As the Vikings’ veterans assemble at the team’s practice facility in Eagan on Wednesday for the start of training camp, they should be well aware of how little their 13-3 record a year ago means to their prospects for the 2018 season.
Their coach made sure of that.
“We can’t start at 13-3. We have to start at 0-0,” Mike Zimmer said as the Vikings wrapped up their mandatory minicamp June 14. “Obviously, it’s a tough schedule. We’re playing both coasts. We’re playing Thursday night in L.A. There are a lot of things we are going to have to overcome. We are going to have to be a good football team in order to do what we want to do.”
Even if the Vikings ignore last year’s success, their fans, with Super Bowl-sized expectations, won’t. Not after the Vikings spent $84 million on quarterback Kirk Cousins in March, and signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson the next day.
Whether it’s fair or not, fans of a team that reached the NFC Championship Game a year ago will be clamoring for it to take the next step in 2018, even as the Vikings’ schedule presents some unique challenges and the conference remains stocked with well-heeled opponents, including the Super Bowl champion Eagles, who hope to have quarterback Carson Wentz recovered from a torn ACL.
The Vikings figure to be among the trendy picks in the NFC as they open camp at the sprawling TCO Performance Center, with a roster that appears as replete with top-end talent as any in the league. As much as their collection of talent — the NFL’s top-ranked defense, a top-10 offense that added Cousins and the return of running back Dalvin Cook — has them poised to compete in the conference, the Vikings also have an unusual number of new faces in important spots for a team that’s so established.
They will continue to indoctrinate Cousins into their offense, which has its third coordinator (John DeFilippo) in as many seasons. Cook, who tore the ACL in his left knee last Oct. 1, is expected to be ready for preseason games, though the Vikings likely will exercise caution with their second-year running back. And even as they grieve the loss of offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who died Sunday of arteriosclerotic heart disease at his home in Eden Prairie, the NFL calendar brings a cold reality: The Vikings have the unfortunate task of replacing the senior member of their offensive coaching staff six weeks before the start of the regular season.
The Vikings still were collecting names of potential candidates Tuesday afternoon, but according to an NFL source, both Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and retired Cardinals coach Bruce Arians reached out to Zimmer to recommend former Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who was the Steelers’ offensive line coach from 2007-11 and spent 2012 with the Colts before joining Arians in Arizona. While the Vikings continued their search for candidates, assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko was expected to lead the team’s group of linemen to start training camp.
The offensive line is perhaps where the Vikings have the most questions to answer, with Mike Remmers looking set to move from tackle to guard and Rashod Hill getting the first chance at the right tackle job in front of second-round pick Brian O’Neill. Center Pat Elflein and left guard Nick Easton are recovering from ankle injuries, and the Vikings could miss the stability provided by the retired Joe Berger, who missed only two snaps last season while playing right guard and center.
Even though the Vikings return 10 starters on defense from 2017, they’ll have questions to answer there as well — perhaps most notably at nickel cornerback, where third-year man Mackensie Alexander will compete with first-round pick Mike Hughes and soon-to-be-40-year-old Terence Newman. And after the Vikings used a fifth-round pick on Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, making him the highest-drafted kicker in team history, they’ll stage a kicking competition in training camp between the rookie and veteran Kai Forbath.
The Vikings get back to work in a division with new head coaches in Chicago (Matt Nagy) and Detroit (Matt Patricia) and a new general manager in Green Bay (Brian Gutekunst). Their foundation is what attracted both DeFilippo and Cousins, and the Vikings will look to build on it as they host training camp at their own practice facility for the first time in team history.
Before they get to work, it’s a safe bet they’ll hear at least one more time they should not take their opportunity for granted.
“The margin for error in this league is so small, and the difference between a team that goes — I don’t know — 10-6 and makes the playoffs and gets hot and wins the Super Bowl, and a team that goes 6-10 and everyone’s fired, it just isn’t that much,” Cousins said. “What I love is Coach Zimmer, the way he runs practice, the way he coaches, the discipline he creates, he gives us a chance. When we’re in those moments, we’re prepared. We’re not just leaving it to chance.”