scheme that 65-year-old Ed Donatell embraced through several years and different stints with Vic Fangio. Donatell will be aided by assistant head coach Mike Pettine, another 3-4 disciple.
Donatell believes the Vikings have more ways to confuse quarterbacks with his 3-4 scheme. Whether he has the right fits personnel-wise hinges a lot on whether Danielle Hunter, one of the league's best edge rushers when healthy, can transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 linebacker. The Vikings signed former Packer Za'Darius Smith to man the other edge. He had 26 sacks in 2019-20 but played only two games because of a back injury last season. Hunter and Smith could be the best 1-2 edge-rushing tandem in the league if healthy — a big if considering they combined to play only nine games last year while Hunter also missed all of 2020. Depth at pass rusher also is a concern.
Up front, nose tackle Harrison Phillips was a wise pickup from Buffalo, but the rest of the line could be lacking with Dalvin Tomlinson playing one end and a battle among backups to assume the other end spot.
Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks played to an All-Pro level because he knew Zimmer's scheme as well as Zimmer did. But Kendricks grew tired of Zimmer's "fear-based" leadership and has welcomed a new defense that he'll excel in. Next to him is smart, durable Jordan Hicks, who played in a similar scheme in Arizona.
A lack of depth at cornerback despite heavy investments in the position was a major downfall for Zimmer. Questions remain. An aging but still effective Patrick Peterson re-signed. Former Packer Chandon Sullivan brings experience as a slot corner. If he can stay healthy, second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. will ideally take the other starting position away from Cameron Dantzler, who has perfect length for the position but has regressed since being drafted in the third round in 2020.
Safety should be a position of strength despite losing Xavier Woods, who played every defensive snap a year ago. Replacing him is rookie first-round draft pick Lewis Cine. Adofo-Mensah took Cine 32nd overall after trading down 20 spots with Detroit. He had Cine ranked much higher and considered him the top safety available. Meanwhile, fellow safety Harrison Smith is 33 but still spry enough to be the kind of rush, cover and savvy disguise weapon he was during some of Zimmer's outstanding defensive seasons.
The Vikings were much better on special teams last year with younger, faster, more athletic players and better stability at punter and kicker. This year looks even more promising under coordinator Matt Daniels, a fiery 32-year-old. Kene Nwangwu is one of the fastest players in the league and was Pro Football Focus' first-team All-Pro kick returner with a league-high two touchdowns on just 18 attempts as a rookie. He'll only get better. Kicker Greg Joseph came to the Vikings as a young journeyman trying to stick on his sixth team in four years. He made 33-of-38 attempts overall, including game-winners against Detroit and Green Bay. Punter Jordan Berry's stats are middle-of-the-road, but he can be a weapon with his hang time and directional control. Punt returner is a question mark again. Osborn will get first crack but hasn't shown any pop in 11 career attempts.
Cousins is good but overpaid. He's a perennial .500 quarterback whose mega-contract contributes to warts around him that he's never been able to cover up consistently, unlike great quarterbacks making his kind of money. O'Connell will help, but he won't transform Cousins into Matthew Stafford in one season. The line will continue to struggle inside. The defense is thin and injury-prone up front, counting on two rookies in the secondary, and likely needs a year to master the switch to a 3-4 scheme. The Vikings won't unseat the Packers atop the NFC North. They'll battle for the seventh playoff seed, finish 8–9 or 9–8 and narrowly miss the postseason for the third straight season.