Over the past few seasons Mike Zimmer has been on the hot seat, but there has always been an excuse for why the team didn’t meet or exceed preseason expectations. Last season it was injuries and poor offensive line play. Finally, it’s starting to feel like it’s playoffs-or-bust for the Minnesota Vikings. Looking at their offseason moves, it’s worth asking if this team is built for sustainable winning — in particular, the offense.
The offense has lacked an identity throughout Zimmer’s tenure. We all know that he’s focused on the defense and that he hasn’t had the same offensive coordinator for two full seasons in a row since taking over. There’s been no continuity on that side of the football.
The lack of identity has resulted in a defense that continually outperformed the offense until last year.
Zimmer has consistently had one of the best defenses in the league. The Minnesota defense has only ranked outside the top 10 twice during his run, per PFF. But the offense has been inconsistent year to year.
How has Zimmer been able to build a top-10 defense nearly every year?
His ability to plug the right free agent into the defense is underappreciated. He has brought in free agents who made an immediate impact, like Captain Munnerlyn, Linval Joseph, Terence Newman, and Sheldon Richardson. Last year it was Michael Pierce. This year it’s Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson.
Building a stout defense is important for a playoff-bound team, especially when the offense is chock full of young players who need to develop. But the Vikings are reaching a point where large swaths of the defense will be moving on.
No player on the defense is under contract past 2024 besides Jeff Gladney, whose future with the team could be in jeopardy due to his legal troubles. Some players will be extended and signed in that time, but their current salary cap situation is a result of the front office signing a few big contracts over just a couple of years.
The Vikings will be in cap hell if they choose to extend Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Pierce, Peterson, and Tomlinson at the same time, considering all of their contracts are going to expire over the course of two seasons. Eric Kendricks, who is signed through 2023, may be the only player on this defense who won’t see a new contract until 2024.
The other option is starting over with a new, young group.
The offense is another story. Over half of the offensive line is made up of young players on rookie contacts. Also on rookie contracts: Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, and Alexander Mattison, all promising, affordable players.
The front office has built the offense well, considering they’ve never been able to get a promising young quarterback on a rookie contract. But as we all know too well, the offensive line is still a problem.
Why won’t the Vikings invest in the offensive line in the same way they invest in defensive players? By not signing any proven linemen and losing Riley Reiff this year, they’ve left the offensive line’s performance up to chance — something Zimmer never does on defense.
The Vikings have the eighth-most expensive defense in the NFL. That’s not too crazy, but because Danielle Hunter is expecting a massive pay raise and Barr will need an extension next offseason to keep him around, it’s bound to go up. Conversely, they have the 23rd-most expensive offense, so it’s clear that the front office is emphasizing defense. But that’s old news to Vikings fans.
The success of the team is hinging on the offense’s potential. Jefferson could have a sophomore slump. Kirk Cousins could struggle even more behind what looks like an even worse line than the one mostly failing to protect him last season. That’s no way to build a Super Bowl-contending team — especially now with the NFL’s trend of hiring young, innovative offensive minds like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Carolina Panthers OC Joe Brady who can unwind any defense.
But Zimmer is set on building a juggernaut defense while letting Rick Spielman and his offensive coordinator use the scraps to put together an offense based on potential rather than proven ability.
There needs to be an investment in the offense that proves the team is committed to winning now — and not just an offense they think the defense is good enough to drag toward a championship. We all know how that’s worked out so far.