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Vikings Need to Risk Change to be Better This Season - And Beyond

NFL: OCT 20 Vikings at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From the get-go this off-season, Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer was looking to make some changes, and knew others were coming. He changed up his defensive coaching staff, and either released or let-go several long-time core defensive players. He was looking for new scheme ideas, and took on Dom Capers for insight in that regard.

Offensively, Gary Kubiak has taken the reigns and appears to be ready to make some changes along the offensive line.

Even if the Vikings had more salary cap space to work with, these changes would still be needed. They’re needed for the Vikings to become a better football team. Are they guaranteed? Nope. They’re calculated risks. The Vikings need to get better in some areas, and maintaining the status quo isn’t going to lead to improvement, so change is a prerequisite for that to happen.

Let’s look at what those changes are, and why they’re necessary for improvement.

Defensive Changes

The Vikings had a top 5 defensive unit last season, based on two key strengths according to PFF:

  • They were the best tackling defense in the league;
  • They were the third best defense in coverage

That last one may come as a surprise to many, in light of mediocre cornerback play, but the Vikings had arguably the best safety duo in the league last season, and also probably the best linebacker in coverage in Eric Kendricks. Both safeties and Kendricks will be returning this season.

The Vikings were 8th in pass rush, according to PFF - not bad - but somewhat disappointing given the return of Everson Griffen. The Vikings were 10th in sack percentage last season (7.5%), which was a decline from 2018, when they led the league in sack percentage at 9.04%.

But where the Vikings struggled at times - and particularly against good teams - was in run defense. The Vikings were 19th in yards per rushing attempt allowed, their worst showing since 2015. They allowed over 100 yards rushing against the Packers both games, the Chiefs, Eagles, Broncos, Seahawks, Bears (week 17), and 49ers. They lost all but the Broncos and Eagles games, and the Broncos game required a fairly dramatic comeback.

So, run defense and, to a lesser degree pass rush are areas for improvement. Both of these require changes to the defensive line.

Change One: a 4-3 Under Front

I did a piece back in April speculating on the Vikings moving to a 4-3 Under Front, in part because of the coaching changes Zimmer made, but also because it makes sense for the Vikings personnel this season.

From a pass rushing standpoint, this front will allow Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and the 3-technique better opportunities to rush the passer. It does that because both Hunter and the 3-technique are on the weak side, which allows them more space and fewer defenders to get to the quarterback. For Barr, he would align on the strong side outside the tight-end, and would have a better opportunity to rush off the edge on occasion from that side.

But this front also allows the Vikings to be better against the run.

Sharp Football Stats

The above illustration is the yards per carry the Vikings gave up last season by direction. As you can see, they gave up the most off the right side (offensive left side) followed by right up the middle, and off the left side. Having five defenders effectively on the line of scrimmage would put the Vikings front in better position to defend the outside runs, while another change may help against runs up the middle.

Danielle Hunter has been a good run defender, but he can get washed out on occasion on the strong side, so having him on the weak side allows him to be more consistent as a run defender. On the strong side, having a 5-technique and SAM linebacker (Barr) to defend the outside runs also puts the Vikings in better position to defend the run on this side.

Both Eric Kendricks and Ben Gedeon have been good run defenders for the Vikings (top 3) last season (although Gedeon didn’t play much) and could continue to do the job plugging the interior gaps.

Change Two: Replacing Linval Joseph with Michael Pierce at NT

The Vikings may have released Linval Joseph in part due to salary cap issues, but picking up Micheal Pierce to replace him may prove to be an upgrade for less money. Pierce had a down year in 2019 due to an ankle injury, but the two previous seasons was an elite or near elite run defender according to PFF. Pierce is 27 years old, and likely has more gas in the tank than Joseph, whose performance has deteriorated since he turned 30. Pierce comes from a 3-4 front, so is used to taking on the double-teams that come with the NT position. At 6’0” and 340 lbs, and a big-time weight-lifter, he’s well-built for the purpose as well.

