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.
The Minnesota Vikings’ roster has had a tendency to feel pretty top-heavy in recent years, as Rick Spielman has opted to construct a roster reliant on expensive veterans. Spielman fills in the rest of the roster with tons of young players on rookie contracts (part of why he likes to stock up on draft picks), leaving the team without much of a middle class of mid-tier veterans. It’s a boom-or-bust approach that helps the team go far when they get some injury luck (as they did in 2017, particularly on defense) but can sink the team’s fortunes when injury luck doesn’t go their way (as happened last year).
But one of the reasons I’m optimistic on the Vikings’ odds heading into next year (as I wrote about at length last week) is that I feel Spielman took great advantage of the depressed free-agency market and landed some incredible depth at a number of important positions — including starting-caliber veterans like Sheldon Richardson or Bashaud Breeland.
That said, the team is still fairly top-heavy, and injuries at a handful of key positions could still easily derail the season. Below is how I would rank the depth at each position, from most alarming to least:
- Quarterback. Even after drafting Kellen Mond early in the third round this year, the Vikings still have one of the more concerning backup-quarterback situations in the NFL. If minicamp and OTA rotations are any indication, right now Jake Browning seems to be the primary backup, which is fairly concerning given that Browning failed to even beat out Sean Mannion (himself a below average backup) last year. As Ron Jaworski put it in The Games that Changed the Game, Jon Gruden once asked then-Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator Tom Moore why Peyton Manning was taking all of the reps in a practice session, rather than giving snaps to Manning’s backups. Moore’s gravelly response was “Fellas, if 18 goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.” The Vikings seem to be taking the Tom Moore approach to backup quarterbacks.
- Edge Rusher. We saw last year how bad this team’s pass rush is without Danielle Hunter. God permitting, we’ll never have to see that again.
- Wide Receiver. Between Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, the Vikings arguably have the best receiver duo in the NFL. The Vikings also have arguably the worst WR3 in the NFL. That’s all fine and dandy for a team that intends to base out of 21 and 12 personnel, until of course anything happens to either player.
- Linebacker. Similar to wide receiver, between Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, the Vikings arguably have the best linebacker duo in the NFL. Losing Barr would be tough because 6’5″, 255-lb. dudes who run a 4.41-40 don’t grow on trees. It would handicap what the Vikings can do defensively, but Zimmer could scheme his way around it. And we saw last year just how much the defense dropped off without Kendricks — from ranking 17th in EPA/play against in weeks 1-12 with Kendricks to ranking ranking 30th in the weeks thereafter without him. The one bright side here is the Vikings have solid linebacker depth after signing Nick Vigil, drafting two linebackers in the third and fourth rounds over the last two years and with Cam Smith (among others) returning from injury.
- Safety. Last year, the Vikings’ safety depth was so bad that the team initially didn’t even bother to roster a backup behind Harrison Smith or Anthony Harris. Luckily this year, fourth-round rookie Camryn Bynum seems to be the star of minicamp, earning first-team snaps when Smith or Xavier Woods are out and making the most of them.
- Tight End. By all accounts, each of the tight ends has impressed at practice so far, with each of Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon, and Shane Zylstra standing out and making plays. I have my doubts it will translate into regular season success for any of the group beyond Smith Jr., but it’s hard to complain when you appear to be four-deep at tight end.
- Interior Offensive Line. The depth at center and guard is actually pretty solid. Mason Cole and Dakota Dozier may have been low-end starters last year, but they were starters. Believe it or not, you could do a lot worse at backup than those two.
- Cornerback. After signing Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Bashaud Breeland, the Vikings now have more starting-caliber corners than they can play. It helps, too, that Harrison Hand has been the other star at practice this offseason. If Jeff Gladney ends up playing later this season, the Vikings could have six starting-caliber cornerbacks on the roster.
- Offensive Tackle. Rashod Hill is a borderline starter, which will make him one of the best backups in the league once Christian Darrisaw wins his job. And Oli Udoh is solid depth as well, having flashed early as a rookie and having continued to improve.
