The Vikings open OTAs in hope of laying the groundwork for improvement this season.
They had the #1 defense in the NFL in terms of both points and yards allowed.
They had the best defense on third down in decades.
Pro Football Focus also ranked them #1 overall on special teams.
PFF also ranked the Vikings receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs the best in the league.
Offensively they ranked 10th in points and 11th in yards, going most of the year without their starting QB and RB.
They were 9th best offensively in the red zone, and 3rd best defensively.
Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur was named NFL Assistant Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.
Harrison Smith was the highest graded player in the NFL according to PFF.
In fact, according to PFF grading, the entire starting defensive secondary - Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith - all had career best years.
So did Case Keenum, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Jerick McKinnon, David Morgan, Anthony Harris, Ryan Quigley, and Kai Forbath. Even long-snapper Kevin McDermott had his best year.
Given all these top rankings, and grades, and accolades the Vikings received last year, and given that a few of those named are no longer with the Vikings, how do the Vikings get better this season?
It’s a tall order.
And yet, to win that most sought-after award - the Lombardi Trophy - continuing to improve must be the focus.
Offensive Line has the Most Room for Improvement
The Vikings have a Super Bowl caliber team. Looking across all position groups on both sides of the ball, the only group not arguably one of the best in the league is the offensive line. Every other position group can make a solid claim to be a Top 5 unit.
Improving the offensive line is not likely to come from off-season acquisitions this year- although there is a chance that could happen. Instead, it may come from development of existing players and more experience working together. Every starting offensive lineman last season was either new to the team, or in a new position, or both. For guys like Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein, having a season under their belt in their new situation may help them improve this year.
The Vikings also lost their best offensive lineman the past several years with Joe Berger retiring, and it’s not immediately clear who his replacement will be at right guard. Several guys will likely compete for that job, including Danny Isidora, Colby Gossett, and Tom Compton. There are a few other possibilities as well.
But for the Vikings to see noticeable improvement in offensive line play this year, it will need to come from existing players. Riley Reiff had his worst year as a pro last year- by a wide margin. He started off the year well week one against the Saints, and had a few other slightly positive graded games early in the year, but beginning week 8, he never had a positively graded game the rest of the season. He needs to bounce back from that and get back to the average LT he has been in years past. It’s unclear why he fared so poorly - perhaps just getting used to a new system or perhaps some nagging and undisclosed injury - but he needs to return to the level he’s played at prior to last season for the Vikings OL to improve.
The other candidate for improvement, among starters last year, is Pat Elflein. It wasn’t a good rookie campaign for Elflein, who was the worst graded run blocker for the Vikings, and he wasn’t particularly good in pass protection either. But hopefully Elflein will benefit from his experience as a rookie, and be more acclimated now to the NFL game and competition, and the Vikings scheme. Hopefully he will have used his first year, including this off-season, to get stronger - increasing both upper body and core strength dispite his ankle injury - and make him better able to move the behemoths he faces across from him.
It’s a little unclear where Mike Remmers may play this year. He started at right tackle last year, but moved to left guard late in the year after Nick Easton went down, and rumors persist that he may move to left guard this season. We’ll see. Remmers did alright at right tackle, and was one of the best run blockers for the Vikings last year. But from a length and athleticism standpoint, Remmers may be better suited to playing inside - if a good replacement for him at right tackle can be found.
Beyond these starters last year, keep an eye on Aviante Collins as a potential starter. Collins was a UDFA signing last year, playing right tackle in college. Collins came in with good upper body strength (34 bp reps) and athleticism, but was a little undersized at right tackle and needed more lower body bulk and core strength. Collins got some playing time week 17 against the Bears at left guard, and did very well - albeit only 28 snaps. He didn’t allow any pressures and had a positive run blocking grade as well. My guess is that Collins will compete for a starting job this year and may win it too. He would be an upgrade athletically, and I suspect John DeFilippo will go with more zone-blocking that Collins would be a better fit for.
Another guy that may be more NFL-ready than his draft spot would suggest is Colby Gossett, who the Vikings drafted in the 6th round. What makes him more ready is first his size and strength. He benched 32 reps and also has the lower body bulk and strength to hold up against bull rushers. His arm length is also an asset at nearly 34”. Beyond that, Gossett has a lot of experience playing in a zone blocking scheme, which the Vikings run. That experience could give him an advantage over other candidates, but he’ll still need to prove himself in pass protection. He did well in the Senior Bowl, which is promising. Gossett has played mostly right guard, but also right tackle, and he has the size and length to play right tackle in the NFL. I expect the Vikings will look at him at both spots on the right side.
