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Zulgad: The heat is on: Vikings’ moves put the pressure on Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Minicamp
Jun 15, 2021; in Eagen, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) talk during drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings wrapped up their offseason program on Thursday as coach Mike Zimmer called off the final day of the team’s minicamp and sent his players on their way. It had appeared to be a loose and relaxed group on the field Wednesday at TCO Performance Center as Zimmer’s retooled defense worked against new coordinator Klint Kubiak’s offense.

What will be interesting to see is if the mood remains the same when the Vikings return to Eagan to begin training camp on July 28. Why would it change? Two reasons.

  1. The Vikings appear to have much better overall personnel, especially on defense, than they did during a disappointing 7-9 season in 2020.
  2. Zimmer, and general manager Rick Spielman are under contract through 2023, meaning ownership might be willing to fire one or both after this season, if the Vikings don’t meet expectations.

Those expectations are likely going to be set very high this season. Zimmer has led the Vikings to the playoffs three times since taking over as coach in 2014, including in 2015, 2017 and 2019. There’s no reason that trend shouldn’t continue in 2021 and that means even on the opening day of training camp there is going to be pressure from both inside and outside the Vikings to not only make the postseason but make a run.

Will Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins embrace the pressure, or begin to melt under the heat of it? Both men have been put in a position to succeed and many of the familiar excuses have been eliminated.

Considered one of the best defensive minds in the NFL for much of his coaching career, Zimmer oversaw a unit that finished in the bottom half of the league last season in total defense, scoring defense and sacks. Injuries and poor offseason roster decisions contributed to the problem. The solution was to bring in as much help as possible.

The Vikings signed 11 free agents on the defensive side of the ball, including potential starters Dalvin Tomlinson (tackle), Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland (cornerbacks) and Xavier Woods (safety). That’s not including nickel corner Mackensie Alexander, who returned to Minnesota after a one-year stay in Cincinnati, and tackle Sheldon Richardson, who is expected to be used in pass-rushing situations.

Nose tackle Michael Pierce, who signed as a free agent in March 2020 but opted out because of COVID concerns, also will start, and Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr will return after either missing the entire season or much of it because of injury.

Even a curmudgeon like Zimmer had to be smiling as he put together his post-free agency depth chart. But Cousins should have been equally as happy, and not just because of the fact he’s in line to make a base salary of $21 million this season. Cousins also is a beneficiary when it comes to the pressure that exists for this organization to win now.

Cousins was sacked 39 times last season, sixth-most in the NFL, causing Spielman to use a first-round pick on left tackle Christian Darrisaw (after Minnesota lost Riley Reiff) and a third-round selection on guard Wyatt Davis. While neither Darrisaw or Davis worked with the first-team offensive line in minicamp, it’s likely the Vikings’ opening day line will feature Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland at left guard, Garrett Bradbury at center, Davis at right guard and Brian O’Neill at right tackle.

All five are Vikings draft picks with two being first-rounders and none being taken later than the third round. The protection might not be perfect, but it should be a significant upgrade from a year ago, when the Vikings had the overmatched Dakota Dozier at left guard. Interior protection is absolutely key for Cousins’ success and the biggest question mark might be Bradbury, who has yet to come close to meeting expectations since being a first-round selection in 2019.

Cousins, who has no problem producing an impressive box score, will have plenty of options in the passing game, assuming new coordinator Klint Kubiak calls the right plays and Zimmer doesn’t attempt to ground his offense at every opportunity.

Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen will continue to provide big-time threats at wide receiver, and Irv Smith Jr., and Tyler Conklin will be frequent options in the passing game. This doesn’t include the fact that running back Dalvin Cook is a receiving threat out of the backfield.

The expectations won’t only be high because of the players on the Vikings’ roster. There also is a good possibility that future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t play for the Packers again and, if that’s the case, Jordan Love is going to be put into a role for which he likely isn’t ready. Think Zimmer wouldn’t enjoy game planning for those two matchups?

Green Bay has won 13 games in back-to-back years, but without Rodgers this could be a long season for the Packers. The Bears, meanwhile, likely will begin the season with Andy Dalton at quarterback, and Dan Campbell figures to be a far better quote than he is a coach with the Detroit Lions.

This means the Vikings figure to open the season as favorites to win their first NFC North title since 2017. Two years ago, Zimmer and Cousins went 10-6 and won a wild card playoff game in New Orleans before being overpowered by San Francisco.

Would a repeat of that be enough to assure Zimmer and Cousins are back in 2022? Considering what both have been given to work with this time, that’s probably not a given.