Things are just setting up too well this season...on paper at least.
I’m such a negative person that I’m tempted to pick the Minnesota Vikings to go something like 9-7 or even worse this season, which kicks off Sunday at home against the San Francisco 49ers and trendy hotshot quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. If someone did a study on the origins of AVATAR (Aggravated Vikings Anticipatory Traumatic Abandonment Reaction) Syndrome, I could easily be the researchers’ primary test subject.
Those afflicted and/or cursed with AVATAR Syndrome simply assume that complete happiness and satisfaction, at least as a fan of the Purple goes, is not possible. It’s unattainable. Out of reach. Those sick with AVATAR Syndrome assume the worst will happen to their favorite NFL team, whether whatever the worst thing might be in a given season takes place in training camp, during a preseason game, early in the regular season, mid-season, late regular season, early in the playoffs, the NFC Championship Game, or, for the real old-timers, in one of the four Super Bowls in which the Vikings have been drubbed in particularly depressing fashion. Whether it’s devastating injuries to excellent players, last-second heartbreaking losses, shocking defeats or defeats stunning in their lopsidedness, it all adds up over the decades of eventual disappointment to AVATAR Syndrome.
Which is why my AVATAR Syndrome has flared up with a vengeance these days. It’s hard to find any so-called NFL expert anywhere picking the Vikings to be anything worse than a 10-6 team this season that not only makes the playoffs but makes some noise in the playoffs. Anything less than a repeat trip to the NFC Championship in early 2019 is being labeled as a colossal disappointment for the Vikes, so, naturally, I’m chewing and picking at the skin around my fingernails with such nervous intensity these days that when I type, I leave blood stains on the keys. It’s also possible that I’m itchier than normal.
At least I didn’t further tempt fate in my fantasy football draft last week, when I once again held true to my annual refusal to draft any Vikings players.
So between violent scratching of my legs and arms and head and nibbles and rips at the skin on the ends of my fingers, here’s my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings roster, which, for the most part, looks to be among the most stacked in the league.
Kirk Cousins is probably the purest prototypical quarterback the Vikings have employed in a generation. If he leads them to the Super Bowl, he will be worth the fully guaranteed, $84 million contract the Wilf family gave him. My only fear is his penchant for – or is this just my AVATAR Syndrome flaring up – throwing interceptions in the red zone or in particularly critical moments in games.
Trevor Siemian is a solid, capable quarterback who Vikings fans hope never plays a meaningful down this season. Kyle Sloter is the third string darling everyone loves because he’s big, strong and tall and he can sling the ball like few other. But let’s keep that “future prospect” label firmly affixed to him, shall we?
Hopefully, Dalvin Cook is back to his old self, which dates back to the first four games last season when he was basically the league’s top back before he made a cut and shredded his knee. If he’s healthy, he’s a three-down back who can really catch the ball out of the backfield. Latavius Murray appears to be a beast behind Cook. He runs high and violent, and he can catch the ball, too, and he should see plenty of action as Coach Mike Zimmer tries to keep Cook fresh.
This could be interesting. Cousins appears to have developed a chemistry with Stefon Diggs, who just signed a big contract extension. At least in the preseason, that didn’t appear to be the case with Adam Thielen, but all preseason games are good for is determining who makes the team as backups, who gets cut, and finding out which players are sidelined by pointless, meaningful injuries.
If third-year receiver Laquon Treadwell doesn’t break out this season, you can assume it will be his last as a Viking. He has all the physical tools, except speed, one could argue, he just needs to run accurate routes and get open so Cousins has enough trust to throw the ball in his direction. Undrafted Minnesota kid Brandon Zylstra runs great routes and apparently catches everything, but you would think targets would be few and far between for him and fifth receiver Stacy Coley, with Cousins having so many seemingly more attractive options.
Is Kyle Rudolph underrated? Absolutely. His stats put him in elite company, but he doesn’t get as much publicity as some of the NFL’s other tight ends. Cousins loves throwing to the tight end, so if Rudolph can stay healthy, he could have the best season of his already solid career.
Another season, another...gulp. Once again, this is the weak link on a roster loaded with stars. Trading for offensive linemen during the preseason is generally seen as a sign of desperation, but even after the Vikings did it once, trading for Brett Jones of the Giants, some experts think the Vikings need to trade for a second lineman, and that dangling safety Andrew Sendejo or cornerback Mackensie Alexander would bring a solid lineman in return.
