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State of the Franchise: Can Vikings deliver in Zimmer's contract year?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 Minnesota Vikings organization, Vikes fans around the world and those who believe that if Mr. Perfect truly did try out for the Vikings, he would have been the greatest of all time:

The Super Bowl window for the Vikings is still open. For now. Minnesota remains one of the most talented teams in the NFC, but a trip to the title game has eluded the franchise for quite some time now. Forty-three seasons, to be exact. Are the Vikings closer to the ultimate goal now than, say, when they reached the 2017 NFC Championship Game? That is something we are going to need to take a look at. The Vikings are talented. There is no denying that. But are they better than they were?

How the Vikings got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Topping the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday Night Football in Week 10. The Vikings' defense made two huge stops late in the fourth quarter to preserve a 28-24 victory. This was a big deal, because quarterback Kirk Cousins is often mocked for not playing well in big moments. This was a big moment, and he played well.
  • Overcoming a 20-0 halftime deficit to beat the Broncos in Week 11. The Vikings actually trailed 23-7 heading into the fourth quarter, but a furious rally helped them knock off Denver.
  • Returning to the playoffs and beating the Saints (on the road) in overtime in the Wild Card Round. Just like everyone expected. (Narrator's voice: That is not what everyone expected.) It was the first overtime playoff victory in club history.

The lows:

  • Posting a losing record against NFC North opponents. They were swept by the Bears and are now 0-4 against Chicago in the Matt Nagy era. Minnesota also dropped both of its games against the Packers, finishing 2-4 against division competition.
  • Falling to the 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Vikings have had two pretty great wins over the Saints in the playoffs over the last three years. However, in both instances, they were blown out the following week.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Zimmer. He's currently the longest-tenured coach in the NFC North, but he's also in a precarious position, being in the final year of his contract. Now, Zimmer has been very good at his job. He is 57-38-1 in six seasons with the Vikings. Minnesota finished a season with a record below .500 only once under Zimmer (in his first season with the Vikes, when they won seven games). But he hasn't gotten a team desperate for its first NFL title to the big game. I don't mean to say that he's coaching for his job this season. But stranger things have happened. I mean, look at Andy Reid. After he failed to bring Philadelphia a Lombardi Trophy over 14 years, the Eagles grew tired of him and sent him on his way. And Zimmer might be in an especially difficult spot, because he's an old-school defensive coach like Ed Gennero from Necessary Roughness (which is never mentioned in conversations about the greatest football movies, even though it belongs in the discussion), while the current NFL is skewing toward young, offensive-minded coaches like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur. I'm not advocating for Zimmer to be put on the hot seat. I would just say that it seems he's at risk even though he's been consistently good over the years.

I guess that's the rub here. It's cool to good every year. But have the Vikings ever been great with Zimmer at the helm? Is there any chance that this year's team is going to be great? Again, I think Zimmer is a really good football coach. But this seems like a huge year for him and general manager Rick Spielman.

Quarterback: Kirk Cousins. Vikings fans can be so spoiled. Or at least, some of you on Twitter can be that way. The team extended Cousins' contract this offseason (as it should have), and some of you got big mad. Those folks are like the kid on that old MTV show, My Super Sweet 16, who had a meltdown because her parents got her a Lexus. And that kid wasn't mad that she got a Lexus. She was mad that they gave it to her on the wrong day. Yes, that's actually a thing that happened on that show. Hey, look: I'm as embarrassed as you that I still remember that.

Anyway, to be honest, I like to poke fun at Cousins because: 1) I'm a jerk, and 2) I root for the Bears, so it's what I'm supposed to do. But he's a good quarterback. He finished last season with 3,603 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and just six picks while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. And for those of you knocking him for not winning big games, let me point out again that he went on the road in the playoffs to beat the Saints, a team many picked to go to the Super Bowl.

Heck, even Zimmer seemed to be getting into the disrespecting Cousins business a little bit last year, with the QB attempting just 10 passes in the season opener against the Falcons. TEN total passes in one game! This became somewhat of a trend, as he didn't attempt more than 30 passes in a win until he completed 24 of his 34 attempts for 338 yards and four touchdowns in a Week 7 victory over the Lions.

Let me bottom-line this for you: Cousins is a really good quarterback. Is he peak Aaron Rodgers? No. But who is? You have nothing to be upset about, Vikings fans. And if you want to give me that Lexus, then I will happily take it from you. (BTW, I'm still shook by that whole thing.)