There are other guys that could potentially show improvement as well - Danny Isidora is one - or veteran acquisitions such as Tom Compton. It’s not out of the question for guys like Nick Easton or Rashod Hill to come back looking better this season either. But for the most part, the Vikings need to see improved performance from Reiff and Elflein, and a lesser extent Remmers, along with two more guys stepping up, for the Vikings offensive line to see real improvement.
It’s worth noting that last year’s offense line, while an improvement over the injury-ravaged one the previous year, did not fare well in run blocking. In fact that was a big area of regression. A big part of that may be due to the transition to more zone blocking. Guys that had been good run blockers in the past, like Joe Berger, regressed last year. In fact, every starting, veteran offensive linemen regressed in run blocking last year. I suspect identifying who is best suited to zone blocking will be a priority when it comes to evaluating offensive linemen. Not that pass protection is not important- it is perhaps even more so with Cousins at QB - but I suspect contenders for starting jobs will be similar in their pass pro ability, while there could be more disparity in run blocking ability.
The Return of Dalvin Cook
Cook had shown that he is a play-maker and difference-maker in his brief stint as feature back last season. And he continued to improve each game. Taking his production over four games and extrapolating it over a full season would have given him 1,775 total yards for the year. Alvin Kamara had just over 1,550.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon filled in admirably for Cook, particularly McKinnon as a receiver and Murray as a runner, but Murray just isn’t the dynamic runner Cook is. Murray’s vision, elusiveness and speed are not even close to what Cook brings to the table.
Difficult to see Dalvin Cook not having the vision to see the open lane in this first running play against the Rams, which might have gone for a touchdown.
Sheldon Richardson and the Defensive Front
Last year, the Vikings pass rush seemed overly dependent on Everson Griffen - partly by design. It worked okay early in the year, but when Griffen suffered a foot injury later in the season, the Vikings pass rush became a lot less productive. That was especially hurtful in the post-season.
Adding Sheldon Richardson as a legitimate pass rushing 3-technique should help the Vikings improve their pass rush overall, while also becoming less dependent on Griffen. Richardson is clearly an upgrade over Tom Johnson against both run and pass, despite TJ having one of his best years last season.
Hopefully the development of depth players along the defensive front will also help improve the rotation. Jaleel Johnson should help the interior line rotation, and perhaps a guy like Tashawn Bower can help on the outside.
At the same time, it seemed that the Vikings under-utilized their pass rushing talent last year. Both Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr have excellent pass rushing ability that could be put to more productive use. Finding innovative ways to get them more involved in the pass rush could also help this group improve by better utilizing their skills.
Overall, the Vikings have some very good coaches and a good staff. I’m not a big fan of OL coach Tony Sparano, but other than that I don’t find a lot of faults. Position coaches like DL coach Andre Patterson, DB coach Jerry Gray, QB coach Kevin Stefanski, ST coach Mike Priefer, and RB coach Kennedy Polamalu are among the best in the league. I’ve been impressed with WR coach Darrell Hazell as well since he came on staff.
Defensively, I think defensive coordinator George Edwards doesn’t get enough credit for the improvement of the defense over the years - it all goes to Mike Zimmer as the defensive architect. Clearly Zimmer is the mastermind, and deserves most of the credit, but Edwards does a lot of the day-to-day coaching and implementation, and is probably a resource that could be more utilized.
Offensively, the Vikings lost one of the better offensive coordinators in the league when Pat Shurmur left to become head coach of the Giants. What John DeFilippo is able to do as the new offensive coordinator remains to be seen. His work developing quarterbacks has been good, but less is known about his play-calling and design. He’s a west coast offense and zone blocking guy, and has focused more on continuity with Shurmur’s playbook last year than any sort of overhaul. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see how well he does with his game week preparation and in-game adjustments. Clearly his ability to optimize the offense along many fronts - working with Cousins, play design, calling, adjustments and other scheme design issues - will have a big impact on whether the Vikings offense can improve this year.
But there is one more aspect of coaching that could use improvement if the Vikings are going to hoist the Lombardi trophy this year. It’s a combination of self-scouting, opposition research, dynamic game planning, and in-game adjustments and management. All this falls mainly on head coach Mike Zimmer to improve and execute. And that may mean delegating more of the defense, including play-calling, to George Edwards.
It’s not that the Vikings don’t do self-scouting, oppo research, game planning, etc., it’s just that they are inconsistent, and sometimes have simply been out-coached. The NFC Championship game was clearly a case of being out-coached in just about every aspect. The Carolina game was also not a good one in that regard. The game against the Rams, by contrast, was perhaps the Vikings best last season in terms of out-coaching the opposition.
