While we’re still about a month away from summer, NFL teams have already been calculating their chances for the 2019 season for months now. Most appreciate that planning for next season begins when the horn sounds ending the previous. That’s the nature of professional football in 2019, where the NFL truly is a year-round sport.
Unless that final horn sends your sidelines into super exuberance, you’re disappointed. The single-motivating factor for nearly every pro football player and the team they play for is to feel that elation of being a Super Bowl champion.
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings squad did not even experience the satisfaction of making the playoffs. That wound was deepened by the fact they lost the final week against an increasingly bitter divisional rival in the… The team who shall not be named.
When a possible playoff spot is at stake, this bitterness is magnified. So, how will all this play out as we inch closer to a new season, with new aspirations in the Land of Vikings? What stands out to me at this point, as someone who isn’t entirely enveloped in the Vikings bubble, is the viewpoint from those completely outside of that bubble. Those people are perhaps the most objective in the business as their entire profit and loss depends on that objectivity. Those people are the ones that set the sports betting odds and while they may identify and take advantage of the subjectivity of certain fan bases and their hopes (and thus the money they spend betting on the chances of their team), they really try to see the future in terms of which team will end up winning it all each year.
With that in mind, the Vikings currently have the 14th highest odds to win the Super Bowl. That means that should they end up winning it all it’d turn out to be a big, big surprise. The following odds are from FanDuel Sportsbook.
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Now back to the regularly scheduled program.
Now, as we know, every season in the NFL there are teams that seemingly come out of no where to make the playoffs and while the Vikings definitely wouldn’t be considered as a team that came out of nowhere, they’d definitely have to bounce back from the mediocre (at best) and just plain awful at worst in 2019 to reach the promised land.
Here are my thoughts on the 2019 Vikings and what it’d take for them to do just that. Strap in!
Offensively Offensive in 2018
Once again, the defense wasn’t the problem for Minnesota in 2018; at least when using a wide-angle view of the whole season (as they did start out rough but seemed to figure things out… At least when it came to games that weren’t super important and also when compared to the increasingly futility of the offense. There were some points where the Vikings didn’t provide a timely stop, but for the most part the defense did what they were supposed to do; play well.
A 19th ranked offense showed some of the same promise early in the season (ironically while the defense was struggling to bounce back from the embarrassment they endured in the 2017 NFC Championship Game), but they also seemed to play far worse when the games really matter, which happened far too often. Minnesota’s total yardage count ranked them one spot lower at 20th, and they only fared slightly better in the total-turnover department.
What had many Viking fans scratching their heads was a 10th best rank for most touchdowns scored in the NFL. When you have such a stiff defense, this should mean something better than a final record that’s a tie above .500. However, this is an overall view of the season and as alluded to above, the Vikings couldn’t get things working well on both sides of the ball at the same time. When the offense (or at least the Thielen/Cousins connection) seemed on fire the defense was a shell of its former glorious self (Vikings/Rams, I’m thinking of you!).
That uneven play also extended to special teams, where the Vikings left no less than 30 points on the field with missed field goals. Minnesota’s management didn’t take long to try to correct the early woes in the kicking game. Rookie Daniel Carlson lasted two weeks. The Vikings brought in, former Dallas Cowboy Dan Bailey.
Bailey made it through the entire season, but could only match his accuracy from the previous season in Big D, the worst of his career. Oddly enough, the three missed FGs by Carlson turned out to be far bigger than any envisioned. It earned the Vikings a tie week #2 with the Packers.
A tie, coupled with the final week loss to the Bears, cemented the end to the 2019 season. Sure, there were lots of other missed opportunities along the way by the Vikings, but most of those were by an inconsistent offense.
When your points scored and total yards are one slot above the bottom third of the league, you put a lot of pressure on your defense, no matter how good they are. As we head into 2019, that may have all changed for the Vikings.
Why an Improved Vikings’ Offense Changes Everything
You may ask why we went into such detail about the offensively offensive 2018 Vikings offense when weighing the prospects for a new season. Simple, if the Vikings’ offense even comes close to meeting organizational expectations for production, they will immediately jump over teams on the NFL ranking ladder.
Here’s why an improved offense could almost instantly turn Minnesota into a bonafide NFC contender for a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Age of Offense is Upon Us
Sure, good defenses are a key, have been a key, and will probably continue to be a key in winning championships. Just look at last season’s Super Bowl, which was the lowest scoring in the history of the league with the Patriots besting the Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf 2.0” offense.
