The Vikings entered the 2020 season with high hopes, believing that they could reload their roster on the fly and make consecutive trips to the postseason for the first time in the Mike Zimmer era. It's now 2021 and the team is left with feelings of frustration, regret, and disappointment as a long offseason begins with Minnesota watching the playoffs from home.
An exodus of veteran talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, was a reason for concern last spring. But the Vikings felt they still had stars at all three levels of the defense and could fill in the pieces around them with rookies and other young players stepping up into expanded roles. Even if the defense experienced some growing pains, an explosive offense with much-needed schematic continuity could carry them early on, they figured.
As everyone now knows, that vision didn't come to fruition. Of the six players Zimmer and the Vikings were counting on to lead their defense –– Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce –– only the safeties, Smith and Harris, made it all the way through the year. Hunter and Pierce didn't play a single snap, leaving the Vikings with arguably the NFL's worst defensive line. Barr went down with a season-ending injury in Week 2. Kendricks missed the last five games, which wound up being the straw that broke the camel's back.
The deadly combination of departures and bad injury luck meant the defense was forced to rely heavily on rookies and under-qualified players. Minnesota allowed 475 points, third-most in franchise history, and missed the playoffs because of it. Not even an outstanding offense could prevent the Vikings from stumbling to a 7-9 record, though horrendous special teams play didn't help.
With the Vikings taking some time off but already looking ahead to next fall, let's examine the ten steps they need to take to return to the playoffs –– and maybe even become a legitimate contender –– in 2021.
1. Find a new offensive coordinator
It's not officially official yet, but it sure sounds like offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak won't be back next year. Multiple reports last week indicated that the veteran coach plans to retire for a second time.
In his season-ending Zoom press conference, Zimmer had nothing but praise for Kubiak and suggested that a final decision hadn't been made just yet.
"Obviously this year was a major mental and physical drain on all of us, including the players," Zimmer said. "We’ll just see how all of that unfolds as we move forward. [Gary is] the best I’ve ever been around, terrific person, great coach, and I love him. We’ll just see how he’s doing. He’s taking some time to mentally think about the season and where he’s at health-wise and he’ll decide what he wants to do."
Regardless of what Zimmer says, the writing is on the wall. Kubiak seems to have made up his mind, meaning the Vikings will need to find a sixth OC in as many seasons next year. They could go with an internal hire like Klint Kubiak, Rick Dennison, or Andrew Janocko. They could look outside the organization at people like Anthony Lynn, Hue Jackson, or any number of other candidates. At this point, an internal promotion feels more likely.
Whoever is chosen for the job will have plenty of weapons to work with. Kirk Cousins is a fairly consistent veteran quarterback who can make virtually any throw when given a clean pocket. He's not truly elite, but he's firmly in the top seven-to-12 range among QBs and will give you that level of play year in and year out. Dalvin Cook is maybe the league's most complete running back. Justin Jefferson is a superstar receiver who will have just turned 22 years old when next year's training camp starts. Throw in Adam Thielen, Irv Smith Jr., and an offensive line with some talented building blocks, and you can see how the Vikings finished eighth in offensive DVOA, 11th in offensive EPA per play, and fourth in total yards per game this year.
"For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense," Zimmer said.
Still, the new OC will have a couple important issues to address and tweaks to make.
2. The scheme won't change, but certain tendencies should
Sometimes, a new coordinator can mean major changes are made to a team's system and scheme on one side of the ball. Don't expect that to happen with the Vikings' offense. Even though Kubiak will no longer be orchestrating things, Zimmer wants the team to have continuity in their playbook and approach, particularly because of how efficiently Cousins has played over the past two years in this offense.
"I love the scheme that we’re running offensively, I love the wide zone offense, I love the play-action passes," he said. "All those things. A coach told me one time that your offense should be what your quarterback is best at. And that’s what I feel Kirk is best at. Those kind of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important."
That's all perfectly fine. There are some who argue the team needs an entirely different offensive strategy, one that focuses on the passing game more heavily, but that didn't exactly work under John DeFilippo in 2018. Teams like the Titans, Packers, 49ers, and Rams have had great offensive success in recent years running similar wide zone schemes. It's not just the Vikings who are doing this at a high level.