Change Three: Cornerback Overhaul

The Vikings managed to be a top 3 pass coverage defense last season despite their cornerbacks, not because of them.

2019 Vikings defense passer rating allowed by sector
Sharp Football Stats

The illustration represents the passer rating allowed by the Vikings defense last season, divided into six sections as you can see. The outside deep sections are those typically covered by an outside cornerback, while the short sections are more often covered by linebackers and a strong safety, also sometimes a nickel cornerback. The deep center is usually covered by a safety.

Given that, it’s not too difficult to tell what positions were the weak spots in the Vikings pass coverage: the outside cornerbacks.

I did a piece back in April also on the possibility of the Vikings running more Cover-3 zone this season, which may help cornerbacks defend the outside deep thirds of the field. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zimmer incorporates pattern-matching schemes as well, where defensive backs play zone or man depending on the routes being run, and how receivers break on their routes. This is how pass coverage is evolving in the NFL right now, and what’s allowed the Patriots’ pass coverage to be so good the past couple years.

But of course the main aspect of this is new players at the cornerback position. The Vikings released Xavier Rhodes because his performance dropped dramatically following his 2017 All-Pro season, to the point where he was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the league last season, as well as one of the most expensive. Clearly not a good combination.

The Vikings had probably decided to move on from Trae Waynes a couple years ago, when they normally would’ve started extension talks for players they want to retain, but those talks never happened. Waynes was an average cornerback in coverage, but had the disconcerting trend of allowing a higher passer rating when targeted every year, which reached triple digits last season.

And so in both cases, maintaining the status quo was a recipe for mediocrity, or worse, going forward.

MacKensie Alexander the Vikings would have liked to have kept- they did make him an offer, but he was set on moving on. In part for having to play week 17 as the only available slot corner and getting injured during the game. Early on he clashed with Zimmer, and it took him a couple years to get it before having a solid season in 2018. Last year he regressed, however, and also has the disconcerting trend of allowing higher passer ratings when targeted since 2017.

Making the cornerback overhaul an easy decision was also the fact that the three backups on the roster last season all had lower passer ratings when targeted than the two starting outside cornerbacks - albeit on fewer reps.

Adding three more cornerbacks via the draft, including a first and third rounder, should provide plenty of competition and help in bringing forward three starters that collectively can outperform last year’s departed trio, who were ranked 37th (Alexander), 77th (Waynes), and 90th (Rhodes) out of 95 cornerbacks in the league last season with at least 300 coverage snaps in passer rating allowed.

Offensive Changes

The personnel changes on the defensive side have already been made, but not so much on the offensive side, officially, so far.

In 2019, the Vikings offense was basically a top 10 unit overall - 8th in points scored, 16th in yards, 11th in overall PFF grade. What carried the offense was:

  • 5th best in net yards per passing attempt
  • 3rd best PFF passing grade
  • 9th best PFF receiving grade
  • 6th in average team passer rating

What held back the offense was the following:

  • 16th in PFF team rushing grade
  • 27th in PFF team pass blocking grade
  • 12th in PFF team run blocking grade
  • 12th in rush yards/attempt

Overall, the Vikings and Kirk Cousins had a top-tier passing attack despite of, not because of, the offensive line. The Vikings rushing attack was about average, maybe a bit above, which was disappointing considering Dalvin Cook played in more games last season and had over 1,000 yards rushing.

It’s not much of a surprise that the offensive line continues to be the weak link in the Vikings offense, and that was even more apparent against good teams, in both run and pass blocking. And so that is where change is most needed.

Change Four: Replace LG Pat Elflein

At this point there have not been any official changes to the Vikings starting offensive line, other than starting right guard Josh Kline has been released, making that an open position going into training camp. But in order for the Vikings’ offensive line to improve, more changes need to be forthcoming.

