Most of us can agree the Vikings had an objectively successful season but that there’s still a hump they need to get over. What position group is most critical to getting over that hump in 2020?

First take: Michael Rand

The Vikings have made strides investing in the offensive line, committing at least a third-round pick to that area in each of the last three drafts. And they improved their run blocking in 2019, finishing the regular season graded 12th in the league in that category per Pro Football Focus.

But I still say the answer is offensive line for multiple connected reasons: The Vikings have been graded No. 25 or worse (again per PFF) in pass blocking in four of the last five seasons, including 2019.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had a grade of 94.4 on his 349 non-pressured dropbacks, but just 48.3 on his 200 pressured dropbacks (regular and postseason) in 2019. Teams could still derail the Vikings if they could get pressure on Cousins without blitzing. They won’t win big in the playoffs until they fix that.

Andrew Krammer: I can’t argue with that. Observers of the Vikings’ loss in San Francisco saw an offensive line simply outclassed. Kevin Stefanski, along with Gary Kubiak, did an admirable job easing the line’s burden by moving Cousins out of the pocket and building a reliable running game. Combined with slightly better personnel, the Vikings saw some improvement.

But they need more to get over the hump, particularly better players on the left side.

If not offensive line, what about quarterback? Cousins had his best NFL season, but the upper echelon of quarterbacks typically find ways to overcome pressure. If Cousins isn’t that, then why not swing for the fences like Kansas City did in swapping Alex Smith for Patrick Mahomes?

 

Rand: First we agree and then you jump right into the big question about Cousins and whether he’s the guy long-term. The Smith comparison is an apt one — he was 9-6 as a starter in 2017 with 26 touchdowns, just five interceptions and PFF’s 10th-highest grade.

I dare say Cousins was a little better than that this year (fifth-best grade per PFF, even higher than Mahomes), but the overall point is solid. Cousins might be a case of “good is the enemy of great,” and I’d love to see the Vikings take that swing in the draft this year if they identify someone they like for the future.

But Cousins isn’t going anywhere in 2020 with that huge guaranteed contract. And before Mike Zimmer breaks out in hives, we probably should put cornerback in this must-have mix as well.

Krammer: With all due respect to PFF, Cousins is no Mahomes, which is why Kansas City is still playing. But it might be a futile point because there’s more evidence the Vikings will extend Cousins as opposed to drafting his potential replacement.

If that’s the case, cornerback makes sense. Despite having two of the NFL’s best safeties, the Vikings gave up the most explosive pass plays (20-plus yards) in the Zimmer era. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are free agents, Xavier Rhodes is in decline and Mike Hughes is recovering from a fractured neck.

So with the 25th overall pick, the Vikings select …

Rand: An offensive tackle. If Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs is on the board, it’s a no-brainer — a cost-effective potential upgrade for an other former Hawkeye, Riley Reiff.

 

Krammer: I like the way you’re thinking. With how much good pass blocking costs in free agency, that prediction could look pretty good in April.