Mike Fanelli | February 3rd, 2020
The 2019 season was one of many streaks for the Minnesota Vikings. Starting the season 2-2 with a 0-2 record in the division after losing to the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, the Vikings won eight of their next 10 games, only losing to two playoff teams; the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks. However, the Vikings limped into the playoffs as Dalvin Cook struggled with shoulder and chest injuries, and the team finished the year on a two-game losing streak.
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What Went Right
Starting with the playoffs, the Vikings were the biggest underdog on Wild Card Weekend against the New Orleans Saints. In some spots, the Vikings were 10 point underdogs. However, they played one of their better games of the season and won in overtime 26-20 on a controversial walk-off touchdown by Kyle Rudolph. Their victory was the second time in three years that the Vikings have defeated the Saints in the playoffs with a game winning touchdown.
During the season, the offense played well during their hot streak. Despite missing two games and leaving a few others because of injuries, Cook finished 10th in the league with 1,135 rushing yards. His 13 rushing touchdowns ranked fourth-best in the league, and the Vikings offense was much more explosive with him on the field. Not only did Cook have the best year of his career in 2019 but Kirk Cousins improved in his second season in Minnesota.
Last year, Cousins was a big name free agent and the first player to ever get a fully guaranteed contract. However, the Vikings regressed as a whole and missed the playoffs. Cousins went 8-7-1 last year but finished this season 10-5 as the starter (he sat out week 16). While his passing yards and touchdowns but dropped, he threw a career-low 0.4 interceptions per game and had a career-high 107.4 QBR. The Vikings were a run heavy team in 2019 as Cousins had a career-low 29.6 pass attempts per game. However, when he was asked to throw, Cousins had success.
What Went Wrong
Offensively, the team struggled to consistently score points. They failed to score more than 24 points in seven of their games this season, yet they scored more than 30 points in five games. Stefon Diggs had the most inconsistent season of his career. The inconsistent play, his on the field outbursts, and a tight cap situation have led to rumors that the Vikings could trade him this offseason. To be fair to Diggs, he only had three games this season with nine or more targets. However, he only topped 77 yards receiving in six games this season.
Despite Adam Thielen missing six games and not finishing two others with hamstring injuries, Diggs couldn’t get going. Thielen also struggled when healthy, going over 60 yards receiving in just two games this season despite seeing seven or more targets in about half of his games. Much of his struggles were because of the hamstring injuries as he was a monster in the playoff game against the Saints. In that game, Thielen caught seven of nine targets for 129 yards. If healthy in 2020, Thielen should bounce back to his old form.
Defensively, the secondary struggled. Xavier Rhodes‘ play fell off a cliff and despite him being named a Pro Bowl alternative (a debate for another day), there is no way Rhodes is back with the Vikings in 2020 at his current cap number, if at all. Former first-round pick Mike Hughes played in just six games as a rookie but was able to stay healthy for 14 games this season. However, he went on injured reserve to close out the regular season with a neck injury. With so many injuries and Rhodes’ poor play, the Vikings’ secondary was a weak spot for a normally great defense. This area must be improved in the offseason.
Outlook for the Offseason
The offseason has already kicked off for the Vikings. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was hired as the Cleveland Browns’ new head coach. To replaced Stefanski at offensive coordinator, the Vikings promoted Gary Kubiak from an offensive advisor role. The team won’t be active in free agency, as they are currently projected to be $10.1 million dollars over the cap. With no cap space to work with, the Vikings will have to make several tough decisions on who to cut and who to re-sign this spring.
The Team’s Free Agents
With a top heavy roster, the Vikings are tight for cap space. Some veterans that could be at risk for being cut are Everson Griffen (saving $13.1 million in space), Linval Joseph ($10.6 million), Riley Reiff ($8.8 million), Rhodes ($8.1 million), and Rudolph ($3 million). Of this group, Reiff is the most likely to be safe. Rhodes is almost a guarantee to be cut, while Griffin and Joseph could be cut if they don’t agree to a restructure or pay cut. If the Vikings cut Griffin, Joseph, Rhodes, the Vikings will have $21.7 million dollars in cap space but will have to replace three starters on defense.
