“This is the most talented team the Vikings have had under Mike Zimmer.”
This take has been floating around for the last few days and truth be told, I am not in agreement. While the sentiment isn’t far off, I do believe this team was more talented in both 2017 and 2018. That being said, there is a lot of excitement surrounding this team. The front office maneuvered the draft and free agency incredibly well, spent their money wisely, and have set themselves up to be either a perennial contender in the NFC or if things don’t work out a full-on rebuild. Rob Brzezinski deserves a statue outside TCO in Eagan for the work he has done both this and every offseason. Even though there is a lot of optimism with this group that returns all of its important skill players and pro bowlers Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr, the Vikings are still faced with a lot of questions, including ones at key spots.
Before I dive headfirst into the questions surrounding this team, I am amazed that the mantra for this team is once again All-In. The biggest issue is that they had the same one in 2016, 2018 and 2019. Why is this one any different from the last 3? Honestly, this one feels different because it was born more out of desperation than necessity. Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman are fighting for their jobs. After having their strategy of having rookie corners play a pivotal role and trading for Yanninck Ngakoue blow up in their faces, this has become a make or break season. With that in mind, I picked the 4 biggest question marks with this team and I detailed them below.
Who Will Step Up As EDGE 2?
Since the Vikings acquired Jared Allen, they haven’t had to worry about who their EDGE 2 was, and they were drafted by the team (mostly) in the 4th round. Ray Edwards, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen all carved out their roles on the team initially as the secondary edge rusher and did a really good job of it. Edwards signed a big free agent deal with the Falcons and Robison and Griffen signed multiple extensions with the Vikings. Danielle Hunter started out his career as EDGE3 and worked his way up the ladder and eventually supplanted Griffen as the top guy on the edge. On the cusp of the 2020 season, the Vikings made a bold trade that was believed to be the next EDGE 2 in Yannick Ngakoue. What we found out over the course of the next few weeks is that Hunter’s injury was more serious than initially thought and he would end up missing the season. With only Ngakoue as an experienced pass rusher (led the team with 5 sacks only playing in 6 games for the franchise), the defense massively suffered.
Going into the offseason, we clamored for the Vikings to take their abysmal defensive line play from 2020 seriously and they did just that. Among a lot of speculation that they would take an edge rusher in the first round, they were rumored to have considered it. Instead, they doubled down on their strategy to draft and develop mid round pass rushers with Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson in rounds 3 and 4. Those two, DJ Wonnum (2020 4th rounder) and Stephen Weatherly (2016 7th rounder) are the candidates to take over the job across from Hunter. Who will take the reins? I believe Weatherly will get the first opportunity as the veteran of the group, but if Wonnum can string a few quality games together (3 sacks and 22 pressures as a rookie), don’t be surprised if he takes the job midseason.
Why Have We Not Figured Out Special Teams Yet?
For all of his faults, Mike Priefer did an excellent job keeping the special teams unit consistent. Over his 8 seasons as the Vikings special teams coordinator, Priefer coached up some of the best return units in the game, utilizing players like Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherrels as elite level returners. Ever since his departure, the return game, along with the coverage units, have both suffered. In 2020 under Marwin Maalouf, the team had a combined total of 11 punt return yards and kicker is still a big issue. If the Vikings are to truly take the next step, the Vikings will need to solve their kicker and return issues, which is easier said than done.
Over the last 5 seasons, the Vikings have had a rotating door at the kicker position. Since Blair Walsh’s meltdown, the team has had Kai Forbath, Daniel Carlson and even top 5 most accurate kicker of all time Dan Bailey. Throughout all of their tenure’s, there was never a true sense of certainty that they were the guy. Kai Forbath was the epitome of average outside of the Minneapolis Miracle, Daniel Carlson only lasted two games, as Rick Spielman panicked after he had a disastrous second game at Lambeau Field and Bailey was shaky throughout. How do the Vikings fix this? They went with the veteran on the waiver wire, a 5th round draft pick and a former all pro. When it comes to kickers, there really isn’t a great way to fix it. The Vikings just need to keep trying and see if they can find the next Justin Tucker or even a stalwart guy like a Stephen Gostkowski.
