The Minnesota Vikings are going through a time of change. Of the magical 2017 team that went 13-3 and made the NFC Championship game, only four offensive starters and four defensive starters remain. Those numbers, for the defense at least, were much higher last season.
Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Andrew Sandejo, Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes all left the team this offseason and were huge pieces in the Vikings last bid for a super bowl. With all those defensive players gone, and a somewhat new look offense devoid of Stefon Diggs, it begs the question, will the Vikings grow or regress this season?
To answer that question, I’m going to look at each position group individually and say whether they are going to grow, regress, or stay the same.
Kirk Cousins will be the Vikings starter at quarterback for the third season in-a-row. If it feels like a long time since this has happened, that’s because it has. The last Vikings quarterback to start three consecutive season openers was Daunte Culpepper who started five consecutive from 2000-2005.
So, for the first time in 15 years, the Vikings have a guy who’s consistently in the lineup at the most important position on the field. This also isn’t some young guy who the team is just trotting out to not make them look bad, this is a top 10 quarterback statistically in the league.
Seeing Kirk Cousins outduel Drew Brees in the playoffs last year made me think of a certain Happy Gilmore scene.
A lot will depend on how the offensive line in front of him plays, but we are very unlikely to see Cousins take a step back at this point. Will he be leaps and bounds better than he has been in the past? No.
He’s not going to all of a sudden become vintage Aaron Rodgers and carry his team to victory, with a little help from the men in stripes of course. However, he’s going to put up a ton of yards and touchdowns and, assuming he has the time to make decisions, he’s not going to turn the ball over too much.
Final Verdict: Stay the same, maybe grow a bit
It looks like Dalvin Cook is not going to be holding out of the 2020 season, so Vikings fans can breathe a sigh of relief there. Cook, who is looking to build off of a great season where he put up over 1600 yards from scrimmage and 13 rushing touchdowns, was a candidate to hold out due to his lack of extension following this season.
That would be a huge blow to the Vikings offense and especially the running game. We saw last year that while the Vikings seem to have found a gem of a backup in Alexander Mattison, he isn’t nearly as dynamic as Cook and struggled in his few opportunities to be the guy.
Assuming that Cook plays, the Vikings should see some growth. Now that is if Cook stays healthy enough to play. As we’re all well aware, last season was Cook’s first in the NFL where he played nearly the entire season and he still missed time with some chest/shoulder issues.
With a healthy Cook taking 70% of the snaps, Mattison taking 25% and Abdullah/Boone taking the rest, the Vikings should see as much from Cook and more from Mattison. If they have to bump Mattison’s number and have Abdullah/Boone take more snaps, we could see a big step backwards.
Final Verdict: Grow, assuming Dalvin Cook plays
This is the position group that most NFL fans will expect the Vikings to regress at. The team traded the oft-upset Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for a draft pick that would turn into rookie Justin Jefferson. Diggs, who famously walked-off the New Orleans Saints in 2017, put together his past season yards wise in 2019 with 1130 receiving yards and added six receiving touchdowns.
Despite this success, Diggs clawed his way out of Minnesota and away from a sure fire top 10 quarterback. So, the Vikings had to take Jefferson and hope for the best. Oh and the Vikings still have Adam Thielen, who has been a top 15 receiver in the NFL the past few years. Thielen will be sitting on the wrong side of thirty in ten days, but I don’t expect a huge step down despite the injury last year.
Yes, it will be hard to replace Diggs, but with Thielen returning healthy and Jefferson looking every bit as good as a first round receiver should, the Vikings aren’t in bad shape. Obviously, it’s ridiculous to expect Jefferson to step in and straight up replace Diggs, for one thing, they have two pretty different play styles, but the regression should be minimal.
As far as depth goes, they look even better than last season in regards to depth. Between Tajae Sharpe, Chad Beebe and Olabisi Johnson, the Vikings should be able to find a solid WR3. Behind them, the team is carrying a ton of potential with five rookies or second year players fighting for a roster spot.
