Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Last year it became apparent very quickly that the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason plan was not going to work.
On opening day Aaron Rodgers threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns, lighting up a group of inexperienced cornerbacks as he stood in a clean pocket for 84% of his dropbacks (per PFF).
At that point, the front office and coaching staff probably felt like they wanted a time machine to go back and add a few more veterans on defense rather than pinning their 2020 hopes on Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jaleel Johnson, Jaylen Holmes and the like.
They probably imagined a world where they could be granted three wishes and use one to undo the Yannick Ngakoue trade. Maybe – when he led the league in interceptions through six weeks – they would have even asked a genie to get their Kirk Cousins contract extension back.
Alas, time travel would make the NFL a lot less interesting (or it would suck us into a never-ending black hole but that’s another conversation). So the Vikings’ only option was to learn from the miscues of the past. And that they did.
This offseason they spread out available cap space to bring in multiple veterans with their focus being especially placed on the secondary, where they added Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland.
The Vikings were patient this time, largely waiting out the first wave of free agency until some quality players slipped through the cracks and signed at very manageable prices. In Sheldon Richardson’s case, they were able to grab him for around the same price that they paid Shamar Stephen last season because the Browns cut Richardson at an inopportune time.
They decided that relying on developing players to take big steps forward was a fool’s errand. Instead they’re going to let 2020 draft picks like DJ Wonnum, Harrison Hand and Troy Dye fight their way into the lineup rather than hoping and praying that they can handle big roles.
And on the matter of Cousins, the Vikings even drafted an intriguing quarterback, acknowledging that they might not be locked into their veteran forever.
Of course, changing the process to fix last season’s offseason miscalculations does not mean the Vikings hit everything on the head. But unless we get a hold of that genie, we can’t go into the future and figure out which decisions will work and which won’t.
So the best we can do is take a stab at where they may have gotten it right and what choices they might eventually want a time machine to go back and fix.
Under the decisions they are unlikely to regret, signing Dalvin Tomlinson is at the top of the list.
Not only did the Vikings desperately need to find another run stuffer after last year’s debacles against Chicago and New Orleans but they signed one of the most consistent players at his position in the NFL. PFF has graded Tomlinson in the top 25 defensive tackle every year that he’s been in the league. Odds are very good that he’ll be a difference maker.
You would make the same bet with the two veteran corners Breeland and Alexander. There is some risk associated with Patrick Peterson based on last season but he has a terrific overall track record. Regrets are not super likely.
In fact, it’s hard to find an individual Vikings signing that you’d call “high risk.” Where the Vikings could be looking for a mulligan isn’t the moves they made, it’s the moves they didn’t make (or haven’t yet made ... it’s a shame we can’t travel ahead to August to find out).
Drafting Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis gives the Vikings an opportunity to have an extremely good O-line in the long run. All five players up front were picked in the first three rounds and everyone outside of Davis is considered an “elite” athlete. However, rookie offensive linemen have been known to struggle during their first years and the Vikings are gambling on two of them clicking.
Their backup plan at tackle is veteran Rashod Hill, who has never played a full season and at guard either. Dakota Dozier or Mason Cole will play if Davis isn’t ready. Both of those backup plans feel like playing with fire.
Thus far, they haven’t acquired a proven offensive lineman that could start in case things don’t work out in Year 1.
Part of the risk the Vikings are taking includes their schedule. The Vikings face a litany of superstars, including JJ Watt, Myles Garrett, Brian Burns, Joey Bosa, Za’Darius Smith, Khalil Mack, Nick Bosa, TJ Watt and Aaron Donald.
If everything doesn’t fall into place for the five starters, those monsters are going to take full advantage and pressure the heck out of Cousins. Over the three seasons Cousins has been in Minnesota, he has been the fifth, eighth and third most pressured quarterback in the NFL.
This offseason Mike Zimmer acknowledged wanting to improve those numbers by increasing the beef on the O-line. That happened in the draft but not free agency.
If Darrisaw and Davis are good right away, Cousins’s clean-pocket opportunities could jump and result in an overall better performance. He was second in clean-pocket QB rating last year. If his pressure rate remains the same, however, it’s hard to see anything changing since the Vikings didn’t add extra weapons this offseason either.
If nothing changes in terms of pressure on Cousins, the offense will still be good. It won’t be great. With a better defense, the Vikings could still get into the playoffs with a similar O-line performance as last season. But they won’t be able to go deep into the playoffs.
So unless the Vikings have another move up their sleeve – which is possible with around $13 million in remaining cap space – they will be walking a tightrope up front.
That isn’t the only line they are tiptoeing on the roster. Without depth at the receiver position, they are resting entirely on the idea that Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen will play the whole season.
And on the defensive line, the big bet is that Danielle Hunter will return to his old self.
Otherwise, there’s a shortage of proven defensive ends. Remember in the Vikings’ best defensive days, Everson Griffen was destroying tackles across from Hunter. Now they are asking Stephen Weatherly, DJ Wonnum and Co. to step into that job.
Again, it could absolutely work. We’ve seen other players take big steps forward and shine in Zimmer’s defense. But that remaining cap space should probably be spent tacking on a few insurance policies at receiver and defensive end.
After all, they don’t want to be wishing for genies and talking about fixing offseason mistakes this time next year. Though if they hit some of the potential potholes, there might not be a “this time next year.”