2018 NFL Preview: With Kirk Cousins, it might be the Vikings' turn to win a Super Bowl
Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Go ahead and find another team as good as the 2017 Minnesota Vikings that upgraded at quarterback the following offseason.
Thanks to the Washington Redskins botching the Kirk Cousins situation, the Vikings had a one-of-a-kind opportunity. The Vikings were one of the best teams in football last season. Their roster was as deep as any in the NFL. And they had a chance to improve at quarterback.
Quarterbacks like Cousins never hit the open market. Search for another quarterback with Cousins’ combination of prime age, health and proven track record through the history of NFL free agency. You won’t find one. It’s certainly a bit risky to change quarterbacks after going 13-3, because Case Keenum was good last season and chemistry matters, but once it became clear the Vikings could land Cousins it became an easy decision. And it was an easy decision for Cousins, too.
“Winning is what I said it would be all about, and it’s true,” Cousins said at his introductory press conference. “I came here because of the chance to win. It was probably the best chance, and that’s all that matters in this business.”
The Vikings were loaded last season, went 13-3 and they’re better this year. That’s why they’re the No. 1 team in my power rankings to start the preseason.
[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]
The optimism starts with the addition of Cousins, who is coming off another good season. It might not have shown up in his stats, and Redskins coach Jay Gruden thinks Alex Smith is better, but Cousins was dealt a terrible hand last season – his top two receivers from the year before weren’t re-signed, tight end Jordan Reed played only six games and his offensive line suffered an amazing run of injuries – and he still played very well in tough circumstances. Cousins has been a 4,000-yard quarterback three straight seasons. When Cousins and Keenum hit the open market, Cousins got $28 million a year and Keenum got $18 million per season. NFL teams lie all the time, but they don’t lie with their checkbooks. The contracts tell you the league believes Cousins is far better than Keenum.
The Vikings didn’t even need to change their roster significantly to fit Cousins in. As Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Sid Hartman pointed out this offseason, the Vikings are spending just $4 million more on quarterbacks than last year (a reminder, kids: Never overpay Sam Bradford. You’ll regret it). The Vikings landed Cousins without having to fundamentally change a team that went 13-3 last season.
For most other teams, an $84 million quarterback like Cousins would be seen as the savior. In Minnesota, Cousins just needs to do his job. The Vikings are very good around him.
The Vikings, not the Jacksonville Jaguars, had the defense that led the NFL in yards and points allowed last season. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson is the only Viking who had double-digit tackles last season and doesn’t return, and Minnesota upgraded that spot by signing Sheldon Richardson. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs form one of the two or three best receiver duos in the game. Dalvin Cook was awesome before he got hurt last season, and he’s back. And while Keenum was legitimately good last season, he was an afterthought in the NFL before getting his shot last season and the Vikings were dominant with him. Maybe that says more about the Vikings than Keenum.
The Vikings finished the regular season on an 11-1 streak, with the only loss coming by a touchdown at an 11-5 Carolina Panthers team. The Vikings outgained every opponent it faced in those last 12 regular-season games, aside from a sluggish 16-0 win over the Packers late in the season. There were no fluky wins in that stretch. It was a fantastic team once Keenum settled in after being thrown into the lineup due to Bradford’s injury. And again, nobody at this time last year thought anything of Keenum. The NFL as a whole didn’t think much of him; he settled for a one-year, $2 million deal after being unsigned a couple weeks into free agency.
Of course, the Vikings weren’t as impressive in the playoffs. The Vikings got one of the most miraculous wins in playoff history over the New Orleans Saints, on Diggs’ “Minneapolis Miracle.” Then the wheels fell off in the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles. That might be a testament to the Eagles’ coaching staff, because nobody else made the Vikings defense look that bad.
Yet, when we think about this season, getting that close and losing is all the motivation the Vikings need.
“I think this is going to hurt for a while,” running back Latavius Murray said after the season ended, according to the Star-Tribune. “Once you do that, you can look back at this season and some of the things that we’ve done, some of the things we accomplished. But I think what’s the most disappointing is how close we were, how much we believed that we could go all the way.”
The Vikings aren’t perfect. Their offensive line has holes. Cousins is going to be under a ton of pressure due to his contract, and maybe due to his offensive line. The Vikings still play in a division with Aaron Rodgers. But they have either the best or second-best defense in the NFL. Their set of skill-position players are among the best in the league. Mike Zimmer is a good coach – he took a team that practically lost its quarterback after the season opener and won 13 games. They’re fully motivated after getting one step away last season.
