The positive expectations have already been laid out, now it is time for some negatives. The Vikings have a loaded roster and high expectations. But there are some cracks both new and returning that could knock their Super Bowl campaign off course.
Here are five predictions for how the season could fall a little short.
Mike Hughes‘ defensive role will be smaller than hyped
There is a lot to like about Hughes. He is active, physical and athletic. He is versatile in his positioning abilities, his play style and even his special teams usage. Down the road, Hughes will more than likely be a strong contributor to a great defense. Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer have hinted at a sort of hybrid safety-corner role for him in some defensive packages, so he may already be part of the defensive gameplan. But…
…Zimmer has always brought young, early round defensive backs along painstakingly slowly. Since he took the Vikings job, Minnesota has drafted two corners in the first two rounds: Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Both are still on the roster and Waynes has developed into a solid starter. But they each had to learn to crawl before they could walk. Waynes played 92 percent of defensive snaps this past year, but only 55.9 in 2016 and 18.1 in his rookie season. Alexander only saw 32.4 percent of snaps in 2017, but even that is a massive uptick from his 6.6 percent in 2016.
Plus, with Alexander and Terence Newman still on roster, the need for Hughes to take on a heavy load of snaps right away is slim. Chances are he will see a good chunk towards the end of the season, especially if Newman starts showing his age and Alexander does not take further steps in year three. But for now, expect much of Hughes’ contributions to be limited to special teams.
Line will allow more sacks than last season
This may not be a dramatic uptick, but signs point to Kirk Cousins hitting the ground a bit more often than Case Keenum did a year ago. For one thing, while Cousins is no slouch in the pocket, he does not possess the maneuverability that Keenum does. Keenum’s legs were a constant threat last year, and for much of the season, they bailed out poor protection. Cousins, on the other hand, playing with a similarly average line, had a sack percentage of over seven. Now, how much the scheme will benefit Cousins is to be seen. John DeFilippo’s last quarterback, Carson Wentz, thrived at extending plays but for the most part, he was effective at getting the ball out quickly. Presumably, Cousins will get the same treatment.
The bigger concern is the lack of progress in the offensive line. Without question, it took a step last year from awful to average. The additions of Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein were godsends. But then Spielman sort of just stood pat. He drafted a few guys, but signs point to them needing development before starting. Right now, it looks like Tom Compton or Danny Isidora will step into the vacant guard spot and neither are real upgrades to the retired Joe Berger. As such, there is a real possibility the line could take a slight step back, at least initially. Without Keenum’s feet to keep plays alive, Cousins may start out with a few more turf stains than fans would like.
Daniel Carlson will not (immediately) solve kicking woes
The sordid history of Viking kickers needs no further examination. It has been the defining feature of Minnesota football for the better part of two decades. And while he made as many big kicks last postseason as he missed, Kai Forbath has done little to ease tensions between Vikings fans and their favorite team’s special teamers. As such, Rick Spielman traded up in the fifth round to draft big-legged Daniel Carlson out of Auburn. Though publicly the pick was made for camp competition, the assumption is that Carlson will be taking over kicking duties from Forbath in 2018.
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As an idea, Carlson is inviting. He has a ton of power, making 13 kicks over 50 yards in his college career. He also did not miss a single extra point in four seasons, something Forbath struggled with in Minnesota (of course, the college PAT is considerably shorter than the NFL PAT). But Carlson is also not without accuracy questions. His make percentage dropped considerably in 2017, going from 88 to 74 in just one season. Carlson also has a slight penchant to low-angle kicks, making him susceptible to blocks. Now, all of this is not to say Carlson is not a promising talent. Given time, he may end up being the Vikings’ Justin Tucker. But for 2018, Carlson is as likely to leave Vikings fans shaking their heads as he is to be the position’s savior.
Lack of pass rush depth will hurt down the stretch
A solid rotation of pass rushers did wonders last year for Philadelphia and Jacksonville. It was a major reason why both teams went further than many expected. And the lack thereof is a reason why the Vikings got blown out in the NFC Championship Game.
Do not mistake yourself; the Vikings starting four are exceptional, probably a top-three unit. But past those fearsome four, the Vikings are dangerously thin. At the moment, the third defensive tackle is Jaleel Johnson. While a promising talent, Johnson has little on-field experience and even less production. The third and fourth ends are Brian Robison and Stephen Weatherly. Robison is still a solid player but at 35, he is showing much of his age. His snaps will likely be somewhat limited to passing downs at three-technique. As for Weatherly, he was little more than a spell last year, giving the other guys breaks without providing much. Unless Tashawn Bower or rookie Ade Aruna shine in camp, this cupboard is looking pretty bare.
This did not look like an issue for much of 2017. Everson Griffen was having an All-Pro year, Danielle Hunter was getting lots of pressure and interior pass rush from Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson was consistent. But in the season’s final weeks, those guys seemed gassed. They struggled to make quarterbacks uncomfortable, and it allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to decimate the secondary at times. This lack of options could once again be the thing that downs the Vikings, barring some young players’ development.
Vikings will finish no better than the three seed
This is not a condemnation of the Vikings’ roster or even their Super Bowl chances. This is more an issue of schedule than anything else. The Vikings road schedule is brutal, even more so than a year ago when everyone (ultimately incorrectly) thought it would derail their season. This year, the combination of games at Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New England and Seattle, not to mention three division games, will be a gauntlet, but it will not be a death knell. The Vikings are still the team to beat in the NFC North and one of the top teams in the conference.
That being said, do not be surprised if they do not get all that close to their 13-win total of 2017. And don’t be surprised further if a 10- or 11-win season drops the Vikings down as far as the fourth seed, or possibly even to a Wild Card. Philadelphia and Los Angeles, given their combination of star-studded rosters and less-daunting opponents, look to be the favorites for the top-two seeds. And New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and Green Bay could all be right there to leapfrog Minnesota, as well.
But, as stated before, this does not make the Vikings any less of a Super Bowl threat. They are still on the shortlist of teams to watch in January.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Full Press Coverage NFC North. Like and Follow @samc_smith Follow @fpc_vikingsFollow @fpc_nfcn
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