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Four Days to Kickoff: 4 Views from Inside the Vikings

On Sunday, it’s Round 2 between the Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings. Let’s get to know the foe with Will Ragatz of SI.com’s Inside the Vikings.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Sunday, it’s Round 2 between the Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings. Let’s get to know the foe with Will Ragatz of SI.com’s Inside the Vikings.

1. What’s up with Kirk Cousins, who has been a model of efficiency for much of his career but has already thrown 10 interceptions?

It’s been a really odd season for Cousins. Coming into this year, he had three games with three or more interceptions in 88 career starts. In 2020, despite playing in the same offensive scheme as last season and having great offensive weapons around him, he’s done so twice in six games. Cousins’ career-low six picks last year snapped a streak of four straight seasons in double digits, so he’s not exactly Aaron Rodgers in that department, but it’s been strange to see him make some truly head-scratching decisions after being so smart with the ball in 2019.

While some of the interceptions have been awful – particularly the ball he threw straight to Jaire Alexander in Week 1 and the first two against the Falcons prior to Minnesota’s bye week – it’s worth noting that two came on Hail Marys, one was basically an arm punt, and another was the result of his arm being hit. He probably deserves more like six or seven, which is still quite bad but wouldn’t have him tied for the league lead.

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Outside of the interceptions, Cousins has basically been his usual self. He’s seemingly gotten a little better at maneuvering in the pocket and making throws on the run, and he’s ninth in PFF grade among QBs (ahead of Lamar Jackson, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Kyler Murray, to name a few). Production in garbage time against the Packers and Falcons has definitely salvaged his overall stats, but the arm talent is still there – he just needs to make better decisions.

Regardless, the Vikings fanbase has turned on Cousins and is looking ahead to the top draft-eligible QBs in 2021. I’d imagine GM Rick Spielman is regretting the two-year extension Cousins got this offseason, too, as it makes it very difficult for the Vikings to move on from him over the next couple years.

2. Justin Jefferson was my favorite receiver in the draft and would have been a perfect fit for the Packers. He didn’t do anything in the opener but has been on quite a roll. What’s made him so good at a position where rookies struggle more often than not?

Jefferson has been far and away the biggest bright spot for the Vikings during a highly disappointing season. After splitting snaps with Bisi Johnson for the first two weeks, he was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 3 and exploded with 175 yards and a touchdown. Another 100-yard game followed the next week, and he just went for 166 yards and two more scores against the Falcons in Week 6. Jefferson’s 537 yards are more than Randy Moss or Stefon Diggs had through six career games, and he’s on pace to break the rookie record.

This is no fluke, either. Jefferson has shown all the traits that made him a first-round pick coming out of LSU: speed, route-running, contested catch ability, YAC, and more. What’s been so impressive is that he’s answered all of the questions or doubts people had, particularly his ability to win at the line of scrimmage on the boundary. Jefferson’s releases against press coverage have, dare I say it, looked a bit like those of Diggs, Keenan Allen and Davante Adams. We’ll see if he can sustain this level of play now that the league has plenty of tape on him, but I think it’s safe to say he’s going to be a really good receiver for a long time.

And, man, I know we have no idea how good Jordan Love will be, but I have to assume some Packers fans are wishing Rodgers had someone like Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool to throw to right about now.

3. The young cornerbacks have taken their lumps, which I suppose isn’t a surprise. Has anything changed since Week 1 as far as who’s playing and how they’re performing?

The Vikings went with a cornerback trio of Holton Hill, Cameron Dantzler and Mike Hughes in Week 1, and all three were charged with at least 80 yards allowed. Due to injuries, they went on to have a different trio in each of the first five weeks.

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The two rookies – third-rounder Dantzler and first-rounder Jeff Gladney – have locked themselves in as the starters on the outside, although that’s more due to health and upside than vastly improved performance. Gladney has started to look like a first-round pick at times, with impressive games against the Texans and Seahawks, and he’ll get his first experience playing against Rodgers and Adams this week. Dantzler has continued to struggle after an impressive training camp, but he also saw a lot of DK Metcalf and Julio Jones over the past two games. The Vikings think he’ll be a really good player with some continued work on technique and positioning.

Hughes would be the nickel corner, but he hurt his neck before the bye and might not play this week. Hill also has been out for a while with a foot injury. After Hughes went out against Atlanta, the Vikings’ third corner was yet another rookie, fifth-round pick Harrison Hand. Pending the health of Hughes, Hill and Kris Boyd, it could be another week with a lot of snaps for Hand.

4. Mike Zimmer’s done nothing but win. That’s not the case this year. Is the Ngakoue trade something of a white flag of surrender for this season? Is he on thin ice? And what do you expect coming out of a bye?

This is the million-dollar question. The Vikings trading Yannick Ngakoue away less than two months after acquiring him feels like the start of a rebuild, but neither Spielman nor Zimmer will admit as much (which isn’t particularly surprising).

Given their financial situation, it might behoove the 1-5 Vikings to accept reality and continue selling before the deadline, with players like Riley Reiff, Kyle Rudolph and Anthony Harris (and, who knows, maybe even Harrison Smith or Adam Thielen) making sense as highly paid veterans who could bring some draft capital in return. Most importantly, it’s becoming clear that the Vikings need to start planning for life after Cousins. His contract, plus the fact that they probably aren’t going to be bad enough to get one of the top three quarterbacks in next year’s draft, makes that a difficult situation to navigate.

There are a lot of big, long-term questions at play here. One of those is the job security of Spielman and Zimmer. I’m just guessing here, but the Ngakoue trade makes it seem like ownership has given those two the go-ahead to start some sort of the rebuild and feel safe about their jobs, at least for the time being. I have no idea how long that leash is, though. Do the Wilfs expect the Vikings to reload quickly and contend in 2021? Or do they anticipate tearing things down and accepting another losing season or two after this one? It’ll be pretty fascinating to see how this all unfolds.

The Vikings have enough talent to win some games down the stretch, even if that ends up hurting them when it comes to draft positioning. However, I don’t think a matchup with the 5-1 Packers at Lambeau Field is one that they’re going to find a way to win, even if Dalvin Cook is back from injury.