Head coach Mike Zimmer was ready to get away from the Vikings’ Eagan facility less than 48 hours following his team’s playoff loss at San Francisco. The loss was a harsh reality check for a team high on optimism after its upset of the New Orleans Saints, perhaps so sudden of an emotional letdown that Zimmer altered his usual post-season schedule. He sent his coaching staff away for a week or so to reset their minds before entering an arduous evaluation period that may kickstart some major shifts in the Vikings’ personnel.
“I just think the season is so emotional,” Zimmer said. “You play your rear ends off for 18 or however many games we played and just like the players, they can have a good game or a poor game, the coaches, we can have a good game or a poor game. I just feel like the more we kind of separate the emotional part of it and sit down and really take a good hard look at the players and the coaches as far as what we did good, what they did good, what they didn’t do good and where they’re at in their careers and kind of go from there.”
Zimmer is also losing two of his coordinators: Kevin Stefanski to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and George Edwards to presumably call defensive plays somewhere. The Vikings will likely have to fill out their 2020 staff before proceeding with their roster construction, which shapes up to be the hardest yet in the Zimmer Era. With seven defensive stalwarts staring at eight-figure salary cap hits — and three free agents in the secondary who could also command a pretty penny — it will be impossible to retain them all. Per Spotrac, the Vikings are the only team in football that is already over the salary cap threshold for next season, facing nearly a $5 million overage if the cap ends up being the projected $199 million. They also will have to decide whether quarterback Kirk Cousins is worth extending before the final year of his three-year pact.
With that, let’s dig into some of these offseason talkers.
WHO WILL THE NEW COORDINATORS BE?
It’s possible the Vikings could promote internally at both positions. Zimmer said Monday he plans to run the same system next year with Gary Kubiak’s influence. Whether Kubiak wants the title himself has yet to be determined. He said during the bye week in November that he was enjoying his current role and didn’t have the “itch” to do much more. His son Klint Kubiak, however, could be a candidate after working closely with Cousins this season as the quarterbacks coach, but he’s yet to call plays in his career. Offensive line coach Rick Dennison could take control based on his scheme knowledge and experience as a coordinator for three different franchises.
While Zimmer didn’t rule out a hire outside of the organization, he made it clear he hopes to establish continuity with Cousins, who will be dealing with his fifth playcaller in five years.
“I like the scheme, I like the continuity we have offensively with the coaches,” Zimmer said, “and I feel like if we add a couple more pieces and continue to work on the execution of staying with the same play calls, the same system, the same motions and formations, it’ll definitely help the offensive players.”
On the defensive side, Edwards leaves after six seasons serving under Zimmer. It will be the first major change on the defensive coaching staff since Zimmer arrived, a remarkable testament to the defense’s continuity.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) January 13, 2020
There are several options on staff to replace Edwards as the defensive coordinator, which amounted to more of a high-level coaching assistant while Zimmer handled play-calling duties and many gameplanning responsibilities. Andre Patterson may merit a promotion after his years of sterling work developing the defensive line, while linebackers coach and Zimmer’s son, Adam Zimmer, could also be in the mix for a promotion to be his father’s right-hand man.
“We’ll take some time and think about it and go from there,” Mike Zimmer said.
UPDATE: Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray will reportedly not return to the Vikings staff.
WILL KIRK COUSINS GET EXTENDED?
The multi-million dollar question this offseason may revolve around Cousins, who put together his career-best season in 2019 but still reverted to some of his 2018 habits that made his $84 million contract such a hot-button debate within the Vikings fan base.
On one hand, Cousins played like a top 10 quarterback in many statistical categories, won a pair of primetime games, mounted a 20-point second half comeback in Week 11, led the Vikings to a respectable 4-4 road record and won a playoff game with a clutch overtime drive. Plus, a Cousins extension could allow for the Vikings to lower his $31 million cap hit and perhaps retain a key free agent.
On the other hand, Cousins struggled to function when the running game broke down. In several games he appeared indecisive or unwilling to take shots downfield. And his inability to escape pressure or manipulate the pocket got exposed against tough defensive lines.
“I think Kirk played a lot better this year than he did the year before,” Zimmer said. “I think obviously the scheme helped him quite a bit. I think it may have been the best year that he’s played in the NFL.”
Cousins improved substantially in 2019, but he may need to take another step in 2020 to truly get the Vikings over the hump, especially if the defense loses several key players. That’s a big ask for a quarterback who threw 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The Vikings are also in a bind with running back Dalvin Cook entering a contract year. Cook’s health and success seemed to correlate strongly with Cousins’ big year, but paying both would require a huge financial commitment, one the Vikings may not be prepared to make without another year of information.
WHAT WILL THE DEFENSE LOOK LIKE?
After peaking in the 2017 season, the Vikings defense took small steps backward each of the last two seasons and now faces a potential reboot. Everson Griffen can void his contract and become a free agent after hitting his 2019 sack and playing time incentive. Corners Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes are both free agents, as is safety Anthony Harris. Backups Andrew Sendejo, Jayron Kearse and Stephen Weatherly will be on the open market. In addition, Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph could be asked to take pay reductions or get cut entirely.
