The Minnesota Vikings are mathematically still alive in the playoffs, but the chance they actually get in is very slim. As long as they even have a slight glimmer of hope of reaching the playoffs this team will continue to fight and put their best lineup forward, especially in a Christmas Day game against the New Orleans Saints. But they would be wise to prepare for next season when their defense should be improved and things will, hopefully, be more normal.
Here are some changes they could look to experiment with for these last two games:
Shuffle the offensive line
If the Vikings want to actually win their last two games, it would make a ton of sense to finally pull the plug on Dakota Dozier. He is one of the lowest-ranked interior offensive linemen in the entire league and has been a major liability on the Vikings’ offensive line the last handful of games. For whatever reason, Mike Zimmer has been reluctant to make changes to his offensive line starters, first showing stubbornness to pull Pat Elflein, and then showing that same hesitation when Dru Samia was struggling. Eventually, they both suffered injuries, which made Zim’s decision easier.
Dozier has remained healthy, but his play continues to decline, and Minnesota has Brett Jones waiting in the wings. He saw some action a few weeks back and actually played pretty well. Many in the media and the Twitterverse figured he’d get the starting nod the following week. He didn’t and still hasn’t. Replacing Dozier with Jones could help them win their final two games and salvage a .500 season.
If the Vikings lose to the Saints on Christmas Day, they may as well get nutty for their final game against the Detroit Lions. Why not try Ezra Cleveland at left tackle for the final contest? He was drafted to be the future left tackle, and it would make a lot of sense to let him get a taste of what his life might be like in 2021.
The Vikings could also see what they have in some young guys. They could call up Kyle Hinton and see how he fares facing NFL competition, and could also finally make Oli Udoh active and let him play either guard or tackle and see if he plays with the same nastiness he did in the season finale a season ago.
Give Taylor Bertolet a chance to kick
This would only happen if the Vikings are officially eliminated from playoff contention this week. If they lose to the Saints or the Arizona Cardinals win, Minnesota might as well give Taylor Bertolet a live audition in the finale at Detroit. With Bailey’s woes this season, his returning as the Vikings kicker next season may not be certain. If the team is going to be in the market for a new kicker, they may as well get a better idea of what they have with Bertolet and let him handle the kicking duties for a game.
If Bertolet is perfect on the day, the team may decide to hang on and let him compete with Bailey or another kicker in camp. If he pulls a Buccaneer Bailey, he can be let go and the Vikings will know he isn’t going to be the answer to their kicking woes.
Open audition at returner
The Vikings will almost certainly have two new return men next season. K.J. Osborn has been a flop as the primary return man and has been inactive for about half of the season. He was given every opportunity to keep that job but really showed no burst or wiggle in any of his returns. The team has since gone back to Ameer Abdullah and Chad Beebe, who are average at best.
If they lose this week, the Vikings might as well just go into the final game with an open competition at both of the return spots. They should make the jobs up for grabs in practice and let the best man win. Maybe they’ll stumble onto an answer this way, or someone will step up who they continue to work with and can develop into the primary returner for next year. It is a long shot, but maybe Bisi Johnson or someone on the practice squad can impress enough to get a crack at it in the finale against the Lions.
Youth movement on the defensive line
Just like the offensive line, the Vikings have nothing to lose by mixing up their defensive line for the last couple of games. With a short week and the playoffs still a slight possibility, the team will certainly roll with Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson in the middle, but if they get beat in New Orleans we could see four new starters against Detroit.
The Vikings could give D.J. Wonnum a start at left end and get nutty and try Jordan Brailford at the other spot. It’s not like Jalyn Holmes and Ifeadi Odenigbo have been lighting the world on fire, and having these two youngsters start wouldn’t be much of an upgrade. In fact, just knowing they both have something to prove and everything to gain by playing well could be enough to entice them to have a big performance.
In the middle, the Vikings could replace Johnson with fourth-round pick James “The Ginger Snap” Lynch and let Armon Watts start over Stephen. While that may seem like a downgrade, Johnson and Stephen clearly aren’t doing their jobs. It is evident in the way teams have been able to run on the Vikings, so it’d be hard for Lynch and Watts to perform much worse.
Minnesota could head into the final week of the season with nothing to play for. If that is the case, they might as well mix things up and see if any young players can impress and produce in a starting role.