Vikings Mailbag: Jefferson's Breakout, Improving Cousins & Can Spielman Be Trusted?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

For years the listeners of our Football Machine Vikings podcast have sent in amazing Twitter questions, and far too often we’ve had to leave many of them on the cutting room floor because of time. No longer! Each week we’ll pull some questions that didn’t make the cut and address them in this space.

Let’s get right to it:

I wouldn’t say that yet, though the possibility may get more realistic if the Vikings’ futility continues beyond this year. For one, Cousins undeniably had his best year in 2019. Now some may argue that if his best possible effort only won 10 games and folded in the second round of the playoffs, it was a terrible acquisition. But the Vikings are on record stating their desire is to continually get to the playoffs until they finally break through, and Cousins gave them exactly what they wanted: a chance.

Second, his cap hit has yet to be a clear impediment to signing in-house free agents. The Vikings have extended Kyle Rudolph, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs (before trading him) since Cousins initially signed. The Vikings’ reluctance to spend big money on the offensive line, for instance, seems to be part of an organizational philosophy versus an inability to play in the market.

Finally, I still think Brock Osweiler going to Houston is the worst free agent signing of all time, even if Houston had the sense to pull the plug after one year. I mean, the Texans literally had to give the Cleveland Browns high draft picks to get rid of him! But it worked out for the Texans long-term as they found Deshaun Watson. If the Vikings keep Cousins around, the ship sinks and they don’t pursue his successor, then the narrative will change.

What led to Justin Jefferson’s success in Week 3? To choose one word, I’d say precision. Whether it was Jefferson’s steps within the route, his awareness of the first-down line or his peripheral vision to avoid defenders after the catch, every aspect of his performance spoke to a high football IQ. Gary Kubiak attributed his breakout game to comfort in the offense, which indicates to me that Jefferson was always physically able to do those things — just not within the framework of the system. It’s clear he’s developed a rapport with Cousins, who was also very precise when targeting Jefferson on Sunday (well, except for the interception). His throws on out-breaking routes spoke to a high level of confidence that Jefferson was going to turn at the correct moment. If you watch back his seven receptions, Jefferson wasn’t spectacularly open except when he was sitting down against a zone or on the crossing route that led to his touchdown. Cousins was right on target more often than not.

I think he is 100% the No. 2 receiver going forward, and I think the team’s decision to play Chad Beebe more than Bisi Johnson last week reflects that.

First off, I wouldn’t say a quarterback needs to throw over the middle to be successful. That’s typically where defenses have the most help between linebackers and safeties. Odds are, you’re more likely to find a one-on-one mismatch on the boundary. That being said, some quarterbacks are more willing to look over the middle than others.

According to Pro Football Focus, which breaks down pass direction, Cousins has gone 20 of 27 for one touchdown, one interception and 191 yards between the numbers. That accounts for 35% of his throws. If we compare that to his peers in the division, he ranks third in pass frequency to that part of the field. Matthew Stafford cleans up over the middle with 495 yards so far this year on 55% of his passes. Mitch Trubisky, before his benching, threw that direction 43% of the time (but with a pair of interceptions). Cousins only exceeds Aaron Rodgers in passing over the middle out of NFC North quarterbacks. Rodgers throws between the numbers on 33% of his throws, and he’s done so with great success: 333 yards and two touchdowns.

Let’s take inventory of the 2018 and 2019 draft classes for a second. The 2018 class is a little easier to sum up. You’ve currently got two role players (Jalyn Holmes, Tyler Conklin), one budding star (Brian O’Neill) and one relative disappointment (Mike Hughes). It’s obviously tougher to peg 2019 since you’re still very early in Year 2 for many of these players. I’d argue, however, that Armon Watts, Kris Boyd, Bisi Johnson and Austin Cutting are thus far outplaying their draft position (all sixth round or later), and Oli Udoh could still be a contributor. It’s the early picks that are struggling. Garrett Bradbury doesn’t seem dramatically improved, Dru Samia looks ill-prepared and Irv Smith Jr. has been invisible.

If three years down the road the Vikings aren’t still employing Bradbury or Samia, those offensive line whiffs are going to look pretty bad (not O’Neill, though, who should probably get another contract). The Vikings can’t stop drafting offensive line prospects until they hit a few… but that’s not been a strength of this scouting department. Catch-22.

The thing is, there are numerous positions the Vikings could take in the first round of the 2021 draft, which hopefully keeps them from pigeonholing themselves into one position. Spielman will have a lot of pressure on that first pick since the Vikings have already traded away their second.

There’s probably something to that. Football Outsiders tracks pace, and in neutral situations, the Vikings are the sixth-slowest team in football. Overall, they rank 23rd in offensive DVOA. Not great.

Last year they were the 10th-fastest neutral-situation offense in the league and 10th in offensive DVOA.

And while this may be a bit of a stretch, Cousins played some of his best football when the Vikings sped things up facing big deficits in the first two weeks, albeit against prevent defenses. Minnesota has the fourth-fastest pace when trailing by seven or more.

So yeah, speed things up.

Let’s toss Tank For Trevor out the window for a second and just focus on whether the 2020 Vikings even have a path to the playoffs. As bad as it seems now, there are a handful of signs that point to possible progression for this Vikings team: Injured players returning (Hunter, Dye, Hughes, Dantzler, even Elflein), new acquisitions improving (Ngakoue), rookies improving (Jefferson, Gladney, Dantzler, etc.), fumble luck turning around (third-lowest recovery rate).

I think a turnaround would be dependent on running the table at home. It’s possible the Vikings get some fans back in the building for the final six home games, and the current combined record of those six opponents is 7-10, which includes the 3-0 Bears. That gets you six. Is that realistic? Maybe not, but it’s not out of the question. Per usual, the road schedule is brutal with games at Seattle, Green Bay, Chicago, Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Let’s say the Vikings can steal Sunday’s game at Houston AND beat Detroit on the road in Week 17 AND run the table at home. Now you’re at eight wins and maybe in the hunt for the 7 seed.

Frankly, it already sounds like the team is tempering expectations based on the way they’ve spoken the last couple weeks about looking for improvement while admitting that it’s taken a while to get their young defensive backs adjusted. The best case scenario might be that the Vikings get Hunter back and catch a glimpse of what their defensive line could look like down the road, find a clear starting group at cornerback and continue developing Jefferson into a star. If those three things happen, regardless of wins, it would make the offseason seem more manageable and clear up several of the question marks we had entering the season.

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