Aside from Super Bowl, Vikings Have a Holy Grail
The Minnesota Vikings are ordinarily one unit away from breaking through to February football – with 2020 as the exception. The pandemic season offered a plenitude of woes like the defense and special teams. There is no specific rhyme or reason to explain the special teams follies as no one player was accountable. There were a bunch of culprits. And that’s why special teams coordinator, Marwan Maalouf, watched his contract expire without renewal. The defense, though, is probably three healthy bodies away from respectability. September of 2021 will offer a verdict on that blanket statement.
The quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker rooms do not need too much attention this offseason unless the Vikings front office does something crazy with Anthony Barr’s contract. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., and Eric Kendricks are securely under contract for 2021, so Vikings faithful can rest easy knowing nothing too revolutionary is necessary at those positions. The safety position is interesting, not because Harrison Smith is on a downturn, but rather Anthony Harris’ replacement is unknown. Harris is on tap to make some money, and it probably will not be lifted from the Vikings vault. The team could explore free agency for a safety opposite Smith, a rookie, or convert a player like Harrison Hand.
The rest of the roster – needs a tune-up. Think defensive line, primarily. The cornerback portion of the depth chart has a perky prognosis but must avoid sophomore slumps from its second-year personnel – Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney.
Which leads us to the Holy Grail. Just like Gilliam and Jones’ 1975 film, the Vikings are searching for it. It is the pass-blocking aspect of the offensive line.
Decade of Offensive Line Shortcomings
Pro Football Focus recently glanced backward and tracked the pass-protection performance for the Vikings. The tweet was nasty but confirmed the eye test.
Vikings team pass block grade and rank since 2014:
2014: 72.4 (23rd)
2015: 67.9 (28th)
2016: 64.7 (30th)
2017: 71.9 (17th)
2018: 63.6 (27th)
2019: 63.0 (27th)
2020: 55.5 (29th)
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) January 14, 2021
This pig cannot be dressed up. Under head coach Mike Zimmer, the pass-blocking ranking for Minnesota’s offensive line is 26th leaguewide on average. That means – each season you clamor for football in the early autumn, there is a reasonable gamble that the Vikings will unveil the NFL’s seventh-worst pass-protection bunch. It could change in a given year, but the past is not a friendly indicator.
Of course, the single season that the group ranked better than 20th in the league, the franchise came within 60 minutes of hosting a home Super Bowl. It is unlikely that is a coincidence.
Imagine Cousins’ Production with “Normal” Pass Protection
Sometimes, it feels miraculous that the Vikings have won 58% of all games since Zimmer took the reins of the franchise when the offensive line is illustrated in this light. Thank God for defense – would be the mantra to explain it.
Yet, picture a team that could offer Kirk Cousins protection closer to the 17th NFL ranking of 2017 rather than the 27th and 29th seeding of 2019 and 2020. With the NFL’s fourth-worst pass protection, Cousins accrued 4,295 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. As an isolated passing statline, that is phenomenal. The sky is the limit if Cousins had a Top 15 pass-protecting crew. In fact, a stretch of games with consistent pass protection for Cousins would be surreal. The franchise is simply accustomed to mediocre or bad pass blocking. If it is not horrible, it must be decent. That is the assimilation that has occurred over the decade relating to Minnesota’s offensive line.
Every Year, It’s “Maybe This Will Work”
On credit where it is due – the run blocking is actually quite fierce. Adrian Peterson can attest. So can Dalvin Cook. For the most part, run blocking is not one of the Vikings ailments.
But the pass protection is culpable in tying down the offense’s full potential. The Vikings brass has not blatantly ignored the malady, but the remedial decisions are half-measured, so far. The team spent big bucks on Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff during the 2017 offseason. Reiff mostly clicked, Remmers did not. Now, Remmers is heading to a Super Bowl.
In the draft, general manager Rick Spielman has chosen Pat Elflein, Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, and Eza Cleveland for 3rd-round-or-higher offensive linemen since 2017. But from 2014 through 2016, no offensive linemen were plucked from the draft’s first three rounds. The piper is being paid now. This is the time those phantom men should be entering their physical prime.
The solution is to pray that the foundation of O’Neill, Bradbury, and Cleveland is now the core with only two other “finds” to make the thing whole. Otherwise, the Vikings should make roster trims elsewhere – even if they are emotionally difficult ones – to land a stud lineman like Brandon Scherff or Joe Thuney.
If Option B is not executed, a similar article will probably be authored by VikingsTerritory in January of 2022.