This is an area where Mike Zimmer needs to focus more, and improve. He’s improved some in his in-game management since taking over as head coach, but there is a lot more improvements that can be made. Bill Belichick is probably the best in the league over the years in terms of oppo research, self-scouting, dynamic game planning, adjustments and game management - and that is a big reason behind the Patriots success. They’re better prepared going into each game, and seldom are they out-coached. It makes up for some deficiencies they’ve had as a team, and also accounts for a good deal of their success in the post-season.
Belichick has installed some radically different game plans from week-to-week based on his research, literally going from passing two-thirds of the time one week, to running the ball 75% of the time the next week. That was an extreme and more basic example, but it shows a willingness to adapt as necessary to give his team an advantage.
Mike Zimmer, by contrast, can be slow to recognize, adapt and implement changes. A recent example of this was the Vikings two playoff games last season. One of the tactics Zimmer had used to great success on third down last year was to crowd his DBs near the first down line, as so many plays had route patterns designed around the line to gain. Well, that worked a lot during the regular season, and through the first half of the Saints game. But then Sean Payton made some adjustments and included deeper patterns past the first down line, which proved successful and led to successful drives and a late lead that required a miracle for the Vikings to overcome for the win.
The following week, the Eagles had game planned for that coverage from the get-go, and designed deeper routes, some deceptively so with double moves, to beat it. Zimmer didn’t adapt and got blown out.
On the other side of the ball, after the Vikings scored their opening touchdown, the Eagles changed their coverage, and the Vikings offense struggled afterward.
Similarly, the Vikings had been dependent on Everson Griffen to pressure the QB, and that was especially the case against the Eagles, who had an All-Pro OL everywhere but left tackle. Zimmer knew Griffen had a foot injury, and his production had fallen noticeably since. But he didn’t make any changes. He could have moved Danielle Hunter to right-end, as he had occasionally done during the regular season, but he didn’t. Similarly, Zimmer commented after the season that Tom Johnson had gotten tired out late in the season from too much playing time, but though he recognized it at the time, he did not increase the rotation.
One of the advantages of having players well versed in the system, and who have played together many years, as is the case with the Vikings defense, is that they are better able to make changes week-to-week and in-game. They’re not still learning the scheme and assignments, and have a better knowledge of what opposing offenses are trying to accomplish. Hesitating to make changes allows the other team to successfully game plan against you. They study every bit of film, every player’s tendencies, play calls at every down and distance, field position - everything. If you don’t actively self-scout and adapt, you’re at a disadvantage. Similarly, if you’re not spending as much time as your opponent on opposition research and game planning, you also put your team at a disadvantage. And if you don’t actively adjust your game plan as needed over the course of the game, you also put your team at a disadvantage.
The Vikings have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, and have a wealth of top players that have been in the system for many years. Most teams don’t have that. It’s a big advantage. But that advantage can be mitigated or reversed by better coaching, research and dynamic game planning. The Vikings are not as good in these areas, and Mike Zimmer should focus on improving here with his staff, but starting by recognizing the need for him to change his approach, focus and routine to achieve more success - especially in big games.
The last area where the Vikings may be able to improve is by innovating their scheme and toolbox they can use in a given situation. Adding new wrinkles on offense and defense is part of the never-ending evolution of the game, and if you aren’t doing it, you’re falling behind. Most of the time the changes may be subtle ones, or the addition of a new sub-package, but they help to keep things fresh, and your opponent guessing.
For example, Mike Zimmer has been known as a innovator on defense, and his double-A gap pressure look. He didn’t invent it, and several other teams use it, but he has innovated it’s use and the subtle keys blitzers look for to determine whether they blitz or not, along with other factors.
Third Down and Red Zone
The Vikings had the best defense in decades last year on third down, and did pretty well on offense too- and in the red zone. But you can never be too good in either of these areas- they are so critical to success, along with turnovers. Especially with Kirk Cousins new at QB and who hasn’t been as successful in these areas, and John DeFilippo at OC, working on executing on third down and in the red zone will continue to be important.
The Vikings were good in so many areas last year, it looks like a lot of work just to stay the same as last year, let alone improve.
But the opportunity for the offensive line and coaching to improve is there, and the addition of Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson, and the return of Dalvin Cook may help to off-set other losses and increase production.
It’s a lot of work, and even still the best laid plans can run aground with a few key injuries. Nevertheless, the Vikings start OTAs in a good place, with an enviable roster, continuity, and a solid coaching staff and front office.
But even as a top Super Bowl contender as the off-season begins, there is a lot of work ahead for the Vikings to reach their goal of winning the Super Bowl this year.