With that said, some slight adjustments could take this offense even further. Most importantly, the Vikings need to pass the ball more often within the scheme, specifically on second down. They were maddeningly run-heavy on both second and short and second and long this season, to the detriment of their offense's success.
Giving Cook plenty of touches is understandable, given his talent. But no running back, not even Cook or Derrick Henry, can be as efficient or explosive as their team's passing attack. The Vikings can keep the same scheme, but they need to modernize their approach in certain situations and not waste opportunities to create big plays via their all-world wide receivers. Above all else, they need to...
3. Maximize Justin Jefferson's limitless ability
The biggest positive development of the season, bar none, was that the Vikings hit a home run in landing Jefferson with the 22nd pick in last year's draft. He recorded one of the best rookie receiving seasons of all time, finishing with 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns despite not starting the first two weeks and playing on a team that finished 27th in the league in passing percentage. Jefferson is the headliner of a 2020 Vikings draft class that has the potential to be special.
"When you have a guy that's that dynamic and can be that consistent playing at that high of a level, it raises the level of play from the guys around him," said Thielen, who had a strong season in his own right, ranking third in the league in receiving touchdowns. "He's such a good person on and off the field, the way that he works, the way that he handles his business, it's impressive. Definitely raises the bar, and that's kind of the excitement I get is to go into a new year with the guys in that room and on this offense, on this team."
I've written plenty about how good Jefferson is, so there's no need to further re-hash that here. But the point is this: the Vikings need to do whatever they can to maximize Jefferson's transcendent talent.
People will bring up Stefon Diggs, who forced a trade out of Minnesota, landed in a more pass-happy offense, and led the league in both receptions and yards on a Super Bowl contender. I don't think there's a risk of Jefferson becoming dissatisfied with his role anytime soon, as long as the Vikings keep using him like they did in the second half of the season. He did just break the Super Bowl era rookie receiving record, after all. Jefferson's 81 targets across his team's final eight games was tied for fourth-most in the NFL, trailing Diggs by just six.
However, the need to avoid wasting any of Jefferson's prime is the most compelling reason for an adjustment to more passing in 2021.
4. Find, develop, and utilize secondary playmakers on offense
Having Cook, Jefferson, and Thielen as the centerpieces of the offense is great. That's a a trio that compares favorably to any other trio in the league. But those can't be the only three guys who make plays. The Vikings need to add more weapons, in part because they can't necessarily count on their offensive stars staying as healthy as they did in 2020. They also need to continue developing and utilizing some of the talented young pieces they already have.
The position group that could use additional depth is wide receiver. At the very least, the Vikings need a No. 3 option who can threaten defenses and is good enough to step up if either Jefferson or Thielen have to miss time. Neither Chad Beebe nor Bisi Johnson qualifies in that regard. That means signing a free agent far better than someone like Tajae Sharpe, and/or going back to the well and selecting a receiver early in the draft. It doesn't have to be a first-round pick, but they shouldn't wait until the fifth round, either.
The Vikings are fairly set at tight end. It's probably time to move on from Kyle Rudolph, save some cap space, and roll with Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin. Smith will be a popular pick as a breakout candidate for a second straight year, while Conklin looks more than ready to be a strong TE2. And at running back, I'd like to see Alexander Mattison get a slightly larger share of the touches. The colossal workload Cook handled this year isn't sustainable, and Mattison has shown that he can make things happen when given opportunities.
"As an offense, you need guys," Thielen said. "You need multiple people that can threaten a defense and if you don’t have that, it makes it really, really, really difficult. I got a bunch of flak for it a few years ago when I said that you can’t just run the ball, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it’s so true. You have to be able to run the ball. You have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to be very versatile. You have to be able to spread the ball around. That’s the only way you can have success on the offensive side of the ball in this league."
5. Address the offensive line...again
Rick Spielman and the Vikings have allocated premium draft capital towards improving their offensive line in each of the past three years, spending a second-round pick on Brian O'Neill in 2018, a first-rounder on Garrett Bradbury in 2019, and a second-rounder on Ezra Cleveland this past year. Along with that trio, they have a highly-paid veteran left tackle in Riley Reiff who put together one of the strongest seasons of his career in 2020.
