The much-needed offseason overhaul of the Vikings offense was completed over the weekend, with the team adding a few more final pieces during the NFL draft.
After shelling out more than $100 million in non-guaranteed contracts to a trio of free agents on that side of the ball, the Vikings used five of their first seven draft picks on offensive players, including their top two. It was the first time the Vikings have done the latter since hiring Mike Zimmer, their defense-obsessed head coach, in 2014.
Zimmer shrugged Saturday when asked about the offense getting most of the love.
“I’m just trying to win. I don’t care how we do it. I don’t really want it to be 65-63. But I just want to win games,” he said. “It’s very obvious that we need to improve offensively.”
While the defense rose in the rankings every year under Zimmer, their oft-ignored offense has languished near the bottom of the league in total yards. Last season, behind an injury-ravaged line that was porous in pass protection and rarely generated push in the running game, the Vikings dinked and dunked their way to a No. 28 ranking.
Knowing they finally had to do something about it, they devoted the vast majority of their offseason spending and draft capital on offense, looking to give Pat Shurmur, retained as coordinator, the personnel needed to run a functional offense.
The big bucks went to offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Their top pick, in the second round, was gambled on running back Dalvin Cook, a first-round talent with off-the-field concerns. And several other new players have upped the talent level.
“It’s not just scheme,” Zimmer said in March. “It’s about players at the end of the day.”
Cook a first-round talent
During a decade at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has sent a few good backs to the pros, including Devonta Freeman, who has been to two Pro Bowls in three seasons with Atlanta. Fisher says he feels Cook is the most “dynamic” runner he ever has coached.
“Every time he touched the ball, he could score a TD,” Fisher said of Cook, who broke loose for a run of 50 or more yards 10 times during his Florida State career.
While Cook, who set school records with 4,464 career rushing yards and 46 scores, was effective attacking a predetermined gap on power plays and decisive on straightforward inside runs, he was most dangerous in Florida State’s outside zone runs.
Patient as he rolled laterally toward the sideline, Cook used his exceptional vision to anticipate when a crease would open and then turned on the jets. And if the defense overcommitted, Cook often made it pay by cutting back behind his blockers.
The Vikings, perhaps because of their issues at offensive tackle, relied heavily on inside zone and gap-based runs last season. But after upgrading at tackle and having Cook fall into their laps, Shurmur might consider using more outside zone in 2017.
“With zone schemes, you stretch it to cut it back to hit it [for a big gain],” Fisher said of Cook on a conference call Friday night. “His ability to set blocks up, he really understood how to set blocks up and then get to that second level and explode.”
One of those big gains came in a one-point win over Miami last fall. Following his fullback to his left on an outside zone run, Cook got hit in the hole, pin-balled off that defender and stayed on his feet, enabling him to sprint downfield for 54 yards.
That was one of 92 missed tackles forced by Cook in 2016, 16 more than the next-closest back, per Pro Football Focus, making him the most elusive runner in the nation.
None of the Vikings running backs showed much wiggle last season. Adrian Peterson, the leading rusher in franchise history who was allowed to sign with the New Orleans Saints, was uncharacteristically cement-footed when healthy enough to play. Jerick McKinnon also had trouble getting into the open field behind that offensive line.
After parting ways with Peterson, Minnesota landed Latavius Murray, who rushed for a dozen touchdowns for Oakland in 2016, with a three-year, $15 million contract. The Vikings say the big-bodied Murray, likely sidelined until training camp after right ankle surgery last month, can be an every-down back for them.
But if Cook, who also made big plays in the passing game in college, can hold onto the football, he could lead the backfield committee ahead of Murray and McKinnon.
“When you put his tape on, he’s special, folks. He’ll make a difference in Minnesota,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said on the air after Cook was picked. “They signed Latavius Murray, but they just got a whole lot more dynamic on offense.”
O-line upgrade significant
Of course, for Cook to make a difference, he needs at least a little running room.
Last season, the Vikings, forced by injuries to play seven different linemen at their two tackle spots, had their lowest yards-per-carry average in franchise history. Too often they got stuffed at the goal line or in other short-yardage situations.
Unimpressed by the crop of tackles in this draft, the Vikings prioritized the position in free agency, reportedly making offers to at least five tackles. When a wild first 24 hours of free agency wrapped up, they were satisfied with Reiff and Remmers, who have had issues in pass protection but usually get it done when asked to run block.
“I think they’re probably better run blockers than they are pass protectors,” Zimmer conceded a few weeks ago. “But in our pass protection last year we had a lot of quick misses, guys who [got beat] quick and then [got] the quarterback hit. These guys are going to fight and make it a lot tougher for them to get around.”
If that’s the case, quarterback Sam Bradford actually might have the time needed to heave the occasional deep ball to wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The Vikings added another potential starter in third-round pick Pat Elflein, who played both guard and center while starting 40 straight games at Ohio State. Elflein, who likely will begin his NFL career at center, was a three-time first-team all-conference performer and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center his senior year.
“Elflein does his best work in the run game, whether at guard or center,” Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said. “If playing guard, he can locate defenders on the move and he does a fine job of creating movement at the point of attack. He had a slow transition to center in 2016 but improved as the season progressed.”
Elflein is only the second offensive lineman Spielman and the Vikings have selected in the first three rounds of the draft in this decade. The other was tackle Matt Kalil, the one-time Pro Bowler who signed with the Carolina Panthers last month.
Spielman couldn’t resist taking at least one late-round lineman, though. Fifth-round pick Danny Isidora out of Miami is big and athletic but might lack functional strength, some draftniks say. For now, Isidora figures to add competition on the interior.
More weapons for Bradford
On the final day of the draft, the Vikings added three pass-catchers, too.
Rodney Adams, a 6-1 speedster selected in the fifth round, provides depth at wide receiver. More important in the short term, Adams, who averaged 29.1 yards per kickoff return for South Florida in 2015, figures to be one of the front-runners to replace All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, who signed with Oakland.
Towering tight end Bucky Hodges, taken late in the sixth round, spent most of his time at Virginia Tech split out as a receiver. The 6-foot-6, converted QB is a project but may one day add a field-stretching dimension that starter Kyle Rudolph lacks.
In the seventh round, they picked smooth Miami slot receiver Stacey Coley.
Zimmer eventually got some toys to play with before the draft was done.
Jaleel Johnson, a fourth-round pick from Iowa, could get into the mix at either defensive tackle spot as a rookie. Zimmer received a couple more young linebackers in Michigan’s Ben Gedeon and Kansas State’s Elijah Lee. The Vikings drafted Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and N.C. State cornerback Jack Tocho in the seventh round.
But the focus this weekend was putting the finishing touches on a remodeled offense.
“I feel very strongly, and I think our coaches do as well, that with what we were able to accomplish this offseason that we’re going to have a pretty good [offense],” Spielman said.