The Vikings Offense a top 5-10 unit in 2020? Part 1
If there’s one thing I can say about myself it is that despite my wardrobe, I’m a pretty self aware person. I say that because I’m sure some of you see me disagreeing with otherwise positive news for our favorite team and think “Can’t this guy ever be happy? He hates power rankings because the Vikings get no respect and now you’re saying this is wrong?”
I hate to answer a question with a question but, what is this word happiness?
I certainly can be, or as happy as a Vikings fan can be when discussing the NFL. I just don’t believe in being happy for the sake of being happy, and feel like those in the local and national media that are painting the Vikings as something they clearly won’t be in 2020 are either doing that (the former) or just haven’t paid enough attention to what is going on in Eagan (the latter).
Case in point; our friends over at Bleacher Report released their list of the top seven NFL offenses of 2020 and the Vikings ended up as their seventh ranked squad.
Let’s take a look at what they said and break things down paragraph by paragraph!
“The remarkably balanced Minnesota Vikings offense was one of just four units to average 8.0 yards per pass attempt and 4.5 yards per rush attempt in 2019. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was the league’s fourth-highest-rated passer, while Dalvin Cook was one of seven backs to average more than 80 rushing yards per outing. “
What was even more astounding about the output of the 2019 Vikings was the fact that they did it sans the best slot and possession receiver in the league, Adam Thielen.
In fact, during the stretch in which Kirk Cousins mirrored 2018’s league MVP Patrick Mahomes’ stats almost exactly, Cousins didn’t have his go to receiver (see the record breaking start Thielen had to his 2018 season which also “coincidentally” was the start to “Diggs being Diggs”) in Thielen, who missed or went six regular season contests without a catch in 2019.
While some may say that that should limit any concern about the 2020 passing attack now that Stefon Diggs got the wish he claims he never wanted, that’s a tough comparison to make.
The Buffalo Bills got a preview of Diggs as the lone #1 option in a passing attack in 2019, with Stefon being the sole established option during the above mentioned contests where he wasn’t lining up opposite his former BFF.
The results were mixed, as while Diggs ended up with the most yards of his career (besting his 2018 campaign, the first 1,000 yard campaign of his short career) by a margin of 100 or so yards. Strangely, though, he also had far less grabs, with 63 receptions on the season compared to 102 the year before.
That meant a massive increase in his average yards per reception, though, going from an even 10.0 in 2018 to 17.9 in 2019. But you’d think that without Thielen essentially wide open (thanks to the coverages he drew down the field a la 2018), Diggs would’ve been nabbing more balls in 2019 than he did in 2018. Especially considering the record breaking start Cousins and Thielen had to start that season.
That is just a surface level assumption though, as there were other things going on with the Vikings offense that affected Diggs’ output. Which is what makes the comparison to a season with Thielen and without Diggs not an apples to apples situation. As you’ll see in part 2 of this series, the Vikings haven’t replaced Diggs’ deep ball ability and have arguably hurt Thielen’s ability to compensate for that loss by drafting two slot receivers.
But that topic, while intertwined, is a story for another day. So where were we? Oh yeah. What changed between 2018 and 2019 that had an impact on the passing game?
The amazing year that Dalvin Cook had in his third season in the league and the addition of Gary Kubiak and his team who brought their zone blocking/running scheme to Minnesota.
While the offense in Minnesota under Zimmer had long claimed to be a run first unit, 2019 was the first year since Adrian Peterson’s amazing 2015, where that felt like something done because of results and not just Zimmer’s love of leather helmet era ball.
That made Cook the focal point, which has had both positive and negative impacts on the offense. Some more obvious than the others. While dominant run games typically are a boon to the pass game (drawing more defenders in the box, setting up play-action passing, e.g.), the Vikings have sacrificed pass protection for undersized or “athletic” offensive lineman who can get to the second level more than drop back, dig in and create a clean pocket for Cousins.
Former Vikings head coach Mike Tice stopped by my podcast, Morning Joes, to recap the 2019 season and as one of the most respected offensive lineman coaches ever in the NFL I asked him about the state of the line.
He essentially said that the trade off with zone blocking schemes is the inability to create a clean pocket, and when I asked if anything could be done this off-season to fix that, he had a one word answer: “No”.
