Vikings

Olson's Mailbag: Making Hunter Happy, Post-June 1 Free Agents, Xavier Woods and More

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Welcome to the weekly Zone Coverage Vikings mailbag, where I try to answer all your burning NFL and Vikings-related questions, submitted via Twitter to @NickOlsonNFL.

As of midnight on June 2, the Minnesota Vikings had about $13.9 million in cap space following the official release of Kyle Rudolph. By waiting until after June 1, the Vikings saved an additional $2.9 million in cap space this year by deferring Rudolph’s future signing bonus prorations until next year. That $13.9 million of cap space accounts for the bulk of Minnesota’s rookie contracts being signed, including Christian Darrisaw, who accounts for most of the net cost of signing the rookie draft class.

But the Vikings still need to sign the rest of the draft class, which will cost about $400,000, mostly to sign the four third-rounders as the other unsigned rookies won’t make enough money to displace anyone on the top 51. They will also need to sign the practice squad, which will cost around $2 million (12 practice squad players who now earn $9,200 per week over 18 weeks), as well as the final 53-man roster, which might cost another $1 million depending on which players make the final cut.

But the biggest remaining expense to account for is saving for IR replacements, injury settlements, and potential grievances — the Vikings will probably want around $4 million set aside in case of emergency.

That leaves the Vikings with around $6.5 million in effective 2021 cap space, before accounting for potential upcoming extensions like for Brian O’Neill, Harrison Smith, or Danielle Hunter. I would prioritize each of those extensions over adding any bargain bin free agents, with resolving the ongoing Hunter contract drama as the No. 1 priority for that remaining cap space. Extending Smith would likely free up a few million in 2021 cap space while extending O’Neill or Hunter could cost 2021 money depending on how the new deals are structured.

Right now, Hunter is projected to have the 17th-highest average salary among current edge rushers. So it’s understandable why Hunter might feel disrespected by his current contract when Joey Bosa is making almost exactly twice as much as him. At the same time, the Vikings are understandably hesitant to give Hunter significant injury guarantees with him coming off a season-ending neck injury.

The Vikings might try to meet Hunter in the middle with a contract extension that gives him an immediate pay raise and signing bonus. But it may be difficult for the two sides to meet in the middle, given the injury risk and the Vikings’ lack of cap space.

That is why I would try and offer Hunter a pay raise through “Not Likely to Be Earned” incentives, such as $1 million for every two sacks, up to a total of $5 million for 10 sacks in 2021. That would be a fairly easy bar for Hunter to clear if he’s healthy, would allow Hunter to make top-ten edge rusher money next year, would insure the Vikings against the injury risk, and would allow the Vikings to pay Hunter cash this year without having to spend 2021 cap space.

Then next year, if Hunter lives up to his elite pass rush billing in 2021, the Vikings could happily extend Hunter for top dollar, since at that point Hunter will have proven he fully deserves it. And if Hunter for whatever reason struggles to bounce back, he’ll still likely earn a small pay raise without the Vikings taking on too much risk.

Since the Vikings could still have a few million dollars of effective cap space leftover even after reworking Hunter, O’Neill, and Smith’s deals, I would target free agents who could address the two biggest remaining holes on the roster: DE2 and WR3.

Stephen Weatherly is a solid backup, and D.J. Wonnum may be poised for a sophomore leap, while Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson might contribute as rookies. But there is still room for a veteran pass rusher. Personally, I think a reunion with Everson Griffen makes too much sense. It’s not entirely unsurprising that Griffen remains unsigned, as he will be turning 34 this season, is coming off a slightly down year, and has struggled with his mental health in the past.

But Griffen thrived, mentally and physically, in Minnesota, and he still has plenty of pass rush juice. He’s no longer quite as explosive as he was in his prime, but 90% of Griffen’s burst is still enough to flatten opposing tackles with his signature speed-to-power:

And Griffen still has a teach-tape spin move:

In fact, Griffen’s pass-rush grade last year was above average for his career. Even if he is only a rotational pass rusher for the Vikings, he would immediately provide some pass rush punch for a team that looks pretty barren beyond Hunter.

Other than Griffen, I think reuniting Dede Westbrook with receivers coach Keenan McCardell also makes a lot of sense. Westbrook has a lot of ideal traits for a WR3. First off, he’s fast — he ran a 4.34-second 40 at Oklahoma’s pro day. That’s plenty fast enough to threaten vertically and clear space underneath. And that speed also helps on crossing routes like the play-action crossers the Vikings love or the mesh concepts where Jarius Wright made his money on third downs.

