Coller: Playoffs or not, Vikings have brightest NFC North future

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

The Minnesota Vikings deserve all the credit they are getting for fighting back into the playoff race with three straight NFC North wins. Along the way, they have put together explosive offensive performances and made progress on the defensive side, giving reason to believe they will be playing meaningful games into late December. But even if they come up short of the postseason while trying to dig out of a 1-5 hole, the Vikings’ last three wins have proven that they are in better position for the future than any other NFC North team.

The Vikings began their turnaround three weeks ago against the Green Bay Packers, who are running away with the division at the moment but have all sorts of question marks going forward, starting with whether Aaron Rodgers will return as their quarterback in 2021.

Even if Rodgers comes back, he’s set to carry a $36 million cap hit, making Green Bay’s cap situation very difficult going forward. Per OverTheCap.com, they have $180 million in cap space committed for next season, putting them right up against the projected 2021 cap. That gives the Packers little flexibility to improve -- and they have plenty of areas in need of improvement for a team with a 7-2 record. Green Bay ranks 27th in passer rating allowed by their defense and the play of Rodgers and Davante Adams is severely propping up their offense. The second leading receiver on Green Bay’s roster has just 22 catches this year.

If Rodgers isn’t back, the Packers will have to roll the dice on 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love. His future is far from determined but the fact Love isn’t Green Bay’s No. 2 quarterback should bring some skepticism about whether they would feel confident turning things over to him. Even if Love is good, there will be growing pains (assuming he isn’t the next Patrick Mahomes) and the roster appears to have peaked last year.

None of that is to say the Packers can’t walk the tightrope of remaining good -- they always have -- but it will be challenging beyond this year.

The feeling within Vikings fans about Kirk Cousins seems to change every few weeks but assuming he remains the quarterback in Minnesota, the Vikings have built a supporting cast that can maximize his talents for the remainder of his contract.

Justin Jefferson has emerged in his first year as an elite receiver, ranking No. 2 in the NFL by Pro Football Focus grade and already matching Randy Moss’s 1998 mark for games over 100 yards receiving. Adam Thielen is PFF’s fifth rated receiver. His game doesn’t appear like it’s going to slide any time soon. Not to mention Irv Smith Jr. ranks in the top five by PFF since Week 5.

And for once, the offensive line looks promising. Even after a tough night against Khalil Mack, Brian O’Neill ranks in the top 25 tackles by PFF, Garrett Bradbury has jumped from the bottom of the league last year to fifth by PFF this season and guard Ezra Cleveland has played a significant role in turning around the offense.

While there are cap issues facing the Vikings, Mike Zimmer is showing that he can scheme the Vikings into having a serviceable defense. Coaching and the bones of the offense matter most to the overall direction of the franchise.

And goodness do the other two NFC North teams have problems in those areas.

The Detroit Lions have underachieved for three straight seasons under Matt Patricia after firing 9-7 Jim Caldwell following the 2017 season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is set to be the seventh most expensive quarterback in terms of cap hit in 2021 and he currently ranks as PFF’s 23rd graded quarterback.

Whether Detroit stays with Stafford past this year is questionable. If he does remain at the helm, he’s still yet to win a playoff game and turns 33 in February. So it might be a stretch to suggest that the Lions are just a coaching change away.

With Green Bay and Detroit, the Vikings may be in a better position because of their offensive weapons but it’s plausible for Rodgers and Stafford to compete for the North in 2021. It does not seem possible that Chicago is anywhere close to being a competitive team.

The Bears have an abysmal offense, which ranks second worst to only the Jets in yards per play. Their quarterback situation is a disaster. Their offensive line is one of the worst in the league. Their best receiver is a free agent after this season. Their offensive guru head coach has seen his system be figured out by the league’s defensive coordinators. Oh, and the Bears won’t have a high enough first-round draft pick to take someone like projected top QBs Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields.

There is no path for the Bears that gets them back into contention any time soon. Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are in vastly better positions because they can rebuild around a top pick QB. Chicago has to rely on its defense, which is still strong but nowhere near as dominant as it was in 2018 when they won the division. Not to mention that -- as we have seen in Minnesota -- great defenses tend not to last long.

So the Vikings have possibly the best path to the top of the division. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. They still have holes at numerous positions and will need to continue to develop players through the draft. Minnesota is presently projected by OverTheCap as having $187 million in space for 2021 allocated to players. That means they will need to make difficult decisions on expensive veterans like Riley Reiff and Kyle Rudolph and navigate a potentially tricky situation with Danielle Hunter, who reportedly wants a new contract.

There’s also the matter of the quarterback situation. Kirk Cousins could simultaneously be the best QB in the NFC North (if Rodgers exits Green Bay) and take up so much cap space that it’s difficult to fully maximize the potential of the roster.

But at very least, a QB capable of making the Pro Bowl and winning a playoff game in New Orleans gives the Vikings a chance to be in the mix every year with a strong supporting cast. You can’t say the same for Chicago’s quarterbacks. 

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