The Jacksonville Jaguars' biggest storyline heading into this Sunday, and each of the several Sundays following, is the general manager search. But even during that search, the Jaguars still have to close out the 2020 season on the field.
Jacksonville's next test is the 5-6 Minnesota Vikings, a tough road opponent who has turned their season around in recent weeks. Do the 1-10 Jaguars have a shot to win? To find the answer, we spoke with Will Ragatz of Inside the Vikings to preview the game.
Dalvin Cook is having a monster season. Is there any real flaw to his game or the Vikings' rushing attack?
Cook has had a phenomenal year and should be considered one of the favorites for NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He's leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and is tied for the lead in total touchdowns despite missing a game and a half due to a groin injury. Cook is an elite rusher who is a perfect fit for Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme with his vision, quickness, and tackle-breaking ability. The Vikings have a good run-blocking offensive line, but it helps that Cook is a special player who rarely goes down at first contact and is a home run threat whenever he gets the ball. He's also a receiving threat out of the backfield. To start out November, Cook put up 478 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in an absurd stretch of two games against the Packers and Lions that turned Minnesota's season around.
It's hard to say that Cook's game has any real weaknesses, but it's worth noting that he's definitely not at 100 percent health right now. He handled 144 touches in November, 27 more than the next-closest player, and has had an injury scare in two straight games. Cook is a tough competitor, but he has taken a beating recently and the Vikings should try to be careful with their superstar running back (whose injury history is well-known). If there's a weakness to the Vikings' rushing attack, it's probably just that they run the ball more often than is optimal for efficiency reasons, especially on early downs.
Who is the harder cover for defenses: Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen?
That's a tough question. Thielen is an outstanding veteran receiver who knows how to create separation and is a monster at contested catches. There's a reason why he's a two-time Pro Bowler and has 11 touchdown receptions this year. Kirk Cousins and Thielen have a great rapport and he's easily the Vikings' top target in the red zone. But with that said, I have to go with Jefferson here. The rookie from LSU just has another gear athletically than Thielen. He's nine years younger, faster, and legitimately has the upside to be one of the best receivers in the league before too long.
There's an argument to be made that Jefferson already is one of the league's top WRs. He ranks second in PFF grade and yards per route run and is third in receiving yards since Week 3, which is when he made his first start. Jefferson is an unbelievable route-runner who isn't that far off of guys like Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, and Stefon Diggs in that department. He's also a contested-catch menace with great YAC ability. Both of the Vikings' receivers are fantastic, but I think defensive coordinators might worry about Jefferson a bit more than they do about Thielen at this point, which is pretty crazy.
Why did the Yannick Ngakoue deal not work out for the Vikings?
When the Vikings traded a second-round pick to the Jaguars for Yannick Ngakoue at the end of August, they were envisioning pairing him with Danielle Hunter and having that duo be a key part of a stout defense. But Hunter never wound up playing a game in 2020 due to a herniated disc and the Vikings also lost Anthony Barr to a season-ending injury in Week 2. Suddenly, Ngakoue felt a bit out of place on a defense that was struggling due to having a bunch of rookies and young players in major roles.
But that wasn't the only reason why the Vikings punted on Ngakoue and traded him to Baltimore for a third-rounder. They didn't view him as a great fit in their defensive scheme due to his struggles as a run defender, and they realized they probably weren't going to be able to afford a long-term deal for him next offseason. However, trading Ngakoue has left the cupboard quite bare on the defensive line, and his five sacks in six games still leads the team.
Who is the biggest defender who has stepped up in Hunter's absence this year?
With no Hunter and no Ngakoue, the Vikings have struggled to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing. Their most intriguing defensive end who is currently playing is fourth-round rookie D.J. Wonnum from South Carolina. He's a raw, athletic project who has three sacks this year and leads the team in pressure rate since the Ngakoue trade. Wonnum also made a huge play with a blocked field goal last week. No one should anoint him as the next Hunter, considering Hunter is a one-of-a-kind player, but Wonnum has a ton of upside if he develops and is an important player right now.
Elsewhere on the defense, veterans Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith are carrying Mike Zimmer's unit by having All Pro-caliber seasons. Kendricks is, in my opinion, the best coverage linebacker in the NFL, and he's shown that with three interceptions in the past four games. Smith is a potential future Hall of Famer who somehow seems to still be underrated. Also, rookie cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler have shown some positive signs in recent weeks.
This is a tough one to predict. On paper, the Vikings are much better than the Jaguars. But they've only blown one team out all year and that was the Lions, who are so bad they fired their coach not long after. Plus, Jacksonville hung with the Packers and Browns in recent weeks before ultimately losing. I think they can keep things close by getting a solid game from Mike Glennon and leaning heavily on James Robinson, but the Vikings shouldn't have much trouble putting up points. It's also a must-win game for the Vikings, so they won't take it lightly. I'll say Minnesota wins this one 31-23.