As for the return game, the answer is simple: if it’s broken, fix it. It was blatantly clear that utilizing the likes of KJ Osborn and Chad Beebe (who almost fumbled the Panthers game away on a punt) to be your return men. Recognize that it’s an issue and fix it. In the draft this year, they drafted two skill position players in Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. These selections addressed depth in the return game and their respective positions. Taking Osborn in the 2020 NFL Draft was a massive misstep, because he offers you no value outside of the return game. When you don’t perform in that, it’s a major red flag. The Vikings have made the moves to address it, now they have to deliver.
Assuming Thielen And Jefferson Stay Healthy, How Important Is Having A Great WR3?
The concept of a third wide receiver is a fascinating one with this team. The league has been trending towards spread offenses for a long time and it was the most evident this season. In 2020, the league on average was in 11 personnel for 60% of all snaps (20,288/33,936). The Vikings, however, were in 11 personnel only 29% of the time, the lowest in the NFL by a whopping 9% and 49% lower than the top team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, the Vikings only had 3 or more receivers in the game for 391/1,017 snaps or 38% of the time. The biggest question that we have is this: is the lack of 3+WR sets more so the fault of the scheme or the lack of quality wide receiver depth? Honestly, I believe it’s both. The Vikings haven’t had a quality wide receiver 3 since Adam Thielen was that guy in 2016 and they haven’t spent any kind of real capital on the position over the last 4 drafts. Even if they thought they had that guy, I don’t believe that they would make the position a focus. Their bread and butter plays have been run mostly out of 12 personnel, including a lot of their constructed deep shots. While myself and a lot of Vikings fans want to see the offense become more multiple, it just isn’t going to happen. Getting a WR3 in here would be more for depth purposes and, while it is important, that unfortunately isn’t a priority.
When Will Fans And Media Start Calling For Kellen Mond?
The second that the 66th selection was announced as Kellen Mond, one of the first thoughts that came through my brain was how fun it will be when Kirk Cousins goes through his yearly stretch of poor play.
Last season, we likely would have seen a rookie Kellen Mond get some major playing time. After a 1-4 start, Kirk Cousins threw his 10th interception, it felt hopeless. The Vikings only had clipboard holder Sean Mannion as a backup and putting him in as relief didn’t make a lot of sense. He wasn’t the future of the team, nor would giving him major reps make a big difference. Pair that with the 2 year extension that Cousins had just signed a few months earlier and things got really grim for a few weeks. Like every year, Cousins got out of his funk and led a valiant comeback to get into the playoff race before ultimately faltering.
One of the other thoughts that came across my brain was that the Vikings are finally taking the quarterback position seriously. Outside of the selection of Daunte Culpepper at 11th overall in 1999, the franchise has always just found a guy to play the position while filling out the rest of the roster. Even though they were first round picks, you never got the sense with Ponder and Bridgewater that they were drafted to potentially be the true franchise guy. They were drafted to be the cog in the machine with a great team around them. The significance of the Mond pick feels different than the Ponder and Bridgewater ones. It feels like a real shot at finding that true difference maker at quarterback. Would we have preferred Justin Fields? Absolutely. Is the selection of Mond a perfect one? Not even close. What it does is signifies a potential philosophy shift within the front office and organization.
All of the above brings us to the answer. I believe the calls for Mond will come around week 7 or 8. It feels inevitable that Kirk will have one of his brutal stretches and they always seem to start in the first half of the season. Playing Mond during this season will be questionable at best due to how much he still has to learn and develop before I would feel comfortable playing him in any kind of meaningful action. There are elements going in Mond’s favor to get him some playing time: anytime you draft a quarterback high with an established incumbent. One thing is for sure: 2020 is going to be a wild ride.