This is a “prove-it” year for the Vikings — one that could either reinforce the direction in which they are heading or lead to sweeping changes.
But not everyone has an equal amount at stake. The question, then, is this: Which Vikings player has the most to prove in 2019?
First take: Michael Rand
With strictly players in mind, I have to say it’s the biggest of the big fish: Kirk Cousins. He played like a top-10 quarterback for the first half of last season. But he faded as the competition improved, the offensive line fell apart and disarray consumed the scheme in general.
If the Vikings can deliver more cohesiveness and talent on the offensive line while presenting a consistent system tailored to Cousins’ skills, there will be no excuses. He’ll either need to deliver a season worthy of his $84 million guaranteed contract, or the Vikings will need to think about their options in 2020 and beyond.
First take: Andrew Krammer, Vikings writer
Beyond Cousins, I have a candidate on either side of the ball in running back Dalvin Cook and linebacker Anthony Barr. Cook is elusive and game-breaking when healthy, but that has only happened for parts of 15 games in two NFL seasons. Rick Spielman used a third-round pick on Alexander Mattison for two reasons — a priority to run the ball and Cook’s durability issues.
Expectations should be raised even more for Barr, now the highest-paid 4-3 outside linebacker in football. He is steady but has lacked game-changing plays.
Rand: It’s probably too reductive for me to zero in completely on Cousins — and yet here we are.
I pretty much have the numbers memorized — 30 TD passes, just 10 interceptions and 4,298 passing yards last season while making all 16 starts — but 17 batted balls (most in the NFL), a middling No. 14 overall QB grade from Pro Football Focus and a disappointing 8-7-1 record.
Cousins also finished No. 14 in ESPN’s Total QBR, a number that was dragged down considerably by a negative mark from his contributions as a runner (he was No. 9 isolating on just passing QBR).
Maybe that helps quantify what otherwise exists as more of a feeling: Cousins didn’t make enough “winning plays” in 2018, and he needs to prove he can make more in 2019.
Krammer: I think another key 2018 number for Cousins was 606 — his throws, trailing only Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan. He’ll be asked to do less this season, which should help Cousins’ effectiveness. NFL teams don’t need a 2,000-yard runner to successfully play-action pass, but the Vikings would like to go as far as Cook and Mattison can take them. Eat clock and grind out games; it’s what they did in 2017.
That’s really why Cook needs to stay healthy and have a big 2019 for the Vikings. If he does, this Vikings offense could be something special. Before Cook’s hamstring injury in overtime of Week 2 at Green Bay, no NFL running back (per PFF) avoided more tackles (18) in two games. Next was Giants rookie phenom Saquon Barkley with 14.
Rand: At least neither of us said Laquon Treadwell has the most to prove. Anything from the 2016 first-round pick is a bonus at this point.
Final word: Krammer
Maybe I should’ve said Marwan Maalouf and Nate Kaeding! The Vikings’ new special teams coordinator and kicking consultant stand between Zimmer and kicker Dan Bailey. Godspeed.