Six Takeaways From the Minnesota Vikings' 2021 Coaching Staff Changes

The Vikings made a number of changes on the coaching staff, which they're hoping leads to a bounce-back season.
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Even though the player movement period of March and April has yet to start, it's already been a busy offseason for the Minnesota Vikings. They've rebuilt their coaching staff, replacing two of their three coordinators and adding several other notable position coaches and assistants. These moves are critically important, considering the Vikings head into 2021 facing a lot of pressure to bounce back from a disappointing 7-9 campaign. If they miss the playoffs again, it could mean the end of the Mike Zimmer/Rick Spielman era in Minnesota.

Here are six takeaways or questions from the Vikings' coaching shuffle and introductory press conferences, one for each new major hire or promotion.

Klint Kubiak knows the Vikings' offense needs to evolve, but how much freedom will he have?

  • 2020 job: Vikings QBs coach
  • New job: Vikings offensive coordinator
  • Predecessor: Gary Kubiak

From the day that Gary Kubiak announced his retirement, his son Klint always seemed like the most logical replacement. The younger Kubiak was a candidate last offseason before his dad decided to give play-calling another go, so this felt inevitable. The hire raises valid questions about the NFL's nepotism problem — especially considering the other leading candidate, Tyke Tolbert, is a Black man with 18 years as an NFL position coach compared to Kubiak's five — but that's not Kubiak's fault. With his experience as a QBs coach in multiple offenses and all of the knowledge he's gained from his father and other prominent coaches, he should be in position to have success right away as a 33-year-old OC.

As a young coach, Kubiak will be able to bring new ideas to the table while still keeping the continuity of scheme and system that Mike Zimmer wants.

"I think if we don’t evolve then we’ll be left in the dust," Kubiak said. "That’s every team in the NFL, always trying to find ways to evolve your scheme and trying to make yourself less predictable. This time of year is a heavy self-scout time of year and studying other teams, but certainly we don’t want to be rigid. We want to be open to growth so we can produce on Sundays."

The question is how much leeway Kubiak will have to make changes like passing the ball more and getting creative. Zimmer is a classic old-school coach who wants to run the ball and win with defense, even if that approach is out of style. John DeFilippo was famously fired in 2018 for straying too far from the running game. Things aren't going to stay exactly the same under Kubiak, but they might not change all that much.

It'll also be interesting to see how he fares as a play-caller, something Kubiak hasn't done outside of a handful of preseason games. I'd imagine his dad will remain involved with the Vikings in an unofficial capacity, providing a resource for Klint all season long.

Keenan McCardell's task is to make sure Justin Jefferson isn't a one-year wonder

  • 2020 job: Jacksonville Jaguars WRs coach
  • New job: Vikings WRs coach
  • Predecessor: Andrew Janocko

I think this is my favorite hire the Vikings made this offseason. Janocko did an excellent job in his one year as Minnesota's receivers coach, but he's a former college QB who had spent the three previous seasons as an assistant offensive line coach. In order to help Jefferson continue developing into a consistently elite receiver, the Vikings went out and got the best of the best. McCardell played in the NFL for 17 years, making two Pro Bowls, and has since coached receivers in Washington, Maryland, and Jacksonville with excellent results.

McCardell was part of an outstanding Jaguars WR duo with Jimmy Smith from 1996 to 2001, and he thinks Jefferson and Adam Thielen can be similarly great. He also knows what to expect in Minnesota — and from Thielen — based on his friendship with Stefon Diggs, who he coached at Maryland for one season.

But his main task will be getting the most out of Jefferson, and making sure his record-setting 1,400-yard rookie year becomes the norm and not a career-best.

"I really think that getting him as a blank canvas — Andrew did a great job with him last year, and I just want to continue to build on that," McCardell said. "I want that canvas to continue to grow, and let him be the artist to paint his picture of who he is. I think Andrew started it; I want to continue to keep it going, and let him keep blossoming and understanding how to be an unbelievable pro and how to win."

The big question here is whether or not the Vikings will give McCardell a new third receiver to work with, or if they'll be content with Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson. Former Jags receivers Keelan Cole and Chris Conley could be interesting options as cheap free agent pickups who know what McCardell expects.

Karl Scott has an important job taking over a Vikings secondary in transition

  • 2020 job: University of Alabama cornerbacks coach
  • New job: Vikings DBs coach
  • Predecessor: Daronte Jones

Jones, like Janocko, was a position coach who was highly impressive in his first year in a new role. Despite the strange virtual offseason, Jones was able to help Cameron Dantzler develop into one of the NFL's top rookie corners and got productive play out of guys like Harrison Hand, Kris Boyd, and Chris Jones. He did so well that he accepted an offer this offseason to become Ed Orgeron's next defensive coordinator at LSU.

The Vikings went back to the SEC to find a replacement, hiring another rising young coach in Scott. His experience working under Nick Saban and turning players like Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II into high draft picks should translate well at the NFL level as he works with Zimmer and assistant DBs coach Roy Anderson. Scott's tasks: help Dantzler continue to develop into a star, help Jeff Gladney make a leap in year two, and help integrate whoever replaces Anthony Harris into the secondary. Oh, and get whatever he can out of Mike Hughes while also developing guys like Hand and Boyd.

At least he doesn't have to worry about coaching up Harrison Smith, who is one of the smartest and most consistent safeties in the league.

"When you look at the film of Alabama and you look at Coach Zimmer’s defense, honestly there are a lot of things that marry together," Scott said. "So I’m definitely looking forward to being a part of this and getting [the Vikings] back to where we used to be."