The good news is that Minnesota has one of the better and most consistent defenses in the league. Conner Wickland wrote an amazing piece awhile ago about how the Vikings have essentially been the only defense in the league to consistently land in the top 10 for production (while others seem to go from great to mediocre (or worse) each season). You should check that article out, click here to do so.
The other good news is that the Vikings defense could/should be even better in 2019 as they finished top-10 in overall defensive production last season. One area of concern, if we want to get nit-picky (and also ignore the slow start and inability to make stops when the game is on the line), was the fact that they were ranked 18th in the league in terms of takeaways. Which admittedly isn’t a strength to Zimmer’s defense, but as we all know winning the turnover battle is typically a great indicator of a team’s win/loss record and while Zim’s scheme doesn’t lend itself to a lot of interceptions, they can still cause and recover fumbles.
Another area that should improve is the run defense. Minnesota had the third best pass defense in the NFL at the end of last season. However, the run defense landed middle of the pack, but it was a congested group (I made a pun!). A few more timely stops and the Vikings would have been top-10 against the run as well! They were actually pretty close to doing so and there were games where they essentially shut down the opposing team’s run game, however, they typically would have one major error/bad play that’d allow the opposing running back to break free and run for a massive gain/touchdown, which skewed their numbers down and also hurt their chances to win those games especially as the offense began and continued to sputter.
Regardless of the above, though, the point is, Minnesota has the core of an outstanding defense in 2019, and while most of that core is locked down until the early 20’s, they are still going to have to make some decisions regarding the starting cornerback position during/after this season. While CB1 Xavier Rhodes is locked down until the 2022 season, he is making a tremendous amount of money (and is one of the highest paid corners in the NFL). CB2, Trae Waynes, who more and more people believe has surpassed Rhodes’ output, will be a free agent after this upcoming season as will Mackensie Alexander, who has seemingly put the rough start of his career behind him and has really become a good option in the nickel spot.
Beyond those contract situations, one of the reasons that teams struggle to contend year-to-year, especially after winning a Super Bowl is that they take that performance/win and use it to get a larger contract in free agency. So, while most in Minnesota would give up their left foot to see their team win it all, it could very well mean the end of the road for either Waynes or Alexander (or both, assuming they don’t sign an extension during the season, which considering the fact that the Vikings salary cap is essentially overdrafted, is easier said than done).
Now, how can the Vikings turn themselves into a Super Bowl Contender?
As we’ve talked about, gaining more yards and scoring more points is the prescription for Minnesota to turn preseason projections on their ear. Stop the presses! Scoring more points helps teams win! I know, that’s a pretty obvious take, but it’s the How that I’m referring to, or at least the realistic odds that the Vikings will be able to accomplish that goal/how.
One key to accomplishing that goal could be an improved running game. The Vikings can only hope that Dalvin Cook looks more like the rookie who ran for over 300 yards in his limited four games now that he’s completely healthy going into 2019. While 2018 was in no way at least completely terrible, Cook’s speed and elusiveness seemed to lose a half-step in his 11-game 2018 season. Cook is the number one key to helping the Vikings achieve these goals on offense and he should be completely healthy when the season starts as he was still recovering from his ACL tear last season and wasn’t helped by a hamstring injury, either.
While it’s a bit scary to think that Cook has suffered from two non-contact injuries in his two seasons in the NFL and that his back-up and Vikings run game savior (things could’ve been MUCH worse), Latavius Murray, is gone… The good news is that the Vikes spent a third-round pick on Alexander Mattison from Boise State. While the consensus from those in the know seems to be that the Vikings reached a bit in selecting Mattison, they also took Oklahoma offensive lineman Dru Samia with their next pick and if you turn those picks around I’m sure most naysayers would be happy (in the Viking taking Samia, who has described himself as the “nastiest” player in the draft, in the third and Mattison in the fourth).
The pick of Samia should help fix the gigantic problem(s) that helped produce the third-worst running game in the league last season. That problem was the blocking/holes in the middle of the offensive line or lack thereof. The center position is key to Minnesota’s running scheme, another spicy take, I know. Three years ago, they drafted the Rimington Trophy winner out of Ohio State Pat Elflein, to help bolster the line that was admittedly a lot better than the one they had last season. Elflein missed the first three games a year ago, but returned to the lineup and finished out the season while looking like he was knee deep in the stereotypical sophomore slump. However, it’s hard to blame Elflein as he was injured and playing next to arguably the worst 1-2 punch at guard in the league (or perhaps the history of the Vikings) in Tom “Straight Outta” Compton and Mike “I’ve never played guard before” Remmers.
