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Looking Ahead for the Vikings

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

With the loss to the Bears, the Vikings’ chance at a playoff spot have gone from middling to remote. The Vikings would have to beat a good team in the Saints for a shot at doing something in the postseason, and would also need the Bears and Cards to finish 8-8. But then again, had the Vikings beaten the Bears and run the table, they’d still need, in all likelihood, to beat a good team in the Saints for a shot to do anything in the postseason.

And so, beating good teams would be a thing for the Vikings regardless of the Bears game.

But sitting at 6-8, and having beaten only one team with a winning record this season, beating good teams - and taking care of business against not-so-good ones - remains a challenge for the Vikings. The issue for them the whole season has been the quality of their active roster.

They haven’t been able to improve much on the offensive line, and they’ve been without most of their star players on defense- first Micheal Pierce, then Danielle Hunter, then Anthony Barr, and most recently Eric Kendricks. At the same time, they’ve had rookie starters learning on the job all season - Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland, D.J. Wonnum, and Justin Jefferson. Jefferson has been exceptional - making an impact early en route to what looks like a historic rookie campaign, while the others have gradually improved to one degree or another - after struggling mightily the first half of the season.

Falling Short in 2020...

The 1-5 start was the price the Vikings paid for having so many new guys start this season, being caught in a transition year as Covid hit and cut short player development. The teams that have been best from the get-go this season have been the ones with the least key turnover: Saints, Chiefs, Packers, Steelers, and Titans among them. The Vikings, like the 49ers, Patriots, Eagles, and Cowboys, also had a few key injuries/opt-outs over the course of the season that proved to be significant setbacks.

All that created little room for error for the Vikings in 2020. A turnover here, missed kick there, key penalty here, a drop or missed assignment - and the Vikings found themselves trailing or losing a close game. The Vikings defense is on-track to give up over 100 more points this year than last - averaging nearly 28 points a game for the season- and going from ranked 5th to 25th in points allowed.

...But Paving the Way for a More Successful 2021

Be that as it may, this season for the Vikings may prove to be valuable as essentially an extended 16-game pre-season campaign to develop new and young players - setting the stage to compete for a deep postseason run in 2021.

One of the key developments this season was the Vikings offense, which has generally played well and been remarkably efficient, despite often playing from behind and sometimes left with little time of possession, particularly early in the season. There is still work to do along the offensive line, but the Vikings may have the offensive linemen on their roster now to field at least a league-average unit in 2021. They’ve also found a gem at wide receiver in Justin Jefferson, who’ll likely play a bigger role in 2021. The Vikings have one of the best overall groups at the skill positions of any offense in the league, and they’ll all be returning next season.

Defensively, while it’s been a down season for even core veterans, the work adapting and helping new teammates may be rewarded with their development and set the stage for a more typical Mike Zimmer defense in 2021. Rookies like Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney have gone from liability to asset, particularly since the bye-week, and have done well since then especially considering the Vikings are at or near the bottom of the league in their pass rush this season. That’s created extra duty for the young defenders, often being forced to cover for extra time, and against a QB throwing from a clean pocket. Their job should become a bit easier next season, with the return of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce to bolster both the pass rush and run defense, both of which create better situations for defensive backs and the defense in general. The defensive backs will also have a year’s experience under their belt, which will help the defense schematically as well as with their individual performance.

This year has also been revealing for the defensive front seven. For the most part what’s been revealed is that the Vikings need new starters, and those playing this year are best in backup roles or simply moving on from them. Of course the Vikings will return Hunter and Pierce, solving half the problem, but will still need to sort alternatives for the other two spots. Linebacker has revealed more depth than previously known, and the Vikings should be solid with the guys they have on the roster next season- although a couple backups will need to be extended.

Lastly, it looks like the Vikings will retain their current specialists on special teams for next season, hoping for the best. They didn’t make any progress on settling either returner position, and generally didn’t fare as well covering kicks and punts either. That may also have been a product of a shortened off-season and turnover on special teams, but regardless, this remains an area for improvement during the off-season.

The Next Two Games

The Vikings aren’t officially out of the playoffs, and won’t be until the end of the Saints game at the earliest. That, along with a short week, doesn’t argue for a lot of changes for the Saints game, with the aim of looking to next year more than finishing off this season strong.

But should the Vikings be eliminated after the Saints game, either by losing it or the Cardinals winning their game next weekend, then they could look at playing rookies and young players who could use more reps- Oli Udoh, Harrison Hand, James Lynch, Alexander Mattison, and D.J. Wonnum among them.

The Off-Season: Free Agency May Be More Important

After the season is over, whenever that may be, managing free-agency may be the more important aspect of off-season roster development next year. Of course drafting well is always important, short- and long-term, but the results of free agency may have a more immediate impact on next season. The prospect of a lower salary cap following an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue for the NFL this season, could present more problems and opportunities that normal. There is a rumor that the salary cap may not be lowered as far as $175 million - as has been feared - but rather maintained at the current level with the prospect of future new TV deals helping to off-set this year’s lost revenue. That would make it easier for teams to manage their salary caps, but nevertheless there could be some teams forced to cut more than just fat to get under the salary cap.

If the present salary cap were maintained, the Vikings wouldn’t have much space to work with, so they’ll need to be smart in allocating what they have, which could result in parting ways with some starting veterans, extending others, and perhaps acquiring a couple new ones. There are rumors that Danielle Hunter isn’t happy with his current contract, and Riley Reiff may have played well enough this season where he need not agree to another salary cut. Addressing Kirk Cousins’ contract, which may result in an extension, will also likely be on the agenda.

Draft Will Be Tricky

The Vikings currently have the 14th pick in the draft, and the following picks:

  • One 1st round pick
  • Two 3rd round picks - one from Ravens
  • Three 4th round picks - one from Bears, Bills
  • Three 5th round picks - one from Ravens, Steelers
  • One 6th round pick
  • One 7th round pick

The Vikings gave their 2nd round pick to the Jags for Yannick Ngakoue, and also picked up a 3rd and 5th rounder from the Ravens in exchange for him later on. The extra 4th round picks were from the Diggs trade and a draft day trade with the Bears. Overall, the Vikings and Rick Spielman have 11 draft picks to work with at the moment.

The draft will be tricky next year because of very few college games this year. There won’t be as much tape on players, and going by 2019 tape and what there is of 2020 tape could give an incomplete or even misleading picture of a player’s development. All that could also lead to some greater differences in team ranking of prospects, and some real surprises during the course of the draft. There could be some diamonds further down in the draft, because of the lack of tape and questions about player development, etc. On the flip side, there could also be more disappointments in the top picks for the same reasons. Having a top-notch scouting team and position coaches that can identify real talent based on individual workouts may be even more important for this draft.

Bottom Line

As disappointing as this season has been, next season looks very promising. The return of a few of the Vikings best players on defense, the encouraging development of rookies over the course of this season, and no key player losses should result in a Vikings roster poised to compete for the division title and a deep playoff run in 2021.

They’ll have their work cut out for them, however, as the NFC North faces the NFC West (LA Rams, Arizona, Seattle, SF) and AFC North (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore) next season.