The Vikings took a big risk two off-seasons ago, signing veteran free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar deal to fill their void at the quarterback position. That’s a lot of money, but it’s in line with what some other comparable quarterbacks are making annually, the guarantees were actually less than some longer non-fully guaranteed deals, and Cousins could have gotten more money elsewhere, choosing Minnesota because they had the most competitive roster outside of the quarterback position.
In the first year, the results weren’t what the Vikings were expecting, as the Vikings finished 8-8 and ranked just 23rd in first down rate at 34.80%, but Cousins wasn’t really the problem, as he ranked 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. The problem was that, despite a defense that kept games close (6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%) and a poor pass blocking offensive line that allowed Cousins to be pressured at a 38.7% pressure rate (7th highest among qualifying quarterbacks), the Vikings still had 606 pass attempts to 357 rush attempts, the 6th fewest rush attempts in the league. That split was even more skewed before the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was in large part fired for his unwillingness to establish the run; new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.
Stefanski stayed on as offensive coordinator for 2019 and, along with new offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, they designed a completely different offense. They went from being pass heavy to having more rush attempts (476) than pass attempts (466), one of three teams in the league to do so last season (49ers and Ravens). They frequently ran two tight end and two back sets and called play action on 31.4% of Kirk Cousins’ pass attempts (6th most among eligible quarterbacks), with Cousins completing 71.8% of his passes for an average of 9.67 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions off play action, a 129.2 QB rating that ranked 4th in the NFL off play action.
All in all, Cousins completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.11 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while leading the Vikings to a 37.31% first down rate in his 15 starts (he sat in a meaningless week 17 game), which ranked 11th in the NFL over that stretch. Their defense remained strong (9th in first down rate allowed at 33.71%) and the Vikings ended up with 10 wins and a wild card berth.
Cousins wasn’t the only reason for their offensive success, but he was a big part of a balanced attack and finished as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback on the season. Cousins has been a solid starter since 2015 (79 starts), completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 7.70 YPA, 137 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions, but last year was easily his highest graded season, as he finished between 10th and 20th at his position in every season from 2015-2018.
Cousins may regress slightly in 2020, but he could easily continue playing at a high level, with accomplished offensive mind Gary Kubiak taking over as the full-time offensive coordinator and largely keeping the same scheme in place. Cousins has also never missed a start with injury in his career, but if he happens to miss time, the Vikings would have to turn to Sean Mannion, whose mediocre start in the Vikings’ meaningless week 17 game last season is the only start of his career. Obviously the Vikings want to avoid that.
The bigger problem than Cousins potentially regressing a little after a career best year is this team is becoming expensive to keep long-term, especially given Cousins’ salary, as he’ll make 96 million over the next three seasons after signing a 2-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season. The Vikings were able to make it to the second round of the post-season last season, but don’t seem to be in better shape to go on a deep run in 2020. With a tough financial situation this off-season, the Vikings made the decision to move on from several players, including highly paid wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was sent to the Bills for a first round pick and a swap of mid round picks.
Diggs led this team in receiving in 2019, putting up a 63/1130/6 slash line despite the Vikings being so run heavy, and ranking 2nd in the league among wide receivers in yards per route run with 2.69. He’s also consistently been an above average option since entering the league in 2015, but with the Vikings getting a first round pick for him, it’s understandable why they made the move. Given that this is a run heavy team, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for the Vikings to pay top of the market money to their quarterback and his top-two options and the Vikings already have Adam Thielen set to return after an injury-ruined 2019 season and owed 21.6 million over the next two seasons. This was also a good wide receiver draft class, which allowed the Vikings to find a much cheaper replacement in Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson will almost definitely be a downgrade as a rookie, but he could still be a capable #2 wide receiver on a run heavy team and he has the upside to be as good as Diggs long-term. He will start opposite Thielen, who averaged a 91/1205/6 slash line in the three seasons prior to last season, ranked in the top-20 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons (including a pair of top-8 finishes in 2017 and 2018), and still averaged a solid 1.86 yards per route run on 225 routes in limited action in 2020 (28th among wide receivers). Thielen is going into his age 30 season, but isn’t totally over the hill and has never missed a game besides the injuries he had last season, so he has obvious bounce back potential, even if he’s not quite as good as he’s been in the past. His targets are capped by this being a run heavy offense, but he should still see plenty of balls his way as the clear cut #1 option.