So, why draft a second Rimington winner in Garrett Bradbury with your first selection in the 2019 draft? Some scratched their head over that selection, mainly because it was thought that the Vikings would go guard (and/or thought they might snag a tackle when a couple “highly ranked” tackles fell to them at 18). The answer is simple enough if you notice what’s now projected to be the core of the interior of the new Vikings offensive line for the new season thanks to what we saw at OTA’s last week.
As reported by VikingsTerritory.com’s own editor Joe Oberle, they have shifted the talented (and presumably healthy) Elfein to left at guard, a position he said he was “more comfortable” playing back during his rookie year. That leaves the highly-rated Bradbury to take over the duties at center. Bingo, Bango, the Vikings essentially improved two very important positions with one (first-round) pick. That means that Dalvin Cook and company now will run behind two blockers who both rated as the best college center(s) in the country over the last four years.
That’s exciting and more importantly, reassuring as it should essentially improve the only glaring weakness that this Vikings team had last season. One sideline interaction summed up the entire season, when Cousins and Thielen were talking/yelling at one another and Cousin’s said (and thousands of Vikings fans lip-read) that he “doesn’t have ten seconds”. While ten seconds is forever in the NFL, Cousins should have significantly more time this year and considering the weapons he has at his disposal, that should terrify the rest of the NFL.
Let’s shift a few spots on the line to look at another prominent draft pick that will not only improve the Vikings running attack but bolster the short passing game as well. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama, who was the 50th player drafted but was also a top-ranked pass-catching tight end according to most big boards. He is deemed the future at tight end for the Vikings, but with Kyle Rudolph packed on the opposite side in two-tight end sets; some of the pressure to catch a lot of passes will be reduced even though it is thought that together the two could essentially become the third receiver on the team (Jordan Taylor notwithstanding).
Factor number two for the prospects of the Vikings will fall on the shoulders of Kirk Cousins, who should benefit greatly from the improved run game. Cousins didn’t have a bad season at all in 2018 statistically. He tossed 30 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards. He completed more passes at a higher percentage than at any time during his seven-year career.
One MAJOR problem was all the time he spent on his back. He was sacked 40 times, which while similar to the 41 sacks he dealt with the previous year in Washington, is still his kryptonite. For any quarterback it’s typically hard to run the offense when you’re running for your life or absorbing hit after hit, but Cousins is especially bad under pressure and while he looked like a different man early in the season as he would hang tough in the pocket and complete some absolute dimes (typically to Thielen) while absorbing absolute DAMN!’s a split second later, those hits eventually get to even the best quarterbacks, even those who are good under pressure or who are more mobile than the statue-esque Cousins.
Despite some of those issues, Cousins fell just a few points below a 100 QB rating last year. If the Vikings improved line can give him even another second every time he drops back, look for his accuracy to stay strong but his down the field game to improve massively (and the three and outs that plagued the offense late in the season to be few and far between).
What it All Means in 2019
So, what does the combination of a first and second-round draft pick and an improved offense mean for the new season? We got a hunch it will begin to play out for football fans across the country early in the year.
Minnesota won’t get a bye until week 12. That could be a good thing. The fact that the Vikes play half of their first six games at US Bank Stadium is another good thing. Who they play, may be even more important. The Vikings face Atlanta week one, and then they travel to Lambeau to face the Packers. Starting 1-0 is critical, and Lambeau is a tough environment (even though Cousins arguably had his best games against the Packers last season).
While Green Bay isn’t officially tabbed as in rebuilding mode, this will be their second test under a new system. Got to figure this would be a nice time for Minnesota to knock off a huge divisional game on the road even if the Vikings are also going to be relying on a young offensive line that only has one game under their belt at the time.
It stands to reason that opening the season with a pair of W’s will immediately lift the Viking’s prospects. Now, the next four are a pair of home games they should win, sandwiched around two on the road. The Giants are 100-percent beatable, even at the Meadowlands, for obvious reasons.