And it still wasn't even close to good enough.
The Vikings were 26th in PFF's offensive line rankings for the season, primarily because they graded as the 28th-best pass blocking team in the league. Reiff was solid in that area and O'Neill was fine, even though he regressed slightly from 2019. But as PFF points out, the interior of the line was an unmitigated disaster.
Ezra Cleveland’s 6.9% pressure rate allowed ranked 37th out of 40 qualifying right guards in his first year at guard after starting three seasons as Boise State’s left tackle. In that same vein, Garrett Bradbury’s 5.1% pressure rate allowed ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying centers, and Dakota Dozier’s pressure rate allowed of 8.0% ranked 36th out of 39 qualifying left guards. None of their three starters on the interior cracked the top 32 at their respective position. That’s a problem, and it’s one the Vikings will have to deal with this offseason.
As it turns out, drafting highly mobile linemen to fit a zone-blocking run scheme means sacrificing a lot in pass protection. It's too early to be worried about Cleveland given that he was a rookie playing out of position, but it's absolutely time to start being concerned that Bradbury will never be able to adequately anchor against powerful defensive tackles. That's a major problem for a first-round center, even if he's excellent in the ground game.
This offseason, the Vikings need to make a decision at left tackle. They can't afford Reiff's 2021 cap hit of $14 million, meaning they can either extend him and push money down the line or release him and move Cleveland to that spot. I might lean towards doing the latter, since the rookie appears to be best-suited at tackle in the long-term and they might as well start developing him there now. But that would then mean finding two new guards: one to take Cleveland's spot and one to replace Dakota Dozier, who was arguably the worst offensive lineman in the NFL who played a full season in 2020. The Vikings being content to start Dozier all year is one of the more indefensible things I've seen a professional sports team do recently, but that's a discussion for another day.
With the right moves in the draft and free agency, this could be an above-average offensive line next season. But then again, Vikings fans have been saying that same thing for years.
6. Get healthy on defense
As we move to the defensive side of the ball, let's start with a simple one: the Vikings need to get their key players back to full health. That means the big four of Hunter, Pierce, Kendricks, and Barr, of course, but also guys like Mike Hughes and Kris Boyd.
"We had over 130 missed games to defensive players that were on IR this year," Zimmer said. "If you look at the statistics of when we have high injury totals, those are the years that have been the down years. When we’ve stayed healthy, we’ve played really well. I do think if you said, 'OK, well, Kendricks, Barr, Hunter and Pierce are coming back,' I think that's going to improve us automatically."
While Zimmer repeatedly mentioning injuries over the past few weeks may come across as an excuse, it's also a legitimately valid one. With that said, it was refreshing to hear him admit that he "probably miscalculated some things going into the season when we lost all the guys that we lost the year before." The defensive overhaul created a glaring lack of depth that was exposed when the stars were unavailable. Getting those players back will help, and ideally the Vikings can continue to rebuild their defensive depth as well.
A potential holdout or trade demand from Hunter looms large over this offseason, but does he really have the leverage to execute that after major neck surgery? For now, all we have is a positive yet non-specific update. "He's doing well," Zimmer said. "He's on track wherever he's supposed to be. I know he thinks he's going to be able to come back and be better than he was before." Forget being better –– if Hunter is even 80 percent of what he was in 2019, he'll make a massive difference for this team.
Getting Pierce into the fold will also be huge. Last season was Zimmer's first without Linval Joseph, and losing his replacement nose tackle to an opt-out was a big blow. Pierce reportedly picked up CrossFit during the season and weighs around 350 pounds, according to Darren Wolfson. That's important considering he's had issues with his weight reaching nearly 400 pounds in the past. Pierce is hoping to get the COVID-19 vaccine soon and be in Minnesota for potential OTAs, if those take place.
Then there's Barr, who is a complicated topic of his own. That leads us to the next step.
7. Make key decisions on defensive personnel
The Vikings have several holes to fill on their roster, and this happens to be a difficult offseason for those purposes. The salary cap could fall to $175 million due to COVID-related revenue losses, although the final number won't be set in stone until February or March. Regardless, the Vikings have the league's eighth-worst cap situation right now, with roughly $190 million already on the books for 2021.
