The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he looks at the Minnesota Vikings, who finished 8-7-1 and second in the NFC North in 2018.
Minnesota’s offense thrives. Its new Gary Kubiak-style outside zone system fits Kirk Cousins, who ran the scheme in Washington. Mobile rookie center Garrett Bradbury lives up to his first-round billing; unjustly maligned third-year pro Pat Elflein transitions well from center to left guard; ex-Titan Josh Kline brings adequacy to the right guard spot that so often ruined this team in 2018. Kubiak, hired in January as a senior offensive assistant, helps teach the details of the scheme, which expands when new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski injects more creative route combinations, particularly out of bunch and stack receiver alignments. This creates clearer reads that play to Cousins’s gutsy anticipation throwing.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combine for over 2,500 yards receiving. Both are true No. 1 receivers. Thielen is an athletic master technician. Diggs is an explosive change-of-direction mover. Minnesota’s lack of receiving depth entices defenses to double both wideouts, but Stefanski complicates this by often aligning his two stars on the same side, opposite tight ends Kyle Rudolph and second-round rookie Irv Smith Jr.
Mike Zimmer’s defense recaptures its dominance. Built on an aggressive split-safety matchup zone coverage known as “quarters,” Minnesota continues to aggressively challenge receivers and tight ends. Cornerbacks press, safeties play low. A stingy run defense, led by nose tackle Linval Joseph, makes for more third-and-long situations, where Zimmer selectively but efficiently employs his patented overloaded pressure looks and disguised blitzes. All-World safety Harrison Smith, with his shrewd presnap movements and postsnap instincts, remains the D’s biggest key.
Cornerback depth pays off. Coverage aided the pass rush on many of Minnesota’s 50 sacks in 2018, which tied with Chicago for most in the NFC. That continues in 2019, as fervid boundary corner Xavier Rhodes regains his form after an injury-riddled ’18 campaign, while second-year corner Mike Hughes, despite coming off an ACL injury, steals playing time from solid No. 2 corner Trae Waynes and slot men Mackensie Alexander (passing downs) and Jayron Kearse (running downs). The depth and versatility at corner gives the Vikings answers for whatever types of receivers they face each week.
BOTTOM LINE: The defensive personnel is still in its prime, while the offensive personnel (mostly) fits the zone-based system. This looks more like the Vikings club that reached the NFC Championship in 2017 than the one that missed the playoffs in 2018.
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