Watching the playoffs and Championship Sunday, disheartened the Vikings are not playing a leading role in the proceedings, thoughts turn to what the Vikings need to do in the coming year to win Super Bowl LIV.
We have talked in the past about the Vikings Super Bowl window being open- talk that has faded to a murmur as the Vikings went from 13-3 to 8-7-1. And yet the Vikings have the roster, with some very doable changes, to win the Super Bowl next season.
It is helpful to have the playoffs fresh in mind to remember what is important to succeed in the playoffs, and to mesh that with what the Vikings have, and don’t have.
Let’s take a look.
It’s All About the Trenches
Quarterbacks are lionized in the NFL, and they are part of most of the plays we remember most - good and bad. But it’s a quarterback’s protection, or lack thereof, that allow quarterbacks to make those plays.
From a defensive standpoint, when a defense is able to effectively pressure the quarterback, and the run, without having to blitz, it makes it remarkably easier for defenders in coverage. On the other hand, lack of pressure on a quarterback allows receivers more time to get open, and even the best defensive secondary can’t cover everyone for ever.
For the Vikings, it’s been time out of mind since they’ve had a dominant offensive line. This has to be the focus and priority the entirety of the coming year. It starts by hiring a top offensive line coach, continues by acquiring at least three top players - one via free agency and two via the draft - and is completed by developing each player and the unit as a whole into a top, dominant offensive line.
There is nothing more important for the Vikings front office and coaching staff. And nothing else they do will matter much if the offensive line issue is not addressed effectively.
The Vikings are fortunate that this year’s interior offensive line draft class is deep, and they should be able to draft top quality interior linemen in the early rounds of he draft.
Free agency for offensive linemen is not so good, but there are targets the Vikings could land that will improve their offensive line. Chief among them is center Matt Paradis, an unrestricted free agent from the Broncos.
On the defensive side, the Vikings have been inconsistent generating pressure on the QB rushing only four. They also lost Sheldon Richardson to free agency. It may be worth bringing him back. But the Vikings also need to spend a top draft pick on a defensive linemen. The Vikings can go best player available between offensive line and defensive line needs in the draft, and fill their needs well.
Another key part of building a dominant team in the trenches is to make hard choices with current players. Everson Griffen. Pat Elflein. Linval Joseph. Mike Remmers. Some, all, or none of these players may be starters for the Vikings next season. All of them have performed at a level last season that either brings their salary cap and/or starting status into question.
The Vikings have one of the better defensive line coaches in the league in Andre Patterson, and that is a resource the Vikings need to leverage. Stephen Weatherly. Jaleel Johnson. Jalyn Holmes. Ifeadi Odenigbo. Tashawn Bower. The Vikings need a couple of these guys to step up to improve the defensive line rotation, and perhaps more snaps to keep starters fresh.. Weatherly took a step forward this year, and could do so again next season. The others could be ready this season to make more of an impact in rotation - like Weatherly did this past season.
There are a lot of directions the Vikings could go with starters on the defensive line, and Patterson will likely be a big part of that evaluation. Were the down years of Joseph and Griffen temporary or a sign of the future? Is there somebody available to take their place?
The Vikings don’t have much salary cap space, so any veteran acquisition salaries will have to be off-set but cuts to the existing roster.
In terms of the draft, there is no position of greater need the Vikings need to address with their first four picks than fortifying the trenches.
Third Wide Receiver
Outside of addressing needs in the trenches, the Vikings need a bona fide deep threat third wide receiver. Maybe Aldrick Robinson can be that guy. Maybe a guy like Jeff Badet could step up. Maybe the Vikings take a chance on a guy like Kevin White in free agency. Whatever the choice, it’s certainly not out of the reach for the Vikings to land a quality third receiver that can deliver when defenses focus on Thielen and Diggs.
Another piece the Vikings need is a money kicker. Maybe that’s Dan Bailey. Maybe they get Robbie Gould. Or Jason Myers. Or Will Lutz. But getting a guy that can make 85%+ of their field goals and 95% of their extra points, with a viable 50-yard field goal range is essential. And getting a vet who delivers in the clutch even more so. Any one of the above could be the guy. The Vikings just need to have that guy and solidify the kicking game and make it a strength, not a weakness. It’s rare for a Super Bowl team to have an unreliable kicker. And it’s easy for the Vikings to fix this.
Improve Coaching Prowess
Outside of these roster moves, the Vikings need to improve their game planning and coaching prowess. Too often the Vikings get out coached, come up short with their game plan, or in developing a winning team psychology/can-do attitude.
That needs to end if the Vikings are going to beat all the best teams, with the best coaching, to win the Super Bowl.
Mike Zimmer needs to give the game planning and play calling on defense to George Edwards, but retain a head coach’s oversight authority to make changes. Zimmer needs to take a stronger role in early week game planning, a more detached role in making in-game adjustments and self-scouting, and maintaining a winning, can-do culture through multiple long seasons with changing personnel.
Zimmer has seen it all, on both sides of the ball, and needs to be in better position to put that experience to good use. Being tied down with defensive play calling and game planning isn’t the best way to do that.
He can also help identify what opposing defenses are doing in early-week game planning and task Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski to come up with game plans to counter it. At the same time, he needs to identify what opposing teams are doing to beat the Vikings, and call for counters from his coordinators.
Lastly, Zimmer has to create a sustainable mantra to maintain a winning, can-do culture that stands up to the inevitable adversity the team will face every season. Too often he’s confessed to being befuddled by a less than desired team culture - including this past season - and not knowing how to deal with it. He needs to figure that out. Whether it’s copying “just do your job” or another mantra, Zimmer needs to be ahead of the curve in this aspect of head coaching, just as in game planning and adjustments.
Teaching the team how to win on the road, win big games, win as the under-dog, win when they’re supposed to, and win even when they don’t play their best are all important aspects of this.
Coordinators should be tasked beginning in the off-season with developing multiple ways to win - and beat all the known schemes and tactics. The Vikings have a roster, especially with improvements in the trenches, that doesn’t limit what they can do on either side of the ball. Mixing innovation with the tried and true should be a part of this.
Overall the Vikings need to have a traditional coaching structure to improve this aspect of the team:
- Position coaches to teach the fundamentals well and develop players to their potential.
- Coordinators to design the plays, install the scheme, implement the tactics, game plan, and call the plays.
- Head coach to oversee it all, build team chemistry and winning culture, coordinate the game planning, self-scouting, oppo research, quality control, and game management.
These are all full time jobs.
Having a coach take on multiple roles is a disservice to the team, as it short changes his effectiveness in both roles.
The Vikings Super Bowl window remains open. The defense is there. The skill positions on offense are there. Coaching needs to improve: Offensive line; Offensive coordinator; Head coach.
The Vikings simply need to fortify the trenches and have Mike Zimmer become a bona fide head coach and not a defensive coordinator that doubles as head coach.
These tasks are not a bridge too far this off-season.
They are expected.