Change number one is starting left guard Pat Elflein should be released, and a camp competition be put in place to replace him. Reading the tea leaves from comments by Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak, it seems likely that Pat Elflein will be replaced as starting left guard, but at this point there has been no announcement of a competition at left guard, or any change in the status of Pat Elflein.

However, 4th year veteran and 2017 UDFA Aviante Collins has been getting some “mentions” by both Zimmer and Kubiak, and has been working out with Garrett Bradbury, indicating he may be a top consideration at left guard, where he played week 17 against the Bears last season.

Other considerations at left guard include Ezra Cleveland, Oli Udoh, and potentially another rookie draft pick (if they step up) or a free agent acquisition.

In any case, Pat Elflein has been a 3-year starter for the Vikings, and has yet to have a good season. Last season, he was targeted on occasion on passing downs, with opposing defenses placing their better pass rushers across from him - with frequent success. Elflein’s past performance provides no indication he is likely to improve, and given he’s also a $2.4 million salary cap hit, he should be released to save a little over $2 million in cap space this season. Between the draft picks and Brett Jones, the Vikings have adequate backups available for less than half Elflein’s salary - making him redundant.

Change Five: Replace LT Riley Reiff

Riley Reiff has been fairly consistent at left tackle for the Vikings since he took over the job in 2017. He’s been consistent in that he’s been about average as a pass blocker, except against better competition, when he’s been below average at best. His worst games last season were against the Bears week 4, both Packers games, and against the 49ers in the playoffs.

Entering his 9th season, Reiff is what he is: an average tackle that struggles against more athletic edge rushers. He’s also a big salary cap hit - 2nd highest for the Vikings this year.

Some can take some comfort in knowing what you’ll get from Reiff - usually adequate performance. But his performance, like Elflein’s, also puts something of a lid how well the offensive performs overall against good teams. And that’s where the Vikings need to improve. The Vikings need to move to a player with more upside, and who can perform better against good competition.

The Vikings seemed to acknowledge this during the off-season, as they made an attempt to acquire Trent Williams from the Redskins, and also picking Ezra Cleveland in the 2nd round of the draft.

But as the Vikings failed to acquire Williams, and Cleveland may need some more time to get NFL ready and determine his best position in the NFL, particularly with the short off-season schedule, the best move for the Vikings may be to move right tackle Brian O’Neill to the left side.

O’Neill is a prototypical left tackle. 6’7”, 310 lbs., with 34 1/8” arm length. He was the Vikings’ best performing offensive lineman last season, showing nice improvement from his rookie season and allowing only 2 sacks last season, with no more than 3 pressures allowed in any one game. He had nine games in which he allowed one hurry or less, with no QB hits or sacks allowed.

O’Neill has all the measurables to be a top left tackle in the NFL. The only sub-par measurable he had as a draft pick was his weight, which he’s increased to around 310 as of last season, which is fine. O’Neill played left tackle his last season at Pittsburgh, so making the move back to the left side should not be uncharted territory for him.

Replacing Reiff as a starter necessitates releasing him from a salary cap perspective, which would save the Vikings $11 million in salary cap space this year, with $2 million in dead cap both this year and next. Clearly the Vikings had this in mind when they were pursuing Trent Williams.

Change Six: Start Oli Udoh at Right Tackle

Oli Udoh is a prototypical right tackle: 6’5”, 325lbs., 35 3/8” arm length. A 6th round pick last year, Udoh made massive progress from his college tape, and fared just fine against the Bears and Khalil Mack week 17.

As a draft pick, Udoh was a classic traits-based project taken on Day 3. Very high ceiling, very low floor. But his development last season has now raised his floor, while his ceiling remains very high. The biggest issues with Udoh as a draft pick was his poor technique and not having played against quality competition at the college level. But he’s now proven he can play against top NFL competition, and his technique has improved dramatically. He’s still not fully there, but with another off-season (albeit a short one) and training camp to improve, he should become more consistent, with the ability to overpower as well.

