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.
Before the Minnesota Vikings faced off with the Atlanta Falcons, the possibility still existed for a magical run to the postseason. All they needed was to stomp the winless Falcons, recover during the bye week and then get on a roll against division opponents. But the 40-23 loss to the Falcons put the final nail in their playoff odds, which have dipped to about 2% according to Football Outsiders.
The Vikings’ 1-5 start has not offered fans much joy over the first two months of the season and with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Chicago’s defense all on the way, there might be more tough times to come for Minnesota’s struggling defense and turnover-prone offense.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to watch. In fact, Vikings fans are in the unique position of having uncertainty and intrigue surrounding a large portion of the roster. Since all the defensive players who started the 2019 playoff game against San Francisco were on the team in 2015, it’s been a long time since we felt like each week was a learning experience.
So let’s have a look at the things to watch closest as we go down the stretch…
Everything Justin Jefferson
Here’s a comparison that will catch your eye right away: In rookie Justin Jefferson’s first six games, he has 537 yards and averages 19.2 yards per reception. In Randy Moss’s first six games, he gained 527 yards on 19.5 yards per grab.
Jefferson has been everything the Vikings dreamed about when they picked him in the first round. After slowly integrating himself into the offense over the first two games, he’s become a force, especially in the downfield passing game. Pro Football Focus grades the former LSU star as the No. 1 receiver in the entire NFL. Not among rookies. The whole league.
Sustaining his excellence is the next step as opponents adjust for targets coming his way. Even in Moss’s 1998 season he had a three-game stretch in which he only caught two or fewer passes. And then he exploded down the stretch with 615 yards and 10 touchdowns in the final six games. Can Jefferson follow that path?
Aside from questions about how he will handle a quick ascension into stardom, Jefferson is simply fun to watch for Vikings fans. He danced into the end zone on his first touchdown and has made multiple jaw-dropping plays. There’s also joy in Jefferson’s game that goes along with his success. That’s worth tuning in for alone.
It would be a pretty big understatement to call the Vikings cornerbacks’ season so far a rough ride. The numbers are not pretty for any of them.
Per Pro Football Focus, top pick Jeff Gladney has given up a 143.8 quarterback rating on throws into his coverage, the third worst mark in the league. Cameron Dantzler is sixth worst with a 134.5 rating against. Combined they have given up seven touchdowns with zero interceptions.
To make matters worst, 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes and starter Holton Hill are both out with injuries and when they were in the lineup both struggled.
The direction of the young cornerbacks should be of great interest to Vikings fans. The future outlook for the secondary would be a lot brighter if Gladney/Dantzler/Hughes put together a stretch of games in the next two months that was the exact opposite of the first two months.
Gladney and Dantzler are hardly alone in their struggles as rookie corners. The only first-year corner who was thrust into a starting role that is currently graded above average by PFF is Atlanta’s AJ Terrell. All the rest are below average. Detroit’s No. 3 overall selection Jeff Okudah is the worst graded corner in the NFL.
With no preseason to prepare, the tumbles out of the gate are not stunning. But now that we are six games into the season and they have had a bye week to assess their games, signs of progress need to be on the way. (Or in Hughes’s case, signs that he can get back on the field and stay healthy).
If not, that might leave the Vikings with another box to check next offseason.
What happens with Ezra Cleveland
Is he a guard? Is he a tackle? Is he going to play if veterans are healthy?
The Vikings’ second-round pick has gone through a bizarre last few months since being drafted out of Boise State. The team immediately made him into a left guard in training camp, where he didn’t get much opportunity to compete with Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins and then when starting right guard Pat Efllein went down, Cleveland still remained on the bench. It took another injury to guard Dru Samia before he got into the lineup and played his first game against Atlanta as a right guard -- literally the farthest position from where he played in college.
Cleveland had some ups and downs against the Falcons, giving up five QB pressures. Did he do enough to stay there when everyone comes back? Will the Vikings trade left tackle Riley Reiff and give him a chance to start at his natural spot? Do they only see him as a future guard or is his time at guard to simply get his feet wet?
That’s all without asking: Can he play? Is he good? Does he have long-term potential? It’s hard to judge off one game. And since the offensive line is a constant talking point in Minnesota, Vikings fans should be very interested in seeing what happens with Cleveland.
Is there a future defensive end on the squad?
With Danielle Hunter out for the season and Yannick Ngakoue traded to the Baltimore Ravens, young/inexperienced defensive ends will be on display the rest of the way.
Ifeadi Odenigbo leads the team in QB pressures and currently ranks 20th among defensive ends in that category, though his sack production has not come along with routinely putting heat on the passer. Odenigbo has proven he belongs in the NFL. He will have 10 games to show he’s capable of consistency as a starter.
Rookie DJ Wonnum’s recent play has garnered some attention from the Vikings’ coaching staff. While he doesn’t have big sack numbers in limited play, his last game against the Falcons was by far his best graded by PFF, especially against the run. He was drafted as a project for co-defensive coordinator and D-line coach Andre Patterson. Over the final 10 games, we will be looking for signs he can maximize his height and athleticism.
Jalyn Holmes, a fourth-round pick in 2018, is fighting for a job in the future. Getting his first playing time, Holmes hasn’t yet found his way to the quarterback very often with just six QB pressures on 138 pass rushing snaps.
Will Mike Zimmer provide hope for the future?
It might sound simplistic to say but the vibe of the team matters. The Vikings’ loss to Atlanta looked like a get-your-coach-fired game. There were technical lapses everywhere and a general lack of noticeable fight.
Zimmer has proven to be a brilliant defensive mind and a winning coach but sometimes circumstances change. In order for the organization to believe Zimmer is the right person to lead them back to being a contender amidst a rebuilding of the roster, there has to be progress in the areas that matter for 2021. And there has to be a feeling that good things are on the way.