Secondly, he’s a talented special teamer, both as a kick returner and particularly as a punt returner. On 49 career punt returns, Westbrook has just one muffed punt, coming after his own teammate ran into him while he was trying to fair catch a short punt. His speed makes him dangerous as a returner, with one career punt return touchdown. And he’s averaged 9.4 yards per punt return over his career — more than double Minnesota’s average last year.

Last, he’s explosive out of his breaks and has flashes of excellent route running, enabling him to gain easy separation with his wiggle:

That said, Westbrook suffered a torn ACL last September. And even if his medicals check out, he’s slim enough and has been nicked up enough to be concerned about his durability going forward. And Westbrook doesn’t offer much versatility — at his size, he’s better suited for slot duty off the line of scrimmage and won’t be a ton of help in the run game. But even with his limitations and injury history, he could still provide a big improvement over Chad Beebe or Bisi Johnson.

Besides those two top targets, I would consider adding additional defensive linemen to help the pass rush like Melvin Ingram, Geno Atkins, or Sheldon Richardson and would like to shore up the cornerback depth following Jeff Gladney‘s arrest with someone like Brian Poole, Bashaud Breeland, or Nickell Robey-Coleman.

In a word, Zimmer:

The biggest thing Zimmer does for his defensive backs is he puts them in positions to succeed. Reggie Nelson had immense physical tools that led to him being drafted in the first round, but he failed to live up to that potential in Jacksonville due to frequently misreading plays. But with better coaching and preparation in Cincinnati, he developed into one of the league’s best ballhawks.

George Iloka lacked the range to play centerfield and the leverage and physicality to succeed in the box, but Zimmer deployed him mostly in split-safety looks that masked those limitations and allowed his size and instincts to shine. Andrew Sendejo lacked any standout traits and didn’t have the bulk to survive in the box, but over time under Zimmer, he developed very good instincts and learned to hone his quick trigger into highlight-reel pass breakups and big hits crashing downfield.

Anthony Harris was undersized and struggled to turn his hips, so Zimmer had him play up top where he could keep things in front of him and put his intelligence to best use.

It’s the same reason why I wrote that Patrick Peterson could be in for a big bounce-back year, and it’s the same reason why Xavier Woods could exceed expectations early as well.

Like Sendejo in 2017, Woods has developed above-average instincts in coverage and loves to trigger downfield against the run and lay the wood. His aggression has gotten him in trouble occasionally in the past, but Zimmer has a knack for turning aggressive safety play into more highlights than lowlights.

The camp competition is between NFL veteran journeyman Greg Joseph and rookie free agent Riley Patterson.

Joseph was the Cleveland Browns’ starting kicker for most of 2018 (where he worked with Britton Colquitt) and the Tennessee Titans’ starting kicker for the tail end of 2019. He has connected on 43 of 47 career extra points (91.5%) and 18 of his 21 career field goals (85.7%). He’s got plenty of leg, shown here on this 51-yard field goal that had more than enough oomph:

I went back and watched all of Joseph’s missed field goals and extra points, and while a couple could be blamed on poor holds or tipped kicks, what stands out is Joseph’s inconsistency in his hop step. An NFL kicker wants to follow straight through football with his kicking leg on a biomechanical pendulum.

In order to do that, kickers have to hop with their plant foot so that they can fully extend their kicking leg for maximum leverage and power. Joseph can land all over the place with his plant foot after that hop step, sometimes hopping forwards and sometimes completely sideways, which to me suggests his accuracy issues might stem from inconsistency in his plant foot. Hopefully, that’s something special teams coach Ryan Ficken can iron out.

Patterson has sufficient leg strength, hitting a 56-yard field goal last year against SMU. But he tends to struggle to kick the ball accurately from farther out, missing over half of his college kicks from 40-plus yards out and struggling to generate touchbacks from the kickoff. But if Patterson can regain his 2019 form, where he nailed 23 out of 25 field-goal attempts and missed just one extra point on 66 attempts, he could certainly give Joseph a run for his money.

It’s not the most inspiring camp competition, and Coach Ficken has his work cut out for him. The good news is that it will be hard for the team to be worse than Dan Bailey, who only made 68% of his field goals last year — worst in the NFL.

