There were plenty of questions about the Vikings and quarterback Kirk Cousins heading into the 2019 playoffs. Down the stretch of the 2019 season, the Vikings lost at home to Green Bay in week 16 that cost them the division title and Minnesota scored just ten points in the process. A week 17 home loss to the Bears didn't mean much, other than amplifying the spotlight on Cousins that much more prior to the Vikings trip to New Orleans for Wild card weekend.
Facing the Saints, the Vikings were 7.5 point underdogs, but Cousins put the offense on his back, making a couple of career-defining throws in overtime to lead the Vikings to a 26-20 win. Now, the Divisional round playoff trip to San Francisco didn't go well at all but that Wild card upset win over New Orleans gave those in the Vikings organization hope that Cousins was ready to take the Vikings to new heights in 2020.
Consequently, 2020 will severely test that sentiment as the Vikings have shed a layer of skin, proverbially speaking, and perhaps not in a good way. No longer on the roster heading into 2020 - receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive linemen Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes. Oh, by the way, Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook won't come back around until a new contract is in his hands, apparently. Holy transformation, Batman.
But, there's still Cousins, heading into his third year in Minneapolis, and plenty of talent to put the Vikings right back into playoff contention in 2020. So, let's get to Know The Texans Week 4 Foe - the Minnesota Vikings.
2019 Schedule - Record 10-6, earned Wild card berth, 2nd in NFC North
W, Atlanta Falcons 28-12
L, @ Green Bay Packers 21-16
W, Oakland Raiders 34-14
L, @ Chicago Bears 16-6
W, @ New York Giants 28-10
W, Philadelphia Eagles 38-20
W, @ Detroit Lions 42-30
W, Washington Redskins 19-9
L, @ Kansas City Chiefs 26-23
W, @ Dallas Cowboys 28-24
W, Denver Broncos 27-23
L, @ Seattle Seahawks 37-30
W, Detroit Lions 20-7
W, @ Los Angeles Chargers 39-10
L, Green Bay Packers 23-10
L, Chicago Bears 21-19
W, @ New Orleans Saints 26-20
L, @ San Francisco 49ers 27-10
Vikings OFFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 133.3 ypg (6th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 220.2 ypg (23rd)
Total offense per game - 353.5 ypg (16th)
Turnovers lost - 20 (8 INT, 12 Fumbles lost)
Projected Vikings starting offense in 2020
QB - Kirk Cousins
RB - Dalvin Cook
FB - C.J. Ham
WR - Adam Thielen
WR - JUSTIN JEFFERSON
TE - Kyle Rudolph
LT - Riley Reiff
LG - Pat Elflien
C - Garrett Bradbury
RG - Dakota Dozier/EZRA CLEVELAND
RT - Brian O'Neill
Other Key Offensive pieces
TE - Irv Smith Jr.
RB - Alexander Mattison
RB - Mike Boone
OG - Dru Samia
WR - TAJAE SHARPE
TE - Tyler Conklin
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2020
The Vikings may look significantly different in 2020 and, on the other hand, perhaps not different at all. They have a new offensive coordinator, but Gary Kubiak was instrumental in the construction of the offense over the past couple of seasons. Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook may hold out due to contract demands, yet there's plenty of time to get it worked out before the start of the season. #1 wide receiver Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo in the offseason, but the Vikings used the Bills 1st rounder to draft...another wide receiver Justin Jefferson. With all those changes, the Vikings will follow the lead of their Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins, good, bad or otherwise.
When we were at The Combine in late February, Marc and I spent some time with Vikings play by play voice Paul Allen. He was very clear about how big a year this was for Kirk Cousins but he did like what he saw from Cousins late last year, in particular in the Vikings upset Wild Card weekend win over the Saints in New Orleans. The ninth year quarterback threw for 3.603 yards and 26 touchdowns with just six interceptions and earned his second Pro Bowl nod. But, the holdout of the Vikes star running back Dalvin Cook and the loss of a dynamic threat at receiver (Stefon Diggs) will put significant pressure on Cousins in the final year of his three year deal with Minnesota. Make or break doesn't even come close to describing this 2020 season for Cousins.
