Thank you for submitting questions for this week’s Vikings mailbag. You can always send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org, and listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast or find them here on Friday mornings. Let’s get to it.
Q: Looking ahead to Vikings remaining games in ESPN’s Football Power Index, they should go 6-2. Looking at teams above them for final wild-card spots, it’s the 49ers, Rams, Bears. They all have tough schedules ahead. Playoffs possible? — Anthony
AK: Why not? A week ago in this space, we discussed whether you’d want to go 7-9 or 3-13, but that’s discounting the possibility of the Vikings only losing, let’s say, two games (at Bucs, Saints) the rest of the way while getting three tough wins against the Bears (x2) and a plucky Panthers team, beating the Cowboys, Lions and Jags like you’re supposed to, and finishing 9-7. This is moot if they lose again in Chicago on Monday night, but a rare win at Soldier Field creates a rosy outlook for a potentially 4-5 team. Here’s another way to solidify your point about playoff chances: the Vikings’ next four opponents, the Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars, are losers of a combined 18 straight games. The toughest part of that cupcake schedule is Chicago’s defense on Monday night.
Q: Ezra Cleveland at right guard: one-season fix or do you consider keeping him there long term? — @ShyMarcus
AK: Offensive line coach Rick Dennsion said at the beginning of the season he’d be open to any possibility for Cleveland, the second-round pick out of Boise St. He’s fared decently in back-to-back wins after struggling against the Falcons last month, and should his progression continue, maybe Vikings coaches consider that a long-term solution. It’s not like they’ve got many other long-term answers at guard right now. Any change would start with left tackle Riley Reiff potentially getting let go next offseason as the Vikings front office seeks more salary cap space. Dakota Dozier’s relative consistency has been a good development for the offensive line, but that position has been a weak link in the line. There’s a void at guard that, I’d think, they’d have to be open to Cleveland filling long-term.
Q: Kubiak has said ‘where Dalvin goes, we go.’ Do you fear that the Vikings may become too reliant on our run game and not use playmakers they have? — @AlHonzay
AK: The Vikings are averaging an NFL-low 26 passes per game, but we’ve seen the swing of Gary Kubiak’s offense in the last four games. In losses to Seattle and Atlanta, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw 39 and 36 passes, compared to 14 and 20 throws in wins against the Packers and Lions. Intense wind gusts in Green Bay was part of it, but they also didn’t have Dalvin Cook for all but a half of the Seahawks and Falcons games. This offense is going to run through Cook, especially as he puts up early MVP numbers. They’re capable of winning downfield with Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr., but, once again, it typically works best through a play-action passing game off of Cook. Kubiak has mostly been aggressive with early play-action shots and fourth-down attempts, which is the balance you want to see.
Q: Are there any human beings other than Dalvin Cook that can push a moving tank the other direction? — @byjoshuagreen
AK: Ha! He’s been phenomenal dodging defenders and ruining the Vikings’ draft position. The obvious positive to fielding a young and somewhat competitive, but not Super Bowl competitive, team is that competitiveness has to come from their development. The Vikings have a long-term outside linebacker in Eric Wilson, if they decide to pay him this offseason. Rookies Jeff Gladney, Cleveland and Cameron Dantzler seem to have NFL futures. Irv Smith has made strides at tight end. Justin Jefferson is a future star. Perhaps Garrett Bradbury has turned a corner in Year 2. There’s still so many big questions looking ahead, particularly about the quarterback, the secondary and defensive line depth, as well as Danielle Hunter’s health.
Q: Any changes at kick returner coming? K.J. Osborn should get some fly route chances in games, but we can score even quicker with better field position. — @im2koo4u
AK: Aside from a one-game change in Week 3 vs. Tennessee, rookie receiver K.J. Osborn has been the Vikings kick returner. It hasn’t looked very pretty on either kick or punt returns. Neither Lions gunner was blocked on Osborn’s only punt return for a three-yard loss against Detroit. They can certainly block better. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. missed a block on Osborn’s 13-yard kick return in the second quarter. Special teams overall has been tough to watch after the Vikings drew two flags and had two punts blocked vs. Detroit. But I wouldn’t be waiting for a change at kick returner.