Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Vikings, who continued their streak of missing the playoffs every other year, which they have done consistently since 2015. They are all at once a formidable group with potential in the future and an underperforming group with perpetual questions about their ceiling at quarterback.
1. What went right this year?
I don’t know if anyone could be happier, retrospectively, than general manager Rick Spielman, who dealt Stefon Diggs to the Bills. Diggs was one of the league’s most productive wide receivers this year, however, the replacement Minnesota netted made some serious noise in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Justin Jefferson gives the Vikings Diggs-esque production without the immediate need for a new, cap-altering contract, although that certainly doesn’t feel very far away right now. Nailing that pick shielded the franchise from some serious scrutiny.
2. What went wrong this year?
This was the highest pressure rate that Kirk Cousins faced since Pro Football Reference began tracking the stat back in 2018, and while Cousins got better at netting yardage once he left the pocket, the razor-thin pocket time certainly seemed to impact Minnesota’s flow offensively. The Vikings were still sixth in points and a top-15 offense in terms of yardage. Dalvin Cook still had a Herculean stretch, which placed Minnesota’s passing offense even further on the backburner. Only five teams in the NFL attempted fewer passes than the Vikings in 2020. Their defense, though, headlined what was an uncharacteristically bad season for Mike Zimmer the play-caller. Minnesota was 30th in net passing yards per attempt and 28th in points surrendered.
3. The Big Question this offseason
While it’s unlikely the Vikings will wind up with a top-10 pick—their moderate to high levels of success these past few years are exactly why a team needs to depend on the veteran QB market, after all—the near future with Kirk Cousins will be under some scrutiny. To be clear, I like Cousins in Minnesota and I think he is a quarterback of the future—a smart, ball-control player who is good at manipulating defenses and getting the ball to his playmakers. However, Cousins does make mistakes and he does miss reads. The physical tools may not line up over the long term. Do they want to continue operating under this fully-guaranteed pay structure which makes reupping future contracts more problematic for long-term flexibility? Will they consider, while they are this low in the draft pool, taking a swing at someone who can challenge Cousins next year when his dead cap is less prohibitive?
4. Coach/GM outlook
Before this season, Zimmer signed a contract extension through the 2023 season. He and Speilman have certainly done enough to warrant coming back for 2021 and beyond. This is a stable franchise in the middle of a division that requires defensive expertise. There are few coaches who would get the benefit of the doubt so readily to eventually figure out how to counter the wave of Shanahan-lite systems plowing through the NFL. Zimmer is one of them.
5. Key free agents
• Anthony Harris, safety
• Eric Wilson, linebacker
• George Iloka, safety
• Rashod Hill, offensive tackle
• Dakota Dozier, guard
• Jaleel Johnson, defensive tackle
• Hercules Mata'afa, linebacker
• Chris Jones, cornerback
• Ifeadi Odenigbo, EDGE
• Chad Beebe, wide receiver
6. Top priority
The Vikings have less work than they seem to on paper. Danielle Hunter is coming back in 2021. Michael Pierce will actually play in 2021. Cameron Dantzler had a good first season and is providing some exceptional value for this third-round price tag. That said, their main priority might be handling their salary cap situation, which has been tight perpetually during the Zimmer era. Things are relatively affordable now, but they need some flexibility and will likely need to restructure some deals in the offseason.
7. Positions of need
Backup running back, swing interior offensive line help, defensive end, linebacker.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
There really isn’t a ton the Vikings need to do here. At their positions of “need” they have developing players. At the gaping holes, they have guys who either missed or sat out the 2020 season. If they could conjure some cap space, getting involved in the second-tier edge market might make some sense. Solomon Thomas, Trent Murphy, Olivier Vernon and Haason Reddick are all players who could pop up in conversation, though some of them will be overpriced.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Trade Kirk Cousins to the 49ers. Again, you asked for outside-the-box. Kyle Shanahan will be thirsting for veteran quarterback options and if salary cap machinations can take place for this to make enough financial sense, Cousins can go play for his former offensive coordinator and the Vikings can pair a draft pick with a high-upside free agent like Nick Mullens.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. With the expanded format, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NFC North consistently send two teams to the playoffs every year. There is no reason to think that the Vikings will sit out of the playoffs again, especially with so many reinforcements on the way.