Both his size and arm length will help make up for any deficiencies in his technique. He’s not a guy that is easily bull-rushed, if that’s possible, and his arm length prevents a lot of typical pass rush techniques from being successful. He showed he’s got the quickness and footwork to stop Khalil Mack’s speed rush around the corner, and I’ve never seen him bull-rushed - he’s just too big. Edge rushers will undoubtedly try other moves to get him off-balance, but even these moves are difficult given his size, length, and athletic ability.

Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison have said consistently they want to start their best five, and Udoh has risen to be one of those five players. It’s not out of the question that he could start at left tackle either, if the Vikings didn’t want to move O’Neill, or at left guard if the Vikings felt Rashod Hill could be a starting tackle this year, but right tackle would be the easiest spot for Udoh to fill, and he could become one of the best in a short period of time.

Given his size and length, Udoh could also become a strong run blocker too, which is something the Vikings could really use in their starting lineup.

Change Seven: Acquire G Kelechi Osemele

With the salary cap savings the Vikings would make by releasing Reiff and Elflein, in addition to Josh Kline, they would have some money to acquire a veteran free agent to compete at the guard positions. But rather than bringing back Josh Kline, the Vikings could acquire Kelechi Osemele, who is a free agent after being released from the Jets in an injury dispute last season.

Osemele had a torn labrum, which required surgery, but the Jets did not agree with that assessment, and first fined Osemele $570K for conduct detrimental to the team, before ultimately releasing him after he had the surgery.

Osemele was a top guard that reset the guard market in 2016 with a 5-year, $60 million deal with the Raiders. And at 6’5”, 330lbs., and 35 7/8” arms, he’s a presence inside that Vikings have not had in a long time. Osemele will turn 31 this month.

But he’s dealt with the injury last year, and a knee injury the prior year, which has led to declining performance. He was on the books with the Jets last year at $5 million, and perhaps would sign with the Vikings for a similar amount. Of course the Vikings would want to conduct a full physical exam on Osemele, to be sure he’s ready to play and 100% before signing him.

But assuming he’s healthy, bringing in Osemele would unite him again with Gary Kubiak, who he played for in 2014 in Baltimore - his best season as a pro. Signing him to compete for a guard spot with Aviante Collins and Dru Samia would both provide a veteran presence, and provide a higher floor with a veteran that’s given up only 9 sacks in the past 7 seasons, not to mention being one of the better run-blocking guards in that time as well.

Playing Osemele at left guard, where he’s played since his rookie season, the Vikings could have a competition between Collins, Samia, and perhaps Cleveland or even Brett Jones for the starting right guard spot.

Whether Osemele would be more of a stop-gap or a longer-term acquisition would depend on both his performance and price-tag. But having a more proven guy at guard makes some sense for the Vikings, even if he doesn’t have a lot of time to acclimate himself with the Vikings playbook and personnel.

After all the offensive line changes, the Vikings could field the following starting line-up week one:

LT: Brian O’Neill

LG: Kelechi Osemele

C: Garrett Bradbury

RG: Dru Samia / Aviante Collins / Ezra Cleveland

RT: Oli Udoh

Assuming Bradbury improves from his rookie season, and O’Neill and Udoh continue to progress well, this is an offensive line that could go from a liability to an asset, and maintain itself for several years.

The talent is there.

Change Eight: Replacing Stefon Diggs with Justin Jefferson

This was not a needed change in terms of improvement, but a calculated one based on Diggs’ attitude, salary cap considerations, and ultimately the offer the Bills made for him.

Gary Kubiak has indicated he intends to play Justin Jefferson at the X receiver position - where Diggs played previously, so it appears the Vikings have already made this change.

It would seem unlikely that Jefferson would be able to replicate the season Stefon Diggs had in 2019 - his best as a pro.

