Josh Buckhalter looks at the Minnesota Vikings and wonders if they will be able to withstand all the turnover that has happened to their starting lineup in recent times.
2019 marked the third playoff appearance for the Minnesota Vikings under Mike Zimmer. They added two wins to their total in Kirk Cousins’ second season under center. But they jettisoned arguably their best receiver and half of their starting secondary. Can they overcome those changes relying on rookies?
Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million extension in March after leading the Vikings to a 10-5 record and a playoff berth, something they failed to do in his first go-round. His numbers took a hit last season as Minnesota went to a more run-heavy approach under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. That should continue with Gary Kubiak taking over.
That led to Cousins throwing his fewest passes for his fewest yards since becoming a full-time starter and his fewest touchdowns since 2016. He also threw his fewest interceptions since his rookie season, but he was yet again plagued by fumbles, tying with three other quarterbacks with the seventh-most. Still, if he goes down, Minnesota is toast.
Dalvin Cook saw 14 games last season and wound up finishing fourth in rushing touchdowns, eighth the NFL in attempts, and 10th in yards. Among running backs, he was sixth with 519 receiving yards and 10th with 53 catches. He led the NFL in rushing for a chunk of the season and, in Kubiak’s offense, the only thing holding Cook back is the same thing that has for most of his career: health.
Behind Cook, Alexander Mattison was good for 100 totes and 462 yards while Mike Boone pitched in an additional 273 yards on 49 carries. Neither is the talent that Cook is, but Mattison did have 12 catches for 82 yards and Boone had three touchdowns. Scary to think their numbers could be even better under Kubiak.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Adam Thielen finds himself as the number one option, no longer needing the ‘a’ or ‘b’ tagged on after the team moved Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills this off-season. He’s coming off of an injury-marred campaign where he only appeared in 10 games catching 30 balls, 418 yards, and six scores. He’ll have a rookie first-round pick, Justin Jefferson, across from him, though he shares many traits with his new teammate.
Depth is a question mark. Tajae Sharpe comes over after catching 25 passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns. He brings some size and, together with Olabisi Johnson (31/294/3), insurance behind Thielen and Jefferson. Or so the Vikings hope.
Minnesota has the talent at tight end to make up some for the loss of Diggs. They have a pair of second-round picks in Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. that combined for 75 catches, 678 yards, and eight touchdowns.
Left tackle Riley Reiff agreed to a restructured deal to remain with the team. Dakota Dozier comes over from the New York Jets to join him and the rest of the returning line. Pat Elfein slides over to right guard for the departed Josh Kline. Meanwhile Ryan O’Neill and last year’s first-round pick, Garrett Bradbury, man right tackle and center respectively. They are a good run blocking group but struggle in pass protection.
Minnesota’s ferocious defense is keyed by its pass rush led by Danielle Hunter. He’s coming off of back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons, putting him third behind only Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones. The Vikings swung a last-minute blockbuster trading for disgruntled Jacksonville Jaguars EDGE Yannick Ngakoue. He replaces Everson Griffen who was released by the Vikings back in March.
Michael Pierce was signed to clog the middle but opted-out due to COVID concerns. Minnesota will need Shamar Stephen to do even more without Pierce to make up for Linval Joseph’s defection. Jaleel Johnson will have a chance to make an impact too.
Eric Kendricks had a stellar 2019, including leading all linebackers in pass deflections with 12. He will be flanked by Anthony Barr, who missed out on making the Pro Bowl for the first time in four years after reneging on a deal with the New York Jets to return to the Twin Cities. Eric Wilson (or Ben Gedeon) rounds out this talented group that can do just about everything well.
This is where it gets mighty sketchy for the Vikings. They jettisoned both starting corners, who ironically both landed with the Cincinnati Bengals where Zimmer was the defensive coordinator before getting the Vikings job. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler are listed behind Mike Hughes and Holton Hill right now, but the rookies were highly drafted. They could see the field sooner rather than later.
Calling safety another strength of the Vikings might be an understatement. Harrison Smith is arguably the best safety in football and Anthony Harris led the NFL in interceptions with six. Following his first season as a starter, Harris was hit with the franchise tag. Smith just went to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Dan Bailey rid both himself and the Vikings of some unfortunate special teams bad luck over the past few years. He hit 93 percent of his kicks after falling into the mid-70s with the Dallas Cowboys before being released and 2018 in Minnesota. Britton Colquitt comes from solid bloodlines and it shows. The Vikings once-potent return game has been docile of late.
Every Other Year
Minnesota has literally alternated winning double-digit victory seasons with those of eight or fewer wins under Zimmer. In fact, they haven’t won nine or more games in consecutive seasons since 2009. Coming off of a 10-win march, and with all the changes they made to their receiving corps and secondary, it’ll be tough not to repeat this disturbing trend.
Vikings Best Bets
Given all the changes made to the roster, the alternating winning and middling seasons, their projected win total of 8.5 is looking good for the under. Dalvin Cook at +1400 to be the league’s leading rusher carries inherent risk with his injury history but isn’t a stretch to imagine.
You can also get Danielle Hunter at +1300 to lead the league in sacks. Again, there’s risk with Ngakoue there to steal some, but he also takes away attention from blockers.