Maybe my favorite single statistic for evaluating WR play is yards per route run — how many total receiving yards a player accumulates every time he steps onto the field. Only around 15 WRs each year crack 2.0 yards per route, and anything above 2.5 is elite territory. Here is how Julio Jones ranks among starting WRs in his career:

  • 2011: 2.12 (16th)
  • 2012: 2.07 (16th)
  • 2013: 2.75 (1st)
  • 2014: 2.72 (4th)
  • 2015: 3.04 (1st)
  • 2016: 3.12 (1st)
  • 2017: 3.08 (1st)
  • 2018: 2.93 (1st)
  • 2019: 2.44 (3rd)
  • 2020: 2.60 (4th)

When healthy, Jones is a top-10 receiver: he has elite size and speed and is a fantastic route runner. At his age, coming off an injury-riddled season and with his contract, I can understand why some teams might be hesitant to cough up a second-round pick to reel him in — especially a cap-strapped team like the Vikings who use the fewest three-receiver sets in the NFL.

But just because there is only one ball to go around doesn’t mean there are diminishing returns to additional receivers. On the contrary, PFF has found that a team’s third-highest-graded receiver correlates better with offensive performance than a team’s second-highest graded receiver, which correlates better with offensive performance than a team’s highest-graded receiver.

Intuitively, that makes sense — you can roll safety help or use double teams against just one elite receiver, but it’s hard to stop two elite threats, and nearly impossible to stop three. Denny Green knew all about that when he drafted Randy Moss despite having Cris Carter coming off another Pro Bowl season and Jake Reed coming off a fourth-consecutive 1,100-yard season. Three deep is better than two deep.

Via DM: There’s a lot of talk about the Carolina video trading up to 8 for 1st, 3rd and 4th picks. My question is if we really wanted to get Fields, why didn’t we make the trade with Dallas at 10 (they received a 3rd for pick 12, Parsons still would’ve been on board with no threat) where the value would’ve likely been in Rick’s range? I think that’s more upsetting to realize after the fact then the speculation about 8.

I think there are two answers to this question. The first is that the Vikings would have had to outbid the Philadelphia Eagles to trade up to the 10th pick, and the Eagles were already offering to overpay according to the Rich Hill chart by offering the 12th and 84th picks. The Vikings probably didn’t want to outbid an offer that was already an overpay, and maybe the Dallas Cowboys were just disinterested since they were only comfortable moving down a couple of spots.

The second answer is that Vikings must not have really wanted Justin Fields. If they did, they wouldn’t have been making lowball offers. And offering the 14th overall pick together with the 90th and 143rd pick, as shown in the Carolina video, is still 21 “negative points” going off the Rich Hill chart, i.e. a poor offer by NFL standards. I think the Vikings liked Fields, but they also liked Kellen Mond, and they clearly had their eyes on a number of first-round pass rushers and offensive tackles. And I think the Vikings are more than happy to have landed Darrisaw, Davis, and Mond while retaining their 2022 first rounder rather than having to give all that up for Fields and still being left with a broken offensive line.

After Rashod Hill started OTAs at left tackle while Dakota Dozier started at right guard, Klint Kubiak said, “We want those guys to earn their stripes.” That makes sense and is standard operating procedure for the Vikings as both O’Neill and Ezra Cleveland took until midseason to earn a starting role (although notably, Garrett Bradbury started as the first-team center right away as a rookie).

If the Vikings still had Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein or Josh Kline, I think Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis might have wound up waiting around the same way O’Neill and Cleveland did. But given the low level of competition, I think it’s only a matter of time before the rookies take the reins and start rotating with the first team in practice.

I’d give it a few weeks.

Despite some splash plays as a rookie, including the game-winning sack in Green Bay last year, Wonnum’s rookie tape doesn’t give us much reason to be confident in his ability to start this year.

Wonnum needs to add some bulk and learn how to better take on blocks to not be a liability in the run game. Wonnum brings good burst, length, and motor as a pass rusher, but his pass rush instincts are still pretty inchoate and he’s not the most agile or bendy rusher to get around the arc.

