CBS NFL Insider Jason La Canfora wrote this week that the Minnesota Vikings will be in the “spotlight” at the NFL Combine next week with a number of difficult decisions to be made and likely changes coming on the defensive side.
In his write-up about trade and cut options, he included this editorial comment:
“I’m not a huge believer in windows closing in the NFL, but with Kirk Cousins in the final year of his deal, this is an obvious example of one slamming shut. A purge of one degree or another is inevitable.”
Is he right to suggest that the Vikings’ window of opportunity to be a Super Bowl contender is over?
Let’s have a look at the case for Minnesota sustaining their relevancy in the NFC or falling off after years of maintaining largely the same roster…
The window has closed
From the moment Mike Zimmer took over the Vikings in 2014, the organization decided the way to win a division with two top-notch quarterbacks was by building the type of defensive juggernaut that Bill Parcells would be proud of and stack the team while Teddy Bridgewater was on his rookie contract.
With 2013 first-rounders Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith already in place, Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman started building around them with ninth overall pick Anthony Barr in ’14. And then they hit gold in ’15 with Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter all in the same draft. Add the development of Everson Griffen and Andrew Sendejo with savvy free agent signings in Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman and they quickly had all the pieces required to be dangerous. In two years with Zimmer at the helm, the Vikings jumped from 32nd to fifth in points allowed and won the division.
Two years later — and with almost all of those same pieces from ’15 — the Vikings went 13-3 and rated No. 1 in points and yards allowed and reached the NFC Championship game. The only problem with having that much talent on defense is that everyone has to get paid eventually. They gave out extensions to Rhodes, Smith, Joseph, Griffen, Kendricks and Hunter.
By ’19 the Vikings were the second highest spending team on defense in the NFL, per OverTheCap. But the spending stopped matching the production as several key players saw their performances dip significantly from the ’17 campaign.
Now the Vikings will be forced to move on from older players who have faded like Rhodes, Griffen and Joseph and possibly free agents in their prime like Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris, who ranked as PFF’s top safety last year. If nobody comes back and they walk away from Rhodes and Joseph, the Vikings are left to rebuild the defensive line and secondary with very limited cap space or draft capital.
If they sported a consistently dominant offense, the Vikings could simply win a few more shootouts rather than having numerous games per year where they get ahead and run the clock out. But during Zimmer’s tenure they have bounced around on offense from 20th in ’14 to 16th to 23rd to 10th to 19th to eighth in scoring last season. Even with Gary Kubiak’s offense remaining in place, there’s a chance they can’t repeat a top-10 offense in ’19, especially if Dalvin Cook holds out in hopes of a contract extension or Stefon Diggs demands a trade.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is coming off a career best season in which he operated the best ranked offense of his five years as a starter. It’s hard to expect more without massive improvement on the offensive line and the addition of more weapons — again, no easy task without serious cap space.
So the Vikings will attempt to win with a defense looks a lot more like when Zimmer took over — a few nice pieces and a lot of need for improvement. They will rest their hopes on developmental and hope nothing goes wrong in the form of injuries to stars.
All that reads much more like a team in need of several years of drafting replacements and clearing contracts than a club ready to win the NFC.
The window is still open
Way back when Zimmer was working with a ragtag group in his first year, the Vikings still finished with 11th in points against. That isn’t all that far off from the Super Bowl teams, which ranked seventh and eighth this year. In ’18 the Rams made The Big Game with the 20th best defense.
Plus the Vikings have an impressive history of development at all levels of the defense. Defensive linemen like Ifeadi Odenigbo, Stephen Weatherly (if he returns), Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts all have the potential to provide similar production as Griffen and Joseph did in ’19, even if their ceilings aren’t as high as the Pro Bowl versions of those veterans.
If the Vikings extend Cousins to reduce his cap hit in ’20, keep their skill players in place and improve the offensive line via the draft and free agency, they flashed in ’19 an offense that could be capable of staying in the NFC race — especially with Kubiak running the show. There are years worth of evidence to give us reason to believe Kubiak’s offense can sustain the success they had in ’19. Cousins thrived with a higher volume of play-action passes and deep throws downfield and overall the Vikings ranked seventh in passing Expected Points Added — the Chiefs and 49ers were first and fourth and the average Super Bowl team over the last 10 years has ranked sixth.
While the talent on the defensive side has turned geriatric, the offensive stars are either in their primes or young. Diggs and Adam Thielen have years left of presumably excellent play, Irv Smith could be a rising star, same for Brian O’Neill.
The future of quarterbacks in the NFC also gives hope to the Vikings remaining a contender. We have seen a new NFC team in the Super Bowl nearly every year. With Seattle struggling to build around Russell Wilson, the door is open to any team that earns a first-round bye and has things fall their way in the postseason. It isn’t out of the ream of possibility by any stretch to see the Vikings being better than a Bears team without an answer at quarterback, the Packers into Aaron Rodgers’s later years and the Lions remaining the Lions.
Of course the quarterback situation is unclear for the future. But if the Vikings decide to move on, they can provide the next QB with a very strong supporting cast and a chance to play under Kubiak.
Whether the Vikings’ window is closed does not rest on keeping the players who made them great in ’17. It lands on the shoulders of the offense becoming the centerpiece of the team and putting the onus on Zimmer to scheme and develop his way to a capable defense until they can re-stock the cupboard. If the focus of the offseason is to get Cousins more time to throw the ball and more playmakers around him, they have a shot to win the NFC North if things break right.
If they decide to leave the offense as is and spend draft capital and whatever cap space they can muster to either keep current players or overpay for defensive free agents, it’s hard to see much changing for the better — though they can still be competitive in a conference that appears to be wide open.
The check may have come due on the past six years but the window can remain open going forward with the right moves.