Thank you for submitting questions for this week's Vikings mailbag. You can always send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast or find them on Fridays at startribune.com. Let's get to it.
Q: When you look at the current playoff teams, what do they collectively have that the Vikings are missing? — Danny
AK: Scroll down the list of the most-pressured quarterbacks, at least defined by Pro Football Focus, and you won't reach a playoff starter until No. 9 in Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts; the Eagles led the NFL with a franchise-record 2,715 rushing yards. Next is No. 10 in Las Vegas' Derek Carr; the Raiders went 4-0 in overtime. Next is No. 11 in Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill; the Titans have the fifth-ranked rushing attack and sixth-ranked scoring defense. Buffalo's Josh Allen is No. 14; he's mobile and the Bills have the NFL's No. 1 scoring and yardage defense. Cincinnati's Joe Burrow has about the same pressure rate as Kirk Cousins, ranking middle of the pack, but Joe Cool has a league-high 92.4 rating while feeling heat.
If your quarterback is going to be under consistent pressure and can't do enough by himself, whether through Allen's mobility or Burrow's command, you need a lot to go right around him. Mike Vrabel's Titans are living Mike Zimmer's dream, doing it with the run game and defense. But the playoffs typically field the best quarterbacks, and the best quarterbacks can rise above their team's deficiencies. One of the most debilitating ones for Cousins is defensive pressure. He checks down and doesn't always give his receivers chances. Cousins ranked 19th throwing an average of 10.2 yards downfield when pressured. Only three playoff quarterbacks threw shallower: Dallas' Dak Prescott (10.1), Tannehill (9.7) and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo (8.8).
Q: What Vikings under contract have played their last games in Minnesota due to cap issues? — @antoniob_3
AK: There are some big salary cap numbers — Kirk Cousins ($45 million), Danielle Hunter ($26 million) and Adam Thielen (nearly $17 million) — that could be addressed with renegotiations or trades. The decision with Cousins, whether to keep him for one more year or trade him with his $35 million salary, is the massive domino. Keeping Hunter seems like the play regardless of who's deciding, but that could be dependent on him agreeing to terms on a new contract. Hunter's relationship with Andre Patterson went a long way toward him taking a modest restructure to return last year. New leadership could keep Hunter under his current deal; it'd just come with an $18 million roster bonus and that lofty cap number. Perhaps there's a decision to make with nose tackle Michael Pierce, who missed nine games last season and currently counts $10.5 million against the cap in 2022.
Q: What's the biggest lesson the Wilfs learned from the Zimmer and Spielman era that they won't repeat with this hire? — @kyle90211
AK: If you listened to Mark Wilf discuss the searches this week, he clearly wants a leadership structure that will bring people together — using the buzzwords "collaboration" and "communication" frequently. This is the first time they're conducting a wide search for a full-time general manager entering their 18th year of team ownership. During the last head coaching search, former general manager Rick Spielman led the 2014 process that landed on Mike Zimmer after presenting finalists to the Wilfs. Spielman's known candidates focused on defensive gurus — Zimmer, Todd Bowles, Dan Quinn — to turn around the Vikings' woeful 2013 group. Scoring is increasing in the NFL. League rules and officiating emphases, even with an increase in offensive holding, have protected quarterbacks and receivers to facilitate this. So I'd imagine the quarterback question and the offense, with Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, also top the influences as an internal search team casts a wide net in the GM search.
Q: There was no pass rush from the defensive line. It seemed like a bigger issue than losing Danielle Hunter? — Alston
AK: There was no coverage, at times, either. For a previous leadership that prioritized pass rushers and cornerbacks, Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer leave the Vikings with big questions at both positions. They need to find a four-man pass rush again. That was one of the pressing questions when Spielman signed another nose tackle, Dalvin Tomlinson, to pair with Pierce. Offenses feasted when in passing mode against the Vikings defense, which allowed a league-worst 135 points inside the two-minute warnings of each half, as well as overtime; that's 32% of their points allowed overall. The pass rush disappeared, whether by inefficiency or quick-throwing quarterbacks. While the Vikings ranked fourth with a 7.5% sack rate, according to Pro Football Reference, the defense generated just three sacks in 131 passing plays (2.3%) inside two minutes. Start your mock-drafting engines, and make sure to include a pass rusher.
Q: Is there any possibility that some of the assistants will stick around? — @guapo_247
AK: That will be decided by new leadership, at least for those coaches still under contract. Some assistants with expiring deals will line up jobs in college or the NFL; special teams assistant Robert Steeples is joining Brian Kelly's staff at LSU. The Wilfs are granting permission for coaches to interview elsewhere regardless of their contract status. Coordinator Klint Kubiak interviewed remotely for the Panthers' offensive coordinator job. Veteran assistants, like running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, figure to have options.
Q: Are there any restrictions on interviewing general manager candidates that work for teams in the playoffs? — @runbayou79
AK: The rules aren't clearly stated, but it's my understanding there are windows similar to hiring coaches currently in the playoffs. The Giants have already interviewed four general manager candidates, talking with Chiefs director of personnel Ryan Poles via videoconference on Thursday. The No. 2 Chiefs are hosting the Steelers on Sunday night. Many initial interviews, especially with candidates on playoff teams, will be conducted virtually. The Vikings' search team has also requested to speak with Poles among eight known candidates.