And now, thanks to the unprecedented addition of Cousins, they’re even better. This is Minnesota’s chance to finally bring a Lombardi Trophy home.
Kirk Cousins alone would give them a passing grade. Case Keenum had a fine season, and Cousins is better. The Vikings believe Cousins is worth $10 million a year more than Keenum. The addition of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson makes the defense even nastier. The big free-agent loss was Jerick McKinnon, who 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan loves, but Dalvin Cook’s return means McKinnon was expendable. Guard Joe Berger retired, and that hurts a line that might be a weakness. But the Vikings made the type of free-agent quarterback addition that never has come around before, added former Pro Bowler Richardson and didn’t lose anything they can’t replace.
All the focus will be on Kirk Cousins, and rightfully so, but getting Dalvin Cook back is a huge deal too. Cook was second in the NFL with 354 rushing yards when he tore his ACL in Week 4. He looked like every bit the star he was at Florida State, albeit in less than a quarter of a season. All reports on his recovery have been positive.
“You know, I don’t ever like to say ahead of schedule, because a lot of people put that word out there — ahead of schedule, ahead of schedule — but I truly feel like I’m ahead of schedule,” Cook told the Star-Tribune a few days into training camp. “I feel comfortable with where I am. Like I just feel like I took a step forward, you know?”
If Cook can pick up where he left off as one of the NFL’s best backs, it helps an offense that was pretty good without him.
It’s hard to transition from offensive line coach Tony Sparano’s sudden death to football. Sparano was well liked and respected, as shown by the outpouring of grief following his death on July 22. But we’re here to talk about football, and Sparano’s death has an obvious effect. He did a fine job last season turning the Vikings’ line from a weakness to an average unit. Sparano will be missed, in many ways. If the Vikings have one glaring weakness it’s probably the offensive line, and that group lost its coach in a tragic way days before training camp.
Kirk Cousins’ numbers were down last season, but he had a much worse supporting cast than in previous years, due to injury and free-agent losses. Washington didn’t have one reliable outside receiver, the running game was bad and the offensive line was ravaged by injuries. If you’re blaming Cousins for what happened last season, then you probably didn’t watch Washington play much. I was a Cousins skeptic for a long time, but he has developed into a good, solid quarterback. Quarterbacks much worse than him have won Super Bowls, and he has made an early impression with his new team.
“I knew he had a strong arm coming in,” new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said early this offseason, according to NFL.com. “I didn’t know he was able to drive it as well as he does. He has a very compact release. The ball just jumps off his hand because he has a short stroke back.”
I don’t think Cousins will win an MVP this season. But he can easily be within the top 10-12 quarterbacks in football, especially considering his supporting cast. On this Vikings team, that would be good enough.
Let’s go with a changeup here because we need to mention that the Vikings’ success in 2017 came with Pat Shurmur calling plays, and he’s off to coach the New York Giants. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo steps into an enormous spot. DeFilippo became a hot name last season as quarterbacks coach of the Eagles. He is viewed as a young, bright mind who will bring creativity to the Vikings’ offense. He has also been an offensive coordinator only once, with the 2015 Cleveland Browns, and that team finished 25th in yards and 30th in points. While it’s true nobody can escape the Browns’ stink, he has a light track record as a play-caller and is replacing Shurmur, who had an amazing season. I think DeFilippo will work out, and he has a lot of talent to work with, but it’s a concern until he does it.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Vikings certainly have their share of buzzy offensive players. A new, pricy quarterback. Both starting receivers are on big checks, too, and coming off breakout years. Their second-year halfback is an easy fantasy pick, a second-round darling. No one would be surprised if any combination of Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs or Dalvin Cook made the Pro Bowl.
“So perhaps it’s easy to look past reliable, but understated, tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“Rudolph stacks up well if you grade all tight ends, cumulatively, over the last two seasons. Sure, some of it is survivor bias at an attrition position — Rudolph hasn’t missed a game since 2014 — but nonetheless, Rudolph ranks third in catches, sixth in yards, second in touchdowns, and fifth in fantasy points among tight ends during the two-year period. Despite this consistency, he usually is the seventh or eighth tight end selected in most public leagues this summer. It’s not a huge avenue for a windfall, but profit is profit.
