Kirk Cousins’ team has become the Kirk Cousins of teams. Like their quarterback, the Minnesota Vikings have a high-performance floor but a low ceiling; they play a watchable but not-too-exciting style of football; and whether they are in the playoff chase or a rebuilding phase, they go about their business in a blandly-eager sort of way which produces results that are only mildly disappointing because we’ve learned not to expect that much of them in the first place.
And here’s the best part: general manager Rick Spielman gave Cousins a two-year, $66-million extension this offseason, salary-purged the rest of the roster (Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and others), and earned an extension of his own for his efforts. He also traded two future draft picks to the Jaguars for Yannick Ngakoue, an excellent defender, but someone who will cause more cap headaches. Those moves mean that the Vikings should remain semi-contenders who produce quasi-thrills for many years to come![sv slug=tanier]
What can we expect from Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings
Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson is an ideal replacement for Diggs. Rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney provides an immediate upgrade over the disappointing Rhodes. Ngakoue steps in for Griffen without missing a beat. And so it goes until the 2020 Vikings are almost as good as the 2019 Vikings, who were almost as good as the 2017 Vikings, who were almost a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The rookies and replacements need a learning-curve year, so the Vikings take a step back, then hope that they can achieve this year’s best-case scenario next year.
What the Vikings lost in the offseason
Here’s an accounting of what the Vikings lost in their cap purge: 72 catches, 1,314 yards, and seven touchdowns from Diggs and Laquon Treadwell; 11 sacks, 46 hurries, and 60 tackles short of the first down from Griffen and the run-stuffing Joseph, and 1,559 coverage snaps from unreliable-but-experienced cornerbacks Wayne and Rhodes and reserves Andrew Sendejo and Mackensie Alexander. Spielman may have crushed it in the draft, but it’s unrealistic to expect rookies and backups to step in and solidify so many units of need.
The Vikings did manage to retain safety Anthony Harris, their best young defender, keeping the Harris/Harrison Smith safety tandem together. Per Football Outsiders, the Vikings had the second-best pass defense over the middle of the field and in the deep middle of the field, where Harris usually prowls.
Last year, Dalvin Cook led all running backs in rushes and yards on second down with 10 or more yards to go: 35 carries for 264 yards. A 75-yard run against the Packers fluffed Cook’s numbers in this situation; his actual Sports Info Solution success rate on 2nd-and-long was 31.4%, meaning that all those runs left the Vikings in 3rd-and-long two-thirds of the time. Of course, it makes perfect sense to hand off a lot on 2nd-and-long when paying your quarterback $29-million, right?
The wide receiver corps and rushing attack
The only Vikings wide receiver not named Diggs or Adam Thielen to be targeted more than 50 times in the last three seasons was Treadwell (53 targets) in 2018. Jefferson is sure to get his touches as a starter, but the Vikings receiver bench (Tajae Sharpe, rookie K.J. Osborn, Chad Beebe) is no place to go sleeper shopping.
Cook rushed 15 times for 22 yards and nine touchdowns inside the five-yard line and went 32-62-11 inside the 10-yard line. Cook has a middle-of-the-first round ADP and looks like a real bargain if you get him after the fifth overall pick. After all, who else besides Cook and Theilman will really be getting the ball?
Are the Vikings really rebuilding or trying to win?
Cap-purging and rebuilding around Cousins is like getting a second job to pay for the $500,000 rancher you bought because you didn’t understand the real estate market instead of just selling the house, taking the loss, and starting out fresh. It’s hard to get excited about a team that always seems custom-built to barely win Wild Card games.
At least Spielman, Mike Zimmer, and the Vikings have a unified vision and no organizational drama, unlike those bickering Packers. That should provide minimal consolation when they finish behind them in the standings.
Minnesota Vikings 2020 Prediction
8-8, second place in the NFC North.[sv slug=tanier]