ESPN released an article placing all 32 teams into different categories based on how close they are to contending for the Super Bowl. In this piece, they state that the Minnesota Vikings are two years away from contention, a placement I find to be a bit questionable considering all the circumstances surrounding this season that lead to the Vikings’ 7-9 season last year.
I believe that the Vikings are severely underestimated in this article, and I also disagree with the explanation for why they are placed so low on this list.
This article breaks down teams into six categories: current contenders, on the cusp, one year out, two years out, three years out, and four to five years out. The Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Chargers, and Miami Dolphins are also considered two years out.
The defense was listed as the x-factor holding Minnesota back.
“If the team can find ways to improve the defense — such as spending on pass-rushers in free agency or making scheme adjustments — then the Vikings could be two years away from getting to the Super Bowl,” wrote ESPN’s Courtney Cronin.
While this assessment of the Vikings’ 2020 season is valid, I feel that the circumstances around the defense this season that made them so abnormally poor were neglected.
To start, Minnesota overhauled almost their entire cornerback room, adding rookies like Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. While these corners had a poor start to the season, it is important to remember that they didn’t have the luxury of preseason or a normal training camp to get acclimatized to the NFL. Despite this, we saw plenty of growth from these two as the season progressed, with Dantzler finishing as PFF’s second-highest graded corner in December.
Safe for us to say, we will see consistent play from these two.
The pass rush was also an issue, Minnesota finished 28th in sacks this season, but Danielle Hunter‘s injury had a major impact this season. The defensive end obviously won’t be a panacea to the pass-rushing woes, but he will alleviate the rest of the defensive line from getting double-teamed. He will draw the line’s focus and allow whoever lines opposite of him — be it Ifeadi Odenigbo, D.J. Wonnum, or a potential new addition — to feast on one-on-one matchups.
His presence will result in a better performance from the defensive line, which will help the cornerbacks in coverage.
And the return of nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season due to COVID, will vastly improve the Vikings’ run defense. While his stats might not show up in the box score, Pierce’s presence will impact opposing offenses when he plugs up the middle of the field, quickly closing down any inside rushing lanes. He will also prevent opposing offensive lineman from getting to the second level, allowing Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, both returning from injury, to bring down opposing ball carriers.
With the return from injuries by these key contributors, along with the improvement from the younger players, I think this defense could potentially be a top-10 or even top-5 unit next season.
The main concern I have with the Vikings’ ability to contend comes from their offensive line. It was poor down the stretch and provided little help for quarterback Kirk Cousins in pass protection. If they want to be contenders, Minnesota needs to fix the offensive line to make Cousins’ job easier.
Luckily for them, they can look to former offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns when looking at how to revamp a middle of the pack offensive line. In just one offseason, the Browns went from the 23rd ranked offensive line to the 1st per PFF.
Stefanski invested heavily in the tackle spots through free agency, the draft, and trades to build depth at the position, allowing his running backs to run the show and providing a simplified formula for Baker Mayfield, something the Vikings have been trying to do with Cousins.
If the Vikings can bolster the offensive line through the draft and free agency and add some talent on the defensive side at pass rusher, I think this team could contend next season, given GM Rick Spielman’s ability to find value in the draft.