INDIANAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talked on Wednesday at the NFL Combine. Here’s the most interesting things that came from his sessions with the media…
Zimmer didn’t try to hide the Vikings’ desire to bring back Everson Griffen. At the podium he said flat out: “we expect him to be back.”
Of course that opens the door to a number of questions. Can he continue to perform at a high level at 32 years old? How much will it cost? How many years? Will he still be asked to play the every-down role? What else could be done with the cap space?
Zimmer answered the question about Griffen’s play:
“I thought Everson played really well, especially early in the year,” he said. “As we’re going back through the cut-ups and watching some of the pass things, he’s still a really good pass rusher. There’s that as far as on the field. Off the field, number one, he’s got a great relationship with Andre [Patterson]. He loves the guys here in the locker room, and I think he understands that we’re going to do the best for him all of the time.”
Griffen’s start to the 2019 season was outstanding. In eight of the first 10 weeks he scored PFF grades higher than 70 and averaged 5.6 pressures per game. Over the final eight games (including playoffs) he picked up just 1.8 pressures per game and only once produced a grade over 70. That could be a sign that they need to lighten his workload or a natural dip with age.
Signing Griffen still makes sense when you consider the difficulty finding edge rushers. Hoping that a rookie can step into that position opposite of Danielle Hunter and produce similar marks would be a big ask — plus Griffen draws extra attention that makes life easier on Hunter. A short-term deal that would carry a low cap number for 2020 could be the best play.
Zimmer did have praise for former seventh-round pick Ifeadi Odenigbo, who would continue to rotate with Griffen at times and mix in on third downs rushing at the defensive tackle position. Using him more could lighten the load on Griffen.
But if they don’t come to an agreement with the Pro Bowl veteran, Odenigbo might become the starter.
“We use him in different positions because that’s how we use him,” Zimmer said. “He went inside and he was able to get some things done in there because he’s a powerful, physical rusher. He’s not a huge guy but in that down and distance he can go in and play. Do I think he could play full time at end? Yeah.”
Anthony Harris picked a great time to emerge as one of the NFL’s best playmaking safeties. With Denver’s Justin Simmons set to be franchised or sign a long-term deal (per John Elway), Harris is going to be far and away the best safety on the market. He could be an impact player for a team desperate to improve its coverage as Harris graded as PFF’s top safety and led the NFL in interceptions.
Naturally that makes it really hard to afford for a cap-strapped team like the Vikings, who are already paying Harrison Smith more than $10 million on the cap next year. Only four teams spent over $20 million on safeties last year, which Zimmer acknowledged makes it tough to keep Harris.
“I love Anthony, if he doesn’t come back, I think he’s earned whatever he’s gotten, but if you put up the positions that are the most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety,” Zimmer said. “We’ll figure out a way if he’s not back. He stepped in for Sendejo when Sendejo got suspended or hurt, whatever it was, and never [went back out of the starting lineup].”
That puts safety right up toward the top in the conversation for the Vikings’ first-round pick. Two players — LSU’s Grant Delpit and Alabama’s Xavier McKinney — stand out from the rest of the class as guys who could be picked in the late first round and make an immediate difference and eventually become stars.
“It’s all about the guy,” Zimmer said. “Some of those safeties that step in on day one, I had Roy Williams in Dallas. We drafted him, and on day one, he was a starter, so it really just depends.”
Nobody with the Vikings is publicly saying that a contract extension for Kirk Cousins is a guarantee but both Spielman and Zimmer made it clear they were happy with his 2019 performance and believe that he can continue to play at his level from last season — in which he set career highs in PFF grade and passer rating. The Vikings’ head coach gave two clear reasons he believes that his QB will keep reaching a Pro Bowl level: Scheme and likely improvements on the O-line.
“I think part of the deal is keeping the scheme the same, OK, so now he can go all in,” Zimmer said. “Kubiak’s an unbelievable coach, he does a great job with that. But keeping the continuity of the scheme he’s got to learn, like I said up there, the same as you’d probably tell him, two years ago, he had to change protection, get all through different things, then come back to the other side, change it again, check to this and check to that, and now he’s just playing football, and to me, that was a big factor in how he did.
“And secondly, I believe that if we can continually find a way to get better on the offensive line, that’s going to make him even better. I don’t see him taking a step back. I see him continuing to ascend.”
Talking openly about the need to improve pass protection brings us to this: Would the Vikings take an offensive tackle in the first round in a deep draft at the position? Would that mean cutting Riley Reiff or could they potentially re-work his deal and bump him inside to guard?
Zimmer did not shut the door on that possibility.
“I think that’s a possibility,” he said. “I have not talked to Riley about moving because we haven’t gotten that far down in the discussions. I think he likes being here. And he’s one of those team guys so I think he’d do whatever we want him to do. But I have not talked to him about it. Everybody is speculating O’Neill is going to left and all these other things, too. You always discuss these things but it’s not like, ‘OK. We’re going to do this.’ We’re going to wait until we figure out where we’re going with everything and go from there.”
The Vikings have not cut Xavier Rhodes yet — though it seems like a foregone conclusion — and Zimmer’s podium comments about Trae Waynes were cautious about whether they can re-sign him. That could leave the team with only Mike Hughes and Holton Hill as outside corners with a decent amount of experience and 2019 seventh-round pick Kris Boyd as a player with potential.
“I don’t know that we’ll have an entirely new corners room,” Zimmer said. “It is what it is. If it is that way then we just have to do a good job keeping guys in there and making sure they can play and trying to help them as best we can. We’re not going to cry because we don’t have some of those guys. Our job is to figure out how to get guys in there and get them to play.”
Zimmer was not ready to say that he’s handing the keys over to the unproven players but was optimistic about the outlook for the three youngsters.
“They’re still a ways away a little bit,” he said. “But one thing that I think especially those two guys, Hughes and Hill and Boyd, they have the ability to do it. Like, during the season I gave them an assignment that I wanted them to do every single day and they did it. That tells me that they want to do it. I think that’s half the battle.”
Drafting a corner is under the category of very possible with the 25th overall pick but if they are looking to fill 2020 needs looking down the board in free agency might be the best option.
Asked if he would be comfortable with a backup quarterback who came from the 2020 draft class, Zimmer talked about his top priority as being someone who they could count on to win games in case of emergency.
“I think the backup quarterback’s job is to help the starting quarterback, but I also think the starting quarterback gets hurt, that guy has to be good enough to go into a game,” Zimmer said. “So when we’re looking for a backup quarterback, we want to be able to have somebody who, if he has to go in for three games, can win those three games. For us, it’s not to be another coach for Kirk, OK? It’s for somebody who can help you with that, but at the end of the day he’s got to be able to play too.”
Not mentioned within Zimmer’s answer: A backup who could be developed into an eventual starter.
This draft does feature a number of intriguing QBs in the middle rounds like Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma but if the Vikings believe an extension for Cousins is on the horizon, they’ll bring back Mannion or find another veteran who can win in case of the starter’s absence.