In order to add, they first have to subtract. What that means is that some tough decisions lie ahead. That's true with Reiff and Rudolph on offense, but the more difficult decisions probably lie on defense, specifically when it comes to the future of the Anthonys, Barr and Harris.
Losing Barr in Week 2 to a season-ending pectoral injury was a tough break for Zimmer and the Vikings. But halfway through the season, Eric Wilson was producing big plays at such a high rate that Barr was suddenly starting to seem expendable in 2021. Through eight weeks, Wilson had three interceptions, 2.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries, and he was second to Kendricks in tackles. The Wilson vs. Barr debate, which I wrote about at length at the time, is about weighing the splash plays of the younger, cheaper Wilson against Barr's all-around ability, particularly against the run.
Barr's cap hits for the next three seasons are $15.5, $15.6, and $18.1 million. That's not ideal for a player who has been fairly inconsistent since an elite season in 2015. But given the way the season played out, I'd expect the Vikings to lean towards restructuring Barr's contract over paying Wilson in free agency (doing both should be off the table). The reason is all about their impact in the running game. Barr is a three-down linebacker who is a good run defender and a sure tackler. Wilson, meanwhile, finished 53rd out of 58 linebackers (minimum 500 snaps) in PFF's tackling efficiency metric. He's a good cover guy who may end up being overpaid next year because his box score stats belie his actual impact.
The Vikings had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL in 2020, finishing 30th in DVOA and 31st in non-garbage time EPA against the run. Getting Pierce on the field and making other improvements to the defensive line should help fix that issue, but the linebackers are just as important. That's the main reason why I think the Vikings will choose Barr over Wilson, though I could certainly be wrong.
The other important decision on defense has to do with the safety position. The Vikings franchise-tagged Harris last offseason after an incredible 2019 campaign in which he was PFF's highest-graded safety and led the NFL with seven interceptions. What complicates matters in terms of his pending free agency is that Harris took a big step back this year, failing to record a single interception and being charged with the first four touchdown passes allowed of his career. He also had some uncharacteristic missed tackles over the final few games of the season.
If the Vikings let Harris walk in free agency, they'll have a big hole next to Harrison Smith and no in-house candidate to fill it (unless you're a big believer in Josh Metellus, I suppose). They could go that route and look to add a starting safety in free agency or the draft. Or they could re-sign Harris, presumably for a smaller deal than he would've gotten last offseason, and keep their star safety duo intact. With Smith's current contract expiring in 2022, it'll be very interesting to see what the Vikings do at that position going forward.
There are other decisions to make on guys like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Shamar Stephen, but the two big ones are Barr vs. Wilson and what to do with Harris.
8. Add more pass rushers
A primary focus for the Vikings heading into 2021 has to be adding more players who can get after the quarterback. They fell from sixth in the NFL with 48 sacks in 2019 to 28th with just 23 sacks this past season. Those 23 sacks were the franchise's fewest in the 39 years that sacks have been tracked as an official stat. As you've probably seen pointed out many times, Minnesota's leader in sacks was Yannick Ngakoue, who only played six games with the team.
Everson Griffen leaving in free agency, Hunter missing the entire season with a neck injury, and the Vikings trading Ngakoue in October was a straightforward recipe for a tough year in the pass-rushing department. What was exposed in 2020 was the team's complete lack of depth up front. They haven't spent a non-Day 3 pick on a defensive lineman since Hunter in 2015, and that showed this year.
"A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers," Zimmer said. "I've always said since the day I walked in here that you've got to have people that can cover and you've got to have people that can rush."
Getting Hunter back changes everything, but that's not enough by itself. The Vikings need to find another starter opposite him at defensive end, which would allow players like D.J. Wonnum and Hercules Mata'afa to remain in situational roles. Maybe they bring back Odenigbo, who is a restricted free agent after failing to take a leap forwards in 2020. Maybe they sign a second-tier free agent. A reunion with Griffen could be a possibility, although his strange weekend on Twitter may have lessened the likelihood of that happening.
