Preview: With Cousins, Vikings contenders once again
EAGAN, Minn. — The end of last season for the Minnesota Vikings came suddenly and lopsidedly, falling hard in the NFC championship game a week after soaking in the euphoria of advancing on an improbable last-second touchdown pass.
The Super Bowl window didn’t shut with that loss in Philadelphia, though. The front office propped it open with a fully guaranteed $84 million contract through 2020 for the best available quarterback in free agency, Kirk Cousins, and followed with big-buck extensions for linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive end Danielle Hunter and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Rick Spielman, in his 13th year with the organization, has started his seventh season as general manager. Mike Zimmer is in year five as the head coach. With stable ownership, a new stadium and now a state-of-the-art practice facility and corporate headquarters, the Vikings are as well-built as any franchise in the NFL. All they’re missing, alas, is that elusive trophy.
“We’re sure in the heck going to try as hard as we can to do everything the right way to put the team together and to keep this team going,” Spielman said.
Cousins, of course, will have as much influence on the direction of the club as any player. After three straight seasons of 4,000 passing yards for Washington, Cousins has spent the past six months trying to develop — his command of a new offense, his chemistry with new teammates and his appreciation of a new culture.
“People here just want to come and work and win,” Cousins said. “There’s not a lot of other motives or other reasons to be out there.”
Here are some key angles to follow this season for Minnesota:
RECIPE FOR A RUSHING ATTACK
The emphatic return of Dalvin Cookfrom reconstructive surgery on his left knee has been one of the most encouraging developments for the Vikings during training camp, with no limitations in sight for the second-year running back approaching the 11-month mark of his ACL injury.
“I put a lot of work in, a lot of time into this thing,” Cook said. “You can’t be hesitant. I’m not hesitant at all. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go out. They know they’ve got to kind of temper me down a little bit because that’s just how I am, but they take good care of me around here. That’s why I love this organization.”
Latavius Murray, who rushed for 745 yards and eight touchdowns over the final 10 games of the season, gives the Vikings a proven second option behind Cook, whose promising rookie year was cut short just four games in.
“He was just getting his feet wet. He was really on the cusp of doing a lot special things. He had some great games,” Diggs said. “I really look forward to his success and blocking for him. It’ll open up some passes. You know how that works, and we all work off each other.”
Cook’s pass-catching ability is ideal for the scheme being installed by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo , who was the quarterbacks coach for the Eagles last season. The 40-year-old helped mold Nick Foles from a backup who nearly retired before the previous season into the Super Bowl MVP.
“That’s certainly a ringing endorsement,” Cousins said. “I love what they did offensively in Philadelphia.”
All that skill-position talent won’t be worth much if the offensive line doesn’t hold up. Left tackle Riley Reiff was a valuable addition last year, and moving to right guard has given Mike Remmers the best fit. Right tackle Rashod Hill has only seven career starts, however. Center Pat Elflein‘s status for the opener is iffy at best, still rehabilitating from offseason shoulder and ankle surgeries. Left guard is up in the air, with Nick Easton likely out for the year with a neck injury.
ON THE OTHER SIDE
The depth on the defensive line, on the other hand, is as desirous as ever. Brian Robison took a pay cut to return for a 12th NFL season as the primary backup to Hunter and Everson Griffen. Sheldon Richardson was signed to shore up the tackle spot next to two-time Pro Bowl pick Linval Joseph. Jaleel Johnson, Stephen Weatherly, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jalyn Holmes, all picks from the past three years, had strong preseason performances.
PRESSURE’S ON, KID
The kicking situation has been unsettled as long as Zimmer has been in charge, and that’s not about to change as his fifth season begins. The Vikings used a fifth-round draft pick on Auburn’s Daniel Carlson and formally awarded the role to the rookie recently when seventh-year veteran Kai Forbath was let go. Carlson hooked two 42-yard field goal tries wide left in the exhibition game four days later.
“It’s part of the job. Every kicker is going to have different misses in different situations,” Carlson said. “Luckily this is preseason.”
New faces: Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, QB Kirk Cousins, DT Sheldon Richardson, PK Daniel Carlson, CB/KR Mike Hughes, C/G Brett Jones, SS George Iloka, WR Kendall Wright, OL Tom Compton, QB Trevor Siemian, OT Brian O’Neill.
Key losses: Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, QB Case Keenum, QB Sam Bradford, QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Jerick McKinnon, G/C Joe Berger, PK Kai Forbath, WR Jarius Wright, DT Tom Johnson, DT Shamar Stephen, OL Jeremiah Sirles.
Strengths: Defense that led NFL in fewest yards and fewest points allowed per game last season only got stronger with free agent additions Richardson and Iloka. First-round draft pick Hughes, also potential kick returner, provides depth at critical position in mix for nickel package playing time in slot with Mackensie Alexander and Terence Newman. FS Harrison Smith and CB Xavier Rhodes headline one of best secondaries in league. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs give newcomer Cousins one of best WR tandems in NFL, with veteran TE Kyle Rudolph viable red zone target. Cousins topped 4,000 passing yards for Washington while playing in every game over each of last three years.
Weaknesses: OL lost Berger to retirement and starting LG Nick Easton in training camp to neck injury. Starting C Pat Elflein has missed entire preseason, recovering from offseason ankle and shoulder surgeries. Second-round draft pick O’Neill is long-term project, with questionable depth at OT spots in case of injury to Riley Reiff and/or Rashod Hill. Sudden death of OL coach Tony Sparano right before training camp was big blow. Special teams bear watching, too, with rookie Carlson taking over high-pressure position for Forbath and P Ryan Quigley coming off so-so 2017. Vikings did not have any kickoff or punt return TDs last year, and coverage units were burned often during preseason.
Fantasy Players To Watch: RB Dalvin Cook. Well on way to stellar rookie year, Cook tore ACL in left knee in fourth game. He averaged 112 yards from scrimmage, 22 total touches and three receptions per game and scored two TDs in abbreviated debut. Latavius Murray, who rushed for 745 yards and eight TDs over last 10 games of regular season, provides proven backup.
Vegas Says: Super Bowl 12-1. Over/under wins 10.
Expectations: After riding Keenum to NFC championship game, fueled by last-second TD pass to Diggs in playoffs against Saints dubbed “Minneapolis Miracle,” Vikings made sure Super Bowl window stayed open. Went all in on three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract to add Cousins to roster that was already one of most stacked in league. With recent big-buck extensions for Diggs, DE Danielle Hunter and LB Eric Kendricks, front office is keeping band together as long as possible under salary cap. Repeating last season’s record will be tough task, though, with OL uncertainty and stiffer schedule that includes road trips to face Rams, Eagles, Patriots and Seahawks. Plus, rival Packers have QB Aaron Rodgers back from injury.