Bisi Johnson was their 3rd receiver last year and saw 6 starts in Thielen’s absence, even though he was just a 7th round rookie, and he played about as you’d expect a 7th round rookie to play, ranking 90th out of 101 eligible wide receivers with 1.03 yards per route run. He’ll only face competition from free agent acquisition Tajae Sharpe, who has averaged just 1.19 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league as a #3/#4 receiver since going in the 5th round in 2016, so Johnson could easily remain third on the depth chart. He may be better in his second season, but it could be only by default.
Fortunately, this offense doesn’t go to three wide receivers all that given, given how often they use fullback CJ Ham (354 snaps) and their two tight ends Kyle Rudolph (791 snaps) and Irv Smith (612 snaps). Even third tight end Tyler Conklin saw 18.3 snaps per game, primarily as a blocker in obvious passing situations. All three of their tight ends and CJ Ham remain and will all have similar roles in 2020. Ham is a solid blocking fullback and also caught 17 passes last season as well, though his 5.73 yards per target average hardly makes him an efficient option (6.16 yards per target on 49 career targets). Rudolph and Smith also had decent slash lines of 39/367/6 and 36/311/2 respectively, despite receiving just 48 targets and 47 targets respectively.
Smith was a second round rookie last season and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF overall, something he could easily improve on in his second season in the league. Rudolph, meanwhile, is a 9-year veteran. He had injury problems early in his career, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 9 seasons in the league and he hasn’t missed a game due to injury over the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, he has averaged a 58/574/6 slash line, while being a solid blocker as well.
Now going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible Rudolph will start to decline, but he didn’t really show any signs of being diminished last season, so he could easily remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons. Even if he does decline, the Vikings could compensate by giving more playing time to a developing Irv Smith. The Vikings will definitely miss Stefon Diggs, but they get Adam Thielen back healthy, they add a first round wide receiver to replace Diggs, they have good complimentary pass catching options at tight end and running back (Dalvin Cook also had a 53/519/0 slash line on 63 targets), and they’re a run heavy team that didn’t need two highly paid wide receivers. This is a solid group overall, largely depending on how close to his pre-injury form Thielen can be.
Dalvin Cook was also a big part of this offense on the ground. In fact, him staying healthy and showing his potential over a full season is what allowed this offense to operate in the run heavy/play action way they operated in successfully last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cook showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 4.68 YPC and catching 3.4 passes per game, but he was limited to 207 carries in 15 games total due to injury, including a torn ACL that ended his rookie year. In 2019, Cook still missed two games, but he still ended up with 250 carries and turned those carries into 1,135 yards (4.54 YPC) and 13 touchdowns, in addition to what he did in the air. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked running back on the season.
Wanting to add insurance for the injury prone Cook last off-season, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Alexander Mattison and he had a role on this run heavy offense last season, rushing for 462 yards and 1 touchdown on 100 carries (4.62 YPC), while catching 10 of 12 targets for 82 yards. Mattison’s per carry average wasn’t bad, but it’s worth noting that 41.3% of his yardage came on 9 carries and he averaged just 2.98 YPC on his other 91 carries, while ranking dead last overall among qualifying running backs in carry success rate at 38%.
Mattison should have the same role in 2020 if everything goes as planned, but there are two somewhat realistic ways he could see more action. One is simply if Cook was to miss significant time, certainly a possibility for a running back who hasn’t made it through a full 16 game season yet. The other is if Cook holds out into the season in pursuit of a contract extension, ahead of the final year of his cheap rookie deal. A full season holdout is unlikely if only because those are exceedly rare, but a partial season holdout is definitely a possibility, even if the history of players who only show up for part of the season isn’t great (see Melvin Gordon 2019).