The toughest challenge for Minnesota across the first half the season will be a trip to Soldier Field to play those same Chicago Bears that ended their season during Week 17 of the 2018 season. While we all know we can’t win them all, things are looking pretty good in terms of the schedule thus far. Although, it’s really hard to actually calculate strength of schedule until the season starts as the difference year-to-year in the NFL is a big reason why it surpassed the MLB in terms of popularity (parity keeps peoples hopes alive, which is why the salary cap is so important (even if the “competitive balance tax” has helped since it’s implementation in 1997)).
But, Minnesota could easily welcome Cousins’ former Redskin team (which is the current home of Case Keenum and Adrian Peterson) week-8, staring at a 7-1 start. Suddenly, you have a team with future odds +2,600 catapulted into Super Bowl contention. So, you might want to take advantage of the odds right now (especially as there’s a bill pending in the Minnesota legislature as we speak that could legalize sports betting).
Now is when the luster may dull slightly. After playing the Redskins at home, Minnesota must play two tough back-to-back games. They’ll visit the Chiefs at Arrowhead, and then roll down to Big-D to play the Cowboys.
Minnesota should get a week to ease into the bye week, hosting Denver back at US Bank. Next up, is a final five-game push for what should be a playoff spot. Projecting win-loss records isn’t an easy proposition, but an 8-3 mark at this juncture is not out of the question.
Here’s the big news for Vikings’ fans. Three out of those final five games are divisional games, and every one of them is at home. The Seahawks and Chargers are both going to be challenging on the road or otherwise, and you can expect Green Bay and Chicago to show up at US Bank Stadium with a win on their minds. But as we know, where those games take place is incredibly important (especially when it comes to the Bears and Soldier Field where former Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway told Joe Johnson and Joe Oberle on ‘Morning Joes’ last season that the players all know in the back of their minds that they’re going to ‘F***’ things up in Chicago).
If is a big word, especially more than a month before camp opens. However, a Vikings defense that continues to be one of the best in the league, matched with an improved offensive, means double-digit wins by this team is clearly doable. There is no denying that Mike Zimmer has produced some successful teams with little more than an average offense and his typical defense, and this team has all the potential to be much more than average.
That could all change, and change a lot in 2019. While FanDuel Sportsbook’s futures odds of +2,600 may be a reach, a strong early season will erase that chance. No one with a heart of purple would dismiss grabbing a little action at those early odds to win it all. I’m not even one of those people but I’ve put my money where my mouth is.
One interesting thing to consider is the Vikings having better odds to win the NFC when compared to the Dallas Cowboys, than they do to win the Super Bowl. Yeah, that got us to thinking as well.
Now look at the futures win total odds. Both Minnesota and Green Bay are set with an over/under for total wins at 9. The Bears are only spotted a half-point more at 9.5. Any type of early season success in Minnesota will see these enticing odds evaporate.
Dig a little deeper and both the Packers and the Bears have negative odds for making and not making the playoffs. Green Bay is -104 and Chicago -110 to make it. Chicago has a matching -110 to miss the NFC playoffs, while the Packers are -118.
Minnesota has nearly an identical over/under for total wins, but a +138 number for making the playoffs. Again, hard to project actual wins and losses more than three months away from the first official kickoff, but this type of disparity screams of an underrated potential surprise.
No one in Minnesota can forget that their team is all but one year removed from losing out on a trip home to the Super Bowl against the team that eventually won it all. That season is still hard to swallow for Vikings, fans and players alike since the big game was played in their home stadium. So close, but yet so far, which should be the Vikings slogan.
The 2017 team tied for the most regular season wins in the league, including 10 wins in the conference. It appears that the eight-win mark, including a tie, in 2018 has clouded the oddsmakers’ memories as they rely a lot on the ‘What have you done for me lately’ line of reasoning.
If Minnesota’s offense clicks early, they’re going to win. If the win early, their Super Bowl odds are going to change. All the odds on the Vikings will change, and change quickly. Even if both the Bears and Packers will be formidable foes.
Minnesota plays a handful of very tough non-divisional games on the road as well. However, this team may prove strong enough to win more than half their tough games. If Mike Zimmer’s staff can work a little offensive magic, the offense will no longer be offensive to watch.
When that happens, purple will a fashionable color when the experts talk about which teams are Super Bowl favorites. Don’t be surprised if you hear the Vikings mentioned both often and prominently, which means that if you believe the above, you might want to toss some loot behind your favorite squad.