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: What were the Vikings thinking sending a fourth-round draft pick for a backup tight end who's going to be a free agent next year? — @jessecregan
AK: General manager Rick Spielman probably hoped Chris Herndon would've contributed more than he has at this point. Herndon is the No. 3 tight end behind Tyler Conklin and Ben Ellefson, the Hawley, Minn. native who was claimed off waivers a day after Spielman sent a fourth-round pick to New York for Herndon and a sixth-round pick. Asked about Ellefson's quick role, Conklin pointed to his intelligence in learning the playbook and his blocking that's needed in this offense. However, Ellefson missed Thursday's practice due to a neck injury, which could lead to a bigger role for Herndon out of necessity.
Q: How's the offensive line going to hold up against the Browns defense? Is Cousins going to be able to maintain this great streak under pressure? — @hoebennick
AK: There will be a lot of premiere defensive line talent on both sidelines Sunday. The Browns boast edge rushers Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, with former first-round pick Takk McKinley coming off the bench. They're a bit weaker inside, where Sheldon Richardson left this offseason to return to Minnesota and 31-year-old Malik Jackson now leads. But Cleveland's coaching staff, led defensively by former Vikings secondary coach Joe Woods, will scheme up ways to pressure Cousins.
Pressure remains on the running game to keep the defense guessing. But it helps when Cousins unleashes a 15-yard touchdown on a third-and-13 play like he did against the Seahawks. The Vikings offensive line gave Cousins ample room during that touchdown pass, and they'll need more of the same against a stronger front. I'm sure we'll see more hands in protection, like Klint Kubiak called during Adam Thielen's 21-yard grab against Seattle. The condensed formation, with Conklin and receiver K.J. Osborn next to the tackles, allowed both to chip Seattle's edge rushers before releasing on short routes. Give the O-line help.
Q: With Kevin Stefanski and the Browns coming to town this weekend and his familiarity with the Vikings offense, how does that impact preparations for this week? — @fall84
AK: He's plenty familiar with the Vikings defense, too, having coached against Mike Zimmer's group during practices for six of his 14 years as a Vikings assistant coach. Stefanski knows the Vikings offense and its newest play caller, Klint Kubiak, very well. The two are close friends with a relationship that began when Stefanski helped hire Kubiak onto Leslie Frazier's staff as a quality control coach in 2013. They stayed in touch before ultimately Stefanski again brought both Kubiaks to Minnesota when he helped bridge the connection to Gary and Klint joining Zimmer's staff after the 2018 season.
Perhaps there are some changeups schemed this week. But Zimmer and assistant head coach Andre Patterson have downplayed how much the familiarity between both sides — Cleveland's coaching staff also includes former Vikings assistants Mike Priefer and Drew Petzing — will impact Sunday.
"It works both ways, right?" Patterson said this week. "We know what he likes to do too, so to me, it evens out. When both sides know each other really well, it evens out. It's not like it's a one-way street, so it's not that big of a concern for me."
Q: Wouldn't it have been better to put Anthony Barr and Christian Darrisaw on injured reserve at the beginning of the season, so they weren't taking up roster spots? — @curt_teunissen
AK: They couldn't have practiced for three weeks if they were on injured reserve, and the team decided their practice time was worth more than the roster spots. Coaches were hopeful about Barr headed into the season opener, but his knee didn't respond well after practicing that Wednesday, leading to another two weeks on the sideline. He's now practiced two straight weeks, setting up a possible return Sunday. Practice was also key for Darrisaw, the first-round rookie who is now in his fourth straight week of practice following the Aug. 12 core muscle surgery. If Darrisaw had been placed on I.R., this would've been the first week he was eligible to practice.
Q: Is Dalvin Cook ready to go for this week? — @patricksagevick
AK: His practices, starting right away on Wednesday this week, are a strong indication that his sprained right ankle is improving. But Cook cautioned before Wednesday's practice that how well he moves, and whether that's up to his standard, will determine his status against the Browns. He's remained limited this week. Alexander Mattison avoided notable injury after he hobbled off the field at the end of the Seahawks win following his 32nd touch on a 171-yard day. He's been practicing in full this week and will be available to spell or start for Cook again if needed.
Q: Did something transpire behind the scenes for Mike Zimmer to change his tune about Kirk Cousins? He typically isn't one to hand out compliments, but he's had quite nice things to say about the quarterback in the last three weeks compared to the beginning of camp. — @joeldubiel
AK: Cousins is playing some of his best football to start his fourth season in Minnesota, and it's the style that Zimmer likes – turnover-free. The head coach and quarterback spoke over the phone the day before Cousins returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list in August, and they've since both said their working relationship is good. At Cousins' behest, they meet weekly to watch game film and talk strategy or whatever may be on their minds. This week, Zimmer said, "the communication between both of us is much better" because of those Thursday chats. "I can understand some of the things he's thinking about during the game," Zimmer said. "We talk a lot about different things. Things that may upset him, things that may upset me. I think it's been really good."