Where are the Minnesota Vikings?
The question isn’t literal. Where the Minnesota Vikings are is probably on holiday. It was, after all, a bruising, confusing, and ultimately disappointing season that isn’t easy to sum up.
One moment, the Vikings were a factor in everyone’s Super Bowl picks and long-time leaders at the top of the NFC North Divisional betting markets, then, one poor game against the Giants and it was all over. That’s when the hindsight experts began talking about how Minnesota’s record was inflated and that they weren’t really as good as 13-4 suggested they were.
So, what is the truth and how should we think of the Vikings team right now? Are they legitimate Super Bowl contenders or just another middling NFC outfit?
Disappointing though the Giants’ loss was, it is worth taking a step back to look at the performance of the head coach and general manager, who were in their first season at the franchise. A record of 13-4, a first Divisional title in six years, and a playoff spot? That reads like a solid first season, and it was.
Of course, for a fanbase that is long overdue a Super Bowl, it isn’t enough for the Vikings to be just better than average, but the coaching regime has to be given its time. They inherited a team that was okay, not great, and they found a way to improve and grind out results.
Minnesota Vikings Defensive Problems
It is astonishing to contemplate the defensive turnaround at the Vikings. Under Mike Zimmer, this was a defense-first franchise, but in the space of one year, Minnesota became one of the poorest defensive teams in the league, across pretty much all categories.
The stats are conclusive. They finished the season with the second-most yards conceded in the NFL. Although they had stars of the quality of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter in the defense, they lacked consistency in their pass rush and the continual changes in the secondary resulted in an unreliable season-long performance, giving up 209.3 points per game.
The factor that kept the Vikings competitive was that their defense had the ability to find takeaways. They finished the regular season ranked eighth for total takeaways, many of those occurring at just the right time to secure the win. Paradoxically, although the Minnesota defense was the reason why they were involved in so many close games, it was also the reason why they were able to win most of them.
Unfortunately, relying on those in-the-nick-of-time takeaways was ultimately unsustainable, and in the Wild Card game, there were none, resulting in the obvious consequence.
Obviously, there will be changes in the defense, changes that already began with the firing of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. The secondary and the interior defensive line are the two priorities and a decision has to be made about Patrick Peterson, who will become a free agent this season. With limited room for maneuver, being $8 million over the salary cap, Minnesota will have to make difficult decisions.
Maintaining Offensive Balance
Kirk Cousins is a divisive figure, but the offense was not the problem for Minnesota this season. He did a solid job of utilizing his main weapons in Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, T J Hockenson, and Dalvin Cook and here, the Vikings will have to focus on trying to retain their key stars.
Unfortunately, cap pressure may require some inventive thinking on offense. Thielen’s expected cap hit of $19.9 million makes him a potential trade, especially as center Garrett Bradbury is surely too important to be moved on¾in his absence this season, Cousins was sacked 16 times.
Speaking of Cousins, he remains the biggest hit on the cap. If they were to trade him after June 1, it is possible that they could take as much as $30 million off their cap. But is that worthwhile? Cousins was not the problem during this season, and he is arguably playing some of the best football of his career, having settled into this offensive scheme well. And if the Vikings want to go further in the playoffs, then they have to find a similar or better quarterback, who will not be cheap.
With pressure to find cap space, the Vikings face a challenging off-season in 2023, but if they make the right moves, particularly on defense, and are able to keep the current offense largely intact, then they are not far away from being a team that can get beyond the Divisional Round next season.