The coronavirus pandemic will have a significant impact on NFL training camps and, at the rate things are going, likely will be a story well into the regular season. But as the Vikings’ prepare for their entire roster to report to camp on Tuesday at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer also are going to have to focus on actual football matters.
Zimmer, who received a three-year contract extension last week that will run through 2023, is entering his seventh season in Minnesota and is looking to lead his team to its fourth playoff berth in that time. So what are some issues Zimmer and his coaching staff must deal with before the regular season opens? Let’s take a look at five pressing topics facing the offense in the first of a two-part series.
GARY’S IN CHARGE
After firing first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with three games left in the 2018 season, Zimmer brought in longtime NFL offensive coordinator and head coach Gary Kubiak as a senior offensive advisor and paired him with assistant Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski was considered the coordinator and called the plays, but there was no doubt it was Kubiak’s offense that quarterback Kirk Cousins was running.
Zimmer, who a year earlier had been frustrated that DeFilippo had frequently abandoned the run game, was pleased with the results as the Vikings jumped from 30th to sixth in the NFL in rushing offense, 19th to eighth in points and 20th to 16th in yards.
Cousins’ career-high passer rating of 107.4 was fourth in the league and his six interceptions were the fewest he had thrown in an NFL season as a starter. Cousins’ 26 touchdowns were tied with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes for the eighth most in the league. While the Vikings’ offensive line had some issues in pass protection, Cousins’ sack total did drop from 40 in 2018 to 28 in 2019 with Kubiak’s scheme in place.
The run game featured Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards (10th in the NFL) on 250 carries, a 4.5-yard average, and 13 touchdowns in a career-high 14 games. Cook also caught 53 passes for 519 yards. a 9.8 average.
The Vikings’ success on offense helped to land Stefanski the head coaching job in Cleveland, meaning the soon-to-be 59-year-old Kubiak will move from offense advisor to coordinator this season. So how much will change?
“Offensively it’s not going to change hardly at all,” Zimmer said on a video conference call Saturday. “Gary was very, very influential in everything that we went about offensively. I’m not trying to take anything away from Kevin, but it was basically Gary’s offense and a lot of the things that were installed was Gary’s offense.
“Gary gave a lot of input to Kevin throughout the course of time and (assistant) Rick Dennison with the offensive line. I think they have a little bit different personalities and both good guys, smart guys, hard workers, all those things. … I know Gary has some ideas that he has put in this offseason, but I don’t think (there will be) much difference when you look at our offense or the play calls.”
WILL DALVIN SHOW UP?
Cook’s camp reportedly informed the Vikings in June that their client no longer would be taking part in team activities unless he received “a reasonable deal.” Cook is entering the fourth and final season of his rookie contract and his base salary of $1.3 million for 2020 makes him a bargain.
On Saturday, Zimmer said Cook had told him he would show up on Tuesday for the start of camp. On Saturday night, Cook’s agent, Zac Hiller, released a statement to ESPN that said Zimmer hadn’t talked to Cook and a few hours later NFL Network reported that Cook actually had talked to Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
So what is going on here?
Given that Hiller’s statement never said that his client would fail to report on Tuesday, the smart money is on Cook showing up and, thus, fulfilling the requirement that he is present for the start of training camp so he can receive an accrued season for 2020. Otherwise, the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement says that Cook will end this season with only three years of service time and would be eligible to become a restricted, and not unrestricted, free agent this coming March.
That move could cost Cook millions. The Vikings have traditionally rewarded their best young players as they near the end of their first contract, so Cook’s best play might be to simply show up and hope something can get done. Ordinarily, that would appear to be a slam dunk, but Cook plays a position that many teams are reluctant to pay and the NFL salary cap is almost certainly going to decrease because of the impact of the pandemic. The cap is at $198.2 million this season but could have a floor of $175 million in 2021.
It’s not Cook’s fault, but his timing is terrible.
The Vikings granted Stefon Diggs’ wish to escape Minnesota in March when they sent the disgruntled wide receiver to Buffalo for a package of four draft picks. The return was an impressive one given everyone knew Diggs wanted out, but now the challenge will be replacing him and seeing how wide receiver Adam Thielen fares without opposing defenses also having to worry about Diggs.
The Vikings’ hope is that first-round pick Justin Jefferson will prove to be a quick study and step in as the No. 2 wide receiver behind Thielen. But Jefferson’s camp got off to a rocky start on Monday when the Vikings announced he had been placed on the team’s Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Jefferson played primarily in the slot last season and caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior for national champion LSU. Best case, Jefferson steps in and picks up where Diggs left off (minus the unhappy tweets). Thielen is coming off a season in which he was limited to 10 games because of a hamstring injury, so the Vikings need him to stay on the field, too, if this is going to work.
Minnesota signed former Titans wide receiver Tajae Sharpe to a one-year, $825,000 base salary contract in free agent this offseason to add depth at the position. The 25-year-old spent his first three seasons with Tennessee, but his reception total dropped from 41 to 26 to 25. Second-year receiver Bisi Johnson (31 receptions for 294 yards and three touchdowns) looks like he could help as a vertical threat for Cousins. Johnson was a seventh-round pick in 2019, but Diggs developed into an elite wide receiver after being a fifth-round pick in 2015.
Cousins should be helped by the fact that Cook can catch passes out of the backfield and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., both are very capable receivers. The Vikings will open camp with 12 wide receivers on the roster, but it’s the success of the top two, Thielen and Jefferson, that will be most important.
WHERE WILL CLEVELAND LAND?
The Vikings drafted their left tackle of the future in April when they selected Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland in the second round, but there remains an important question to be answered: When does that future begin?
Riley Reiff, 31, has been the Vikings’ left tackle for the past three seasons and is entering the second to last season of a five-year, $58.75 million contract he signed in 2017. There was talk the Vikings could have Cleveland start this season at left tackle and move Reiff inside to left guard as the replacement for Pat Elflein, who struggled at that position in 2019. There also was speculation the Vikings could move Cleveland to left guard and leave Reiff at left tackle.
The Vikings’ ability to get creative might have been possible if the pandemic hadn’t wiped out the on-the-field work during OTAs and minicamp. But with the offseason program lost, other than virtual learning, and now training camp set to be impacted, it will be interesting to see if Cleveland gets a chance to start, or if the Vikings simply have him learn behind Reiff and then take over at left tackle in 2021.
SPEAKING OF GUARD
While Elflein’s job could be in jeopardy, the competition at right guard will be wide open after veteran guard Josh Kline was released following one season in Minnesota.
There are a few options for the Vikings after they did not sign a replacement for Kline, beginning with 2019 fourth-round pick Dru Samia and veteran Dakota Dozier. Aviante Collins, who orginally signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2017, also could be in the mix. Collins, however, is listed at tackle on the Vikings’ roster.
Samia appeared in only two games last season but was in for 63 percent of the offensive snaps in a Week 17 victory over Bears. The Vikings did not play several regulars in that game after locking into a playoff spot and that was the only game in which Samia appeared with the offense. Samia was the 2018 Big 12 offensive lineman of the year at Oklahoma.
Dozier, 29, joined the Vikings last season after starting his career with the Jets. He played in all 16 games, starting four times. One of those came at left guard and the other three were in place of Kline at right guard. The Vikings re-signed Dozier to a one-year contract for a base salary of $910,000 during the offseason.
The team’s preference could be for Dozier to remain in a backup role — just as Rashod Hill remains a valuable backup at tackle — and for Samia to win the starting job.