But Jefferson enters the league with slightly better measurables than Diggs, and is touted as one of the best route runners in his draft class, which he’s had ample opportunities to demonstrate against the best competition at LSU. Gary Kubiak has also mentioned that Jefferson is familiar with the concepts and terminology of his offense, and the type of routes he’ll be asked to run, based on his experience at LSU.

All that points to a promising rookie season - more so than most rookie wide receivers.

And so Jefferson could replicate something close to Diggs’ career average as a rookie, particularly if he’s able to start all 16 games - something Diggs has not done in a regular season.

On a per game basis, Diggs has averaged 66 receiving yards per game, 12.7 yards/reception, 7.6 targets, 5.2 receptions, and a 68.4% catch rate. Over a 16 game season, that equals 1,056 receiving yards on 83 receptions and 122 targets.

Making some adjustments to those numbers, based on his history at LSU and expected role with the Vikings, I could see a slightly higher catch rate than Diggs’ career average, but perhaps fewer targets as well, which would more than off-set the higher catch rate.

Estimating 100 targets over the course of the season, a 75% catch-rate, and the same yards/reception as Diggs’ career average, that equates to a 952 receiving yard season on 75 receptions, which would be an excellent rookie season. Not 100% of Diggs’ production in 2019, but then again Adam Thielen could have more than the 418 receiving yards he had last season too.

And if Justin Jefferson is able to continue at that pace, or even improve upon it, he could prove to be a more than adequate replacement for Stefon Diggs, and at age 21, for a lot more years than Diggs - had he continued with the Vikings.

Bottom Line

Given where the Vikings were at the end of last season, the need for change was apparent in several areas. Keeping the same cornerbacks, even if they could have afforded to, with the hope that they would improve after five or more years in the league, was not rational. Those changes are being made.

Similarly, the need for change on the offensive line was also apparent, as both Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein have shown what they can do - and can’t do. Expecting them to up their game at this point is also not rational. Change is needed, and appears to be in the works, although the precise nature of the change is still unknown.

Mike Zimmer was also intent on making some adjustments to his scheme, including some coaching changes, which may result in some scheme changes that better fit the Vikings personnel, and improve upon weak areas from last season.

Lastly, the Vikings took a calculated risk in trading Stefon Diggs for a collection of draft picks, including a first rounder used to draft Justin Jefferson. Jefferson may not replace all of Stefon Diggs’ production as a rookie, but the Vikings were somewhat lucky to get him at #22 overall, and he could end up replacing Diggs’ production over the long haul - and perhaps improve upon it in time. Looking at his measurables, college career, and preparedness for the NFL, there is nothing that suggests he cannot.

But with change comes risk, and potentially some hiccups or learning curve. Starting rookies in place of veterans carries that risk, but also the reward of better performance. Whether the performance will be better or worse, depends a lot on the hurdle created by the departed player.

In the case of the cornerbacks, the hurdle for the new starters is pretty low. In the case of Justin Jefferson, it’s pretty high. And for potential new offensive linemen, once again fairly low.

As fans we become accustomed to cheering for players that have done well in the past, and remember (mostly) the good plays - and try to forget the bad. But at the end of the day, every player the Vikings lost this off-season is replaceable. The Vikings lost Stefon Diggs, not Randy Moss. They lost Trae Waynes, not Deion Sanders. And they lost 2019 Xavier Rhodes, not 2017 Xavier Rhodes.

And they may lose Pat Elflein, not Randall McDaniel. And Riley Reiff, not Ron Yary.

We may find that players like Justin Jefferson, Oli Udoh, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, and Michael Pierce prove to be every bit as good as their replacements. And quite possibly better.

At the same time, the likelihood that all of them, or even most of them, would be worse seems to be rather unlikely.

Overall, that seems like trading the same floor for a higher ceiling. And it’s that higher ceiling the Vikings need to be able to go deeper into the playoffs and ultimately win a Super Bowl.

Time will tell.


Overall, are the changes the Vikings are making, or appear to be making, for the better?

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