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Written By Drew Mahowald (ZoneCoverage.com)
If you’re not first, you’re last in the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings assembled a 10-6 team in 2019 that delivered a mighty impressive playoff win at New Orleans. However, a loss in the divisional round against the San Francisco 49ers suggested that the Vikings still have many improvements to be made before they will seriously compete for a Super Bowl.
Breaking down the roster by position, it’s clear the Vikings have a few areas that need to be cleaned up before the 2020 season begins. But how should those positions be prioritized? What’s the most pressing issue with the current roster?
Here’s the ranking of the Vikings’ five most pressing positional needs, beginning with No. 5.
5. Wide Receiver
The Vikings boast perhaps the best 1-2 punch at wide receiver in the NFL. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are both among the best wide receivers in the NFL and a key piece to Minnesota’s passing attack. However, in 2019, Thielen sat out a large portion of the season with a lingering hamstring issue that exposed a lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Bisi Johnson, a rookie seventh-rounder in 2019, was forced to step into a No. 2 role when Thielen went down.
Johnson filled in admirably, especially for a seventh-round rookie. But throughout the majority of the season, the Vikings were relying only on Diggs from the wide receiver group for big plays. Other receivers such as Laquon Treadwell, Alexander Hollins, Chad Beebe and Davion Davis all saw snaps, but none were able to deliver reliable production.
In a passing league, filling your wide receiver depth chart with excellent route runners who can consistently make themselves available for your quarterback is imperative. Minnesota’s current receiver group puts a lot of pressure on Thielen and Diggs not only to stay healthy, but also to perform on the field.
4. Defensive Tackle
The Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota was founded on defense, and that defense has been the catalyst for many of the Vikings’ wins since 2014. Linval Joseph’s presence has been massive, both literally and figuratively, in the Vikings’ rise to the top of the defensive ranks since Zimmer took over. However, Joseph is entering his age-32 season and is not getting any younger. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s attempts at finding a defensive tackle in the later rounds of the drafts have not panned out so far. Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes were rotational pieces last year but haven’t made a large impact.
Minnesota’s weakness at defensive tackle was exposed a few times in the 2019 season, with the playoff loss at San Francisco being the most notable. The 49ers ran for nearly 200 yards on four yards per carry, successfully draining the clock in the second half while the Vikings tried to mount a comeback. A poor run-stopping effort was also key in regular season losses to Seattle, Kansas City, and Green Bay (twice).
The Vikings defense is loaded in so many areas. However, the defensive tackle spot — both nose tackle and 3-tech — are struggling to keep up, and it caused problems in big games for the Vikings in 2019.
3. Offensive Line
Offensive line has been a need for the Vikings for the last decade, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The Vikings front office was notorious for much of the 2010s for skipping over offensive line in the early rounds of the draft and instead relying on free agency and late-round picks to assemble a group. This approach has not been successful, and the Vikings are still scrambling to find consistency.
Additionally, Kirk Cousins isn’t the most mobile quarterback on the planet. Former offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak were able to hide the offensive line on rollouts and play action in 2019. This led to Cousins’ high ranking as a deep passer and Diggs’ elite numbers as a big-play receiver.
More recently, the Vikings have been investing early-round picks on offensive linemen. Brian O’Neill has been a hit so far at right tackle. But Pat Elflein and Garrett Bradbury have struggled on the interior. Riley Reiff has been solid for the most part at left tackle, but it’s fair to question if he is playing up to his contract.
This unit was very solid in the zone running game in 2019. But as has already been emphasized, the NFL is a passing league, and the ability to protect the quarterback takes precedent.
Kirk Cousins should be and probably will be the Minnesota Vikings’ starting quarterback in 2020. He had arguably his best season as a pro in 2019 and earned his first career playoff win by making several clutch throws in overtime in a hostile environment. That alone should award him the chance to play out the last year of his current contract as Minnesota’s starter.
Quarterback depth is the reason the position is ranked so highly on this list. This is the most valuable position in the game, without question, and perhaps the most valuable position in all of sports. A pretty clear correlation exists between good quarterback play and winning championships.
If Cousins goes down with an injury, it’d be nice to not have to punt on the 2020 season altogether. Meanwhile, drafting a quarterback in the early rounds of the drafts also provides Minnesota with the option of letting Cousins walk after the 2020 season should the Vikings not further progress toward the ultimate goal.
Mike Zimmer is known as a cornerback whisperer across the NFL, and he has found success over the years in Minnesota with Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and other young draft picks. However, the 2019 season did not support that claim, as Minnesota’s group of cornerbacks struggled consistently to match up across from opposing wide receivers.
Due to both contract situations and on-field performance, it seems likely that the Vikings cornerback position could see a major overhaul from 2019 to 2020 with only one or two faces remaining. Mike Hughes was perhaps Minnesota’s best cornerback in 2019 and appears to be the only player poised to return unless the Vikings find the money to re-sign Waynes or Mackensie Alexander.
Zimmer’s defense works best when its cornerbacks can knock receivers off their routes early and disrupt the timing with the quarterback. Rhodes and Waynes, in particular, have taken steps back since the team’s magical 2017 season, and the Vikings’ defense as a whole has been impacted.
The Vikings have drafted cornerbacks high in the draft ever since the Zimmer era began, and it has never been more justified than it is now.