Sports

Vikings made several gambles for 2021, and now they need them to pay off

EAGAN, Minn. – When the Minnesota Vikings kick off their season opener at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m., ET, Fox), they’ll start answering the questions they’ve been publicly and privately pondering for months.

Is this team built to make the playoffs? And did they gamble in the right places when they overhauled parts of the roster to avoid another 7-9 season?

The buzzword that’s been attached to the Vikings — particularly recently — is: unknowns.

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The unknowns on offense are based on injuries on the line, first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and a first-team unit that couldn’t score a touchdown in the preseason. The first-teamers, except for Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook and to a large extent Adam Thielen — played a total of 30 plays in the preseason, and they produced 138 yards without reaching the end zone.

The unknowns on defense center around at least seven new starters on Sunday. It’s a group that hasn’t taken a single live rep as a full unit.

On special teams, Greg Joseph hasn’t kicked in a game since he held those duties for Tennessee late in the 2019 season, and then he only kicked one field goal in five games, including the playoffs.

And of course, the concerns over how COVID-19 might affect a team that has upwards of a dozen unvaccinated players makes things difficult to project.

On paper, Minnesota appears built to make a deep run this season. This is not the same team from a year ago in spite of having the same head coach, quarterback and most of the same offensive and defensive philosophies. But the uncertainty facing the Vikings in several areas has them as one of the hardest to project in a season where everything could finally come to a head.

The price of success

The Vikings went after their weakest link this offseason and doled out north of $46 million in guaranteed money on defensive contracts. They brought in veterans Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods to start in the secondary, moves that will allow last year’s starters, like Cameron Dantzler and Kris Boyd, to handle more manageable roles on special teams.

Minnesota also spent big on defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to shore up its run defense, and gave linebacker Anthony Barr $9.4 million guaranteed on a restructured deal that makes him a free agent after the 2021 season. Unfortunately, Barr hasn’t gone through a full practice since Aug. 6 and was ruled out against the Bengals, which means the Vikings’ depth at linebacker — which has been troubling — will get tested right away.

Head coach Mike Zimmer voiced concerns over how big-money deals are impacting overall depth. Minnesota doled out another lucrative contract on Wednesday, this time making Brian O’Neill the second-highest paid right tackle in the NFL.

“It’s concerning,” Zimmer said. “I feel really good about the top guys, and then some of these young guys got to come on. But when you’re kind of top-heavy with finances, that’s what you’ve got to do. Hopefully we’ll stay healthy, and try to get these younger guys better.”

One of those younger players already tasked with helping shore up a pass rush that posted a franchise-low 23 sacks a year ago is second-year defensive end D.J. Wonnum, who will start opposite Danielle Hunter. Wonnum earned the job over veteran Stephen Weatherly because he made more plays on the practice field and in preseason games, according to assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson.

The defensive line boasts the most trusted depth on the team between Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen, experienced starters turned backups, and even the interior rushers who have made strides like Armon Watts and James Lynch.

But elsewhere it’s unproven, and that could hinder the Vikings if any of the starters they brought in don’t pan out.

It’s all on the line

Kubiak was handed a tall task when he took the reins of the Vikings offense from his father, Gary, who retired in January.

Minnesota ranked fourth in yards and 11th in scoring in 2020, which led Zimmer to call last year’s offense the most explosive he’s had in his tenure. Matching or beating that mark could be a challenge for the first-time offensive coordinator and playcaller.

Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings’ first-round left tackle who carried the promise of starting immediately when he was drafted, is recovering from groin surgery, a situation that Zimmer said “is going to be a long process.” Tight end Irv Smith Jr. was primed for a breakout season before sustaining a knee injury that will likely keep him sidelined all year, leaving the Vikings scrambling to figure out how they’ll use recently acquired Chris Herndon and veteran Tyler Conklin. That could force the team to deploy more three receiver sets, with Dede Westbrook the only proven commodity behind Jefferson and Thielen.

The Vikings are fortunate that O’Neill and veteran Rashod Hill, who earned his spot starting at left tackle for the first time, boast experience that could improve on the team’s previous struggles with pass protection. But it’s the interior of the offensive line that remains a question mark.

“I think there’s some unknowns there,” Zimmer said. “Rashod’s played a lot at left tackle in the past, so I think it’s a little bit (of) unknowns but I don’t think it’s a major concern.”

The uncertainties on offense put pressure on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has demonstrated more leadership within the offense while he works with his fourth coordinator in four seasons. On Thursday, Zimmer said he and Cousins sat down for the first time to watch film together and that he believes his QB wants more autonomy within the offense.

As Kubiak worked out the ebbs and flows of playcalling, going from the field to the booth to call games in the preseason, he’s worked to keep dialogue constant with his quarterback. At this point of his career, Cousins is comfortable asking for more input on what he’s being asked to do, and that level of ownership could help this offense find its footing.

“What I’ve experienced now with Klint over the last few months is because we were in the quarterback room together for the last two years and had so much time conversing and watching film, I don’t find a need to say as much to him because he already knows where I’m coming from,” Cousins said. “He already knows what I’m thinking to a great degree, and I think that’s been valuable.”

Reaching some conclusions

Every team goes into a new season with a handful of unknowns, but it feels magnified in Minnesota, given what the future holds.

Cousins has two years left on his current contract, which comes with a $45 million cap hit in 2022. The development of rookie Kellen Mond has been slow, so if the Vikings are pleased by the way Cousins plays this season, an extension could be on the horizon. If not, a handful of hard decisions will have to be made next year.

The same goes for Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, who will each have two years left on their current contracts at season’s end. If the gambles they made, from expensive defensive additions and draft picks who may or may not contribute immediately, don’t pan out, what does the future hold for them?

On paper, the Vikings look like they should be a dominant team this season. They boast two of the league’s top receivers, an MVP candidate at running back and a defense loaded with talent.

But if the problems lingering under the surface — the same inexperience and depth that plagued them a year ago — outweigh the production of the starters they brought in to fix things, the unknowns heading into next year’ offseason could be even more significant.

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