The Minnesota Vikings approached the 2020 offseason $11 million over the salary cap, signaling the franchise would have to part ways with several players that have become household names but have since not lived up to their price tags.
Seven starters were released or traded, and the Vikings entered the draft with 12 picks to help fill 30 open roster spots. General Manager Rick Spielman positioned those picks into a 15-man draft class, the largest in the seven-round draft era, that will be relied on to reinforce his roster.
The 2020 NFL season will be a case study in how developing Vikings players will mature in a pivotal year for the franchise. The NFL’s first virtual draft class continues to miss minicamps and undergo offseason training at home due to coronavirus. It will be up to the coaching staff’s ingenuity to ready many young players to be contributors early on in what Spielman called a soft rebuild of the team.
Fresh Faces at Cornerback
Before Coach Mike Zimmer arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings pass defense was arguably the worst in the NFL in 2013, allowing the most passing touchdowns and second-most passing yards in the league.
Zimmer transformed Minnesota’s defense with a core of players that have stuck with the franchise for the past five years. Five defensive starters were lost in the offseason, including three at cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes. Zimmer will now start from scratch, comparing this season to coaching in college at Minnesota’s post-draft press conference:
“You know, in some ways, it’s exciting. When you’re coaching back in college, you had to do these kind of things,” he said. “You had senior guys graduating and you had to get younger guys ready to play. It’s not really new.”
The Vikings doubled down on Zimmer’s success at developing the position by drafting three rookies and acquiring another from undrafted free agency. Zimmer has a reputation of not playing rookie cornerbacks, but this group could debunk that notion if they can keep pace despite missing OTAs.
First- and third-round picks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler have legitimate shots at competing for starting spots among a group of six other hopefuls, while third-year corners Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, approaching the end of their rookie contracts, will vie to solidify their spots on the roster and starting lineup.
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Moving on From Stefon Diggs
The Stefon Diggs trade was the most polarizing move this offseason. The disgruntled wide receiver, coming off a career-year, was traded to the Buffalo Bills for four draft picks — one of which Minnesota used to draft Diggs’ fill-in, LSU’s Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson was the national-champion Tigers’ most productive receiver, pacing the FBS with 111 catches (1,534 yards, 18 TDs) in 15 games. His 83 percent catch rate leads this year’s rookie class, suggesting he could become a reliable second option behind Adam Theilen.
The sentiments of Diggs’ Minneapolis Miracle along with his big-play potential will be sorely missed. He led the team with 20 plays of 20 or more yards last season — ahead of Dalvin Cook and Theilen’s eight apiece — leaving many big moments up for grabs.
After emerging late last season, second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. has been echoed as a breakout candidate in 2020.
Changing of the Guard(s)?
More than half the Vikings offensive linemen are either first- or second-year players as the perennial offensive line revamp in Minnesota is underway. The Vikings released guard Josh Kline and have suggested that several positions may be up for grabs, although four starters on the line are returning.
Second-round pick Ezra Cleveland is poised to take over at left tackle, which would likely shift Riley Reiff to guard. Spielman told the Star Tribune there’s “wide-open” competition at both guard spots.
The Vikings run game went from one of the worst in the league in 2018 (93.3 rushing yards per game, 30th in the NFL) to the NFL’s sixth-most productive at 133.3 yards per game last year. But the ground the Vikings covered is a bit misleading.
Kirk Cousins was pressured at the 10th highest rate in the league, while the line was below average in yards before contact. Minnesota is still budget-strapped and most likely will have to improve its offensive line with its young talent within.
Strong Schedule to Start
Minnesota faces four 2019 playoff teams that all won postseason games in its first five contests, starting with a historic season opener against the Packers. Then it’s the Houston Texans in Week 3 and the AFC runner-up Tennessee Titans seven days later. To cap, a primetime matchup at Seattle, where the Vikings have lost four straight since 2006.
This stretch may be the toughest five-week barometer in the NFL and given a middling NFC North record over the past three seasons (10-7-1), Minnesota could use a lead going into the divisional stretch of the schedule.
In a season that has already been marred with changes, one consistency the Vikings can look forward to is a dozen noon starts — this includes all four matchups before the Seahawks.
Contract Years for Cook, Spielman and Zimmer
It was evident last year that Cook would become the focal point of the Vikings offense, leading to some of Diggs’ grievances and ultimately his departure that highlighted an offseason of major changes for the Vikings.
Ben Goesling of the Star Tribune wrote that the decisions made this offseason “might well shape the remainder of Spielman and Zimmer’s time together.”
National headlines entertained Zimmer’s prospects elsewhere if the Vikings lost to the Saints in the NFC Wildcard round. Vikings owner Mark Wilf issued a statement hours later, saying the owners have “every intent” of keeping him and Spielman “next year and beyond.” A walk-off overtime win instead added to the duo’s resume and future with the team.
Now, with many new pieces that have yet to find their place, the Vikings will learn the direction of the team as Cook, Spielman and Zimmer enter the final year of their contracts.
Follow Trevor Squire on Twitter: @trevordsquire