A 2018 Vikings season that began with what seemed like legitimate Super Bowl aspirations ended with Minnesota not even making the playoffs. After an 8-7-1 season, there are plenty of questions heading into 2019.
The biggest question, then, is this: Is it more likely the Vikings rebound next season to get back on a championship-contending course, or is this the beginning of a longer slide?
First take: Michael Rand
Well, the Vikings are about eight months away from playing a meaningful game so I’ll start things positive. There are reasons to believe the Vikings at least get back to the playoffs next season.
The two biggest: If they can fix their offensive line, a lot of their problems on that side of the ball will dissipate. And without the burden of sky-high expectations next year, the Vikings might actually achieve more.
On the latter: The Vikings’ best seasons lately (2012, 2015, 2017) have been surprises. Their flops in 2016 and 2018 came with expectations.
Vikings writer Andrew Krammer: It is easier to achieve as an underdog. The Vikings went 1-4 in prime-time games this season, when both the opponent and expectations were greater. But this team should not be considered an underdog in 2019, even while rebounding from this 2018 mess.
It’s still a roster full of blue-chip talent and high-priced contracts. To get back to a championship-contending level, I think you hit it on the head with the offensive line. Left tackle Riley Reiff regressed this season, as did second-year center Pat Elflein. They need better from both and an infusion of talent through free agency and the NFL draft’s first round.
Rand: An offensive lineman in the first round? I thought that was outlawed after the 2012 draft. I kid, I kid.
But that was the only time between 2003 and 2018 that the Vikings chose an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft — picking Matt Kalil No. 4 overall. That didn’t work out so great in the long run, in part because Kalil was beset by injuries, but it is shocking to see the Vikings have used exactly one of their 18 first-round picks in the last 16 drafts on an O-lineman.
Another shocking thing I discovered is that outside of QB sneaks, Kirk Cousins scrambled for only three first downs in 2018. He would help a subpar offensive line and struggling offense by tucking and running when necessary next year.
Krammer: The ability to turn a bad situation into a positive play was the big decline from Case Keenum to Cousins. Mike Zimmer talked to Cousins throughout this season about being more reactive to the situation and adjusting when things broke down.
Even though you can do more with Cousins at QB than Keenum, he wasn’t as improvisational. That’s key behind porous protection, which goes back to the offensive line.
Only four other QBs were sacked as much as Cousins (11) in 2 ½ seconds or less: Josh Rosen (17), Eli Manning (14), Deshaun Watson (12) and Ryan Tannehill (11), according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins was sacked that quickly 12 times during his three seasons as Washington’s starter.
Only Watson, as mobile as quarterbacks get, is in the playoffs this month.
Rand: It’s pretty clear that fixing the offensive line is the only way 2019 is going to be better than 2018. That hasn’t been GM Rick Spielman’s strength, but maybe he will learn.
Final word: Krammer
It might come down to keeping Zimmer out of the draft room to prevent another first-round pick at corner.
Jokes aside, Khalil Mack isn’t going anywhere. The Vikings need answers.
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