The Vikings face a lot of offseason questions after their 27-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional-round playoffs on Saturday, but one of the biggest is how they are going to compete with the Green Bay Packers, who continue to beat them when it matters most.
When looking at regular-season statistics, the Vikings posted more offensive yards per game than the Packers (353.5 to 345.5). They averaged more points than Green Bay (25.4 to 23.5).
On defense, the Vikings allowed fewer yards per game (341.6 to 352.6) and fewer points per game (18.9 to 19.6).
But in crucial games in the regular season and playoffs, the Packers were the superior team.
Green Bay will head to San Francisco on Sunday for the NFC Championship Game to see if it can fare better than the Vikings did against the 49ers last week.
Looking ahead to 2020, the Packers appear to have a roster that looks more competitive than the Vikings’ from top to bottom.
They went out and signed four-year contracts with linebackers Za’Darius Smith ($66 million) and Preston Smith ($52 million) and free safety Adrian Amos ($37 million) to big free-agency deals in the 2019 offseason that completely reshaped their defense.
Pro Football Focus gives out player grades at each position and it shows how far apart the two squads are.
The Vikings’ highest-rated offensive lineman was right tackle Brian O’Neill with a grade of 70.8, and their average starting offensive lineman graded at 65.16.
Compare that to the Packers, whose highest-graded offensive lineman was David Bakhtiari at 78.5, and their average offensive line grade was higher at 69.46.
Green Bay also had higher grades at running back (Aaron Jones at 83.7, the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook) at 76.2), quarterback (Aaron Rodgers at 84.3, Kirk Cousins at 84.1) and for their best wide receiver (Davante Adams at 87.5 vs. Stefon Diggs at 78.3).
Better Packers defense
But maybe the biggest factor that turned the Packers from a 6-9-1 team in 2018 to a 13-3 team was that their defense finally caught up to the Vikings.
The one position the Vikings dominated in performance grade was at safety, where Harrison Smith graded out at 88.4 and Anthony Harris was at 91.1. For the Packers, free safety Darnell Savage graded at 69.3 and Amos had a 77.1.
At cornerback, the Packers once again had better rankings with Jaire Alexander at 72.1 and Kevin King at 63.4. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was at only 47.9 while Trae Waynes was at 67.0.
The Vikings have some stars on the defensive line, with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen both graded above 76.0. But the Packers were just as dominant, with Kenny Clark and linebacker/edge rusher Smith above 80.2.
What’s going to make it even more difficult for the Vikings to compete with the Packers going forward is their salary cap situation.
The Vikings have the No. 1 active salary cap in the NFL heading into 2020, at $204 million, with 46 players signed. That leaves them with a negative cap hit and no room to make moves without releasing some big names on offense and defense.
The Packers, meanwhile, rate 12th in the NFL with a $172.3 million active salary cap, leaving them around $31 million in cap space for next season.
That’s why this offseason will be so important for the Vikings and General Manager Rick Spielman. They have to upgrade the roster, but they might have to cut some key players to do it.
Since Mike Zimmer took over as Vikings coach in 2014, the club has posted the seventh-best record in the NFL and been to the playoffs in three of his six seasons.
The team has really had to completely reshape the roster only once, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered his devastating knee injury a week before the start of the 2016 season, which led the team to bring in quarterback Sam Bradford and eventually add Case Keenum.
And while the team will soon be hiring its fifth offensive coordinator in six seasons under Zimmer, this will be the first year where they have both a new offensive coordinator, with the departure of Kevin Stefanski to become Browns head coach, and a new defensive coordinator, with the firing of George Edwards. They will also lose Jerry Gray, their defensive backs coach.
Last offseason saw the club completely revamp the offensive coaching staff under Stefanski, bringing in Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach, and a whole bunch of his former coaches, such as quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani. They also added special teams coach Marwan Maalouf.
That’s why next season could be unlike any Vikings season before it.
Not only will they have a ton of coaching changes — Zimmer could promote his son Adam Zimmer, who has coached Vikings linebackers since 2014, to defensive coordinator and either Gary or Klint Kubiak to offensive coordinator — but their roster could be completely different.
Unrestricted free agents such as Griffen, Waynes and Harris could be gone, but there is also a chance they could trade or release franchise standouts such as tight end Kyle Rudolph, Rhodes, Diggs or nose tackle Linval Joseph, simply because the team has no money to work with under the salary cap.
There’s no doubt the Vikings want to bring back a player such as Harris, who is only 28 and tied for the lead in the NFL with six interceptions this season, but they paid him only $3 million this year. His salary will get a big bump and it’s hard to see how the Vikings can compete for his services.
That’s why one benefit is they have some young players who are on cheap contracts who really stepped up this year and proved they could play.
That includes people such as defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes ($842,000), tight end Irv Smith ($1.3 million), cornerbacks Holton Hill ($664,608) and Kris Boyd ($612,314), wide receiver Bisi Johnson ($603,572), defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo ($660,000), running back Alexander Mattison ($830,043) and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson ($904,591).
Those younger players could really play a big role in filling out the Vikings roster and creating some salary cap room.