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2020 Vikings Preview

2020 Vikings Preview

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I used to love seeing all the football magazines at the grocery store about a month before the season started. So many of them full of predictions on every team in the NFL…all boldly saying in print which teams would win the division, make the playoffs, and ultimately who will win the Super Bowl. Many of them went way too in-depth for an average 5th-11th grade football fan to fully comprehend. I wasn’t one of those fans. I loved it all.

I bought every publication I could get my hands on and read every word, always hoping someone predicted a Vikings Super Bowl run. (They never did, and rightly so.)

In the ’90s, the Sports Illustrated NFL preview edition was always the best issue of the year. And The Sporting News always had a good preview publication as well.

This article will be my tribute to that era, those articles, and how much I miss those days…

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off a 2019 season that had plenty of ups and downs. It was a year that saw them go 10-6, make the playoffs as a wildcard, and win a playoff game on the road in dramatic fashion…the first postseason victory of Kirk Cousins’s career. It was a year in which Dalvin Cook emerged as one of the league’s best running backs, both in rushing and receiving, and extremely reliable in pass protection. The offensive line, despite no household names and no dominating personnel, hung in there, competed, and overachieved all year. Dan Bailey emerged in the preseason as the favorite to win the placekicking job and did so, regaining his 2013-2015 form along the way. As a result the kicking game was finally stabilized in 2019…allowing fans to finally start the process of dealing with the trauma and lingering effects from the 2015 Blair Walsh 27-yard wide-left debacle (and all the inconsistency since) and take the necessary first steps on the long road to recovery…which will only be cured completely with many consecutive future years of consistency.

It was also a year that ended in a blow-out loss to San Francisco in the Divisional Playoff round, leaving no doubt who the better team was, in all 3 phases of the game. A result that frankly would have occurred against a handful of other NFC playoff teams as well. The 49ers went onto play in the Super Bowl where they showed they were good enough to beat the Chiefs on any given day. The Vikings lost to the Chiefs during the regular season by 3. Not bad you say? Patrick Mahomes was hurt and didn’t play at all. The Chiefs scored 26 points in that game with Matt Moore at the helm. I can’t imagine how ugly it would have gotten if the best quarterback in the league was healthy that Sunday.

The ‘all-in’ free agency approach the Vikings took the previous year clearly took its toll on the 2019 team. Making the playoffs as a wild card is one thing, competing for and being good enough to win a super bowl is quite another.

The 2019 Vikings saw their 30 million dollar-a-year-guaranteed QB statistically put up one of the best years of his career. But Cousins always seems to hear it louder from critics than most others QB’s. Whether it be a bad performance, a loss, or even just one random stupid play, the public consensus always seems to be Cousins sucks and the Vikings can only go as far as he can take them. And that meant nowhere. (Which any real Viking fan knows is not true…of course they want good quarterback play, but a Zimmer coached Vikings team wants to win games by running the ball and playing good defense..not depending on the QB for everything. Case in point the 2017 team made it to the NFC Championship game with the 3 headed monster of Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and Teddy Bridgewater taking the snaps.)

And maybe that narrative got to him a little bit early on. After a 2-2 start to the season Cousins found himself apologizing publicly (on his podcast) to his number one receiver (Adam Thielen) for absolutely no reason other than not throwing him the ball and/or missing him on a few intended targets. Feel free to hash out all that shit in the locker room boys. I don’t need that story to keep popping up on my yahoo page. It’s literally nothing. A non story. Happens everyday on every team. And then having to deal with all the drama of WR2 (see next paragraph), but Kirk Cousins did settle in and was still able to throw for 26 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions and post his best quarterback rating (107.4) of his career.

The other big name wide receiver on the team (mentioned above) spent time missing practices, throwing tirades (and helmets) during games, and cryptically tweeting (whatever the hell that means) that he wasn’t happy. But Stefon Diggs is no Terrell Owens, Andre Rison, Keyshawn Johnson, or Chad OchoCinco. And I mean that in a good way. All Diggs wants to do is win. Every other guy on that list would rather catch 10 passes for 180 yards and 2 Td’s in a loss than 2 for 23 and 0 in a win. Diggs is not that guy. If you look back at all the instances in which he was unhappy, you’ll find it was either during or after a loss. The exception being the November 17th game against the Broncos when he was throwing helmets and prancing around the sidelines yelling at anyone who’d listen in the 1st half with the Vikings down 20-0. They somehow managed to come back and win that game.

Diggs had never been accused publicly of being a bad teammate by any of the coaches or players on the team. Many of them went out of their way to compliment him on how great of a teammate he actually was. After he signed his five year contract extension I even thought he was a year or two away from the team putting a Captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey.

