Daniel House shares five areas he's thinking about as the Vikings enter OTAs this week.
As the Vikings begin the first phase of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), it’s the first chance to see the new signings from an aggressive free agency haul. The additions of quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson inject even more talent to a team which reached the NFC Championship last season. Not only that, but the return of running Dalvin Cook from an ACL tear adds another dynamic weapon to the offense. Mix all of these additions together with the league’s top-ranked defense and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s system and you have the chance to build upon last season’s strong campaign.
Kirk Cousins in the Vikings’ offense
The Vikings went all-out to land the quarterback they felt gave them the best chance to elevate. Cousins became the first quarterback in NFL history to change teams after posting 4,000-plus passing yards in three consecutive seasons. The Vikings took advantage of the rare chance to sign a top quarterback who hits the open market. Organized team activities will be the first chance to see Cousins with all of his new weapons. It’s also the first glimpse at John DeFilippo’s system and how a few of the pieces may fit within the offensive puzzle.
DeFilippo’s system is all about creating mismatches to place playmakers in the most favorable positions. He often flexes tight ends out wide and even runs them out of the slot to pressure all three levels of the defense. Tight end Kyle Rudoph and draft pick Tyler Conklin can be interchanged frequently to find the most favorable offensive situations. With two receivers like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs who require so much attention, it opens up other aspects of the offense. Kirk Cousins might have the best duo of route runners in the league at his disposal, which is an added bonus for the quarterback. This will arguably be the best group of playmakers Cousins has played with in his career. That’s enough reason to get excited about a new offense headlined by the top free-agent quarterback.
Sorting out the offensive line
There are many questions surrounding the offensive line and how it will look when the Vikings take the field in early September. Will Mike Remmers stay at right tackle or shift inside to guard? Early in organized activities, Danny Isidora was at left guard with free-agent signing Tom Compton on the right side. At least for the time being, Remmers remained at right tackle. The rotation is likely to change when Pat Elflein is healthy and Nick Easton shuffles back to guard. However, it seems most likely Isidora and Easton will play inside with Remmers staying at right tackle. When you audit the offensive line and all of the options, keeping Remmers where he is at makes the most sense. With Isidora developing, Easton’s past starting experience and the additions of draft pick Colby Gossett and free-agent Tom Compton, the Vikings have plenty of options at guard. There are less options with enough experience at right tackle, which is why it makes perfect sense to keep Remmers at his natural position. Performance in training camp and the preseason could change this opinion, but the Vikings have a few possible combinations.
Sheldon Richardson in the defense
People have been asking me the one reason you should be excited about this season’s team. I always tell everyone the addition of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson will make the biggest difference this year. Richardson is one of the best three-technique defensive tackles in football and will fit like a glove in Mike Zimmer’s defense. In this system, having a dominant three-technique defensive tackle is so important. When Zimmer had Geno Atkins at the position in Cincinnati, the Bengals’ defense was on another level. Richardson has the length, speed and quick first step to be a disruptive presence next to Linval Joseph.
His overall ability will take pressure off Joseph, who often draws plenty of double teams. Richardson was disruptive last season, but the stat sheet was filled with success. He had just one sack, but made an impact on everything the Seahawks did defensively. With more coaching from defensive line coach Andre Patterson, the six-year veteran could take another step. Richardson also made an impact against the run and has the versatile skill-set to help everyone around him. The duo of Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson inside will be a daunting task for teams to keep track of. Kirk Cousins was a big signing, but landing Richardson might end up paying off the most.
Dalvin Cook’s return and the third running back job
Running back Dalvin Cook had more than 350 yards in four games before going down with an ACL tear. If he stayed on pace, he would have been in contention for the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Cook will be limited in OTAs, but the fact he’s even able to participate speaks volumes about where he is at in his recovery. Cook could be the x-factor that takes Vikings over the top offensively. He was heavily involved in the gameplan before the injury and John DeFilippo will scheme to use his versatility in unique ways.
In addition, the battle will begin for the third running back spot. Undrafted free agents Roc Thomas and Mike Boone will compete with incumbent Mack Brown. Brown was signed at the midway point of last season from the Redskins practice squad. Boone had a small sample size at Cincinnati, but tested very well athletically to fit within Vikings’ player profile. Finally, Thomas was a five-star recruit who transferred from Auburn to Jacksonville State. He is a very elusive and agile running back with excellent vision and open field acceleration. All three of these players provide a competition to fill Jerick McKinnon’s void at the position.
Mike Hughes joins the cornerback room
Mike Zimmer and Jerry Gray are known for taking defensive backs to the next level. First, they groomed Xavier Rhodes into a shutdown corner and molded both Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander two years later. In 2018, the duo will have the chance to make their mark on first round cornerback Mike Hughes. Hughes was widely considered one of the top cornerbacks in the draft and has many traits to work with. He is a very physical press corner with above average ball skills and transition quickness. Hughes checks many of the boxes this team looks for when they add talent to the defensive back room. He’ll have time to learn in practice before being thrust into a more permanent role in the future. In training camp, it will be interesting to see how much work Hughes has to do before he’s ready to see extended work as a starter.