In six seasons under the direction of Head Coach Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota Vikings have made the playoffs in every odd calendar year and finished right around .500 in every even year, like a sort of reverse San Francisco Giants. There's a good chance that this will be the season that breaks that trend, because the 2020 Vikings have a roster built for success. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to keep the pattern in place just when the NFC playoff race may be heating up in the final month.
The Vikings finished 10-6 and in second place in the NFC North in 2019, but there's reason to believe they could have won even more games. The simplest piece of evidence is in the team's point totals, as the Vikings ranked eighth with 25.4 points per game and tied for fifth with 18.9 points allowed per game. That differential of 6.5 points per game ranked seventh in the NFL and was better than, among other teams, the Green Bay Packers, who went 13-3 and won their division. The Vikings' main problem in that regard is that they lost both of their head-to-head matchups with the Packers.
The Vikings will get two more cracks at the Pack this fall, but they'll also make a trip to Tampa in Week 14 for a Dec. 13 game at Raymond James Stadium.
2019 Record: 10-6
Scoring Offense: 8th (25.4 points per game)
Total Offense: 16th (353.5 yards per game)
Rushing Offense: 6th (133.3 yards per game)
Passing Offense: 23rd (220.2 yards per game)
Scoring Defense: t-5th (18.9 points per game)
Total Defense: 14th (341.6 yards per game)
Rushing Defense: 13th (108.0 yards per game)
Passing Defense: 15th (233.6 yards per game)
Turnover Margin: 5th (+11)
In 2018, the Vikings surprised much of the NFL by giving former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins a fully-guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. They clearly haven't regretted that bold move, as the two sides agreed on another lucrative extension in March that carries through the 2022 season. Critics question Cousins' big-game output but he has been very good, statistically, in two seasons with the Vikings, sporting a 103.0 passer rating a 56-16 TD-INT ratio and a 69.7% completion rate.
Now, Cousins "only" threw for 3,603 yards, which was 16th in the NFL, but that's largely because he was complemented by a very strong ground game. Dalvin Cook had his healthiest season in three years in the NFL and responded with 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns. Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah all contributed, too, and Football Outsiders ranked the Vikings' offensive line, anchored by 2019 first-round pick Garrett Bradbury at the pivot, as the league's seventh-best in terms of run blocking.
Of course, Zimmer came to the Vikings with a well-respected defensive background and the results have been impressive on that side of the ball. Minnesota ranked last in scoring defense and second-to-last in yards allowed the season prior to Zimmer's arrival; the Vikings immediately improved to 11th and 14th in those categories in 2014 and have been in the top 10 in scoring defense every year since. The Vikings created 31 takeaways last year, fourth-best in the NFL and were ninth in sacks per pass attempt and second in red-zone touchdown percentage allowed.
However, that defense will have to overcome some key departures in order to remain near the top of the league. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was released and fellow corners Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander were allowed to walk in free agency. In addition, Everson Griffin, who was second on the team last year with eight sacks and has been one of Minnesota's top defenders for a decade, is still an unsigned free agent.
Vikings' 2020 Draft Class: WR Justin Jefferson (Round 1, 22nd overall), CB Jeff Gladney (Round 1, 31st overall), T Ezra Cleveland (Round 2, 58th overall), CB Cameron Dantzler (Round 3, 89th overall), DE D.J. Wonnum (Round 4, 117th overall), DE James Lynch (Round 4, 130th overall), LB Troy Dye (Round 4, 132nd overall), CB Harrison Hand (Round 5, 169th overall), WR K.J. Osborne (Round 5, 176th overall), T Blake Brandel (Round 6, 203rd overall), S Josh Metellus (Round 6, 205th overall), DE Kenny Willekes (Round 7, 225th overall), QB Nate Stanley (Round 7, 244th overall), S Brian Cole (Round 7, 249th overall), G Kyle Hinton (Round 7, 253rd overall)
Oh, and there was the little matter of a Stefon Diggs trade, which had long been discussed and finally came to be on March 16, as Buffalo sent a package of picks including a 2020 first-rounder. That's part of the reason Minnesota ended up with an incredible 15 picks in last month's draft, though six of them were in the sixth and seventh rounds. Minnesota's first two days of drafting clearly showed the two areas on the depth chart that needed the most attention.
Jefferson replaces Diggs and should be an immediate weapon in the slot, where he excelled at LSU. The Vikings did add a bit of receiving depth in free agency with former Titan Tajae Sharpe, though Sharpe had only 51 catches in the last two seasons combined. He does have a chance to be the third receiver along with Jefferson and the extremely productive Adam Thielen, particularly with Laquon Treadwell moving on. Rookie K.J. Osborne was a fifth-round pick, but given the depth of this year's group of receiver prospects, he might have a chance to play right away.
Minnesota's biggest move, literally and figuratively, in an otherwise quiet free agency run was to snag 340-pound defensive tackle Michael Pierce from the Ravens. The team had previously released defensive tackle Linval Joseph. However, Danielle Hunter remains to provide huge production off the edge; Hunter was tied for fourth in the NFL last season with 14.5 sacks. Also part of a strong front seven is one of the best linebacking duos in the NFL in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Barr's streak of four straight Pro Bowl trips came to an end last year but at the same time Kendricks earned his first all-star visit and was also named first-team Associated Press All-Pro.
Key Veteran Additions: DT Michael Pierce (UFA), WR Tajae Sharpe (UFA), DE Anthony Zettel (UFA)
Notable Departures: WR Stefon Diggs (T-BUF), CB Xavier Rhodes (Released), CB Trae Waynes (UFA), CB Mackensie Alexander (UFA), DT Linval Joseph (Released), S Andrew Sendejo (UFA), WR Laquon Treadwell (UFA), S Jayron Kearse (UFA)
The Vikings made another big move early in the offseason – like the Buccaneers they franchise-tagged one of their most irreplaceable defenders in order to make sure he would stick around. In Minnesota's case, that was Anthony Harris, who broke out in his fifth season and emerged as one of the NFL's best all-around safeties. Harris tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and also had 11 passes defensed and 60 tackles. Harris and 2012 first-round pick Harrison Smith, who has been to five straight Pro Bowls, give the Vikings a rock-solid back end to their defense.
Minnesota's biggest question on offense may be at guard, with the release of Josh Kline and the sometimes shaky work of Pat Elflein last season. Part of the solution may be hinted at in the Vikings' second-round draft pick, Boise State tackle Ezra Cleveland. If Cleveland is capable of stepping right in at left tackle, the Vikings could move Riley Reiff inside to one of the guard spots. Minnesota also spent a couple of late-round picks on offensive linemen who could eventually work into the mix.
This year's NFC South-NFC North divisional matchup is taking the Buccaneers on a tour through their old NFC Central locations, and the Bucs have a 55-game history with the Vikings. Minnesota leads that 33-22 but Tampa Bay has closed that gap over the last two decades with nine wins in the last 14 meetings. That included a six-game winning streak in the series for the Bucs from 2001 through 2012, though the Vikings won the last two contests in 2014 and 2017, the first one in overtime.