When Mike Zimmer addressed the media on Wednesday, he made his offseason intentions clear. Admitting he was “down in the dumps” looking at the Minnesota Vikings depth chart, he launched his plan to revamp his defense in free agency.
Zimmer went on to say that in the past couple of weeks, his staff had some of the best meetings they’ve had since he arrived in Minnesota. He said he met with all of his defensive players to discuss the 2020 season and couldn’t wait to work with them on the field.
Then he was asked about the offense.
Zimmer said he hadn’t met with his offensive players, but he was getting around to it. And the offensive line? Yeah, it looks rough now, but after the draft and free agency, they might get a guard within the top 50 of Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grades! (OK, he didn’t say that because he hates PFF, but you get the idea.)
Less than a month into the Vikings’ offseason, Zimmer’s defense-a-palooza has come to fruition. The Vikings have shelled out nearly $40 million in free agency, and every single penny has gone toward the defense.
In some ways, this was warranted. Last year the unit was ranked 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. But it also ignores some of the issues on offense that kept it from being a truly elite unit.
The offensive line is at the top of the Vikings’ issues. After another season of “Can he play guard?” memes, the Vikings released Riley Reiff at the beginning of the offseason. The move was necessary to create cap space but created another hole on a unit that’s full of them.
The Vikings are currently planning on going into the season with Rashod Hill at left tackle. Hill has improved but was last seen allowing four pressures in Week 17.
Garrett Bradbury took a leap forward in his second season, but PFF still ranked him 27th in overall grade last season. Set to turn 26 in June, Bradbury may already have reached his ceiling in the NFL.
Brian O’Neill has been a fixture at right tackle and was the Vikings’ highest-graded lineman but is due for a new contract in the coming months. They will get roughly $8 million in cap space after designating Kyle Rudolph as a post-June 1 cut, but it will be another move that pushes them against the cap.
This leads us to the discussion about the guards. After playing second-round draft pick (and converted left tackle) Ezra Cleveland at right guard, the Vikings have made a pair of moves to “solidify” the position in Dakota Dozier and Mason Cole.
Dozier allowed the most pressures of any guard in the NFL last season with 46 but was brought back on a one-year, $1.075 million contract. Cole was playing center with the Arizona Cardinals but graded 32nd among 38 qualifiers. Like most converted linemen during the Zimmer era, they should be fine.
While the offensive line is in flux, so is the wide receiver position. The Vikings have been searching for a third wide receiver since Jarius Wright left following the 2017 season. Their solution has been to stop using the third receiver altogether.
According to Sharp’s Football Stats, no team used fewer three-receiver sets last season than the Vikings (29 percent). Therefore, it makes sense that the Vikings would opt to sign Chad Beebe to an affordable deal rather than spend money on Keelan Cole, Josh Reynolds, or anyone else on the free-agent market.
The issue is that when they need to throw, defenses know precisely where it’s going. Irv Smith and Kyle Rudolph were used more as blockers, enabling defenses to focus on Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
Even more mind-numbing was the Vikings’ usage of Jefferson. While the star receiver set a modern-day NFL record with 1,400 receiving yards as a rookie, he made just eight receptions while the game was tied and 25 when they were in the lead.
Much of this has to do with how much the defense put the Vikings in an early hole. But there never seemed to be an effort to get Jefferson the ball until they had to get it to him — leading to 918 of his 1,400 yards coming in the second half.
The solution was to bring Klint Kubiak in to run the offense. Tapping into a coach’s family tree has some benefits, but Kubiak also never has called plays during a game. This could be a concern with Zimmer screaming “Run the damn ball” into his headset every Sunday.
This is the current environment for Kirk Cousins, who needs things to go right to succeed. While Cousins put up 4,265 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions last season, he ranked 16th in the NFL with a 72.0 passer rating under pressure.
Zimmer acknowledged that there’s plenty of offseason left and said that the Vikings would take the “best player available” in the draft regardless of position. But that also doesn’t rule out the possibility that Zimmer will go full YOLO with his defense and select Kwitty Paye, Gregory Rousseau, or another cornerback with pick 14.
This whole situation is eerily similar to last offseason when the Vikings lost five starters on the defensive side of the ball. Tasked with fixing the obvious issues plaguing his defense, Zimmer pointed to the players he had on the roster and proclaimed he’s never had a bad defense.
The same kind of thinking could provide a similar outcome on the offensive side of the ball next year. If the Vikings don’t admit there’s a problem, they could wind up with a top ten defense again. They just won’t have the offense to back it up.