Ryan Ficken has a LOT of work to do on special teams

  • 2020 job: Vikings assistant special teams coordinator
  • New job: Vikings special teams coordinator
  • Predecessor: Marwan Maalouf

Ficken earned this promotion. He's the Vikings' longest-tenured coach, having arrived in Minnesota in 2007 without ever having a position group to himself. Now he's a coordinator, as a historically disastrous special teams performance in 2020 led to the unavoidable departure of Maalouf.

It's safe to say Ficken has a lot of work to do. He has to oversee a kicking competition between Greg Joseph and Dan Bailey, although Bailey could be cut outright this offseason. He has to work with the front office to find someone — anyone — who can give the Vikings a boost as a returner. He has to get better results out of Britton Colquitt or a cheaper replacement at punter, and he has to improve the Vikings' coverage units on kicks and punts. Quite literally every aspect of special teams needs work.

Good luck, Ryan.

"Obviously we did have some issues, but we’re looking forward to going ahead and correcting those," Ficken said. "We just need to be able to help our team win that field position battle. We’ve got to get back to playing complementary football, and there’s a lot of factors that come along with that. We had a great opportunity to go ahead and develop a lot of the depth with this roster with some of these young guys, and I want to continue to build on that."

The Vikings won't insistently have one of the NFL's better special teams units, but they need to at least show some progress in 2021 and stop actively hurting themselves in that phase of the game.

Rising star Andrew Janocko should excel coaching QBs

  • 2020 job: Vikings WRs coach
  • New job: Vikings QBs coach
  • Predecessor: Klint Kubiak

Klint Kubiak got the offensive coordinator gig, but Janocko is next in line behind him as an ascending young coach on that side of the ball. A move to QBs coach should be a great fit for the former college quarterback at Pitt, who drew high praise for his work with the receivers last season. Janocko's experience coaching offensive linemen and wideouts gives him a great understanding of the Vikings' entire offense and how all three positions work together in the passing game. That's something he's hoping works to his advantage.

"Football is the ultimate team game and it takes all 11 on every play to be successful," Janocko said. "Trying to apply those different perspectives in a way that can help [the QB] room is something I would like to do going forward, to be able to see it through a different position’s eyes and to help with that perspective."

Janocko said he plans to use everything he's learned over the years from Gary Kubiak, Kevin Stefanski, and Klint Kubiak in his new role. Most importantly, he wants to make sure he's on the same page with Kubiak, to "make sure Klint's vision gets applied in our room."

With McCardell being hired and Kubiak being promoted, things worked out perfectly for Janocko to take over the quarterback room. Now his job is to help Kirk Cousins continue to improve — and hopefully avoid the slow start that plagued him in each of the past two seasons.

Paul Guenther was a solid hire to help turn the Vikings' defense around

  • 2020 job: Raiders defensive coordinator
  • New job: Vikings senior defensive assistant
  • Predecessor: Dom Capers

Last offseason, Zimmer brought in Capers to serve as an experienced defensive mind for ideation and discussion on things like blitz packages and coverage shells. But after a rough season for the Vikings' injury-riddled defense, Capers' contract wasn't renewed. This time, Zimmer went out and found someone he knows and trusts on a close level. Guenther was in Cincinnati for all six of Zimmer's years as the Bengals' defensive coordinator, taking the reins after Zimmer left for Minnesota.

"[Zimmer is] a guy I’m real familiar with," Guenther said. "His core values, the way he runs the team, the way he runs the program here. Real excited to be joining forces again."

Guenther mostly continued Cincy's defensive success upon taking over as DC in 2014, leading a top-12 scoring unit in each of his first three years, including the league's No. 2 scoring defense in 2015. The unit regressed a bit in 2017, and Guenther's 13 years with the Bengals came to an end. He was then hired by Jon Gruden as the Raiders' DC, but struggled to turn around a talent-deficient defense and was fired late last season.

Even though his Raiders stint was disappointing, Guenther is a solid hire for the Vikings as someone who knows Zimmer well and can play a major role in what Minnesota hopes is a bounce-back defensive performance in 2021.

"From what I understand, it’s helping out all three levels of the defense," Guenther said when asked what his responsibilities will be. "I’ve been able to coach those three levels throughout my career. Maybe help out some things situationally on game day, packages, whether it’ll be situational packages, just the overall details of the scheme and the players within it. We have to be looking for guys who can fit our scheme, whether it be in free agency or the draft."

The Vikings need all hands on deck to get back to where they want to be defensively, and Guenther's experience should make him a big part of that process.

The Vikings' full coaching staff

New additions or promotions marked in bold

  • Head coach: Mike Zimmer
  • Offensive coordinator: Klint Kubiak
  • Offensive line coach/run game coordinator: Rick Dennison
  • Quarterbacks coach: Andrew Janocko
  • Running backs coach: Kennedy Polamalu
  • Wide receivers coach: Keenan McCardell
  • Assistant offensive line coach: Phil Rauscher
  • Offensive quality control: Christian Jones
  • Offensive quality control: AC Patterson
  • Co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach: Andre Patterson
  • Co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Adam Zimmer
  • Senior defensive assistant: Paul Guenther
  • Defensive backs coach: Karl Scott
  • Assistant defensive backs coach: Roy Anderson
  • Assistant defensive line coach: Imarjaye Albury
  • Defensive quality control: Sam Siefkes
  • Special teams coordinator: Ryan Ficken
  • Strength and conditioning coach: Josh Hingst
  • Assistant strength and conditioning: Derik Keyes

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