- Running Back. Alexander Mattison is one of the best backup running backs in the NFL, and Ameer Abdullah a solid weapon as well. Even if Kene Nwangwu doesn’t end up contributing on offense as a rookie, this is a very good RB room.
- Defensive Tackle. It’s hard to think of an NFL team with a better defensive tackle room than Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson. Armon Watts‘ versatility and Jaylen Twyman‘s pass-rushing upside are just the cherries on top.
Cousins has been among the most heavily pressured quarterbacks in the NFL during his tenure with the Vikings, having been pressured on 38.9% of snaps in 2018 (seventh-worst), 36.4% of snaps in 2019 (11th-worst) and 38.6% of snaps last year (fourth-worst). And the problem doesn’t seem to necessarily be on Cousins, as he had average to below-average pressure rates while in Washington.
The Vikings have done what they could to upgrade the offensive line, having invested some of the most draft capital into their o-line of any team over the past few years. But so far the emphasis on raw athleticism has led to better run blockers than pass protectors.
It would be unfair to expect great pass protection from such a young line (including likely two rookie starters). But it may be fair to expect some improvement from O’Neill, Bradbury, and Cleveland given their youth. And Darrisaw and Davis at least should not have the same anchoring issues that led to rookie pass protection issues in the past. Further, as we saw in 2019, you can scheme around poor protection by relying on play-action, bootlegs, and quick-game concepts — the last of which we can probably expect some heavy reliance on given quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko emphasizing its importance and advantages in a recent CoachTube course. All that considered, I expect the Vikings’ pass protection to be mediocre, but hopefully closer to 11th-worst than fourth-worst.
Not a ton has changed since my last writeup about the legal fallout of Gladney’s arrest, although as Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune reported, Gladney’s grand jury date has been pushed back to July 29, with a decision on whether he will be indicted expected to come by August 2. If Gladney is indicted, that may make a plea bargain more difficult, as prosecutors will have already cleared the bar of proving they have a case. And I expect that Gladney will be indicted, since grand juries are one-sided (only the prosecution gets to make a case in front of a grand jury), and in Texas, only nine out of 12 total jurors need to vote in order to indict.
Depending on the evidence and Gladney’s legal team, I would still expect Gladney to ultimately plead out without agreeing to any jail time. But I am not a litigator, much less a Texan criminal attorney. Even if I were, what ultimately happens will depend on the strength of the prosecutor’s case, which we still know very little about. Regardless, Gladney is still very likely facing a six-game suspension at the very least for next season.
Via DM: What are the biggest position battles going into training camp? DE, WR3, corner, or other?
Last year, Chad Beebe only played 29% of the offensive snaps, and despite starting three games, Olabisi Johnson only played 22% — the Vikings would have played them even less had they not been forced into so many passing situations when playing catch-up. On top of that, I think the Vikings’ receiving depth is pretty entrenched: Beebe is very good at uncovering underneath and should see playing time on third downs, whereas Johnson has better size and athleticism for two-minute drills or as Jefferson and Thielen’s understudy. It’s hard to see a raw fifth-round rookie like Ihmir Smith-Marsette shaking that order up.
Conversely, the DE2 spot is wide open. Right now, Stephen Weatherly might be the odds-on favorite for the job given his veteran experience, familiarity with the scheme, and the fact that he was already a solid DE3 with the Vikings not too long ago. But if D.J. Wonnum has a good offseason and starts to learn how to put his burst and length to use, how to instinctively combo pass rushing moves, and how to hold up against the run, he could easily win the starting role. Meanwhile the Vikings drafted two edge rushers in the third and fourth rounds who will be competing with versatile veterans in Hercules Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes. With Andre Patterson’s coaching, any one of these players could surprise and earn heavy playing time.
