The moment streamers come down from the rafters at the Super Bowl, the offseason officially kicks off and every team in the NFL begins plotting their route to the world’s biggest sporting event.
If the Minnesota Vikings are going to make it deep into the playoffs next season, they will have to perform vastly better on offense. The teams representing the NFC and AFC this year ranked No. 2 and No.4, respectively, in scoring this season. Last year, the final two were No. 2 and 3 in the NFL and in 2016 the top scoring offense in each conference ended up in the title game.
In the last 10 Super Bowls, only three of the 20 participating teams ranked outside of the top 10 in scoring. Pittsburgh was 12th in 2010, San Francisco 11th in 2012 and Denver 19th in 2015. Put another way: there have been more No. 1 overall scoring teams than clubs in the Super Bowl over the last decade outside of the top 10 in offensive output.
The Vikings ranked 19th in 2018.
In order to make it into the top 10, the Vikings would have needed to score 54 more points. The top five required 73 points. Minnesota’s offenses would have needed 205 extra points to tie for the No. 1 spot.
The Vikings took the first step toward offensive improvement already by adding Gary Kubiak as an offensive advisor. In 22 years as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak has seen his teams finish in the top 10 in points 15 times.
But schematic improvement won’t solve all the Vikings’ issues on offense. They will need help from the front office to bolster the supporting cast around quarterback Kirk Cousins despite having limited cap space in which to do so.
That’s where the New England Patriots enter the equation.
The Vikings can’t emulate the Rams simply because the Rams were able to spend like lottery winners in free agency to sign the likes of Robert Woods and Andrew Whitworth and they gave Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks big contract extensions. Those things are possible because of a rookie QB contract. While Tom Brady’s cap hit is lower than Cousins’ price, it still is big enough to force the Patriots to be savvy on the free agency and trade markets in order to build up the supporting cast to help Brady.
Let’s start with the weapons.
New England uses a rotation of receivers, running backs and tight ends to become unpredictable on offense. The snap counts from the AFC Championship game (below) reveal that 10 different “skill position” players were used for at least 15 snaps.
The impressive thing about New England’s weapon building is: Of those 10 players, six of them were picked up by the Pats since 2016 and only tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen have cap hits of more than $5 million this season.
Here’s how the Patriots added the skill players used in the AFC title game:
WR – Chris Hogan – Signed three-year, $12M deal as an RFA in 2016
WR – Cordarrelle Patterson – Signed a two-year, $8.5M contract in 2017 with the Raiders, acquired via trade for fifth-round pick
WR – Phillip Dorsett – Acquired via trade for Jacoby Brissett, signed one-year deal for $1.4M in 2018
TE – Dwayne Allen – Signed a four-year, $29.4 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts in 2016, acquired via trade for fourth-round pick
RB – Rex Burkhead – signed a three-year, $9.75 million contract in 2018.
RB – Sony Michel – Drafted 31st overall in 2018
What did this do for the Patriots’ ability to be “multiple?” In their opening drive against the Chiefs in the AFC title game, the Pats used 15 different formations on 15 plays and the following combinations of personnel:
In 2018, the Vikings used a mix of formations, but they predominately used only five players: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Aside from that, their No. 3 wide receiver was one of the least efficient players at his position in the NFL and No. 4 receiver Aldrick Robinson added 17 catches.
They attempted to find bargain deals with receivers Kendall Wright and Tavarres King, but neither made the team out of camp. Undrafted backup running backs Mike Boone and Roc Thomas combined for 77 total yards rushing and four catches. For cap purposes, the Vikings released proven receiver Jarius Wright, who ended up grabbing 43 passes for the Carolina Panthers.
It’s clear Cousins could use more support to increase the versatility of the offense. How can they get there?
A few things stand out about the Patriots’ roster build:
– They were willing to use assets on running backs *if* those running backs served a specific purpose. Michael carried the ball 209 times at 4.5 yards per carry but only caught seven passes while Rex Burkhead caught 14 passes in just eight games.
– Cordarrelle Patterson was used in a dynamic role, catching 21 passes and rushing 42 times.
– The Pats take shots on busts or players that opposing teams undervalue. Dorsett was considered a first-round bust. Josh Gordon, who grabbed 40 passes before leaving the team indefinitely, wore out his welcome in Cleveland. The Bills chose not to match Chris Hogan’s RFA offer. Dwayne Allen underachieved after his rookie year in Indy. He is vastly overpaid for his production, but overall he has been a quality run blocker for the Pats
The Vikings can use the free agent/trade market and draft to support Cousins at a reasonable price. Some examples:
– Running backs like TJ Yeldon and Jacquizz Rodgers excel as receivers out of the backfield
– A restricted free agent receiver like Geronimo Allison or Tommylee Lewis might be worth sending an offer sheet their way
– Cordarrelle Patterson will be a free agent, so will Tavon Austin
In a bubble, none of these things would be exciting. But neither were trades for Patterson or Dorsett or the signing of Burkhead in New England.
The other part of improving the supporting cast for Cousins is finding more talent on the offensive line.
Here’s how the Patriots’ five starting linemen were acquired:
T – Trent Brown – Acquired via trade for a third-round pick. Originally seventh-round pick of SF in 2015
G – Joe Thuney – Third-round pick in 2016.
C – David Andrews – Undrafted. Signed with Pats in 2015.
G – Shaq Mason – Fourth-round pick, 2015
T – Marcus Cannon – Fifth-round pick, 2011
Three years ago the Patriots ranked 31st by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking. They have progressively improved as their players developed.
Minnesota is off to a decent start with Pat Elflein and Brian O’Neill, but a successful rebuild in the Pats’ could mean a few more years and a lot more picks in rounds 2-5 dedicated to linemen.
The Pats were also savvy in letting tackle Nate Solder walk in free agency only to be replaced by Brown. Unlike the Vikings’ deals for players like Alex Boone, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, New England seems to understand that teams shouldn’t overpay for middle-of-the-pack offensive linemen.
The unfortunate reality for the Vikings is that there is no quick fix on the offensive line without an elite player on the free agent market. Like any other position, it takes time to become great. However, the acquisition of Brown shows us that the Moneyball way to find a lineman might be with scheme fit. He didn’t sit well in Kyle Shanahan’s zone running offense, so the 49ers moved on. Could the Vikings find a player who doesn’t fit with their scheme but will fit with Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak? That may be a wiser route than paying top dollar.