But, ultimately it was the run-heavy offensive scheme the Vikings employed last year that was just too much for Diggs to personally overcome. He was willing to work with it if they won, but in losses he felt his play-making skills were completely under utilized. And he wasn’t necessarily wrong. And the uncompetitive fashion in which the team lost to the 49ers in the playoffs probably sealed his fate.

As everyone knows, the Vikings decided to trade Diggs in the offseason. Despite a 15 minute YouTube video out there called ‘Kirk Cousins career highlights’ that features Diggs hauling in most of his passes (many of them 50/50 balls), the team worked out a deal that made all three sides happy…a rarity in today’s sports world. The Vikings got a lot of draft capital (more on that later), the Bills got a playmaker on a team-friendly contract and a proven talent to help their young QB, and Diggs got out of Minnesota and a fresh start.

And, as with Percy Harvin years before, I’m left to wonder what could have been.

Despite all the distractions, the Vikings offense managed to improve in most major categories in 2019, and overall be way more efficient than in years past.

Despite Diggs’ indifference to the scheme chosen for the 2019 Minnesota offense, the Vikings managed to put up impressive numbers in rushing yards, time of possession, and Run-Pass balance. And all indications are their offensive line should be at least moderately improved in 2020. Combine that with the looming potential free agency at the end of the year for Dalvin Cook, the emergence of back-up RB Alexander Mattison, and the play-action bootleg scheme that new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak likes to run to keep defenses honest…I expect big things this year again from the Vikings overall rushing attack. And I expect Cousins to post similar numbers to last season when that zone running scheme opens up the play-action passing game. Look for Bisi Johnson and Irv Smith Jr, both second year players, to step up and fill a lot of that void Diggs left behind. And obviously the stability and familiarity Cousins’s has with Thielen and Kyle Rudolph will be a big positive as well.

The defense, which has been the staple of the team since Zimmer took the reigns in 2014, experienced a minor regression in 2019.

Age, bad technique, laziness, and living off name recognition finally caught up to Xavier Rhodes. He became a total liability, gave up big play after big play, and even had his own Diggs-like tirades on the sidelines a few times. Opposing receivers and quarterbacks picked on him at a high rate. Out of 120 cornerbacks that took at least 300 snaps for their respective teams, Rhodes ranked 113th, according to Pro Football Focus. He had zero interceptions and one forced fumble on the year…And countless plays that left his teammates with palms up shaking their heads. In 2019 the Rhodes were no longer closed. He can officially quit selling those t-shirts.

Despite Rhodes’s poor play, and their struggles as a team in the secondary for most of the year, the Vikings still enjoyed standout seasons from Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Harris, along with solid campaigns from Anthony Barr, Everson Griffin, and Linval Joseph. All of which helped stabilize the unit enough to still be ranked 5th in points, and 14th in yards, allowed.

Unfortunately for some, and fortunately for others, salary cap issues made the Vikings cut ties with several of their defensive players this offseason. Gone are the days of Rhodes and Trae Waynes holding down the corner spots as they’ve done for years together. Rhodes was released, and Waynes signed a big free agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Linval Joseph was released due to age and salary. And the team and fans sadly waived goodbye to one of their favorites when Everson Griffin and the front office couldn’t agree on a restructured contract. More devastating…he signed with the Cowboys, and, despite being 32 years old, still has plenty of good years ahead.

All told the Vikings lost nine players overall, five of them starters, from their 2019 defensive unit. The 2020 season will see them bring back key core starters like Smith, Harris, Kendricks, Barr, and Hunter, but a youth movement is clearly underway. It’s been described as a ‘reboot’ in Minneapolis…A slick way to avoid the term ‘rebuild’. Something fans and owners never like hearing.

The Vikings used 9 of their draft picks on defense and are planning on going with an entire new set of corners and nickelbacks. Yesterday they made a trade for one of the best defensive lineman in football, getting Yannick Ngakoue from the Jaguars for two draft picks. A move that, almost overnight, potentially changes how good their defense can be in 2020. If Danielle Hunter is healthy, these two playing together will bookend the best defensive line in football.

But the fact that they made this move confirms what I had already thought: Their secondary might be one of the worst in the league this year. And/or the Hunter is not healthy at all.

It’s a bummer. But it’s true.

The corners they brought back from last years team include former first round pick Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Holton Hill, Nate Meadors, and Mark Fields II.

I just had to get up, walk a big circle around my desk and say out loud to myself ‘Are you kidding me?’

