This article is part of our Team Previews series.
After surprisingly missing the playoffs in 2018, the Vikings returned last season, and Kirk Cousins finally won a high-profile game before losing in the divisional round. Despite the momentum, the Vikings will have to rebuild on the fly after losing several key defenders in free agency and trading away Stefon Diggs.
- WR Justin Jefferson (Rd. 1, No. 22 – LSU)
Likely starting right away in the wake of the Stefon Diggs deal.
- DT Michael Pierce (from Ravens)
Interior run stuffer will fill the spot created by Linval Joseph's departure.
- WR Tajae Sharpe (from Titans)
Provides needed veteran depth to the receiving corps.
- CB Jeff Gladney (Rd. 1, No. 31 - TCU)
A polished cornerback prospect who should plug into the starting lineup.
- WR Stefon Diggs (to Bills)
His trade to Buffalo leaves a large hole in the team's passing game.
- CB Xavier Rhodes (to Colts)
Part of an offseason defensive back exodus.
- DT Linval Joseph (to Chargers)
Swapped out for a younger defensive tackle.
- DE Everson Griffen (FA)
The pass rush could be an issue with the loss of the steady veteran.
A Look Under the Hood
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (Year 7)
Offensive Coordinator: Gary Kubiak (Year 1) - West Coast (wide/outside zone)
Defensive Coordinator: Andre Patterson/Adam Zimmer (Year 1) - 4-3 scheme
2020 Vegas Projected Wins: 9 (T-9th)
2019 Record: 10-6
2019 Points Scored: 407 (8th)
2019 Points Allowed: 303 (T-5th)
2019 Point Differential: +104 (7th)
2019 Run-Play Rate: 48.3 percent (4th)
2019 Situation-Neutral Pace: 30.08 seconds per play (10th)
2019 Offensive Snaps: 970 (27th)
2019 PFF O-Line Ranking: No. 19
Projected 2020 Depth Chart
FB: C.J. Ham
TE1: Kyle Rudolph
Kicker: Dan Bailey
A Reconfigured Passing Attack
Stefon Diggs set career highs in yards (1,130) and YPC (17.9) last season, but he wasn't happy with the scheme, especially the move to a run-first offense. Ultimately, he was sent to Buffalo for a package of draft picks, leaving a void opposite holdover Adam Thielen.
The Vikings used the first-round pick acquired in the Diggs trade to acquire his replacement, selecting Justin Jefferson, who posted an eye-popping 111-1,540-18 receiving line at LSU in 2019. At 6-1, 202 with a 4.43 40, Jefferson looks set to make an immediate impact. He did most of his work out of the slot in college where Thielen typically operates, but the coaching staff envisions the rookie working from multiple formations.
While Jefferson is penciled in as the No. 2 WR, the next spot is wide open. Bisi Johnson, a 2019 seventh-rounder, showed flashes with three TDs and four outings with four-plus catches in 13 games. But in five starts for an injured Thielen, Johnson combined for just 89 yards.
Tajae Sharpe was brought in to bolster the receiving corps, but he has yet to build upon a promising 2016 effort. Meanwhile, Chad Beebe will look to rebound from an ankle injury that wiped out his 2019 campaign. There's also the chance second-year TE Irv Smith takes on a growing role to account for Diggs' loss, but the presence of Kyle Rudolph is a limiting factor.
Continued Focus on the Running Game
Last year, Minnesota's offense returned to the run-heavy mentality that coach Mike Zimmer demanded, and the team finished with 29.8 carries (fourth) and 133.3 yards (sixth) per game. Those were far better results than registered a year prior – 27th and 30th, respectively – an outcome that caused Zimmer to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after Week 14 of the 2018 season.
In 2019, new OC Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak proceeded to run the offense through Dalvin Cook. While his Pro Bowl campaign was in part due to volume – Cook's 250 carries were eighth in the NFL – he was potent with an above-average 4.5 YPC. As an every-down weapon, he also ranked second among running backs with 8.2 YPT on his 63 targets and had a league-leading 21 rushes inside the 5-yard line.
Even after Stefanski departed this offseason to coach the Browns, the team's zone-blocking scheme will continue with Kubiak taking over, which is good news for Cook. Injuries remain a concern, though. If Cook goes down or his workload is managed, second-year back Alexander Mattison is ready to step in after finishing 21st in average yards after contact (2.7) for RBs with 100-plus carries last season. Behind Cook and Mattison, the depth chart is rounded out by Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah and Tony Brooks-James.
Rebuilding the Defense
Minnesota's defense has ranked in the top 10 in points allowed each of the last five seasons. However, roster defections mean Mike Zimmer has to re-tool on the fly.
To begin with, the team lost its top three corners in Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes. Although Zimmer has been skilled at developing secondary talent, it'll be a challenge to replace the trio, especially with limited workouts due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mike Hughes, a 2018 first-rounder, is the lone set starter at cornerback. He's displayed promise but ended the last two seasons on IR. Jeff Gladney, the 31st pick in April's draft, has the physical attributes (4.48 40, 37.5-inch vertical) to play right away. Meanwhile, rookie third-rounder Cameron Dantzler will compete with Holton Hill for the nickelback role.
The team's D-line took a big hit, losing Linval Joseph, Stephen Weatherly and Everson Griffen. Joseph, a nose tackle, didn't have flashy stats, but he was a disruptive force who required extra attention. Michael Pierce's three-year, $27 million contract illustrates the importance of the position in Minnesota's scheme. The departures will place more reliance on star pass rusher Danielle Hunter and 2019 breakout player Ifeadi Odenigbo.
Luckily, the team's veteran linebacking corps and strong safety nucleus remain in place. Still, the coaching staff will be hard-pressed to produce a top-10 defensive unit again.
⬆️ Rising: WR Justin Jefferson
Jefferson should be thrust into a starting role, where his college pedigree and athleticism could make him surprisingly productive if the Vikings are forced to pass more given a potential decline on defense.
⬇️ Falling: TE Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph turns 31 years old in November, has an up-and-coming backup in Irv Smith and had his fewest receiving yards (367) since 2014 last season. The 10th-year tight end may not be much more than a limited red-zone target.
😴 Sleeper: RB Alexander Mattison
Mattison showed promise as a runner and receiver during his rookie 2019 campaign and sits behind a starter with a shaky injury history in a run-first offense. As such, he may have as much upside as any backup in the league.
🌟 Pivotal Player: Dalvin Cook
Coach Mike Zimmer moved the Vikings back to a run-heavy attack in 2019 as the team was fourth in attempts and sixth in yardage. Cook thrived as a result, with 1,135 rushing yards and 13 TDs. He did miss two games due to a chest/shoulder injury, which raised his tally to 19 DNPs through three years. When healthy, Cook remains the focus of the offense.
Dalvin Cook is firmly in the first-round conversation, if not the first half of the first round.