It’s entirely possible that he breaks out in his second year — after all, Hunter racked up 12.5 sacks as a sophomore despite still learning how to put his physical gifts to use — but Wonnum does not have Hunter’s elite physical gifts and is farther behind the development curve than Hunter was as a sophomore. Personally, I don’t expect Wonnum to develop into a starting-caliber defensive end. More realistically, I think he’ll eventually be a valuable rotational pass rusher earning around 500 snaps per year.

Let’s look through this question through the lens of which players the Vikings can least afford to lose. If Adam Thielen gets banged up, the Vikings can still rely on Justin Jefferson (and vice versa), and a team with even just one top-15 receiver can still get by.

If the Vikings lose Eric Kendricks or Harrison Smith, they will go from elite play to replacement-level play, as it’s hard to have much confidence in Cameron Smith or Myles Dorn filling those shoes, but Zimmer can scheme around a weak link in the back seven.

But if the Vikings lose Hunter, they will go from having a solid pass rush to having arguably the worst pass rush in the NFL. A defensive line of Weatherly, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Wonnum might still hold up against the run, but it won’t matter when teams have all day to pass against that front four. So I would say adding more pass rushers is the most critical weakness on this team.

And given that the Vikings pursued Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson and considered drafting Jaelan Phillips and Kwity Paye, I think the Vikings organization would agree.

Piggybacking off my post-draft 53-man roster projection, I would say the pecking order goes as follows:

  1. Eric Kendricks
  2. Anthony Barr
  3. Cameron Smith
  4. Chazz Surratt
  5. Nick Vigil
  6. Troy Dye
  7. Ryan Connelly

Right now I struggle to see the other linebackers on the roster having much of a shot at making the roster.

Kendricks and Barr are obvious. Cameron Smith is a bit of a wild card after having missed last season due to heart surgery, but per fellow Zone Coverage writer Sam Ekstrom, he was taking first-team reps at linebacker when Kendricks was out at OTAs. The Vikings loved Surratt enough to draft him early in the third round this year, and they liked Vigil enough to sign him early in free agency with some solid guarantees, meaning they signed him expecting him to make the roster.

Dye had a disastrous rookie season but showed the athleticism and instincts to have starting potential down the road if he can add some playing weight. And Connelly has been a valuable special teamer for the Vikings.

I tackled a similar question in another recent mailbag. “Continuity” has been the buzzword stressed with Kubiak’s hire, as it is expected that his scheme and play calling will look very similar to his father’s last year, which looked fairly similar to Kevin Stefanski’s the year before. This is still a wide zone, play-action/bootleg offense that tries to be multiple and keep defenses guessing whether a play is a run or pass.

It remains to be seen if Kubiak will, like his father did last year, sprinkle in some power runs to take advantage of how well Minnesota’s guards can pull. And perhaps the younger Kubiak will model his screen game more after Stefanski given his success in 2019.

The rookie class additions of Darrisaw and Davis may suggest Kubiak is willing to incorporate more gap-style runs. Each of Darrisaw, Davis, Cleveland, and O’Neill offer great size on top of great athleticism. And I would love to see Kubiak take full advantage with not just wide zone run variations but counter, trap, pin/pull, and other sweeps as well, and maybe even some veer and other option plays for Kirk Cousins or Mond.

Each of Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette offers fantastic speed for their position — I would love to see Kubiak put that speed to use. Either player could be used on jet sweeps like the Green Bay Packers do with Tyler Ervin, or even just consistent jet or orbit motion like the Los Angeles Rams or Kansas City Chiefs do with their receivers to mess with opposing gap discipline and stretch defenses horizontally. Smith-Marsette’s speed could also be used to create vertical mismatches from 3×1 sets for explosive plays downfield.

As much as we expect Kubiak’s offense to be a copy of his father’s, the younger Kubiak comes from a new generation with fresh ideas. The hope is that he can be the Kyle Shanahan to Mike Shanahan, adding his own cutting-edge wrinkles to his father’s schematic foundation. But we’ll have to wait until September to have much of an idea as to how Kubiak plans to differentiate himself from his father.

Via DMWhat have we done to improve special teams from last year? (Not just kicking and punting)

The Vikings are coming off a year in which they recorded the third-worst special teams DVOA of any team over the last decade. As I wrote above, it will be hard for Joseph or Patterson to be worse than Bailey, who only made 68% of his field goals last year — Joseph’s 86% career field goal percentage is nothing special but would still represent a nearly 20% increase in field-goal percentage.