If you think I’m overreacting just look at the Josh Kline move and the reaction to it. Most in Vikings media were quick to label my response to the Red Wedding that was the start to free agency for Minnesota the typical “overreaction” and that the Vikings clearly “had a plan” (which I’ve heard after every draft in which the team again neglects the guard positions on the offensive line). Then the Kline move came and people started to Tweet things like “Now I’m worried”.
Kline was, alongside right tackle Brian O’Neill, the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal 2019 unit, especially in the run game. Just look at this game-by-game list of Dalvin Cook’s average yards per carry:
Josh Kline missed three games in 2019 due to concussion. I’ll let you guess which three.
Just when the Vikings had something to build upon on their line, with a right side of rookie Garrett Bradbury, right guard Josh Kline and stud right tackle Brian O’Neill, the team cut Kline to save $1.4 million and eat $4.6 million in dead cap space over the next couple seasons.
Because he wasn’t “athletic enough” and didn’t get to the second level for screens as well as hoped. That’d be fine if the Vikings had drafted a replacement for him, but of course they only used one of a record 15 draft picks on a guard, with that pick being the last of the 15 and the second-to-last pick in the entire draft.
That left the team with two gaping holes on a line (as they replaced a positive known factor for more unknowns that have up until now been negative once known) that was 27th against the pass rush (according to Pro Football Focus) in 2019 and was so inept for most of the season that Cousins literally had to run bootlegs/rollouts/for his life if he wanted enough time to throw the ball.
That lead other more patient Vikings media members to finally call BS on the Vikings “plans” for their line after offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak came out and said the same refrain we’ve heard each off-season, last week.
That despite the hopes of everyone (except me) Riley Reiff wouldn’t be moving to left guard, and that four of the five starters from 2019 were back (although center turned left guard Pat Elflein would have to compete for his spot), and that there was a lot of faith that the answer for the line was already on the roster so that’s why the team yet again enacted the logic of/that 2003 Red McCombs had for the lack of investment in the atrocious Vikings defense “It’s championship caliber already!”
Whether it has been Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur, John DeFilippo, Kevin Stefanski or now Gary Kubiak Vikings fans have heard that refrain seemingly every off-season to arguably worse and worse results each season.
It’s maddening. Especially when you can grab quality guard help in the middle rounds of the draft, and when the Vikings roster was so stacked elsewhere in 2019 especially. Some will say that you have to make sacrifices when building a team and that no team is perfect, but when your team clearly keeps failing for one very specific and very reasonable (in terms of draft or free agency) capital and you don’t even try to fix it, at some point that is on you.
If it is for that reason, that there are only so many dollars each season, wouldn’t it make more sense to sign actual guards instead of constantly paying tackles to play guard?
But apparently Zimmer and Spielman think that guards can be created out of whole cloth. Since they haven’t made any changes to their approach I can’t make any changes to my expectations. Even with the Vikings having the sixth highest scoring offense for a stretch in 2019, I can’t imagine them coming near that in 2020 with the loss of Kline and Diggs.
That could end up being what makes 2020 one of if not the worst regular season under Zimmer (who previously had a 7-9 record in his first season), as with all the turnover on defense the offense is expected to carry the load.
That is why, at least partially, why I think that these articles about the Vikings contending in 2020 are either mostly wishful thinking on a local level or a lack of understanding about what has happened in Minnesota lo these last few seasons. The team won’t say this but clearly with the cuts they are starting another multi-year plan. So, I didn’t expect them to contend this year and am a bit surprised everyone is assuming they will?
I figured they’d take a year to get their ducks in a row with their new corners, defensive line starters and Jefferson in the passing game. But since everyone is making projections that they’ll somehow improve on their 2019 season despite the amount of position-by-position talent they had not to mention the unique continuity especially on defense?
Sorry, someone has to say lets pump the brakes here. I am not saying that this new mini-rebuild or whatever you want to call it so you don’t have to admit that the previous window of opportunity is (perhaps temporarily) closed has failed.
I am just saying that replacing All Pro and Pro Bowl players with rookies, unproven back-ups and unknowns while ignoring continued positions of extreme need, has never been a recipe for improvement.
Like an upcoming visit to the dentist, just accept its inevitability and that it’ll be a bit painful and mundane but at least they give you something to read.