The NFL gets a lot of things wrong. From concussions to suspensions to anthem policies to...well, just about everything Roger Goodell says and does, the most profitable and popular league in the country tends to have a tough time getting out of its own way at times.
But every single year right around this time, the NFL and all its 32 teams do one thing perfectly: they sell hope.
Everyone is 0-0. Every team has an influx of exciting new players and draft picks. No matter how poorly things may have gone in recent years, fans of every affiliation can hang their hats on at least one or two dynamics that could change their fortunes. As training camps start up all over the country during the coming week, positivity reigns supreme. If these players make the leap this year, or if these things break our way, or if this new coach unlocks the potential of the offense or defense, why couldn’t it be this team’s year?
It’s arguably the best time of year to be a fan of all 31 teams that don’t end up winning the championship the following February. Injuries have yet to ravage your team’s top talent. (Unless of course you’re the Chargers.) There are no blemishes in anyone’s loss column. (Not even in Cleveland! I checked.) NFL fans in July are basically one giant group of 2008 Finals Kevin Garnetts.
There is a bumper crop of hope going into the 2018 season for fans of the Minnesota Vikings. And why wouldn’t there be? The team is coming off their second best regular season in franchise history and have almost all of their key pieces coming back for more. A new quarterback is taking over to try and provide stability for a franchise that has had anything but at the position for decades. A new offensive coordinator is taking over, bringing some of the innovation that helped his former team win the Super Bowl last season. The top-ranked defense has already re-signed two of its key cogs to huge new deals while adding a first round pick to an already talented secondary. On paper, this is probably the most talented Vikings roster of the past decade.
The Vikings are a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2018. Fans have every reason to be excited.
So naturally, just a few days before the inaugural Training Camp kicks off at the new digs in Eagan, I’m going to point out a bunch of things that I’m worried about.
[Insert Debbie Downer “womp wommmmp” sound here.]
Yes, I am incredibly thrilled about the upcoming season. Yes, this iteration of the Vikings is stacked with talent on both sides of the ball. However, there are still a handful of issues that concern me. Might as well discuss them now, get them out of the way, and then head to Eagan with all the remaining positivity, right?
[I can practically hear all of you rolling your eyes and saying “riiiiight” from here.]
Either way, let’s discuss some of the causes for concern as we approach camp, starting with the most obvious area of anxiety.
The 2017 version of the Vikings offensive line was better than the 2016 iteration. However, that’s like saying a team was better than the 2017 iteration of the Browns—it’s hard to imagine something worse. The additions of Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, and Mike Remmers were all certainly welcome, but none of those players are vying for spots on the All-Pro team either. Of the five current projected starters, only Remmers garnered a rating of over 50 from Pro Football Focus last season. While you can certainly debate PFF’s grades—especially Reiff’s in my opinon—there is little doubt that the unit could be the weak link in an otherwise stout roster. PFF has the Vikings’ O-line ranked 28th in their 2018 season preview.
Case Keenum was able to conjure some pocket sorcery last year with his ability to improvise and extend plays with scrambling. That is not a trait that has been attributed to Kirk Cousins throughout his career. Even though Cousins will have an excellent arsenal of targets at his disposal, he’ll still need a reasonable amount of time to find them. If not, the offensive line could trigger a chain reaction that would hurt all areas of the team.
I believe the Vikings should be able to find a solid group of starters from the pool of players they’re bringing into camp. I think Nick Easton can continue the improvement he showed before getting derailed by injury last year. I’m excited to see how much second year guard Danny Isidora has improved. Perhaps second round pick Brian O’Neill can make up for his lack of experience with his athleticism and earn the starting right tackle gig. Tom Compton and Rashod Hill have proven to be serviceable. I wouldn’t rule out Aviante Collins making some noise in camp.
That said, there are still more questions than answers with this group as we stand right now. With all the formidable front sevens the Vikings are scheduled to face this year, the team may only go as far as the performance of their offensive line, especially in any potential postseason games. And if there are any significant injuries to the starters? Let’s just move on before we have any more T.J. Clemmings flashbacks.
Did the Vikings make the right choice at quarterback?
On the surface, the immediate answer is probably “duh.” Cousins undoubtedly provides the highest floor of all the viable options that were available to the Vikings. The knees of Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater were ultimately too unstable to hand either player the reigns long-term. Keenum had an out-of-nowhere incredible 2017 season, but it’s also fair to question whether he would be able to replicate it since his previous outings were much less stellar. Meanwhile, Cousins has put up passing numbers that would rank among the top five in Minnesota’s franchise annals for three consecutive seasons. His body of work was easily the surest thing out of the options available to the Vikings.
Cousins’ track record isn’t infallible though. His ability to perform when it matters most, especially in the red zone, was justifiably questioned while he was in Washington. When you’re paid a longboatload of guaranteed money, you’re expected to be among the top tier of quarterbacks. Whether Cousins can live up to his contract remains to be seen.
