With the Minnesota Vikings moving on from defensive-minded coach Mike Zimmer to the offensive-minded Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings are looking for a change. O’Connell is fresh off a Super Bowl victory, and he will look to infuse his offensive style with the myriad of offensive talent the Vikings currently possess.
Scouting the Offense
Leading the way is polarizing quarterback Kirk Cousins, who enters his 5th season as the Vikings signal-caller. While his win-loss record is fairly pedestrian (4 games over .500), he has posted 3 seasons with 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns in his 4 years in Minnesota. Last year, he ranked 6th in Independent Quarterback Rating. (“IQR” is an SIS metric that builds on the traditional Passer Rating formula by eliminating the effects of results outside his control, including dropped passes and dropped interceptions).
Joining Cousins on the offensive side is a pair of high-level receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. They also have do-it-all running back Dalvin Cook, and promising tight end Irv Smith Jr. is returning. The skill position players are ripe with talent, and so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a Top-5 offense this season if O’Connell can work his magic.
Offensive Line is the Key
In order to reach that status, the offensive line must improve. The Vikings spent a first-round draft pick on Christian Darrisaw a year ago, and although his season started off a little late due to injuries, he showed promise as the left tackle of the future. Brian O’Neill has been one of the most steady right tackles for the last several years and was named to the Pro Bowl last season.
The interior offensive line has been an issue for several years now. Ezra Cleveland still has time on his side. However, after not picking up the fifth-year option on Garrett Bradbury, it is safe to say he has been a disappointment. Out of the 32 players to play at least 500 snaps at center last season, Bradbury ranked 26th in Total Points.
The revolving door at right guard may finally stop spinning with Jesse Davis, Ed Ingram or Wyatt Davis, but that position has remained a weakness in recent memory.
Vikings 2021 Offensive Line Total Points Ranks
Scouting the Defense
New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has implemented a 3-4 defense for a team that has historically been a 4-3. The defense has studs all over the field, but injuries and age have gotten the better of them in recent seasons. The pass-rushing duo of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL, but they missed a combined 26 games last season due to injuries. Hunter missed the entire season before, too.
Eric Kendricks will continue to man the middle of the defense, but he will be without longtime partner Anthony Barr and will need to build chemistry with Jordan Hicks. Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson provide a load of experience on the backend, but they are both in the back half of their careers. They will need to mentor rookies Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. this season to lighten their load.
Switching the Scheme
After having a historically bad 4-minute defense last season (the Vikings allowed TDs on 32.4% of opponent drives in the final 4 minutes before halftime or the end of the game, which ranks dead last out of 686 team-seasons since 2000), Donatell has his work cut out for him.
The Vikings are a trendy “sleeper” pick every season, and this year is no exception. Both sides of the ball have numerous big-time players. They made a splash with their GM and head coaching hires, and they are getting some impactful players back from injury.
The potential is there, but the list of things that have to go right is very long for them to make a meaningful improvement from last year. Fortunately, the NFC North doesn’t look to be too tough on paper and should provide a few wins on a way to a potential Wild Card spot.
Jeff Dean contributed to this report.