Projected 2020 MVP: Dalvin Cook, running back. With all due respect to Cousins, Cook projects to be the most important piece of Minnesota's offense this season. He's one of the best in the game when healthy. The problem is, he's missed 19 games due to injury over his first three seasons. He did play in a career-high 14 games last year and became the first Vikings running back to top 1,000 rushing yards since Adrian Peterson in 2015. And to go a step further, the Vikings had a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season for the first time since 2002. It is not lost on me that Minnesota got back to the playoffs during Cook's breakout season.

So, the most important thing you need to realize here is the Vikings have to run the ball. Cousins led the NFL with a 129.1 passer rating and 14 touchdowns on play-action passes last season. And that's what makes Cook's consideration of a holdout concerning. As many have pointed out, his leverage to get the contract he seeks from Minnesota is very limited by rules in the new collective bargaining agreement, but if Cook isn't around and the Vikings aren't able to establish the run to set up play-action for Cousins, it would have a huge impact on this team.

Projected 2020 breakout star: Ifeadi Odenigbo, defensive end. Minnesota has been a great defensive team over the years. Last season was no exception, with the Vikings tying for fifth in sacks. But with some significant turnover on the defense this offseason (more on that in a moment), the team will be counting on Odenigbo to make a bigger contribution in 2020. The good news is, Odenigbo showed major promise last season, recording seven sacks and 13 QB hits. The former seventh-round pick is ready to make that next step (we'll also have more on this later).

AND don't sleep on: Irv Smith Jr., tight end. Smith had 36 receptions last season, the most by a rookie tight end in club history. Just wanted to throw that out to you, in case you're looking for some production at the position in fantasy football. Let's move on.

A new face to know: Justin Jefferson, wide receiver. The Vikings used one of their two first-round picks in April on Jefferson, who is going to be counted on to replace one of the better receivers in the game, Stefon Diggs, after Diggs was traded to Buffalo. I really like Jefferson and feel he landed in the best possible position of all of the rookie receivers, at least in terms of ability to make an immediate impact. I also think Jefferson is the most pro-ready of the rookie receivers, having played for an LSU team loaded with NFL talent under passing-game coordinator Joe Brady (who was hired to be the Panthers' offensive coordinator this offseason). The only drawback is that Jefferson might be taking a step down at quarterback, going from first overall selection Joe Burrow to Cousins. OK, stop it. I'm kidding. But Jefferson is a good route runner. He's awesome on contested catches. How awesome? Well, he recorded a contested catch rate of 92.3, according to Pro Football Focus, while no other draft-eligible pass-catcher with at least 10 contested targets had a rate higher than 73.3. I have Jefferson leading all rookies in receiving, so you're going to be good here.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. Which is going to happen when you put as much money into a quarterback as the Vikings have in Cousins. And you have a coach playing for an extension. The Vikings do have a lot of young pieces and some draft capital to play with in the future, and maybe 2021 might appear brighter. But I would never suggest such a thing to Zimmer.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Packers. Let's go. You probably all know that I hate divisional games in the first month of the season -- give teams a chance to get settled! -- but any opportunity you have to put a loss on the Packers is a good thing. Green Bay's ripe for regression this season.
  • Week 5 at Seahawks (Sunday night). I know I told you before that Cousins has indeed logged some quality performances in big spots. But people will still harp on that narrative (because people are lazy). This is a good chance to squelch any of that. Especially against a team you could be battling for a wild-card spot.
  • Week 14 at Buccaneers. After this game, Minnesota returns home to face Chicago and then travels to New Orleans. The Saints, of course, might be a little fired up for that one, given the way last season ended for them. This feels like a stretch where, if the Vikings don't get two wins, that could cost them the playoffs.

Will the Vikings be able to ...

Continue their success with so many new faces? One of the drawbacks of having a great quarterback is that you inevitably have to pay him a lot of money. Which means that you have to skimp in some other places. Like if you know you're going to have Portillo's for dinner -- and you're for sure going to have a cake shake -- then maybe you opt for the salad at lunch. The Vikings were put in that spot this year; because of salary cap restrictions, they no longer have Stefon Diggs, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Andrew Sendejo and some other key pieces. Diggs had been wanting to be traded for some time, so it's not a huge surprise. Though I will certainly miss his subtle trolling of the Vikings on his Twitter account. One wild card in this mix is Everson Griffen, who is still a free agent, though recent rumors had him potentially linked to Cleveland. All in all, that's a lot of quality pieces the Vikings are going to have to scramble to replace. But then again, Portillo's is so good, you're going to find a way to make it work.