If you include the preseason, there’s a decent chance that the Vikings could face all three former quarterbacks this year. If Cousins struggles out of the gate while Keenum, Bradford, or Bridgewater perform well on their new teams, watch out. The second guessing will come early and often.
Getting off to a slow start wouldn’t be completely unexpected either—four of the Vikings’ first five opponents have serious Super Bowl aspirations as well. (Sorry, Bills fans. I’m still excited to tailgate with you before the Week 3 game!) With $84 million tied up to Cousins over the next three years, he needs to prove to be the best option by a demonstrable margin.
The schedule might not be the only hurdle for the Vikings early on either, which brings us to my next concern.
Introducing a new quarterback and Offensive Coordinator at the same time
Since taking over in 2014, Mike Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota has unsurprisingly been defined by his defenses. The offense? Not so much. John DeFilippo will be the third Offensive Coordinator in Zimmer’s five seasons at the helm. While the departure of Pat Shurmur was for a much more positive reason than that of Norv Turner in 2016, the fact remains that there will be a new offensive system in place this year. That presents a learning curve for everyone involved. When you throw in a new quarterback on top of it, that curve could end up more daunting than the Super Aggro Crag on Nickelodeon’s Guts was when I was 10 years old. Again, the Vikings’ early schedule is anything but a cakewalk. With the limited time teams have to prepare these days, all the parts will need to jell as quickly as possible to avoid a dreaded 1-4 or 2-3 start.
But that’s just the offense. We’ll be all good on D no matter what, right?
Front seven depth
Chris Wesseling, one of my favorite writers on NFL.com, recently listed the Vikings front seven as one of the deepest units in the league. While I would put the Vikings up there with anyone when it comes to talent of their front seven, I’m not sure I would rank them that high when it comes to depth.
Now don’t get me wrong—the starting unit is about as star-studded as you can get. Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson, Everson Griffen, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr. Wow. Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone involuntarily twitched just from me typing that list. But if a couple of pieces go down, are we sure there’s that much depth behind them?
Brian Robison is still a productive player, but he has probably reached the “Chad Greenway when he called out Arif” stage of his storied career. Stephen Weatherly, Jaleel Johnson, and Tashawn Bower have all shown potential, but they had a grand total of 140 defensive snaps last season. David Parry basically didn’t play last year. Jalyn Holmes seemed like a good value pick but he’s already hurt.
It’s even slimmer pickings when you get to linebacker. Ben Gedeon did fine his rookie season but was only out there for about a quarter of the snaps; he made more of an impact on special teams. Kentrell Brothers is suspended for the first four games of the season. Eric Wilson played exclusively special teams. Every other linebacker on the roster is extremely unproven.
This front seven has the potential to make opponents absolutely miserable this season. But if one or two key pieces misses significant time, I’m not sold that they will be nearly as formidable. We’ll have to see the backups prove themselves in a big way if that happens.
Dalvin Cook returning from injury
By all accounts, Cook’s recovery from tearing his ACL during the Week 4 game against the Lions last year is coming along great. It sounds like he should be near full capacity when things get underway in Eagan next week. Out of all 90 players, I am probably most excited to see Cook get live reps again. If he can get back to where he was at the beginning of the 2017 campaign...
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...oops, sorry about that. The thought of DeFilippo finding creative ways to use a player as dynamic as Cook made me drool on my keyboard and I had to wipe it off.
But what if he isn’t all the way back? What if Cook doesn’t trust his knee enough to make the physics-defying cuts that made him so dangerous at Florida State and his lone month in purple? As much as I appreciate the workmanlike performances of Latavius Murray, Cook could be the missing link between a mediocre offense and a dominating offense. Cook will be counted on to account for the departure of Jerick McKinnon and then some. I’m confident that he’ll return to full strength, but I’m still pretty anxious about it.
After all, it’s not like we Vikings fans have any recent memories of star players succumbing to knee injuries or anything. Which brings me to my final concern as we enter the season:
The fact that they are still the Minnesota Vikings
You know it. I know it. We all know it. Since 1961, this star-crossed franchise has tried in vain to win that oh-so-elusive first championship. Each time, they have come up short, all too often in some of the most agonizing manners imaginable. In January we had the euphoric high of the Minneapolis Miracle only to have the beer can of 38-7 chucked at our heads a week later. The rug has been pulled out from under us so many times that even Lucy from Peanuts is starting to feel bad. Until proven otherwise, the annual tradition of the Vikings crushing our hopes marches on.
Will this finally be the year the Vikings do it? The reasons to be excited about this team far outnumber the handful of troubles we have just covered. I mean, it’s possible, right? Probably not, but there does seem to be a nice streak of long-tortured teams winning their first title throughout the major sports in recent years. Maybe, just maybe, things will be different this year.
And I can’t wait to find out, starting next week in Eagan. Because regardless of how many causes for concern there are, and no matter how many times football lets us down, we’re all buying healthy portions of hope this time of year.