If the season gets started in shaky fashion, with Cook and Murray getting stuffed at the line and Cousins running for his life and taking a lot of hits, count on the team’s brass not standing pat with their shaky o-line.
This is likely the strength of the team. If free agent signee Sheldon Richardson plays at a level close to he did a couple seasons ago, this could be the best d-line in the league. This group got younger and less experienced when Brian Robison was cut, but the hope is that some of the young guys will sub in semi-regularly to give the studs like Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Richardson some breathers so they’re fresher in the fourth quarter, and late in the season.
They don’t get much more athletic than outside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, the latter of which should be especially motivated because he’s in the final year of his rookie contract and some of his buddies on the team have inked handsome extensions already. It still seems strange that second year middle linebacker Ben Gedeon, a fourth round pick out of Michigan last year, is the starter after starting as a rookie. Is he a weak link? Maybe it doesn’t really matter, since he comes out of the game in nickel situations, and the Vikings are in nickel more than half the time.
Zimmer has bemoaned the team’s lack of linebacker depth, and he’s probably right. Can you name anyone that comprises the Vikings’ backup linebacker corps? There’s Eric Wilson, and…drawing a blank here.
Kendricks and Barr need to stay healthy, or this stellar defense might have a soft under-belly in the middle.
Is there a better crew in the NFL? Some think Xavier Rhodes is the best shut-down corner in the league. Trae Waynes made a nice leap last year, Alexander also showed improvement, and rookie Mike Hughes is a superior athlete who helped make Zimmer feel comfortable enough to ask 40-year-old savvy veteran Terence Newman to retire and join the coaching staff. Holton Hill is a 6’3” corner with tremendous skill, if he can keep his head on straight, and Marcus Sherels will rely on his savvy on the rare occasions he sees the field.
Most intriguing are the safeties. Harrison Smith is easily a top five safety in the league, Sendejo is solid and hits like a truck, and preseason pick-up George Iloka from the Bengals, who Zimmer coached previously, could lead to hybrid defensive formations involving all three safeties.
This defense is so solid you’d like to think Cousins and the offense, behind that iffy offensive line, won’t have to score a lot of points every week to win a lot of games.
Uh-oh. Rookie Daniel Carlson has a cannon for a leg and in college made many clutch field goals for the Auburn Tigers. He had a great training camp and preseason, until the team cut his veteran competition, Kai Forbath. Then Carlson promptly went out and missed his next two very makeable field goals. You cannot deny that leg strength, though, on kickoffs, too.
Double uh-oh with the punting situation. Incumbent punter Ryan Quigley seemed to get worse at the preseason progressed, with shorter and shorter punts with less and less hang time. He ended up getting cut, and the Vikings signed inexperienced journeyman Matt Wile.
The Vikings employ perhaps the best top-to-bottom roster in the NFL, and Zimmer has proven to be an excellent coach, albeit one that was out-coached big-time in the NFC Championship debacle in Philadelphia last January. With the Cousins mega-signing, Zimmer needs to take the team to new heights these next three seasons that Cousins is under contract.
Let’s just keep in mind a couple factors that a lot of people don’t seem to be keeping in mind. For one, although this year’s amazing NFL team can be next season’s cellar-dweller, on paper and based on past successes the Vikings schedule looks pretty brutal. Winning 10 games would seem to amount to a success.
Second, the Vikings have a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo. He certainly seems to have the credentials after what his former employer, the Eagles, accomplished last season. But installing a new offense is never seamless; all the practice in the world won’t fully get everyone on the same page all the time when the games actually count. There is going to be a transition, and it will be marked by some bumps in the road and some ugly offensive series and plays that leave fans throwing up their arms in disgust.
It’s tough to complain too much about this team, though. With their ownership, their facilities and their roster, the franchise on and off the field is basically the class of the league right now.
It almost has me bidding my AVATAR Syndrome symptoms good riddance, all except for the queasy uneasiness that continues to haunt my insides and the cold, clammy sweat on my skin.
They go 9-7, squeak into the playoffs as a wildcard, and then, who knows?