Count on Mike Hughes to step up at cornerback? Minnesota's defense has been the reliable backbone of the team for years, the Marshall Eriksen of the team. You know: The low-key best part of How I Met Your Mother. (And if you thought you were getting through this without a HIMYM reference, you were mistaken.) The Vikings are great at safety with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris (whose breakout season was successfully predicted in last year's State of the Vikings). The biggest question is at the cornerback position. The Vikings invested a first-round pick in Hughes, who is a gifted player, but whose development at the position has been slowed by injuries. Hughes did play 14 games last season, but he was on the field for less than 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps. He was a frequent target of opposing offenses when on the field, and Dak Prescott really took advantage of him in that Week 10 game the Vikings eventually won, but still. Hughes will be joined by first-round pick Jeff Gladney out of TCU. I was a little surprised to see Gladney go in the first round. He is very talented and has a lot of great quickness but looks a little undersized on film. He could be a great player once he fills out a little bit, but the NFC North has some of the best receivers in the game, including Allen Robinson, Davante Adams and Kenny Golladay. Zimmer's defense is also very difficult to pick up. This might be one of the most pressing issues for the Vikings this season.

Find some success in pass blocking? The Vikings' offensive line was statistically good last year, at least in terms of keeping the QB upright. Minnesota allowed just 28 sacks (fifth-fewest), down from 40 in 2018. That said, PFF only ranked this O-line 19th at the end of the regular season, noting that Cousins faced a lot of pressure down the stretch. (And the 49ers had six sacks against the Vikings in the Divisional Round.) In fact, the Vikings' line would've ranked even lower than 19th if not for the unit's strong run-blocking, which Football Outsiders backs up. The Vikings were also in the mix for former Redskins lineman Trent Williams this offseason, but instead had to settle for Ezra Cleveland, a talented prospect selected in the second round of April's draft. The hope for the Vikings here is that Year 2 in Gary Kubiak's scheme will be a little easier for the team.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Danielle Hunter is great but needs help. First off, let me say Hunter is a great player, and he's never given enough credit for that. Hunter is the youngest player in NFL history with 50-plus sacks (achieved at 25 years, 40 days), which is amazing. Why is he not in the convo for best defensive player in the game? Fine, he was second-team All-Pro in 2018. But come on: second-team? And that was 2018. He got no All-Pro honors last year, despite racking up 14.5 sacks for the second straight season. I will tell you offensive coordinators are not going to overlook him. He's going to need some help this season if he wants to continue at this 14.5-sack pace. You know how I feel about Odenigbo. That's one guy. Another player I really like is rookie D.J. Wonnum, who was drafted in the fourth round. Feel like he was a steal. Watch some tape of South Carolina, and it's hard not to be impressed by Wonnum. (All right, he should have had Najee Harris on this touchdown, but still, he made a great effort to get to that spot.) He kind of flew under the radar, with Gamecocks teammate Javon Kinlaw getting most of the attention. He could be in a similar situation with Hunter on the NFL level, but Vikings fans will not be mad if he continues to produce.

... people are overthinking: Who is going to run routes from the slot? Adam Thielen ran out of the slot with Diggs split wide. And Justin Jefferson ran 92 percent of his routes from the slot at LSU, according to PFF. This seems like the kind of thing that fantasy football analysts like to talk about. But the Vikings were last in the league in 11 personnel (three receivers), so it's not going to be a huge issue. Jefferson does have experience playing outside, as he did in the years before Joe Brady arrived. If anything, this gives the Vikings a chance to be a bit more creative, moving their pieces around and drawing the kinds of matchups they are looking for. I'm pretty sure Kubiak isn't sweating this slot question. The Vikes just have to allow Jefferson to go out there and do some work.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Vikings MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. Again, I feel like that's the minimum. Especially when I check my Twitter mentions. And again, I don't feel like this should be the end for Zimmer if the Vikings don't make the playoffs. Especially with a youngish team. But it's a lot easier to sell the fans on the future coming off a postseason appearance (or even better, a win).

In closing

The Minnesota Vikings are in an interesting position. They are obviously in the top half of NFL teams. But are not in the top tier. They are good enough to make the playoffs. Even go on the road and beat the Saints. But they clearly looked out of their element against the 49ers. It was like the 2001 Royal Rumble, considered by some to be the best of all time. The final four of that match was The Rock, Stone Cold, Kane and ... Billy Gunn. Did anybody in their right mind think Billy Gunn was going to win the Rumble? Absolutely not. The NFC playoffs felt that way last year. The Vikes could certainly make a run at the NFC North. But do they look Super?

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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