For any normal football team, the concept of having the wheels completely fall off during a season is something that can only be discussed over a barstool. For the Minnesota Vikings, having a season completely go into the gutter in epic proportions is almost a rite of passage in the fall.
Just like your annual trip to Duluth to “see the colors,” we can almost always bank on something going terribly wrong for the Vikings every year. In some years, that could just be a random loss at home to the Buffalo Bills or a running back tearing his ACL, which can easily be corrected. Others, such as a quarterback blowing out his knee in practice or a stadium imploding on itself, can turn a promising season into a “Tank for Trevor” campaign.
As the Vikings stand just a couple of weeks away from training camp, there are few things that we can look at and consider a given in 2020. With a national pandemic and a roster that underwent a massive overhaul last offseason, there are several scenarios that could send the Vikings from the NFC playoff picture into having their fans look up draft-eligible quarterbacks on YouTube in Week 4.
Kirk Cousins falters under a tougher schedule
Looking at his overall body of work, Cousins’ 2019 season had to be considered a success for the Vikings. Cousins enjoyed the most efficient season of his career with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions and tied his highest yards per attempt (8.1) since becoming a starter for Washington in 2015. Mixing in a playoff win in New Orleans where Cousins made a key lob to Adam Thielen to set up the game-winning score to Kyle Rudolph, it’s at least understandable why the Vikings opted to give him a two-year, $66 million extension to lock him up through 2022.
However, a deeper look at Cousins’ schedule shows that the Vikings may have to rely on him more in 2020. Last season, the Vikings faced nine teams that failed to make the playoffs. In 10 games against those opponents, Cousins looked like an All-Pro, throwing for 250.4 yards per game with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions to go along with a 119.8 passer rating.
Things were much different, however, when Cousins played against teams that did make the playoffs. In four games against those opponents, Cousins’ yardage total didn’t drop by much (236.2 yards per game) and he still threw 11 touchdowns, but his efficiency tumbled with five interceptions and an 86.9 passer rating.
While Cousins benefited from a weaker schedule in 2019, that won’t be the case this year with six teams and seven games against teams that made the playoffs last year. This doesn’t take into account other teams, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who improved from last season and may have deserved a better fate if Jameis Winston didn’t toss 30 interceptions.
At this point, the Vikings have fully hitched the wagons to Cousins as their quarterback. If he can’t step up against the top teams, Minnesota will become one-dimensional very quickly.
Justin Jefferson doesn’t make an immediate impact
There is a lot of hype surrounding Jefferson after being selected with the 22nd overall pick in last April’s draft, but there’s also a lot of pressure being the pick that was acquired in the Stefon Diggs trade. Diggs was the Vikings top weapon last season and was put to the test when Thielen went down with a hamstring injury. In response, Diggs put up a career-high in yardage (1,130 yards) despite seeing 55 fewer targets last season, which helped add to Cousins’ elite efficiency.
With Diggs gone, the Vikings will turn to Jefferson, who they are betting to make an instant impact despite not having any on-field practices or experience heading into this season. For what it’s worth, Jefferson has been deemed one of the most pro-ready receivers in the draft, but that still doesn’t mean much heading into Year 1.
In reality, if Jefferson were to get about 700 yards and five to six touchdowns, his rookie year should be considered a success. However, that’s not close what the Vikings will need to replace with the departure of Diggs. A second-year breakout from Irv Smith Jr., could help close that gap, but it’s not the dynamic threat that Diggs was with his route-running to get open quickly and speed to help pull away for deep targets.
The good news is that Jefferson will have every opportunity to make an impact in the way that Laquon Treadwell failed to after coming to Minnesota in 2016. Gary Kubiak hinted he could be used in a similar fashion as Michael Thomas, but if he’s not a quick study to the playbook, the Vikings passing attack will take a key hit in 2020.
What if Nobody can play guard?
“Can he play guard?” is another fall pastime for the Vikings even though the team has been destroyed in the trenches for the past several years. In true Vikings tradition, we still aren’t sure who will fill the starting roles in 2020.
Common logic believes that Dru Samia will be one those players after Mike Zimmer hinted that some players that didn’t see action in 2019 could wind up on the offensive line this season. Oli Udoh is another one of those players that shined in a Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears, but both players have extremely limited tape that would not make everyone comfortable if they wind up with starting jobs.
Mix that in with the COVID pandemic wiping out OTAs, and the veterans should have a leg up. Dakota Dozier served as a starting guard for five games last season, but the more he saw the field, the worse the Vikings ended up with 15 pressures allowed in those games including six in a Week 2 loss to Green Bay. Brett Jones could theoretically slide in, but the Vikings staff has also seemed to be reluctant to give him a crack at a starting position after being acquired late in the 2018 preseason.
Ruling out seventh-round project Kyle Hinton, the Vikings don’t have a slam-dunk candidate to jump into a guard spot unless they find the cash for Larry Warford, who might not be a fit for their scheme in the first place. With Garrett Bradbury clearly needing help in pass protection, the Vikings need to finally get their guard situation resolved. Otherwise, it could be another long season in the trenches.