There was only one “upset” in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, and the winner of that game was Tom Brady. Otherwise, both top seeds and the second-seeded Buffalo Bills advanced, leaving a league championship round with many of the league’s elites.
But as teams like Buffalo and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can attest, sometimes it only takes one Diggs move to change a franchise’s trajectory. Are there any elements from the final four teams’ journey that the Minnesota Vikings can realistically emulate going forward? Let’s take a look.
BUFFALO BILLS: SIGNING MID-LEVEL FREE AGENTS
The Vikings didn’t do much to hedge their bets after last year’s defensive exodus. Aside from adding DT Michael Pierce, who eventually opted out of the season, they did very little on the free-agent market besides retaining cheap in-house free agents like C.J. Ham, Dakota Dozier, Rashod Hill, Dan Bailey and Britton Colquitt. Minnesota poured a lot of its hopes into rookies, which may pay off in 2021 but did not work out early in the 2020 season. A better tactic might’ve been finding stopgap free agents to plug holes while the rookies became acclimated. That was the Bills’ approach.
Of course, Buffalo couldn’t count on the draft as much because they shed several of their picks in a blockbuster trade with the Vikings. Acquiring Stefon Diggs for four draft picks, including a 2020 first-rounder, was probably their biggest catalyst en route to a 13-3 season behind the marked improvement of Josh Allen. But their diversified offseason spending filled out the roster nicely:
- Veteran corner Josh Norman (one year, $6 million) wound up being one of their best players in the divisional round win over the Baltimore Ravens.
- A.J. Klein (three years, $18 million) recorded five sacks.
- Vernon Butler (two years, $15 million) and Quinton Jefferson (two years, $13.5 million) shored up the defensive tackle spot.
- Tyler Matakevich (two years, $7.1 million) was a special teams ace.
- Brian Winters (one year, $3 million) played 618 snaps at guard.
Several of the spots the Bills filled through free agency are areas where the Vikings currently have holes or depth issues: corner, defensive tackle and guard. Minnesota isn’t blessed with a great cap situation, however, so they wouldn’t be able to shell out to the same extent as Buffalo, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities. A lowered salary cap because of the pandemic will likely prevent non-premier vets from signing early in the free agency period, meaning the Vikings could seek out short-term free agents to compete for starting jobs. Hence, they aren’t over-reliant on first- and second-year players.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: GO GET YOUR QUARTERBACK
The Chiefs were in a Kirk Cousins-like quarterback situation before they landed the most valuable asset in football: Patrick Mahomes. Better than a Cousins situation, in fact. How about 53 wins in five seasons from Alex Smith? But Kansas City had yet to get past the divisional round with Smith, so they did something radical in the 2017 draft, trading up 17 spots to snag Mahomes with the 10th overall selection.
While the Vikings have expressed their desire to continue “getting back to the hump” until they finally scale it, the Chiefs took matters into their own hands. At the time of their deal to acquire Mahomes, Smith had two years remaining on his deal with K.C. — same as Cousins’ present situation with the Vikings. Mahomes spent one year learning behind Smith, then Smith was traded, and the rest is history.
Kansas City is now operating with a different set of rules than the Vikings regarding team-building. A quarterback like Mahomes doesn’t require an expensive running back, nor a heavily-invested offensive line. The Chiefs could pour resources into the defense while Mahomes and his stable of speedy receivers handled things on the offensive side. The Vikings are stuck with the conundrum of where to allocate their money since they have an expensive quarterback who also needs big investments around him to succeed.
Kansas City’s aggressiveness to get Mahomes should be an instructive example for all franchises, including the Vikings.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: TWEAK THE SCHEME
Ironically, the Vikings may align closest with the Packers when it comes to their offseason approach. Head coach Mike Zimmer expressed his desire to maintain the same offensive system next year, which means leaning heavily into the running game. That’s what the Packers did after the 2019 season, and they were chastised by fans and the media.
Green Bay went 13-3 that year and seemed to lack a wide receiver to star next to Davante Adams. Still, instead of drafting a receiver in one of the WR drafts in history, they selected a quarterback to potentially replace Rodgers, a backup running back, and a backup tight end with their first three picks.
It turns out maybe the Packers just needed more time in LaFleur’s system. They suddenly became more explosive in the passing game as they leaned heavily into Adams (149 targets, 1,374 yards) while Rodgers’ yards per attempt shot up from 7.0 to 8.2. Rookie running back AJ Dillon joined a three-headed rushing attack with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, and the trio carried the ball more frequently and efficiently than in 2019, upping the team’s yards per carry from 4.4 to 4.8.
It would be hard for the Vikings to commit to the run any more than they did in 2020. But leaning more into their top receiving target? They can do that. Green Bay rushed the ball 443 times — just 25 less than the Vikings — and still found room to connect with Adams 115 times. Give Justin Jefferson that many receptions, and he’d likely have had over 1,800 yards last season.
Giving Dalvin Cook fewer carries, as the Packers did with Jones, may also have a net positive effect. Cook wore down as the season progressed, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in his first seven games and just 4.2 yards per carry in his last seven games.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they may again be forced to switch offensive coordinators with the pending retirement of Gary Kubiak. If Minnesota has a new play-caller, they should focus on diverting some of the team’s offensive touches from Cook to Jefferson.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: PRIORITIZE SAFETY
Shy of signing of future Hall of Fame quarterback with six Super Bowl rings, how could the Vikings imitate the Buccaneers’ path to the NFC Championship Game? For the first time in a long time, the Vikings have ambiguity at safety, which should force them to make a move in the draft like the one Tampa Bay made in the second round to select former Gophers defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr.
Winfield was one of the best run-stopping safeties in the league in 2020 and played every game for the Buccaneers. His forced fumble in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints changed the game’s complexion.
The Vikings will likely be without Anthony Harris in 2021 and may have to contemplate the eventual departure of Harrison Smith. Rookie safeties often have the ability to contribute right away like Winfield, and the Vikings should be eager to find a similar player. That might be mean taking a safety in the top half of the draft for the first time in nine years, but it also would be necessary to give next year’s secondary some security.