Vikings Mailbag: The Future at Safety, Money Allocation & Imitating the 49ers

Credit: Cary Edmondson-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 focus on the first question: How Kevin Stefanski landed offensive line coach Bill Callahan. That was a connection formed through one of Stefanski’s mentors, former Vikings coach Brad Childress. It’s not like Stefanski had Callahan on speed dial — the two had never met. But because of their mutual connection to Childress, both Stefanski and Callahan were able to get his insight on how the other person liked to operate.

The timing worked out so while Stefanski was building his staff, Callahan, the 2019 Washington interim head coach, was looking for work after new hire Ron Rivera brought in his own people. I don’t think Stefanski had the clout within the Vikings organization to make his own hiring recommendations until potentially 2019, but most of the offensive staff that season came courtesy of Gary Kubiak, including offensive line coach Rick Dennison. Additionally, Callahan had a pretty good job himself considering he was next in line behind Jay Gruden in Washington.

Considering Stefanski’s sterling reputation and Year 1 success in Cleveland, don’t be surprised if he lands other well-respected staffers looking to rebuild their resume.

With almost no depth behind Harrison Smith except for sixth-round pick Josh Metellus, the Vikings need help, assuming that free agent Anthony Harris moves on. I think they need to splash in the draft for a safety for the first time in a long time, but I’d supplement that pick with a veteran since there’s not a ton of rookie star power at safety this year. I’d test the waters on Jalen Mills, who will be 27 next year and was ranked 24th amongst safeties in 2020. If he’s too pricey, look into Jaquiski Tartt (provided his turf toe clears up) or Tashaun Gipson (had a nice season for the Chicago Bears on a $1 million salary).

Sometime in the next two drafts, if not this coming year, the Vikings need to find another star to be the future at safety with Smith possibly done after 2021. From there, you start looking for your next Andrew Sendejo or Harris, undrafted players the team developed. It’s conceivable, too, that Smith remains beyond next year. He was dragged down by a bad all-around defense last season but still ranked 12th among full-time safeties on PFF and intercepted five passes. His game is built around savvy and play diagnosis more than it is speed or quickness, which may sustain his career once he’s past his physical peak.

Unfortunately, the Vikings were heavily invested in the wrong areas last year. Most of their defensive money was poured into safety and linebacker when it should ordinarily be spent on coverage and pass rush. While Minnesota will certainly shed Harris’ deal to normalize their spending at safety, they’re still spending more at linebacker than any other position on the roster. Their $33.1 million is sixth-most in the league, per Spotrac, but that’s behind teams like the Green Bay Packers and Bears who consider their highly-paid edge rushers as linebackers in a 3-4.

On the offensive side, by virtue of paying Dalvin Cook, the Vikings are spending more than most teams at running back, but it softens the blow to consider that Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., Alexander Mattison, and Tyler Conklin are all on rookie deals. Furthermore, Cook’s deal is backloaded, so he only counts $5.2 million against the cap in 2021. Frankly, the Vikings have a good financial outlook on the offensive side of the ball with the contracts of Riley Reiff and Kyle Rudolph set to get reduced or slashed entirely.

Not all investment is financial, of course. For instance, the draft capital they have poured into corner prevents them from having to overspend. The Vikings have tried to use that tactic on the offensive line, but perhaps not effectively. Since the 2016 season when the highly-paid Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, and Brandon Fusco all floundered, they have diverted most of their o-line investment to the draft. In the last four seasons they’ve ranked 30th, 21st, 32nd, and 28th in offensive line spending, but over the same period ranked 17th, 27, 27th, and 29th in pass blocking. It would’ve been an opportune time to have a talented veteran at guard since Garrett Bradbury and Brian O’Neill were both on rookie deals, but with O’Neill set to get a big payday this offseason, they’ll lose some of that flexibility.

Guard is typically not a position where teams want to overspend, but the Vikings have struggled to find a middle ground between bloated contracts and ineffective veterans on minimum deals. The fact that the Vikings were willing to pay big money to two nose tackles and zero guards is a bad disparity.

Also, go find a 3-technique!

Interior line spending — on both sides — seems to be an issue here.

Do you mean a zone-rushing scheme with emphasis on the play-action? Kyle Shanahan is running the same system that Gary Kubiak implemented in Minnesota, the same system they both learned from Kyle’s father Mike. Last year the Vikings passed it 466 times and ran it 476 times; San Francisco was at 478 and 498. The Niners had 168 play-action dropbacks; Minnesota had 151. They were both bottom three in “11” personnel looks and were the top two teams in “21” personnel looks.

The main difference was San Francisco leaned a bit more into their fullback Kyle Jusczyk and rotated their three running backs. Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert all had between 123 and 137 carries, whereas Dalvin Cook was a singular workhorse. Lots of teams are going the San Francisco route at running back, which probably makes for smart team building, but Minnesota chose to pay Cook instead of going with the running-back-by-committee approach.

Ultimately, though, the 49ers proved just as susceptible as the Vikings to struggling once their defense was exposed. In 2020, injuries plagued them throughout a 6-10 season, their defensive coordinator got poached to coach the New York Jets, and there are whispers about Jimmy Garoppolo not being the future. As is the case with many teams, success still boils down to health and quarterback play.

Minnesota isn’t changing their system in 2021. They’ll be hoping to capture what San Francisco did in 2019, but as we’ve seen, that’s not a bulletproof strategy.

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