Colquitt is coming off a major down year in which he graded out as the third-worst punter in the NFL. But there is plenty of room to bounce back after he posted the fourth-best punting grade in 2019. More stability among the special teams specialists, including at the long snapper position, should help. But the biggest help for both the Vikings’ specialists is simply positive regression to the mean. And Colquitt still has to earn the job, as Coach Ficken has noted that rookie punter Zach Von Rosenberg has been a “pleasant surprise” so far at OTAs.

Beyond the specialists, the additions of Smith-Marsette and Nwangwu should each bolster the special teams coverage and return units. It remains to be seen if either can return punts, but they should immediately compete for the kick returner position and provide value as gunners or possibly jammers on the punt team. And it’s likely that K.J. Osborn and Dan Chisena will improve in their second years following rocky but promising rookie campaigns.

I don’t think the Vikings’ special teams next year will be good. But I think there’s a good chance it doesn’t totally suck. Which, given their history, would not be too bad.

I expect a new deal to get done at some point later this offseason. Dalvin Cook‘s extension last year took until Aug. 19. The year before that, Kyle Rudolph was extended on June 11. The year before that, Stefon Diggs was extended on July 31, and Hunter himself signed his original extension on June 27.

Hunter’s negotiation will likely be tricky for both sides to parse through, given Hunter’s hope to become the NFL’s highest-paid defender, the fact that the Vikings won’t want to set a bad precedent by reworking Hunter’s deal with still three years remaining on the contract and the unique injury risk after Hunter missed all of last season with a herniated disc in his neck.

But the Vikings are still likely to get a deal done, if only because of how important Hunter is to the franchise. It might take until August, but sooner or later I fully expect it to happen.

I think teams underrate how important receivers are. PFF has found that after QB passing grade, receiving grade is the strongest predictor of team wins. Intuitively, that makes sense: It’s a passing league, and elite passing and elite receiving are two sides of the same coin. But other than Jones, I’m not sure what other WRs the Vikings could trade for.

Allen Robinson has been rumored to want out of Chicago and would be a very intriguing addition to the Vikings’ receiving corps, but it’s unlikely Chicago deals Robinson within the division. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t able to work out a long-term deal with Chris Godwin, he would be another amazing addition as he is only 25 years old and is a top-20 receiver with great size, speed, and hands. And if Will Fuller doesn’t pan out with the Miami Dolphins this year, he could bring real game-breaking speed as an elite vertical threat.

I think Surratt is closer to Kendricks as an instinctive, athletic linebacker than Ben Gedeon, who was more of a thumper on base downs. But Surratt is still learning the position after converting from quarterback in college — coincidentally the same way Zimmer did in college — and he has a long, long way to go before that comparison will make too much sense.

I think Irv Smith Jr. is getting slept on a bit since he plays next to Jefferson, Thielen, and Cook, but I think the 22-year-old tight end is in for a bit of a breakout year. Last year, Smith ranked 14th out of 48 tight ends in receiving grade while taking on additional inline blocking duties and handling himself well enough. He’s a great route runner for the position with very good speed to get open vertically or out of the break:

Given his youth and athleticism, Smith still has a lot of upside to realize, and if he can continue to develop as well as he has so far, there’s a good chance he breaks out as a top-10 tight end next year. That potential breakout may explain why the Vikings were willing to move on from Rudolph this offseason.

If Cam Dantzler had missed practice due to injuries, I would be pretty concerned considering he has some medical red flags at his limited size and missed games last year for four separate issues (ribs, hamstring, COVID-19, and a concussion). But since Dantzler’s absence seems to have been due to personal reasons and that he has actually already returned to OTAs, I don’t have any real concerns.

Breeland is the name most strongly connected to the Vikings, but there are actually a number of solid corners still available, including Poole, Robey-Coleman, Richard Sherman, Gareon Conley, Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Steven Nelson. The Vikings might still be happy with what they have, but as the Vikings know all too well (especially after last year), you can never have too many corners.

I think Poole, Robey-Coleman, or Breeland could all be great adds — assuming Sherman is outside their price range — but I don’t get the impression the Vikings are willing to offer much beyond a veteran minimum contract at this point.

Unless Target.com counts, then no. My apologies to Robin Sparkles.


Submit your questions to the next mailbag via Twitter to @NickOlsonNFL.

 

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Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

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