(WCCO) — The Minnesota Vikings, coming off a 10-6 playoff season, have a lot going for them. Continuity might be the most important. The team already has a strong foundation, with a returning coaching staff and veterans locked in at key positions. The offensive and defensive systems remain in place.
The Vikings, like every NFL team, are coming off an unusual off-season that included a remote draft, canceled mini-camp and OTAs and limited access to team facilities. Now they find themselves in training camp, putting together a squad with fewer practices and no preseason games to gauge talent and get into form.
The team has already made some strides, even given the limitations. That includes off-season strength and conditioning, albeit remotely. “They’ve been able to study the playbook a little bit,” says WCCO sports anchor Norman Seawright III. “Some of the players, they talk about doing mental reps. They’ll mentally be going through this game.”
That preparation extends to the coaches too. According to Seawright, “Even Mike Zimmer at this point, he’s in there calling plays during practice so he’s comfortable without going through preseason games. When they get to the season, they’re trying to be as close to mid-season performance as they can.”
Returning so many key components should help the team get up to speed quickly. One player who won’t be on the field is nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns. Pierce was signed from the Baltimore Ravens this past March to replace the departed Linval Joseph. His absence leaves a hole for the team to address. It also creates an opportunity for someone like Jaleel Johnson
“The Vikings defense did seem to slip a bit last season,” Seawright notes. “But the line wasn’t really the problem. In fact, it might be better. Danielle Hunter, Shamar Stephen, they’re still on the line. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, still at linebacker. Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris still at safety. And they were all very good, and they’ll still be fine. The team’s youth on that side of the ball might be an advantage, even without Pierce. Ifeadi Odenigbo may become a starter, now that Everson Griffen has moved on to the Dallas Cowboys. The team drafted so well, they’ll mix the rookies in with the veterans and be able to have a strong defensive backfield. So I don’t think it will take a step backward. It might take a bit to find the proper fit, as it will with pretty much every other position. But I don’t think [Pierce’s absence] will cause a great negative impact on the defensive line.”
The offensive line had issues last season that the team attempted to address in the off-season. They drafted tackle Ezra Cleveland in the second round and added some free agents. The success of these moves won’t be known until the regular season. But there is some optimism that the ongoing issues can be resolved.
“I think it lies in the fit, the proper fit for each player on each line,” Seawright says. “Rick Spielman says they will have competition for the guard spot, so that is one of the major concerns they’re trying to address. Pat Elflein, really good at run blocking, [but] had some issues when it came to pass protection. Garrett Bradbury, at the center, had the same problem. Defining the fit is really what’s going to make the difference. Until they figure out what exactly works, because we don’t know until you run that up against someone else and see what happens. But, I think, maybe not game one, but beyond that, they’ll probably figure it out.”
More consistent offensive line play will allow the Vikings to expand the offense. “Gary Kubiak’s offense,” says Seawright, “it’s pretty much going to be the same as last year, because it was also Gary Kubiak’s offense. And they’ll be building on that this year. Irv Smith at tight end might be an X-factor for this team, because he will build on what he did last year. Remember, very strong rookie campaign, 36 catches, 76 percent (catch percentage), exceptional for tight ends and receivers. Between him, [Adam] Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Kyle Rudolph, their receiving group will be great, even without Stefon Diggs.”
The Vikings offense should continue to flow through Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards and caught 53 passes for another 519 yards. Talks about a possible contract extension, should they resume, shouldn’t be any issue. Growth could come at the quarterback position, where Kirk Cousins has been consistent.
According to Seawright, “Kirk Cousins may surprise you again. He’s been talking with Fran Tarkenton about how to extend plays. A common criticism we heard about Kirk was panicking. Whenever the play breaks down, what is Kirk going to do? And I think this kind of conversation that he’s had with Fran might have led him to a place where he might shock some people again.”
A scrambling threat would add another dimension to a Vikings offense that already has an abundance of weapons. It would also prove useful should pass blocking remain an issue. Either way, we won’t get a good sense of how the offense might develop this season until at least Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. The same goes for the defense. For now, we’ll have to hope that continuity keeps them on track.