How much better do the Vikings have to be to compete for the Super Bowl?

Since the beginning of the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota, the Vikings have been a defense-first team.

Cap space has largely been spent the same way aside from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has a $29 million hit in 2019. Currently the Vikings are spending the second most cap space on the defensive side in the NFL and the 20th most on offense. Cousins’ deal makes up 34 percent of the Vikings’ total spending on offense.

Put a different way: If the Vikings had a QB on a rookie contract, they would currently be a bottom three spender on offense.

With the re-signing of Anthony Barr and restructured deal for Everson Griffen, the Vikings have the least total space in the NFL to work with. They could decide to trade Trae Waynes, who is set to make $9 million in the final year of his deal, but that money would likely be spread out between backup quarterback, kicker and a veteran bargain offensive linemen. And with nearly all the quality starting level players on offense are off the board — with the last coming Friday when receiver Golden Tate signed in New York — there isn’t any offensive big fish to spend on even if they wanted to be a buyer.

Bottom line: Barring a surprise trade for an offensive weapon, there won’t be a last-minute about-face by the Vikings. We may see them go all-in on the offensive side at the NFL Draft, but any remaining investment on offense in free agency will be done on the cheap. They are staying the course.

The concern with this approach is that the Vikings’ biggest area of weakness last season was on offense and teams that are reaching the Super Bowl of late have generally been the best of the best in passing effectiveness. Teams that dominate on defense have sometimes reached the Super Bowl, but normally they have been paired with strong passing games.

Below are the performances in point differential and *Expected Points Added in passing, rushing, pass defense and run defense by teams that appeared in Super Bowls since 2013.

*EPA is a stat that measures the play of a team versus the situation. For example, if the expected points for a drive when a team has third-and-7 at the opponent’s 40-yard line are 1.5 and the offense throws a touchdown on the next play, the EPA is 5.5. Regular measures of yards can be muddied by game situations. All EPA numbers by Pro-Football Reference. 

Year Team Point differential Passing EPA For Rank Pass EPA Against Rank Rush EPA For Rush EPA Against
2018 Patriots +111 3 8 10 14
Rams +143 5 13 1 24
2017 Eagles +162 2 7 19 12
Patriots +162 1 25 9 29
2016 Patriots +191 2 3 24 8
Falcons +134 1 25 3 28
2015 Broncos +59 28 2 30 3
Panthers +192 9 1 4 12
2014 Patriots +155 3 18 6 18
Seahawks +140 12 6 1 2
2013 Seahawks +186 4 1 24 12
Broncos +207 6 26 15 3
Average +153.5 6.33 11.25 12.17 13.75
2018 Vikings +19 22 2 29 7


— Point differential gives us an exact bar for the Vikings to reach in outscoring opponents. Whether it comes via offense, defense or special teams, Zimmer’s team has to improve by around 130 points next season to be an average Super Bowl team. That number would be even higher if not skewed slightly by the 2015 Broncos.

— Passing EPA best predicts who will reach the Super Bowl. Only two teams are outside the top 10 in passing EPA reached the big game and only the 2015 Broncos won the Super Bowl with a non-top 10 finish in passing EPA. The average team in passing EPA are ranked around twice as high as any other category.

— Run defense is the least predictive following by rushing offense. Teams are all over the board in both. Only two teams made the Super Bowl with higher run EPA ranking than pass.

— The Vikings need to make huge gains in passing to become an average Super Bowl team. By the exact numbers, the sixth ranked EPA passing game was Chargers at plus-168.1. The Vikings were plus-52.8.

— Only one team had a worse run EPA than the Vikings and made the Super Bowl. The Vikings were minus-38.0 in EPA in 2018, the 12th ranked team was plus-1.3.

— The Vikings had a defense in 2018 that was better than the average Super Bowl defense in the past six years by a pretty wide margin.

Closing the gap

Assuming Minnesota continues to perform at an extremely high level defensively, the onus will be almost entirely on the offense to improve in order to make the Vikings a true contender.

The biggest challenge in projecting the 2019 offense is determining how much difference scheme will make. In 2017, the Vikings ranked sixth in pass EPA. Pat Shurmur’s impact was clear, but Case Keenum also executed third-and-short and red zone situations with brilliance. Last year the Vikings were well below average in both areas.

It’s hard to be certain whether Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski can have the same type of effect on the Vikings’ offense, but generally speaking, third-and-short and red zone are two areas that are highly related to play calling and scheme.

The question is whether the Vikings can make significant jumps in those areas without improvement on the roster — specifically in the number of weapons for Cousins and his offensive line. At the moment, the No. 3 receiver is the same as are both tackles and the Vikings do not have any guards with starting experience.

Cousins was pressured on nearly 40 percent of drop backs last year. Without pressure his rating was 108.5 (13th) and with pressure 83.1 (eighth) per Pro Football Focus.

It isn’t easy to put into numbers how much scheme could help the protection, but we do have a baseline for the amount of pressure Cousins will face just based on his shortcomings in the pocket. When with Washington in 2016 under Sean McVay, Cousins had the eighth best pass blocking offensive line by PFF metrics and was still pressured 204 times, 12th most in the NFL.

Playcalling and offensive line were certainly driving factors to the 2016 Washington team ranking fifth in passing EPA, but Cousins’ stable of weapons may have played the biggest role.

Six players caught at least 40 passes and all six had a QB rating of 100 or higher when targeted. Both Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed ranked in the top 15 in PFF grades among all skill players (WR, TE, RB) and DeSean Jackson led the entire NFL in yards created by throws traveling 20-plus yards in the air.

The Vikings are very unlikely to check off the O-line box, but they have some similarities. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have both ranked in the top 20 by PFF two years in a row. The difference is in the additional weapons. Tight end Kyle Rudolph graded eighth among tight ends, but beyond the three Minnesota staples, the Vikings did not get any exceptional performances. In fact, by EPA No. 3 receiver Laquon Treadwell had a negative impact on the team’s ability to score points.

Adam Thielen: +80.4

Stefon Diggs: +20.2

Kyle Rudolph: +17.6

Laquon Treadwell: minus-14.2

In comparison the Vikings’ No. 3 receiver and Cousins’ No. 3 receiver in 2016 posted these EPAs:

2017 Jarius Wright: +15.7

2016 Jamison Crowder: +47.3

From year to year EPAs can vary. Diggs posted 51.2 EPA in 2017 despite having fewer catches. He wasn’t used as much in the screen game and made big plays at big times. So it’s possible Treadwell could make gains if he stays in the same position next year, but it’s also clear how much his struggles impacted the Vikings’ offense and how vital adding another receiver should be.

Bottom line 

The Vikings will very likely have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but that likely won’t matter unless the passing game becomes much, much more effective.

Kirk Cousins has shown the capability to put together a top offense in the statistical area that best predicts which teams will land in the Super Bowl. But in order to accomplish that, he needed an elite offensive line, elite play caller and elite set of weapons. Cousins’ PFF grade from 2016 was nearly identical to the 2018 (80.6 vs. 79.3), yet the offense was much worse.

The draft could change everything, but if it doesn’t, we may ultimately wonder if the Vikings simply took the wrong path this offseason by opting to spend to keep Barr and Griffen rather than pouring assets into Cousins’ supporting cast.