Before cutting any of these guys, the Vikings will look at trading them as they will open up the same amount of cap either way. Of the group, Rudolph is the most likely to be traded as rookie Irv Smith Jr. showed promise this year. Another name that has been swirling in trade rumors is Diggs. However, the Vikings would only save $5.5 million dollars in cap space and would have a big hole to fill at wide receiver. Given their lack of depth at wide receiver, I doubt Diggs is traded unless the Vikings get a top 50 draft pick in return, and even then they might not agree to it.
The Vikings could restructure the contracts of several players to open up cap space. While restructure contracts will make their cap situation worse in years to come, Cousins’ horrible contract will come off the books after this season, which will help. Four players who could be candidates for restructured contracts including Griffin, Joseph, Diggs, and Thielen. If the Vikings restructure all four deals, they can open up almost $30 million dollars in cap space.
If the Vikings can open enough cap space, they have several veterans they should try to re-sign, mostly in the secondary. Starting defensive backs Trae Waynes, Anthony Harris, and Mackensie Alexander are all upcoming free agents. More than likely, the Vikings will be able to re-sign one of those three but if they can keep two, that would be great. Hughes should be able to step into a starting role at cornerback but with Rhodes likely being cut, the Vikings need to keep at least one of Waynes or Alexander.
The two other veterans the Vikings should try to re-sign are fullback C.J. Ham and punter Britton Colquitt. Ham is one of the better fullbacks in the league and plays a critical role in the Vikings’ running game. Meanwhile, Colquitt has been one of the better punters during his time in the league, averaging 45.5 yards per punt for his career. During his first season in Minnesota, he averaged 45.2 yards per punt.
Open Market Free Agents
Currently projected to be over the cap, the Vikings won’t be active in free agency. Two former Texas Longhorns’ Holton Hill and Kris Boyd have shown some promise during their short time in the league, and hopefully one if not both are ready for a bigger role next season. However, with potentially losing four of their five starting defensive backs this offseason, the Vikings will need to find some cheap veteran option on the open market.
Some potential options include Los Angeles Chargers’ safety Adrian Phillips and Tennessee Titans’ cornerback Tramaine Brock. Both guys aren’t expected to be re-signed by their current teams and could be nice cheaper replacements for Harris and Waynes. Ultimately, even if the Vikings can re-sign one of their defensive backs and sign a veteran or two on a cheap deal, they will still need to address this position early in the draft.
Projecting the NFL Draft
How the Vikings attack the draft will depend a lot on who they cut and which members in the secondary they re-sign. Assuming they can only re-sign one of their defensive backs and cut Rhodes, the Vikings will need to spend at least one, if not two, of their three top 90 picks on the secondary. Hopefully, the Vikings can restructure and squeeze out enough cap space without having to move on from Griffin or Joseph, as doing so would open up a starting spot that needs to be filled.
Round 1, Pick 25: Defensive Back
Whether this is a safety or a cornerback, the Vikings will need to replenish their depth in the secondary come April. There will be too many players leaving this unit and the Vikings can’t ignore the fact they play in a division with several great wide receivers including Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, and Kenny Golladay. Adding help in the secondary is a must.
Round 2, Pick 58: Wide Receiver
If Diggs is traded, this becomes a much bigger need. Even if Diggs is wearing purple and gold in 2020, the depth behind him and Thielen is awful. Olabisi Johnson had a nice rookie season, but the former seventh-round pick failed to top 45 receiving yards in any game this season. Adding another weapon to keep defenses honest will only help Cook and the running game.
Round 3, Pick 89: Offensive Line
After spending their first-round pick on Garrett Bradbury last year, the Vikings’ offensive line was a much improved unit this season. However, former 2017 second-round pick Pat Elflein is entering the final year of his deal and hasn’t played well enough to warrant a long term deal. Even if Elflein has a breakout year in 2020, the depth along the offensive line is troublesome. When the injuries start to hit, the Vikings will need the depth along the offensive line.
A lot will happen this offseason and it will have a major impact on what fans should expect from the Vikings next season. After missing the playoffs in 2018, the Vikings finished second in a very competitive NFC North division race. This team has a lot of star players, some known by average NFL fans and some very few recognize. However, if this team is gutted because of salary cap issues, it’s going to be hard to make the playoffs again in 2020. If the Vikings can bring back the majority of their roster, while improving their depth in key spots like wide receiver and offensive line, they can push for the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs next season.
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