Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Vikings organization, Vikings fans around the world and those who don't mind waiting in line at Matt's Bar, because it's really that good:
One high from last season: Knocking off the Packers in Week 11 to level up to 5-5. And you thought maybe the team was going to go on a run.
Head coach: Kevin O'Connell. We are getting closer to the point where it's going to feel like every NFL head coach is from the Sean McVay tree. O'Connell has been an NFL assistant coach for seven seasons, spending the last two as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. I see one thing to be worried about going forward ...
I know that O'Connell was among the league's most highly regarded assistants prior to his hiring. He's said to be very bright. He's one of the better San Diego State quarterbacks I can recall. But McVay calls the plays for the Rams. Which means O'Connell will now be getting his feet wet as a play-caller while also learning how to be an NFL head coach.
Vikings fans spent the last four years making fun of former Bears head coach Matt Nagy, who embarked on an ill-fated tenure in Chicago after serving as offensive coordinator for Chiefs mastermind Andy Reid, but this sounds awfully familiar. The counter here would be that Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, another former assistant for McVay, has made a transition similar to the one O'Connell is attempting. However, it took Taylor some time to get it together; he won six games combined in his first two seasons before reaching Super Bowl LVI. And honestly, it took Joe Burrow to make it all come together. Can Kirk Cousins do the same thing? O'Connell does have a history with Cousins dating back to 2017, when Cousins was in Washington and O'Connell was his position coach.
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins. Cousins is the Michelob ULTRA of NFL quarterbacks. Not the worst choice you can make. But if I have other options, it's probably not going to get within my top 10. Cousins is 59-59-2 in his time as a starter in the NFL, which feels so incredibly on brand for him. But he's posted a passer rating of 90 or better and at least 25 passing touchdowns in each of the last seven seasons. Five other quarterbacks in history have posted such a streak lasting five years or longer, and all five won a Super Bowl during their careers, per NFL Research. The hope here is O'Connell has the same impact on Cousins that Sean McVay had on Matthew Stafford in Los Angeles. And again, they are familiar with each other. O'Connell accepted the job already knowing Cousins' strengths. That should be taken as a positive.
Projected 2022 MVP: Justin Jefferson, wide receiver. My colleague Peter Schrager recently ranked Jefferson as the top wide receiver under the age of 25. I'll take it one step further and say Jefferson is the best receiver in the NFL right now. He leads the NFL with 3,016 receiving yards since 2020. That's the most through a player's first two seasons in league history. He's averaged 15.4 yards per reception since 2020, which is tied for second-most in the league over that span (min. 100 receptions). Dude is the real deal. And I'm probably more excited for him in this new offense than I am for Cousins.
New face to know: Za'Darius Smith, outside linebacker. The Vikings signed Smith to a three-year, $42 million deal this offseason. Smith was a Pro Bowler in 2019 and 2020, but he missed all but two games with a back issue last season. He missed an OTA earlier this month for "cautionary" reasons, per O'Connell. Smith did participate in mandatory minicamp last week, though. I know it's too soon to be concerned. But the Vikings threw a lot of money his way. And while it might have seemed like a flex to sign a former Packers star, I don't like where this might be headed.
2022 breakout star: Irv Smith, tight end. I know the fantasy football enthusiast in me leaks out at times. But I really love the talent of Irv -- and wide receiver K.J. Osborn, too. Obviously, it's going to be tough for Smith, considering he missed all of last season with a knee injury. But the Vikings seem to be very optimistic about him. And Cousins ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks in tight end targets (669) since 2016, per Next Gen Stats.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 vs. Green Bay Packers. I mean, there is no better way to start off the season than playing against your rivals. Actually, I take that back. I hate divisional games this early in the season. But here you go, Kevin O'Connell. Enjoy making your NFL debut against the Packers. The good news is you get the Lions at home in Week 3.
- Week 8 vs. Arizona Cardinals. I kind of like this as a measuring stick for the Vikings. Arizona is a team they're likely to be competing against for a playoff spot. And O'Connell does have some history scheming against the Cardinals.
- Week 18 at Chicago Bears. It might just be my imagination, but it feels like this is how these two teams end every regular season. Well, just six of the last seven years.
Will the Vikings be able to ...
... thrive under new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah? I really liked this hire. After coming up with the 49ers and spending the last two years as VP of football ops in Cleveland, Adofo-Mensah is ready for this role. I find it kind of interesting that he stuck mostly with the roster he inherited rather than shedding some bad contracts and starting a total rebuild. The Vikings also could have tried to wipe the slate clean under center. Instead, they extended Cousins, who was heading into a contract year, through 2023.
But maybe that's the play with someone like Cousins, who has a history of succeeding in the playoffs -- well, at least once. The soon-to-be 34-year-old is an experienced, .500 (oops; I nearly said winning) quarterback, and I almost think you have to give it a go for a little longer. Of course, it doesn't hurt that, by extending him, the team also significantly lowered Cousins' cap number for 2022, which was set to be an outrageous $45 million. (Finally, the approach here leads me to believe that -- and I could be wrong -- Kellen Mond is not ready to be a starter in the NFL.)
... fix their defense? The Vikings hired an offensive-minded head coach, but 2022 is still going to come down to new coordinator Ed Donatell's defense, a unit that was once the bedrock of the organization but has fallen apart in recent years. Obviously, Smith is going to be huge if he stays healthy; he could be just the ticket as a complementary pass-rushing piece to Danielle Hunter, who missed 26 games over the past two seasons but showed before suffering a torn pectoral last November that he's still pretty damn good. I think the biggest key could be cornerback. Patrick Peterson is turning 32 and might be past his prime. But he can be a solid veteran presence for rookie Andrew Booth Jr., who has first-round talent but fell to the Vikings in the second round. There are definitely some pieces here to work with, though veterans like Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks also must return to form.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overthink: Dalvin Cook's health. I deal in the fantasy space a lot, and it seems like a lot of people in that arena see the running back as injury-prone. It's a fact that he's never started more than 14 games in any of his five pro seasons, and that he dealt with ankle and shoulder issues last season. But it's also a fact that he's posted 3,851 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns since 2019, which both rank as the second-highest totals in the NFL over that time. And he's the only player with more than 1,100 rushing yards in each of the last three seasons. So, maybe we shouldn't worry about his health status that much.
... people shouldn't overlook: The promising finish to Christian Darrisaw's rookie year. Selected 23rd overall in 2021 despite coming off a groin injury, Darrisaw underwent a second surgery in August and missed the first month of the season. And when he did finally make his debut, it wasn't great, with the left tackle's Pro Football Focus grades falling below 70 in each of his first four starts (Weeks 6-10). The good news is that he played really well down the stretch, with his PFF grade topping 70 in all but one of his final six games. The hope is he becomes an anchor on the line for years to come.
For 2022 to be a success, the Vikings MUST:
- Make it to Super Bowl LVII. Just kidding -- sort of. As a rookie head coach, O'Connell presumably just needs to show he's got this team, which hasn't posted a winning season since 2019, on the right track in Year 1. That said, the Vikings have been a perennial "sleeper" in the NFC in recent years, and they appear to be taking on that role again, with Schrager even mentioning Minnesota as a team to watch when I was on Good Morning Football. There are some good pieces on this squad; Jefferson is the best receiver in the world, and I like that Booth kid a lot. The Super Bowl is obviously an aggressive benchmark, but scanning the landscape of the NFC, it's clear there is going to be some rando group that takes the seventh playoff spot, like the Eagles did last year. Why not the Vikings this year?