This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Vikings entered last season with what appeared to be the deepest roster in franchise history, but stumbled to an 8-7-1 record and shockingly missed the playoffs. The team needs improved offensive line play and a return of a dominating defense to make another postseason run.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN COUSINS RIGHT THE SHIP?
Kirk Cousins appeared to be the missing piece to the puzzle after the Vikings fell one win shy of making Super Bowl LII. After inking a three-year, $84 million deal last offseason, he put up a career-high 30 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes for 4,298 yards. Cousins wasn't as potent as his top-line numbers suggest, however, as his 7.1 yards per attempt represented his career low as a full-time starter and ranked just 24th in the NFL. He also wilted in key situations, going 1-6 against teams that ended the season with a winning record, managing 6.6 YPA in those contests. The Vikings envision a couple of ways to improve his consistency. Despite Cousins being one of the most effective play-action quarterbacks over the four years prior to his arrival, the offense ranked 20th in such pass attempts in 2018. Instead, a whopping 78 percent of his throws were from the shotgun. Look for that breakdown to change under the guidance of a restructured staff on the offensive side of the ball. Additionally, Minnesota added talent in the draft to assist their signal-caller, spending first- and fourth-round picks on the offensive line and taking pass-catching tight end Irv Smith Jr. in Round 2. The 6-2, 242-pounder has drawn favorable comparisons to Cousins' former teammate Jordan Reed.
A RETURN TO A RUN-HEAVY GAME PLAN
Minnesota's ground attack went from seventh in yards per game and second in carries in 2017 to 30th and 27th, respectively, last season, contributing to the offense's decline from 11th to 20th in total yards per game. The reduced output was induced by a struggling O-line and lack of rushes, with the latter cited by coach Mike Zimmer as the primary reason for his decision to fire coordinator John DeFilippo after 13 contests. The ensuing hire of Gary Kubiak as an adviser to new coordinator Kevin Stefanski is expected to have a trickle-down effect on the run/pass ratio. Throughout his career, Kubiak's offenses tended to lean toward the former. With Zimmer's blessing, Stefanski has the green light to run the ball more. On the heels of a torn ACL suffered in September 2017, lead back Dalvin Cook also dealt with a health concern in 2018, when he sat out five times in a six-game stretch with a strained hamstring. A return to form on his part along with the addition of draftee Alexander Mattison should provide a boost. Mattison was the top red-zone back in college last fall, per Pro Football Focus, with 15 TDs on 53 carries inside the 20-yard line. No matter what kind of role Mattison takes on in the wake of Latavius Murray's departure, Cook will need to avoid injuries, after having missed 17 of a possible 32 games in two years as a pro.
BUILDING UP THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Heading into the coming campaign, the blueprint for a more efficient passing game and better rushing scheme will be an upgraded offensive line, which faltered yet again in 2018. The Vikings allowed the 17th most sacks in the league (40) and the most overall drop-backs under pressure (221), according to Pro Football Focus. Moreover, they struggled on the ground, ranking 23rd in total run blocking, per Football Outsiders. To rectify the poor play in the trenches, the team began the offseason with the signing of right guard Josh Kline, previously a multi-year starter for the Titans. Later, in the draft, Garrett Bradbury was taken in the first round, 18th overall. He's a quality athlete for his size (6-3, 306 with a 4.92 40 time) who could take over center and push Pat Elflein to left guard. The Vikings also traded up and selected the versatile Dru Samia in the fourth round. The trio will reinforce the O-line depth, something that was lacking last year, with Elfein and starting left tackle Riley Reiff both missing time. As for right tackle, Brian O'Neill held down the fort from mid-October onward, so the line seems as if it'll feature three new starters from the version seen last Week 1. With the expectation of a switch to a zone-blocking scheme, the group will be given a chance to get this Kirk Cousins-directed unit on track.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Adam Thielen
Thielen set career highs in catches (113), receiving yards (1,373) and touchdowns (nine) last season. However, the Minnesota native slumped over his final five contests – 47 yards per game and just one TD – when the Vikings went 2-3 and ended up missing the playoffs. The team needs to get Thielen on track for the offense to be playoff-caliber.
