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: How far do you think this team is away from being a true contender? I think between guys coming back and pieces developed that they can contend next year, legitimately. Still tough calls on cap stuff, but with draft, free agency, and injury luck, is it possible? — @bigbadragz
AK: This conversation eventually comes back to Kirk Cousins, so let's just start there. There seem to be few quarterbacks more divisive between what stats and personnel evaluators say about him. For the first time in Cousins' career, he's on pace for back-to-back seasons with a passer rating over 100. But January's overtime, playoff-winning drive in New Orleans and great stretches of play are often just that — stretches. Coaches are constantly managing turnover risk in the offense, and Cousins' week-to-week play can vary so much. That has to influence what can be conservative approaches in the game plan. Mike Zimmer has never said he wants any different. Only about a quarter of the NFL — eight teams, let's say — have true game-changing quarterbacks from Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers to Lamar Jackson. So the Vikings want to make it a Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles situation with the quarterback either getting hot or playing a bit role in a Super Bowl run.
For the talent on that No. 1 defense, the Vikings needed a miracle and elite defensive play to look like legitimate contenders in 2017. A massive detour in Zimmer's preferred offensive philosophy in 2018 further shut that window. How long will it take to regain an elite defense? Major questions need good answers for the Vikings, starting with Danielle Hunter's health following neck surgery to repair a herniated disc, as well as the state of nose tackle Michael Pierce and linebacker Anthony Barr. They've been totally sapped of a pass rush — just 21 sacks in 13 games — allowing QBs to sit back and toss 48(!) throws for at least 20 yards this season. That's the most under Zimmer, with three games to play in a season of unprecedented turnover.
And we still haven't arrived at the offensive line or what have been abysmal special teams. In short? They don't seem that far away from being a playoff team — obviously boosted by the new seven-team field — but Super Bowl contender is a bridge too far for 2021 given the unanswered questions at the end of 2020.
Q: Did the play of Tyler Conklin and Irv Smith Jr. this week make a case for moving on from Kyle Rudolph this offseason? — @vikingsjazzfan
AK: Coaches have lauded Smith and Conklin when healthy, and they just seem to bring a different dynamic to the downfield passing attack. Rudolph certainly could be much more productive if he were featured, but he's only been a big part of the passing game during the three starts Smith missed due to groin and back injuries. Conklin's breakthrough given the opportunity has been a pleasant development for the Vikings. Now that Smith's healthy, and Rudolph is out with a foot injury, the future of the position is on display this month. It sets up a curious offseason for Rudolph, who could be asked to make a decision about renegotiating his contract for a cap-strapped front office. They were likely eyeing the 2021 offseason as the time to go back to the table or move on, anyway, but the emergence of Conklin with Smith does add to their flexibility.
Q: I know they'd never admit it, but do you think there's a fair number of people in the building tired of developing coaches destined for AFC North greatness? — @Scott_Roberts25
AK: From Brian Billick to Mike Tomlin to Kevin Stefanski... maybe? The Browns finally have competence atop the coaching ranks in the former Vikings assistant, but Stefanski was also stepping into a good situation — I know, it's Cleveland. So we have to let that one play out. Stefanski obviously has a lot of fans remaining at TCO Performance Center where he was one of the organization's longest-tenured employees before accepting the Browns job. Players lauded his attitude, preparation and ability to manage relationships, which isn't second nature to everyone. He's got a good shot to eventually contend with Tomlin's Steelers. Any what-if with Stefanski staying in Minnesota went out the door with the playoff win in New Orleans, which secured both Zimmer's job and Stefanski's case to be hired elsewhere. If Stefanski does what seems impossible, he could be the third ex-Vikings assistant to win a Super Bowl for an AFC North team in the past two-plus decades. Billick, the former Vikings OC, won a Super Bowl as Ravens head coach while making four playoff appearances in nine years. Tomlin, a one-year Vikings DC in 2006, also has a Super Bowl ring as the NFL's third-longest tenured head coach in Pittsburgh behind only the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Saints' Sean Payton.
Q: Can long snapping be too perfect? They were worried about bounce snaps before, but Dan Bailey's miss rate has skyrocketed with on-target snaps. — @antigravity19
AK: Ha! As crazy as that sounds, disrupting the timing — or establishing a better timing, as coordinator Marwan Maalouf said Thursday — can lead to inconsistencies in the rhythm of the kicking operation. The Vikings cut long snapper Austin Cutting after he bounced a snap off the grass in a Nov. 16 win at Chicago. While Bailey made his first eight kicks with new long snapper Andrew DePaola, Maalouf said "it's possible" the change has contributed to Bailey's recent slump, making just three of 10 kicks in the last two games.