The other camp competition that seems wide open is for the LB3 spot. The Vikings went out and signed Nick Vigil early in free agency, giving him decent guaranteed money. But if Troy Dye has bulked up, if third-round rookie Chazz Surratt can pick things up quickly or if Cam Smith can pick up where he left off before missing all of last season after open heart surgery, any of them could earn significant playing time, as could Ryan Connelly as well. I’ll be watching that position closely this preseason to see how it shakes out.
Overall I think the offense will be about as good as it was last year. Despite all the injuries on defense, the Vikings actually got pretty lucky with injuries on offense last year, so there may be some regression if their offensive injury luck runs out. At the same time, I think having a better defense and better overall team will mean the offense will be more in control of the game script. That means more play action and explosive stretch runs and fewer occasions where the team feels pressured to pass the ball out of shotgun. I also think the pass protection should improve given Ezra Cleveland‘s potential, Brian O’Neill‘s continual improvement, and Garrett Bradbury hitting the magic three-year mark where so many centers break out (not to mention upgrading in protection over Dakota Dozier and Dru Samia). If the team stays healthy, I actually expect them to be more efficient and put up more points than last year — but all it takes is one injury before Dozier or Chad Beebe are starters again.
I haven’t been at minicamp or OTAs, but I’ve read plenty of praise for Camryn Bynum, the fourth-round rookie safety. Arif Hasan at The Athletic wrote that Bynum “has already taken snaps with the first team in instances where Woods or Smith sit on the sideline for a few plays” and “has made a few plays on the ball, too.” Sam Ekstrom wrote for us at Zone Coverage that Bynum has “already been billed as one of the smartest young players in the Vikings secondary.”
Roughly three-quarters of NFL players are vaccinated, including more than half of the Vikings — only Washington and Indianapolis remain below the 50% threshold per the Associated Press. Patrick Peterson and Eric Kendricks have both not just been vaccinated but have been very supportive of vaccination efforts, and last month Mike Zimmer strongly exhorted his team to get vaccinated as well.
On the other hand, last month each of Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen, and Sheldon Richardson — three very important Vikings players — stated they had not yet received the vaccine. Hopefully they have each changed their minds by now, both for the Vikings’ sake and for their own sake, given the infectiousness of the Delta variant. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb (usually a fairly staid voice on COVID-19) recently stated that at this point most folks are either going to get vaccinated, or they are going to eventually contract the Delta variant, which would be the most serious virus of their lifetime.
Via DM: Where do you see Breeland fitting in the secondary?
I see Breeland filling in the Terence Newman role, rotating in at cornerback to keep the whole group fresh and being ready for whenever a player gets nicked up. And like Newman, I think Breeland can rotate in at nickel corner as needed as well, as he did in Green Bay a few years ago. Like Richardson, I don’t expect Breeland to start many games for the Vikings next year, but I think he will still rotate in enough to earn starting-level snaps nonetheless.
The biggest thing that separates Wonnum from Patrick Jones and Janarius Robinson is that Wonnum is no longer a rookie — he’s now played nearly 500 snaps in the NFL. And while it wasn’t always very pretty, as Wonnum was awfully raw as a pass rusher and even worse as a run defender, it did lead to some production, including 22 pressures and the game-winning sack in Green Bay. Wonnum came into the NFL as a rookie with some projectable burst and length but also a lot to work on. Now, after having bulked up and and developed his technique this offseason, as Zimmer put it recently, he’s “getting better and better” and is “going to be a good player.”
Patrick Jones has burst and motor that pops off the tape plus a tall frame that enables him to win at the point of attack, but his measurables at the combine came in a little flat. Jones is a little more NFL-ready than Wonnum was, but at this point I would bet on Wonnum to earn more playing time, with Jones offering value when he can pin his ears back in pass rushing situations.
Robinson has incredible tools — even better than Wonnum’s — with great explosion and athleticism and an elite wingspan. But he has a long way to go before he knows how to put those tools to best use in the NFL. That raw athleticism may still come in handy this year in pass rushing situations, but it may be awhile before Robinson has a chance to play much more than that.