It's the Dalvin Cook show...well, for now, maybe, but I don't know. He's not happy about his contract status and is looking for an extension. The Pro Bowl back ran for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 14 games, in his third year, with the Vikings. So, in early June, he decided to make his demands known. If he decides, ala former Pro Bowl running backs Le'Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon, to hold out for a significant period of time, there's no telling when the Vikings could see Cook back in the fold. But, don't cry in your beverage for the purple and gold. Alexander Mattison averaged 4.6 yards per carry as Cook's main backup and Mike Boone averaged 5.6 yards per carry on just 49 carries. Neither one of them is Cook, but they provide adequate support if Cook extends his stay away.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
Stefon Diggs accounted for 21.2% of the Vikings' passing targets and 19.7% of their completions in 2019...and he'll be in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. The Vikings traded their mercurial pass catcher to the Bills for what amounted to former LSU star Justin Jefferson. Adam Thielen had a down year due to injuries that cost him six games, but he now must carry the mantle, along with Jefferson, in the passing game. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. caught 75 passes and eight touchdown passes between them and I don't expect that number to drop with Gary Kubiak taking over as the team's offensive coordinator.
The Vikings have tweaked this line each and every season, signing free agents like Riley Reiff and drafting starters Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury and Brian O'Neill in the first three rounds in the past four drafts. The Vikings also added Boise State tackle Ezra Cleveland in the second round in the 2020 Draft and he could play a number of different positions on this line in the future. But, in the present, the Vikings must find a replacement for Josh Kline who started 15 games in 2019 and hope Elflein and company continue to make strides in front of Cousins. This unit gave up just 28 sacks (tied for fifth in the league) and helped make Cook a Pro Bowler in 2019. This is an underrated unit that helps lead the way for this offense.
Vikings DEFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 108.0 ypg (13th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 233.6 ypg (15th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 341.6 ypg (14th)
Turnovers generated - 31 (17 INT, 14 Fumble recoveries - Vikings were +11 in TO margin)
Projected Vikings starting defense in 2020
DE - Danielle Hunter
NT - MICHAEL PIERCE
DT - Shamar Stephen
DE - Ifeadi Odenigbo
LB - Anthony Barr
LB - Eric Kendricks
LB - Ben Gedeon
CB - Mike Hughes
S - Harrison Smith
S - Anthony Harris
CB - JEFF GLADNEY
Other Key Defensive pieces
DT - Jaleel Johnson
CB - CAMERON DANTZLER
LB - TROY DYE
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
Now, this Vikings defense isn't going to go quietly into the night, not with Mike Zimmer as the head coach. That said, there has been some significant change on that side of the ball. Gone...Linval Joseph, the stout hoss in the middle. Xavier Rhodes, the Pro Bowl cornerback. Everson Griffen, although there's a chance he could come back. Trae Waynes, cornerback that finally found some footing after being drafted in 2015. This defense was one of the league's best just two years ago, fell to the middle of the pack in the league in 2019 and now must replace the four key pieces noted above in 2020. That said, the Vikings still Pro Bowl defenders at each level of this defense and will still be a vaunted unit in 2020.
There's been some noise around Griffen potentially returning to the Vikings and they might need him if no true answer develops opposite Pro Bowl star edge rusher Danielle Hunter. The former Morton Ranch (Katy) HS product turned his game up three notches last year as he racked up 14.5 sacks and 70 tackles from his edge position. The Vikings saw enough in Ifeadi Odenigbo last year to not re-sign Griffen. Odenigbo had seven sacks in a season in which he didn't start one time. As such, he should step into a starting role, and a key one at that, as no other returning player had more than 3.5 sacks. Furthermore, longtime interior star Linval Joseph moved in on free agency. This will be an athletic unit with Hunter leading the way, but there could be some issues early in the season due to those changes. It might be better to catch them early as the Texans do than later in the season when this group could start to gel.
When the Texans last faced the Vikings, the two inside linebackers were Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. When the Texans face the Vikings in week four, the Vikings two inside linebackers will be Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, barring any unforeseen injuries. Honestly, I'd rather not. These two have both been to the Pro Bowl. Kendricks was 1st team All-Pro last year. When the Vikings aren't in nickel, this duo does need a running mate but it's a minor need, really. Kendricks and Barr might be, arguably, the best inside linebacking duo the Texans face this season.
The back end is equal parts similar and completely different. At safety, Harrison Smith is the foundation piece in the back end and has been since he arrived in the league. Furthermore, the Vikings franchised Anthony Harris who was brilliant in 2019. So, the safety duo of Smith/Harris will stay in place for at least another year, at a minimum. At cornerback? Not so much. Exit Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes. Enter Mike Hughes and rookie Jeff Gladney. The Vikings made first round investments in two of the past three seasons in Hughes and Gladney and it's time for them to take over with Rhodes and Waynes now in the AFC. If there's a significant challenge for this squad, not just the defense but the entire team, it's at the cornerback position. The two have just five combined starts among them, obviously all Hughes, so there are going to be growing pains, to say the least, in the Vikings secondary.