“Cousins had a connection with tight end Jordan Reed in Washington, and while Rudolph’s upside probably doesn’t match Reed’s peak, there’s a fair chance Rudolph could lead this team in red-zone targets, touchdown catches, or both. Sometimes boring veteran value picks are your best friends. Be ready for Rudolph in the Round 7-9 range, depending on the whims of your league.”
[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Vikings.]
[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]
To think, 2016 was supposed to be Adam Thielen’s breakout season. Then in 2017, Thielen had another breakthrough and became one of the best receivers in the NFL. In 2016 Thielen had 69 catches and 967 yards, and last season that improved to 91 catches and 1,276 yards. He ranked eighth in the NFL in receptions and fifth in receiving yards. Among all receivers with at least 90 catches, Thielen’s 14-yard average was bested only by Antonio Brown (15.2) and DeAndre Hopkins (14.4), and Brown and Hopkins are considered by many to be the two best receivers in the NFL. Because Thielen was undrafted out of Minnesota State, it’s hard to think of him as one of the NFL’s best receivers. But he clearly is in that class and will be just 28 years old this season.
WHO HAS THE NFL’S BEST DEFENSE, MINNESOTA OR JACKSONVILLE?
Whoever has the third-best defense in the NFL, it’s a long way behind the first two. Minnesota led the NFL in yards and points allowed last season. The Vikings were tied for the NFL lead in fewest yards allowed per pass play … they tied the Jaguars. Those two defenses allowed 6 yards per pass, nobody else allowed fewer than 6.5. The Vikings allowed 35 20-yard passes, fewest in the NFL. Minnesota had the best third-down conversion rate since the NFL started tracking the stat in 1991, and while that won’t repeat, it’s a testament to the talent on that side of the ball. They had five Pro Bowlers, and that list doesn’t include excellent middle linebacker Eric Kendricks or defensive end Danielle Hunter, who had seven sacks. Harrison Smith might be the best safety in the NFL. Xavier Rhodes turned into an All-Pro cornerback. Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen had 13 sacks. The Vikings have difference makers at every level.
The Vikings were great at suppressing big plays for opponents, but the Jaguars were better at creating big plays. Jacksonville had 55 sacks (the Vikings had 37) and 21 interceptions (14 for the Vikings). The Jaguars had six Pro Bowlers on defense. Both teams have 10 starters returning on defense, and the Vikings made a big addition with tackle Sheldon Richardson. I’d pick the Jaguars as the NFL’s best defense, but only by a little bit. Both units are excellent.
Kirk Cousins doesn’t need to carry this team, he just needs to be good. He has been good for a few years, and he’s better than Case Keenum. This will be the best receiver duo Cousins has ever thrown to, and Dalvin Cook is the most talented running back he has ever played with too. I’m not sure the defense can get much better, but the only personnel move was Sheldon Richardson for Tom Johnson and that’s a significant upgrade. The Vikings went 13-3 last season, and two of their losses came in Keenum’s first three starts. One of those starts happened when Sam Bradford was surprisingly ruled out hours before a game at the Steelers, and the other happened against Detroit when Cook tore his ACL and the game plan went out the window. Here’s the bottom line: The Vikings’ 13-3 record last season wasn’t fluky, and they improved this offseason including a rare quarterback upgrade. However high as you want to set the Vikings’ ceiling this season, it’s reasonable.
Here’s everything that can go wrong for the Vikings: offensive line, a new offensive coordinator is a major step down from Pat Shurmur, special teams (they’re not great) and terrible injury luck. I don’t really have any questions otherwise. It needs to be mentioned that Aaron Rodgers is so good, perhaps he carries the Packers to a division title. Not everyone can play in the AFC East. But on paper, I don’t think there’s much reason to question Minnesota.
When you combine it all – the dominance last season after the quarterback situation got settled, the elite defense that returns everyone with one big upgrade, the great playmakers on offense, Dalvin Cook’s return, the improvement at quarterback from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins – this looks like the strongest team in football. That doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl. The NFC is ridiculously tough and the separation between the top five teams on this list is slight. In a one-game playoff situation, who knows? But the Vikings might be even better than last season, when they were 13-3. Then you’d hope for a better postseason showing. Vikings fans have waited a long time for a Super Bowl, and this team could get the job done.
32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. New Orleans Saints
4. Philadelphia Eagles
3. New England Patriots
2. Los Angeles Rams
– – – – – – –
Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!