EAGAN, Minn. — Here’s something that hasn’t been said for a while: The Vikings have more stars on offense than on defense.
Of the nine players still with the team who have made a Pro Bowl, five are on offense and four on defense. That follows an offseason in which, for salary reasons, the Vikings released cornerback Xavier Rhodes and nose tackle Linval Joseph, and did not re-sign defensive end Everson Griffen. All three made multiple Pro Bowls with the team.
Entering this season, an argument could be made that the Vikings have a better offense than defense. And that’s something that hasn’t been said for a while about any Mike Zimmer team.
In each of Zimmer’s first six seasons as head coach, the Vikings had a better NFL ranking in total defense than in total offense. In the six years before that, when Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, the Bengals were ranked higher each season in total defense than in total offense.
Zimmer, who takes tremendous pride in his defense, isn’t ready to say that the Vikings now have a better offense than defense. But he doesn’t deny the offense has come a long way.
“(On) defense we have some turnover, but offensively we’re a veteran group now,” he said.
There are multiple decorated players on offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook and fullback C.J. Ham were selected to the Pro Bowl last season, and receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudoph previously made two Pro Bowls apiece.
On defense, safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks made the Pro Bowl last season, and linebacker Anthony Barr is a four-time four Pro Bowl selection from recent years.
In addition to Rhodes, Joseph and Griffen, the Vikings’ defense must replace cornerback Trae Waynes and nickel back Mackensie Alexander, both of whom signed as free agents with Cincinnati. On offense, the only starters gone are wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was traded to Buffalo, and right guard Josh Kline, who was released in another salary-related move.
“Other than the wide receiver group, which is probably going to be rebuilt a little bit, the rest of our group is pretty much a veteran group that’s been together and played some football together,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said.
Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl after the 2015 season as Denver’s head coach, is in his first season in charge of Minnesota’s offense. But he knows the personnel well; he was an offensive advisor last season and worked closely with Kevin Stefanski, who left as coordinator to become Cleveland’s head coach.
“Offensively, it’s not going to change hardly at all,” Zimmer said. “Gary was very, very influential in everything that went about offensively. I’m not trying to take anything away from Kevin, but it was basically Gary’s offense and a lot of the things that were installed was Gary’s offense.”
Losing Diggs, coming off two straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, is no small thing for the offense, but the Vikings hope Justin Jefferson, taken with the No. 22 pick in the draft, can step in immediately as his replacement. And second-round draft pick Ezra Cleveland could end up replacing Kline on the line.
With the coronavirus pandemic wiping out on-field spring drills and all preseason games, it remains to be seen how or when Minnesota’s young defense will come together. But there’s a lot less for the Vikings to worry about on offense leading up to the Sept. 13 regular-season opener against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“(The continuity) certainly helps because we’re not starting from ground zero,” Rudolph said. “Any time you enter a training camp, we always go back and start with install one, even though we may have gone through it all in (spring drills), so from that standpoint, as we go through meetings here in training camp, that doesn’t feel any different.”
How excited is Rudolph about the continuity on offense? He noted that for the first time in his 10 NFL seasons, he has the same tights ends coach (Brian Pariani) for a second straight season.
For much of Zimmer’s tenure, the Vikings’ defense has been far ahead of the offense. From 2016-18, Minnesota’s total defense rankings of No. 3, No. 1 and No. 4, while the offense ranked 28th, 11th and 20th over those same years.
The offense began to catch up last season. They had a better ranking than the defense for much of the year before finishing No. 16 to No. 14 for the defense. It didn’t help that Cook missed the final two games due to injury and Cousins sat out the finale against Chicago when starters were rested.
Despite missing those two games and nearly two halves of two others, Cook rushed for 1,135 yards and caught 53 passes for 519 yards. Cousins had the best statistical season of his eight-year career, throwing for 3,603 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating of 107.4 was fourth in the NFL and the best in his career.
“I think being able to have some some continuity in things that we do and things that we’re asked to do on a daily basis, we’ve done them before,” tackle Brian O’Neill said of the offense. “So, we may have missed time in the spring but we can still recall things from (before).”