Hughes is now going into his third season and hasn’t shown he can stay healthy. He’s missed more than half of two seasons. And the jury is still out on how effective he can actually be when he does play. He’s their number one corner. Holton Hill is their next most experienced guy back there. He was suspended for the first 8 games last year. 4 for performance enhancing drugs, 4 for substance abuse. He ended up taking only 13.7% of the snaps on defense. Which turned out to be 13.6% too many.

These are their two best returning corners. Think about that. Let it marinate for a second.

Then throw in the fact that Boyd took a total of 96 snaps, Meadors 11, and Fields II 6.

That’s why I don’t get how Peter King, ESPN, or anyone else that I read who gives predictions, just glosses over the secondary and explains it as ‘being young but well coached,’ and then says Minnesota should find itself back in the playoffs. Makes no sense to me.

I know they took three cornerbacks in this years draft, including one in the first round, but even in the best case scenario possible, there’s no chance for them to all be good this year.

So you’re looking at hoping to have one good/solid corner this year if you’re a Viking fan. That’s the reality of the situation. It’s entirely possible they’ll have none and close to a miracle if they get two.

And Zimmer knows that too. He’s an old defensive backs coach. He’ll get out there in front of the cameras and say all the right things, but at the end of the day he knows it’s gonna be tough for these guys to perform at even a decent NFL level.

That’s why they made the trade for Ngakoue. It’s not like there’s a premiere corner in the market they can go out and get. What’s the next best thing? Beef up that pass rush so, in theory, opposing quarterbacks won’t have as much time to throw the ball and pick apart your corners. Also if you can get to the QB without blitzing, while just rushing 4, it allows more guys to drop back into coverage and help.

That’s the theory anyway, but I don’t buy it. It assumes too much…

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All the experts think Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris will hold things together in the secondary. That they’ll maintain stability and defensive continuity, and help the young guys grow up fast.

I’m not one of those experts.

The problem is Smith and Harris aren’t great in coverage themselves.

Smith is one of my all-time favorite Vikings. I’ve loved him since his rookie year. He was always gonna be a good player, but when Zimmer took over in 2014 he became great. However the strength of his game is in how he is used. He’s a hybrid type player that likes to float around and anticipate where the ball is gonna be. He’s great defending the run, he never misses a tackle, is amazing at seeing the plays before they happen, blowing up screen passes, and disguising his timing on blitz’s perfectly. In short, he’s super disruptful and a nightmare to gameplan against. But there have been countless times, when forced to play straight up coverage, where he’s just a step behind and gets burned. It kills me to say it…Harrison Smith is an all-pro NFL football player, but when it comes to evaluating his straight up coverage skills, he’s just average.

Anthony Harris tied for the league lead in interceptions last year with 6. So that automatically means he’s great right? Well, 3 of those were throw-aways that ended up in his lap. Another was tipped at the line of scrimmage and just happened to find him when he appeared to be out of position. Take away last year’s gift-erceptions, and he’s just an average safety. Certainly capable, but no where near the player the local Minnesota media has made him out to be. It’s just easy for lazy sportswriters and clueless media members to check the stat line at the end of the year, see that a safety leads the league in picks, announce he’s one of the best and vote him into the pro bowl. But the GM and coaches know. It’s no surprise the organization waited till the last minute to franchise tag him, and spent the rest of the offseason trying to trade him. His experience and familiarity with the schemes will make it nice to have him back there. But he and Smith aren’t gonna be holding anything together as far as pass coverage goes.

That’s why no matter how many stories I read about how well 1st round pick Jeff Gladney is doing in camp, or how amazing Cameron Dantzler has been in practice against the first team, I’m not buying that you can just plug in a bunch of young corners, coach ’em up, and everything will be fine. Especially not this year, with Covid-19 restrictions and the absence of preseason games to get reps.

Week 1 brings on the Packers and Aaron Rodgers…

Still feel comfortable being so young back there?

How about 7 of the first 8 games come against quarterbacks named Phillip Rivers, DeShaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Rodgers (again), and Matthew Stafford?

I don’t think the best pass rush in the world is gonna keep those guys from picking on all these youngsters Minnesota plugs in back there.

It’s for these reasons that my sad final prediction for Minnesota this year will be a record somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8. No playoffs.

Even though I love their offensive mentality, and how it goes against the grain of what everyone else in the league is doing. And I do like Zimmer as a coach and overall leader, and the staff he’s put together, I just don’t see how they get past all the liabilities that young secondary will showcase.

Combine that with the fact that Zimmer’s Vikings haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since he’s arrived, and add in this year’s muting of one of the most notoriously loud home field advantages in the NFL…and I just don’t think it’s Minnesota’s year.

But I’d love it if they proved me wrong.

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