This will be the sixth season with Mike Zimmer as Vikings coach, and as rookie minicamp got underway this weekend, he said he is as optimistic as he has been in some time about the state of the team heading into the start of major offseason activities.
“I am probably more excited this year than I have been in a while,” Zimmer said. “I just feel like if we get back and get our nose to the grindstone, play smart football, don’t beat ourselves and do the things we’re capable of doing, we’re going to have a good football team.”
One of the biggest reasons for his optimism is the completely reworked offensive coaching staff: starting with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski but also with bringing in Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach along with several assistants who understand Kubiak’s system very well.
“I’m extremely happy with it. We had an opportunity to get Gary Kubiak and [offensive line coach] Rick Dennison and [quarterbacks coach] Klint [Kubiak] and [tight ends coach] Brian Pariani, they have been together for a long time and have been running this offense for a long time,” Zimmer said. “Every time I had to play that offense or Kubiak’s offense, it has been extremely difficult to stop. You know they are great guys. They think like I do, so it has been really good.”
Since Zimmer took over in 2014, the Vikings offense ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards and 18th in points, while the defense ranks third in both yards and points.
“We have won a lot of games here, but we haven’t been great offensively other than the one year we were pretty darn good and won a lot of games [in 2017],” he said. “I feel like if we can fix that part, the combination of continuing to try to play good defense and continue to be good there and hopefully be better on special teams, will get us over the top.”
Zimmer said the combination of Kubiak’s experience and Stefanski’s leadership should make for a new dynamic for the Vikings offense.
“[Kubiak] has a ton of experience,” Zimmer said. “I think somebody said he has been in seven Super Bowls as a player or a coach so that is always big, and he is a great guy. He is very down to earth, very smart. I love sitting in the offensive meetings and listening to these guys.
“Kevin has a good command in the room. He is running the meetings and then Gary is talking about the different intricacies of each play, each step, blocking schemes. Rick Dennison has been running this zone blocking scheme for quite a while. Honestly, it has been great.”
Comfortable with Cousins
The other big reason for bringing in Kubiak is the fact that his offense is so directly influenced by Mike Shanahan, who drafted and helped develop Kirk Cousins when he was the quarterback of the Washington Redskins.
And while Cousins’ stats in his first year under Zimmer looked good — he posted career highs in completion percentage and passing touchdowns and a career low in interception percentage — there’s no question that Cousins and the Vikings were disappointed in how their first year together played out.
Zimmer thinks better things are coming for Cousins with these coaches.
“I think all of these guys, when they get into their second year, they are a lot more comfortable with things,” Zimmer said. “This offense is the same that he grew up with, the Shanahans, Mike and Kyle Shanahan, it’s really the same offense. Gary was with Mike for a long, long time. He was Mike’s offensive coordinator. I think he’s going to have a great comfort level with this offense.”
Immediate value from draft
The Vikings clearly put an emphasis on offense in the draft, and Zimmer broke down what he expects from their first three picks.
“[Garrett] Bradbury is a very athletic, talented center, a guy that played extremely well against competition in his conference, played great in the Senior Bowl,” he said. “The second pick was [tight end] Irv Smith [Jr.], a guy that is very athletic, a young guy coming out of Alabama, good hands, good run after catch, good quickness and speed.
“Then Alexander Mattison, the running back, we felt like would be a good addition to [Dalvin] Cook. He’s a little bit more of a power back but he catches the ball out of the backfield and will be able to do some third down stuff. I think it’ll be a good complement with those two guys.
Zimmer said all three of those selections are geared towards one big goal: Improving the run game.
“We are going to run the ball better,” he said. “And the thing that sets up the running game is the play-action pass off of it, some of the screens off of play-action, so I think that’s where we’ll get a lot of shots. Once people start loading up on the running game then you have the chance to throw the ball over their heads with [Adam] Thielen and [Stefon] Diggs.”
And Zimmer said when it comes to veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is a free agent after this season, Zimmer thinks he has a long future here.
“Kyle is a great kid, an excellent football player here for quite a while, excellent hands, very, very smart,” he said. “The combination of Irv Smith and Kyle along with the other tight ends, I think, is going to make his career longer.”
• There is no doubt Ryan Saunders will be named Timberwolves coach as a part of Gersson Rosas being named president of basketball operations, but expect other changes in the coaching staff.
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, who attended the Kentucky Derby with his wife this weekend, said Tanner Morgan’s starting spot at quarterback is far from guaranteed. “There is always competition,” he said. “Absolutely. Every position we have has competition, including the quarterback position. We look forward to watching how that whole competition comes together.”
• The early NFC North odds from Bovada.com have the Vikings third at plus-230 compared to the Packers at plus-200 and the Bears at plus-170.
• The sportsbooks out of Las Vegas have Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco tied for third for the best odds for AL MVP at 9-1.
• Former Gophers kicker Emmit Carpenter told the weekly Press Times of Wisconsin that his decision to join the Bears as a free agent was an easy one. “Chicago is a great football town,” he said. “The people there are really passionate about football and the Bears and it’s a great market to land in.” The Bears have no returning kickers on their roster.
• Ex-Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman told the Jets website, “I feel like I can be someone that impacts the team day one, whether it be on special teams or defense, or both.” Cashman was the only Gophers player drafted, while four each were picked from Iowa and Wisconsin. Ohio State led the Big Ten with nine picks.
• E.J. Ejiya, who was a standout at Spring Lake Park and played linebacker at North Texas, agreed to a rookie free-agent deal with the Ravens.
• Logan Morrison, a disappointment with the Twins last year, signed a minor league contract with the Yankees on April 19 and has been at extended spring training.