RISING: Dalvin Cook
The Vikings intend to emphasize the run, and Cook should get the bulk of the work after the free-agent loss of Latavius Murray. Cook will need to stay healthy, however, after logging DNPs in both of his seasons to date.
FALLING: Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph may see fewer targets after Irv Smith Jr. was plucked in the second round of this year's draft. However, the Vikings resolved Rudolph's contract situation with a four-year extension in early June.
SLEEPER: Alexander Mattison
The 2019 third-round selection could emerge as the Vikings' main reserve and goal-line back. Latavius Murray finished as a top-32 fantasy RB or better the last two seasons in a role similar to the one Mattison inherits.
KEY JOB BATTLE – THIRD WIDE RECEIVER
Since Stefon Diggs emerged on the scene in 2015 and Adam Thielen one season later, the Vikings offense hasn't been able to accommodate a third viable wideout. Laquon Treadwell was selected in the first round of the 2016 draft to fill that spot in theory, but his 35-302-1 line on 53 targets last fall marked his high-water mark through three campaigns. Jordan Taylor and Chad Beebe seem to be the best bets currently on the roster to nail down the job. A free-agent pickup this offseason, Taylor averaged 7.8 YPT in spot usage between 2016 and 2017 with the Broncos before missing last year with a hip injury. Meanwhile, Beebe has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff since joining the team as a UDFA in 2018. There aren't many targets available for non-Thielen/Diggs wide receivers in Minnesota, but Taylor or Beebe could make splashes on occasion this season.
IRV SMITH JR. – TE (Rd. 2, No. 50 – Alabama)
Despite the investment, Smith Jr. will take a back seat to Kyle Rudolph.
GARRETT BRADBURY – C (Rd. 1, No. 18 – NC State)
Enhances the interior of the offensive front and may even start.
ALEXANDER MATTISON – RB (Rd. 3, No. 102 – Boise State)
Poised to step in as Dalvin Cook's top backup.
DRU SAMIA – G (Rd. 4, No. 114 – Oklahoma)
Another body for an oft-injured and underperforming O-line.
LATAVIUS MURRAY – RB (to Saints)
Will take his complementary-back ways to the Big Easy.
ALDRICK ROBINSON – WR (to Panthers)
The team is still searching for an impactful third receiver.
SHELDON RICHARDSON – DT (to Browns)
Moves on after repairing his value in one season with Minnesota.
ANDREW SENDEJO – S (to Eagles)
His exit opens a competition to start next to Harrison Smith.
THE INJURY FRONT
Jordan Taylor, WR – In January 2018, Taylor addressed health woes by undergoing surgery on both of his hips. Soreness lingered into the regular season, though, and his health didn't improve enough for him to be active one time. After inking a deal with the Vikings in April, he's prepared to channel what he did in his previous stop with the Broncos. In 26 appearances between 2016 and 2017, he had six catches of 20-plus yards en route to 12.1 YPC.
Linval Joseph, DT – Joseph tended to ankle, knee and shoulder issues last season, but he still managed a respectable 58 tackles in 15 games. He proceeded to spend most of the offseason in recovery mode from surgery on an unknown body part, which was clarified as an upper-body issue at the start of training camp. His initial session included working on the side with the Vikings' strength and conditioning coach, but it remains to be seen when the 30-year-old defensive tackle will be cleared for contact.
Mike Hughes, CB – Hughes was upholding his end of the bargain as a 2018 first-rounder through six games, recording a pick-six in his pro debut and racking up 22 tackles and three passes defended overall before sustaining a torn ACL. In the interim, coach Mike Zimmer has described it as a "multi-ligament" injury, so it's unclear when exactly Hughes will begin the final stages of his recovery.