Cook wants to be paid as a top running back, but the Vikings don’t have a lot of long-term financial flexibility and may not want to commit top dollar to a running back with a history of injury problems, especially when they have another back in Mattison who was a relatively high pick that the organization is still high on. This is a situation to monitor into the season as Mattison would be a significant drop off from Cook if he had to see every down work. Their depth is also limited with only Mike Boone, who has just 60 career carries since going undrafted in 2018 and Ameer Abdullah, a return man with a career 3.90 YPC average, behind Cook and Mattison.
The Vikings’ offensive line has been an issue for years and those issues continued into 2019. Cousins wasn’t pressured quite as much in 2018 as he was in 2019, but he was still pressured on 36.4% of his dropbacks, 10th in the NFL. This group did take a big step forward as run blockers though, as the Vikings went from 27th in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018 to 11th in 2019, a big part of why they were able to be so effective on the ground. The Vikings return 4 of 5 starters from last year’s offensive line, only losing right guard Josh Kline, who was released ahead of a 4.75 million dollar salary, following a middling 2019 season. Depending on how they go about replacing Kline, however, this line could look pretty different this season.
The easiest thing the Vikings could do would be to replace Kline with Dru Samia, a 2019 4th round pick who could take a step forward in his 2nd season after playing 31 snaps as Kline’s backup last season. The Vikings used the 58th overall pick on Boise State left tackle Ezra Cleveland though, which gives the Vikings the option to either try him at right guard or to keep him at left tackle and move Riley Reiff inside to guard, a position he has some experience at and where he could be a better fit as he ages (age 32 season in 2020).
Reiff had a solid season in 2019, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, his 7th above average grade from PFF in 8 seasons in the league, and the Vikings kept him this off-season despite the fact that they could have saved a much needed 8.8 million in cap space by releasing him this off-season, but he will likely begin to decline over the next few years, something that could be slowed down if he moves inside.
At the very least, Cleveland’s selection suggests the left tackle job isn’t Reiff’s for much longer. Where the Vikings want to play Cleveland will determine what they do with Reiff and Dru Samia, as Cleveland could either be a starting left tackle, a starting right guard, or a reserve left tackle. It’s also possible Cleveland or Reiff could play left guard and move incumbent left guard Pat Elflein to right guard.
Regardless of where he plays, Elflein figures to be a starter in 2020. Elflein struggled earlier in his career as a center, finishing 23rd out of 39 eligible centers on PFF in 14 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2017 and dead last out of 39 eligible centers in 13 starts in 2018, but he was actually slightly above average in his new spot at left guard in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder, but could easily remain a solid starter going forward, only in his age 26 season, now at a position where he seems to be a much better fit.
Elflein was moved because the Vikings used their first round pick in 2019 on Garrett Bradbury, who made all 16 starts at center as a rookie. Bradbury had some growing pains as a rookie though, finishing 29th out of 35 eligible centers on PFF. He could obviously be better in his second season, however, and still projects as at least a solid starter long-term. Right tackle Brian O’Neill bookends this line and the 2018 2nd round pick took a noticeable step forward in his second season in 2019, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF after being a middling starter as a rookie. He could easily continue being an above average starter long-term. This line lacks a standout player, but they’re not a bad group overall, especially if they can figure out the right guard and left tackle spots.
Along with Stefon Diggs, the Vikings also moved on from edge defender Everson Griffen this off-season, releasing him ahead of 13.5 million dollars non-guaranteed owed in 2020. Griffen was still Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked edge defender, while playing 56.6 snaps per game, but he was heading into his age 33 season in 2020, so the Vikings didn’t bring him back at his scheduled salary. Griffen is still available on the open market and there’s talk that the Vikings could still bring Griffen back at a cheaper rate, which they have the cap space available to do, but as of right now, they haven’t done anything to replace him and have a big hole at the position as a result.