Final Verdict: Slight Regression
It seems like it was just this time last year that Vikings fans were trying to cut Kyle Rudolph. Oh wait, they were. Rudy proved that he still had some gas left in the tank last season, putting up nearly 400 receiving yards and six touchdowns, not to mention sealing the Vikings playoff victory with a touchdown grab to walk off the New Orleans Saints.
The stats might not sound that impressive, but for a player that was the third or fourth option on most passing plays and was over 30, it isn’t bad. With the Vikings hoping to get even more out of Irv Smith Jr, who looked excellent last season when called upon, Rudolph doesn’t need to put up great numbers to stay the same or even do better.
Let’s talk about Irv Smith. In his rookie campaign, he put up 311 receiving yards and a couple of receiving touchdowns. He also looked like he was ahead of the curve in his blocking ability too, something that scouts were wary of given his lack of use in that way during his time at Alabama.
Historically, tight ends tend to put up much better numbers after their initial season in the NFL. With that in mind, I think it’s fair to expect at least 500 receiving yards and five touchdowns from Irv this season. That would go a long way in giving Rudolph a break and helping the tight end group get even better.
Final Verdict: Significant Growth
The Vikings are pretty well set up at the offensive tackle position. Riley Reiff is, at the very least, fine and Brian O’Neill is quickly rocketing into elite territory. I don’t see that really changing this season, outside of Reiff falling off a cliff either literally or in terms of his play.
As far as depth goes, the team has put themselves in great position to see growth with Oli Udoh and rookie Ezra Cleveland. Udoh showed that he belongs last season by continually stopping Kahlil Mack in the Vikings week 17 game against the Chicago Bears. If he is called upon, he should be ready to slide up to O’Neill’s right tackle position and hold down the fort extremely well.
Ezra Cleveland is like a dream come true for Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak. Outside of some issues setting his anchor in pass protection, he is perfect for the zone blocking scheme. Very agile, great reach, and a nastiness in the open field are going to make Cleveland a strong candidate for the starting left tackle position, putting pressure on Riley Reiff for the first time in several seasons.
Competition is always good, and the vikings have a healthy amount of it at both offensive tackle positions.
Final Verdict: Significant Growth
If I had to pick one position where Rick Spielman and company really dropped the ball this off-season, it would be guard. Pat Elflien was abysmal last season, but nothing has been done to even push him to be better. Nobody was brought in to create fierce competition and it seems that he’s going to get to coast to a starting spot.
On the other side, it’s either going to be long-time backup Dakota Dozier or second year man Dru Samia. Now, I’m as excited about Samia as anybody, but he showed last preseason that he is still pretty raw and not ready to be relied on. Dozier was okay in spurts, but he can’t hold his own as a starter.
Now, we still don’t know why Josh Kline was let go, but he was the Vikings best offensive lineman not named O’Neill last season, at least when healthy. With the lack of any sort of plan to grow the spot, outside of hoping for a miracle from Elflien and hoping Samia pans out, Spielman could really be kicking himself over this position.
Final Verdict: Regression, unless Elf turns it around and Samia looks amazing
The Vikings finally took charge of the center position last season by getting rid of Pat Elflien. Well, they got him out of the center spot at least. They replaced him with rookie Garrett Bradbury who was the highest drafted Vikings offensive Lineman since Matt “one-hit wonder” Kalil.
By most accounts Bradbury was solid. He looked the part certainly and it was rare that you could easily point to him and say that he messed up. However, that’s because Elflien next to him was just that bad. If Bradbury missed an assignment, blame Elflien.
Now, I’m not saying it’s time to give up on Bradbury, but I’m just saying pump the brakes on praising him too much. He seemed to mostly play better in the second half of the season and we should expect him to grow quite a bit between years one and two, that is however what we were also told with Elflien when he was the starting center.
A lot of Bradbury’s growth, or lack thereof, will be dependent on how the guards around him perform. If he is able to focus on his man and his assignment and not have to cover for either side of him, he should be fine, maybe even very good. If he has to try to block three different assignments, well, there’s always next year.
Final Verdict: Slight Growth