The Vikings pass defense stalled in 2019 with the decline of Rhodes, so a youth movement may offer hope of improvement. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill are under contract in 2020 along with 2019 draft pick Kris Boyd. It would make sense to pursue a new contract for Harris at safety after he finished as the top-graded safety, per Pro Football Focus.
Yes, the secondary might look different. Same goes for the defensive line if Griffen moves on. The Vikings may also have to explore solutions at defensive tackle after struggling to get interior pressure this year. But Danielle Hunter remains a cornerstone defensive end and a rising star in the league after another 14.5-sack season. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will return as the primary linebackers, and Harrison Smith will continue roaming the back end.
Nonetheless, expect the Vikings to get younger on defense after an extended run with their veteran core.
“We have a good, young nucleus of players that we can work on further developing and add some pieces,” Zimmer said, before adding later: “At the end of the day it ends up being a young man’s game, so the more that we as coaches can help develop these young guys, the quicker we can help develop them, the better it is for them. You always like to see guys have success whether it’s a young guy you’ve grown and he becomes a free agent and has success with some other team, or it’s a guy that’s here you’ve helped develop into a good player here.”
WILL THERE BE ANY CAP CASUALTIES?
Zimmer demanded last offseason that Rhodes play up to his contract, but that didn’t happen in 2019. Rhodes finished 125th of 134 qualified corners graded by Pro Football Focus and struggled to stay healthy throughout the year. If the Vikings cut Rhodes, they could save $8.1 million against the cap. The former first-round pick has three seasons left on his contract but only $4.8 million in dead money.
Joseph, as mentioned, could also be facing a tenuous offseason. Injuries have caught up a bit with the big nose tackle, who has had multiple surgeries over the last two years. While he’s still an effective run stuffer, Joseph is expensive with a cap hit at almost $13 million in 2020. The Vikings could save over $10 million and pay only $2.4 million in dead money by parting ways, or a reduced salary could keep Joseph on the team in a smaller role.
If Griffen were to opt in to try and stay with the Vikings, there would probably be some negotiating required. He carries a cap hit of over $13.8 million in 2020 with only $800K in dead money. While Griffen has expressed a desire to stick around with the franchise he’s played for since 2010, it would probably have to come at a reduced rate.
Parting with either Rhodes, Joseph or Griffen would be difficult for Zimmer, considering he’s coached all three since his arrival in 2014.
“It’s definitely hard, because I really respect these players,” Zimmer said. “These players — the ones that have been with me for six years now — they’ve busted their rear ends, and they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do. And that’s always going to come into play; how you feel about them as a person. But I think you have to really look at, ‘He’s a great kid. He’s worked his rear end off. We love him here. Can he still play? Or, if he can still play, at what level is it?’ And then you’ve got to match that with the salary and every other thing, and match it with the salary cap.”
Beyond Rhodes, Joseph or Griffen, the Vikings could evaluate the contract status of left tackle Riley Reiff, who had arguably his best year as a Viking at age 31. There’s good reason to think Reiff could return so the Vikings don’t need to break in a new left tackle, but cutting Reiff and his $13.2 million cap hit could save the team almost $9 million.
Kyle Rudolph was extremely effective in the red zone late in the year and improved as a blocker. He carries a cap hit of $9.45 million with $5.8 million dead cap, so the team could save over $3 million by cutting ties and relying upon Irv Smith Jr. next season. Again, that move seems unlikely after Rudolph received a four-year extension last offseason.
The Vikings could also save over $2 million by parting ways with defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who’s in the second year of a three-year contract.
WHICH DRAFT NEEDS ARE MOST PRESSING?
Minnesota will pick 25th in April’s draft, and unless the Vikings are able to clear enough cap space to fill needs in free agency, it will be another critical draft for GM Rick Spielman, who may be required to find impact starters rather than simply developmental pieces.
Drafting cornerbacks in the early rounds has always been a trademark of Spielman’s drafts, so if Alexander and Waynes depart, the Vikings could go back to the well at Zimmer’s favorite position. They’ve also devoted a pick in the first three rounds to the offensive line every year since 2017. After Pat Elflein struggled at left guard this season, Minnesota could be looking for an upgrade on their interior O-line. And if Joseph and/or Stephen are gone, they’ll need to find help on the interior D-line, too.
If Cousins is not extended, the draft becomes even more compelling. While it wouldn’t be a typical Vikings move to draft and develop Cousins’ replacement, the front office would be doing the franchise a disservice if it didn’t consider taking a quarterback, if only as an insurance policy.
No offseason is ever boring around these parts.
Zimmer said he had a phone conversation with mentor Bill Parcells Monday morning about taking the next steps. As of Jan. 13, there is no easy path.
“I was on the phone with Coach Parcells for an hour this morning talking about trying to get over the hump,” Zimmer said. “We’ve been to the conference championship, we’ve been to the divisional game, we’ve been in a wild card game where we lost by a field goal and just trying to figure out how do we get over this hump of getting to the next level and eventually winning this thing.”