If Griffen isn’t brought back before the start of the season, they’ll likely start Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 2017 7th round pick, who flashed on 368 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season but is an obvious projection to a potentially every down starting role. Stephen Weatherly struggled on 422 snaps last season as the 3rd defensive end, but with him signing in Carolina this off-season, their best alternatives to Odenigbo would be bottom of the roster caliber veterans like Anthony Zettel or Eddie Yarborough, who were added this off-season, or 4th round rookie DJ Wonnum, who is very raw.
Fortunately, the Vikings do still have Danielle Hunter, who was even better than Griffen last year, ranking 7th among edge defenders on PFF and especially excelling as a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate. Last year was the best season of Hunter’s career, but he’s not really a one-year wonder, ranking between 19th and 32nd among edge defenders on PFF in every season from 2016-2018, while totalling 34 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate over those three seasons combined. The 2015 3rd round pick is also still very young, not even turning 26 until December, so he could easily remain a high level edge defender for at least a few more seasons. He significantly elevates a position group that would be in big trouble if Hunter missed any time.
The Vikings also released interior defender Linval Joseph this off-season, saving 11.75 million ahead of his age 32 season. Like Griffen, Joseph was still a useful player last season (38th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus), but unlike Griffen he was actually replaced, with the Vikings signing ex-Raven Michael Pierce to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal to replace him. Pierce is a similar player to Joseph, primarily a run stuffer who can also get to the quarterback on occasion, but he’s younger (age 28 season) and comes with much higher upside.
Even in a down year due to injuries in 2019, Pierce still earned an above average grade as a run stopper and prior to last season he finished in the top-14 among interior defenders in run stopping grade in three straight seasons, including a career best 4th ranked finish in 2018. He’s not much of a pass rusher and he’s never topped 594 snaps in a season as primarily a base package player throughout his career, but his 6.9% pressure rate is better than you’d expect from a 340 pounder and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020. He’ll likely play around the 42.5 snaps per game that Joseph played in 2019.
Along with Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen (580 snaps) and Jaleel Scott (408 snaps) also saw significant action on the interior last season. Both struggled though, finishing 91st and 115th respectively out of 125 eligible interior defenders, especially struggling as pass rushers, with a combined 3.0% pressure rate. Stephen has been middling at best on an average of 413 snaps per season in 6 seasons in the league, while Johnson has struggled on 710 career snaps since being taken in the 4th round in 2017, so I wouldn’t expect much from either one this season, but both will likely have to see significant roles again in 2020, for lack of better options.
The Vikings also won’t have the luxury of using three defensive ends together in sub packages and lining one up on the interior, which they often did last season, given their lack of depth on the edge. The Vikings did use a 4th round pick on James Lynch, who could see action as a situational pass rusher as a rookie, and they could also give more playing time to Hercules Mata’afa, a 2018 undrafted free agent who showed very little on the first 100 snaps of his career last season as primarily a situational pass rusher. The Vikings probably upgraded adding Michael Pierce for Linval Joseph, but the rest of this group is very questionable.
The Vikings do return all of their key off ball linebackers this season, most importantly Eric Kendricks, who plays every down in the middle of this 4-3 defense. Largely a solid, but unspectacular every down off ball linebacker in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, Kendricks broke out with Pro Football Focus highest grade among off ball linebackers on the season. Kendricks had never finished above 30th before last season, so there’s obviously a good chance he regresses at least somewhat, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he has been consistently solid throughout 70 starts in 5 seasons in the league. I would expect him to be at least an above average starter, even if he doesn’t play nearly as well as last season.
Anthony Barr also returns as an every down player on the outside. Like Kendricks, Barr once had a dominant season, but it was way back in his second season in the league in 2015 when he ranked 5th among off ball linebackers on PFF and, in his other 5 seasons, he’s never finished higher than 23rd at his position. He’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, while averaging 62.3 snaps per game, though one of the two exceptions was last season, when he was a middling player across 930 snaps. Still only in his age 28 season, Barr has some bounce back potential, but I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his outlier year in 2015.