Hercules Mata’afa is an interesting puzzle because his measurables suggest he doesn’t have a natural fit in the NFL — too small for defensive tackle while lacking the length or athleticism to succeed along the edge. But man, does the kid compete. His first step is immediate, his motor is tremendous, and he’s clearly put in a ton of work to overcome his limitations and find ways to hold up as a run defender despite limited reach or to win around the edge despite not having the natural burst or bend to win in conventional ways. As bad as the Vikings’ defense was last year, Mata’afa was not the reason why: His 64.3 grade was actually above average at the position and outgraded Everson Griffen, Justin Houston, Chandler Jones, and even his teammate Ifeadi Odenigbo. Plus, Mata’afa is a gifted interior pass rusher on passing downs. He’ll face steep competition to make the roster this year, but I can’t help but root for the underdog.
On offense, I’ll be most interested in seeing Kellen Mond, particularly if he’s made any early progress on tightening up his footwork and whether he’s adjusting his release at all to help with his inconsistent accuracy. I’ll also be closely watching the rookie offensive linemen and the wide receiver competition to see if someone like Ihmir Smith-Marsette can step up. And I’ll be curious if we get any hints as to what Klint Kubiak‘s offense will look like — not that Kubiak will give away any major secrets, but I’m interested in which foundational concepts are emphasized. Will Kubiak rely more on wide zone or will he continue last year’s trend of playing more power and gap-scheme runs? Will we see a return to more boots like Stefanski’s 2019 offense? Will the offense incorporate any jet motion from their young speedsters?
On defense, I’m most interested to see the defensive end rotation and get a look at whether any of the rookies seem ready for NFL playing time, whether Weatherly might bounce back in Minnesota, and particularly if Wonnum might be poised to make a leap in his second season. I’m also interested in the linebacker depth, as the competition for the LB3 job seems wide open.
Right now, I think the Vikings are clearly a tier below the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the offseason they’ve had, and their over/under is set evenly at 12. The Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens are the only teams with an over/under at 11, and while I’m high on the Vikings, I don’t think they’re quite in the same tier as those two teams either. The Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, and Cleveland Browns have their over/under set at 10.5, with the Seattle Seahawks narrowly behind at 10.
That’s about where I’d put the Vikings, around 10-7. I have a lot of questions about individual players, like whether Patrick Peterson bounces back, whether Kirk Cousins continues to improve, whether we see a decline from Harrison Smith or Adam Thielen as they get older, etc. But after this year’s draft and free agency, I think this team is loaded top-to-bottom with both Pro Bowl talents like Jefferson, Cook, Hunter, and Kendricks as well as above-average glue guys like Dalvin Tomlinson, Brian O’Neill, Irv Smith Jr., or Anthony Barr. So much will ultimately depend on luck, whether the stars stay healthy, how they fare in one-score games, whether they recover their fumbles, or whether calls go their way. But all it took was a little good luck for a team like the 2011 New York Giants, 2012 Ravens, or 2017 Philadelphia Eagles to go all the way. And right now I think the Vikings’ roster is plenty good enough that they could contend if they just get a little help from Lady Luck.
Via DM: When the Vikings play a very good pass rushing team, how do you think they will hold up?
Honestly? Not great. Brian O’Neill is by far the best pass protector on the offensive line, and even he typically struggles when he has to go up against Khalil Mack twice a year. So if we can’t even be confident in O’Neill, it would be even harder to have any confidence in Garrett Bradbury or Ezra Cleveland against great pass rushers, given their poor pass protection last year, or to have any confidence in rookie offensive linemen. I don’t think the pass protection will be so bad that the Vikings will have no chance of beating a team with an elite defensive line, but it will require good play under pressure from Cousins and good scheming from the offensive coordinator — two things it would be tough to count on just yet.
I still say “pop” despite not having lived in Minnesota for over a decade. “Soda” is fine too, though I will never be able to get on board with our Southern friends calling all soft drinks, regardless of brand, “Coke.”
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