Perhaps it's finally time for the Vikings to spend a first-round pick on an edge rusher, something they haven't done since 2005. The vast majority of recent mock drafts I've seen have them taking an EDGE like Miami's Gregory Rousseau or Michigan's Kwity Paye at No. 14 overall.
It's also important to note that pressures and sacks aren't just about the play of the Vikings' defensive ends. They still need to find a three-technique defensive tackle who can create interior penetration. Armon Watts has some upside in that area, but James Lynch already looks like a non-factor. That's another position to keep in mind during the draft and free agency.
9. Develop the young corners (and maybe add a veteran)
After losing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander last offseason, the Vikings brought in an entirely new crop of cornerbacks via the draft. They took Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, and Harrison Hand, hoping a solid starting group would emerge out of that trio of rookies and a pair of third-year players (Hughes and Holton Hill). Realistically, they knew it wouldn't be that simple...and it wasn't. Hughes and Hill got hurt, the rookies were thrown into the fire, and the Vikings ended up having to sign corners off the street to play meaningful snaps down the stretch.
But the early returns were promising, mostly due to the flashes of elite potential shown by Dantzler. The third-round pick had a five-game stretch from Week 11 to Week 15 where he was legitimately one of the best corners in the league, and he has all of the tools to develop into a star. The biggest offseason task for Dantzler, who is listed at 188 pounds, is to add some weight to his frame. Gladney mostly struggled as a rookie, although he was stout in run defense and had some moments that showed his upside in coverage. The Vikings hope to have more of a traditional offseason this year, which would allow Zimmer to work with Dantzler and Gladney in OTAs as well as training camp.
"I think they got invaluable experience," Zimmer said of his two prized rookie corners. "I think it’s only going to help them. They do have a lot of work to do in the offseason with the strength and size factors they need to get better at. They both have a chance to be very, very good players. Dantzler, obviously was hurt too much, so he’s got to get stronger, he’s got to continue to get more body weight. Gladney was able to play throughout the whole course of the year and he needs to take a little break and then get back with it. But these guys have a chance to be good players and I don’t think they would be as far along next year if they didn’t play all the plays that they played this past season. I think it’ll be really good for them in the long run."
Those two are basically locked in as starters in 2021. The third starting spot is less clear. Hughes is the likely favorite in what will almost certainly be the final year of his rookie contract (I'd be shocked if the Vikings picked up his fifth-year option). He's running out of time to stay healthy and live up to his draft pedigree in Minnesota. The likes of Hand, Kris Boyd, and Chris Jones will compete for roster spots, but the Vikings could stand to benefit from bringing in a veteran at the position as well. It's risky to count on Hughes given his injury history, and as we saw this season, the value of good cornerback depth can't be understated.
10. Fix the special teams woes
Last but not least, the Vikings desperately need to fix their myriad issues on special teams. They're in the market for a new coordinator, as it was announced that Marwan Maalouf's contract won't be renewed in 2021. That was a foregone conclusion given the team's incredible struggles in that phase of the game. Here's a quick summary of how Minnesota lost more value on special teams (per DVOA) than any team since 2013, with the exception of the 2020 Chargers:
- They ranked dead last in punt return average at 4.3 yards per return. Their longest return of the season was 13 yards, and it happened in Week 17.
- They ranked dead last in starting field position on BOTH offense and defense. That put them at a huge disadvantage on both sides of the ball.
- Punter Britton Colquitt ranked 31st in net punting average, and the Vikings allowed the third-most punt return yards in the league.
- Dan Bailey had an awful season, missing 13 kicks, ten of which came in the last five games.
- Minnesota was one of seven teams to allow a kickoff return TD, with Cordarrelle Patterson taking one to the house on MNF in Week 10.
- Rookie WR K.J. Osborn, drafted in the fifth round as a return specialist, was a major disappointment who eventually lost both the punt and kick return jobs.
Whether the new special teams coordinator is an internal promotion for Ryan Ficken or an outside hire like Brayden Coombs, the Vikings have a lot of work to do in that area. Bailey's poor play makes it obvious that there will be a kicking competition in training camp. Finding someone who can make an impact in the return game would be big (Patterson is a free agent who could be an option). Improvement is needed in every single aspect of special teams, so the new coordinator is going to have their hands full.
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