The Vikings also have good depth in their linebacking corps, with both Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon returning to compete for the 3rd linebacker job in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. Wilson played 380 snaps in that role last season and wasn’t bad and the 2017 undrafted free agent wasn’t bad on the first 336 snaps of his career in 2018 either. Gedeon, meanwhile, is a 2017 4th round pick who has flashed potential on 658 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, primarily as a situational run stuffer. Either one would be a solid option in base packages and they give the Vikings better depth than most linebacking corps as well. Even if Eric Kendricks isn’t likely to repeat last year’s career best year, this is still a solid group.
The Vikings’ safeties were definitely the strength of their defense last season, as Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were both among the best safeties in the league, and, even though Harris was a free agent this off-season, the Vikings were able to bring him back on the franchise tag to maintain arguably the best safety duo in the NFL. Harris’ ascension to being among the top safeties in the league kind of came out of nowhere, as prior to week 8 of last season, the 2015 undrafted free agent played just 621 career snaps (8 starts), but he took over as the full-time starter in week 8 of 2018, made the final 9 starts of the season, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety over that stretch.
There were definitely legitimate questions about whether or not Harris could repeat that strong 9-game stretch over a full season, but he answered those questions by actually improving to 2nd among safeties in 14 starts in 2019. He’s still relatively unproven for his age (age 29 season), which may be why the Vikings franchise tagged him this off-season, rather than giving him a big long-term extension, but even if he isn’t quite as good in 2020 as he’s been over the past 23 starts, he should still be a high end safety.
Smith, meanwhile, has been one of the best safeties in the league since he entered as a first rounder eight years ago in 2012. With the exception of an injury ruined year early in his career, Smith has finished in the top-26 among safeties on PFF in every season in the league, including 6 finishes in the top-13 and 4 finishes in the top-5. His age is becoming a concern now in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any decline with a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and, even if he does decline a little in 2020, he should still be one of the top safeties in the league and should still form a dominant duo with Anthony Harris.
Cornerback, on the other hand, was a big weakness for this team in 2019. With three pending free agents at the position in Xavier Rhodes (795 snaps), Trae Waynes (769 snaps), and Mackenzie Alexander (534 snaps), the Vikings opted to start fresh at the position this off-season. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have better cornerback play though, as they’re going to be relying on a very young group. First round pick Jeff Gladney, third round pick Cameron Dantzler, and fifth round pick Harrison Hand were all added through the draft and Gladney and Dantzler at least figure to have significant roles.
Gladney could even be their nominal #1 cornerback as a rookie, with his top competition being Mike Hughes, a former first round pick in his own right, but one who has had a tough two seasons in the league, tearing his ACL after 244 snaps as a rookie and then finishing 92nd out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF on 500 snaps in 2019. He still has upside and, another year removed from the injury, could easily take a step forward, but it’s definitely a problem that he’s their top returning cornerback. Holton Hill, a 2018 undrafted free agent who has flashed on 527 career snaps, also returns and figures to be in the mix for a job in three cornerback sets, but he’s hardly a proven option. The Vikings’ safeties will mask their cornerback problems somewhat, but they’ll need at least one or two young cornerbacks to step up for this to be an above average secondary.
The Vikings were one of the most well-rounded teams in the league last season, with a 11th ranked offense in first down rate and a 9th ranked defense in first down rate allowed, but they lost key players on both sides of the ball this off-season, including wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Everson Griffen, while other players like Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Eric Kendricks may struggle to repeat the best year of their career. They also are unlikely to have the fewest adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league again like they did last season. The Packers weren’t as good as their 13-3 record suggested last season and aren’t noticeably improved this season, so the NFC North should still be winnable for the Vikings, but I wouldn’t consider the Vikings true Super Bowl contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Vikings lost defensive tackle Michael Pierce to an opt out, but they traded for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue of the Jaguars to give them a boost on the edge. I still have the Vikings behind the Packers in the NFC North and a tough schedule outside of the division will make their route to a wild card tougher, but they should be able to make it into the post-season.
Projection: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North)