The Vikings may have already hit their ceiling

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 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Minnesota Vikings have had a pretty good run under Mike Zimmer.

In Zimmer’s seven seasons, the Vikings have never finished worse than 7-9. They’ve been to the playoffs three times. Zimmer’s record is 64-47-1. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Yet, it seems like there’s no level to be reached above where the Vikings have gone. It feels like they’re stuck. Their No. 17 ranking here, right in the middle of the league, seems appropriate. They’re not bad but a higher ceiling has been tough to reach (though Case Keenum almost got them there a few years back).

Maybe that changes with Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson in their primes.

Cook is one of a handful of true difference-making running backs. And Jefferson had a dominant and historic rookie season. Either of them can break a long touchdown on any play. They make the Vikings a must-see team (especially for fantasy players). You could include both on a list of the 10 most exciting skill-position players in the NFL. They’re that good.

Cook is a full season away from a possible run at NFL offensive player of the year. He had 1,917 total yards and 17 touchdowns in just 14 games last season. He has never played more than 14 games in a season, so injuries are an issue but the talent is undeniable. Jefferson put up an NFL rookie record 1,400 receiving yards and often looked like the best player on the field. When you put up more yards than Randy Moss did as a rookie, you are having a special season.

Maybe the Vikings can be more than just a Cook/Jefferson highlight reel. Their quarterback situation is steady with Kirk Cousins. Cousins has grown a reputation for being mediocre, which isn’t fair based on how well he has played for most of his Vikings career. They still have reliable vets like Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith. Zimmer is a good coach, just one who hasn’t had a Super Bowl breakthrough. It’s not a bad team. Minnesota finished 7-9 after a 1-5 start, turning things around and possibly saving Zimmer’s job.

It would help if Aaron Rodgers gets traded. You won’t often see a team admit they’re waiting to see if a division rival makes a move, but it’s not like we’d believe it if the Vikings said they paid no attention to the Rodgers drama with the Green Bay Packers.

“You always read things and stuff like that,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told PFT. “Aaron Rodgers is maybe the best quarterback who has ever played this game, and I’m never going to talk about anyone else’s players. One, I’m not allowed to. It’s illegal. But you just always look at different situations.”

Unlike the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, the Vikings are in a good position to take advantage of that situation in 2021. If Green Bay has to go from Rodgers to Jordan Love, Minnesota would be the favorite to win the NFC North. Cousins would be the division’s best quarterback by a good amount (unless Justin Fields is ridiculous as a rookie). And the Vikings have two skill-position players who are among the best at their positions. That’s a pretty good trio to build around.

On the whole, there’s not a lot to get excited for when it comes to the Vikings. Hitting a grand slam on the Jefferson pick at No. 22 overall last season might help change that perception. Maybe there is another level that can be unlocked.

Justin Jefferson had a historic rookie season for the Vikings. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Justin Jefferson had a historic rookie season for the Vikings. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
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The Vikings invested money in their defense. Former New York Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson got $21 million over two years and former Arizona Cardinals star cornerback Patrick Peterson was signed for one year and $8 million. Among the other additions at a lower cost: defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly, linebacker Nick Vigil, safety Xavier Woods and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander. That’s a lot to add to a defense in one offseason. Help came for the offensive line with Virginia Tech offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw in the first round. The Vikings made an odd pick of quarterback Kellen Mond in the third round, but Kirk Cousins won’t be around forever. It’s likely to be a wasted pick, like most mid-round quarterbacks are, but the Vikings saw an opportunity. There were some losses, like longtime tight end Kyle Rudolph, offensive tackle Riley Reiff and safety Anthony Harris, but the Vikings should be able to replace them.

Grade: B

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Kirk Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over his final 10 games last season. He threw 24 touchdowns with three interceptions, a 69.2 completion percentage, 2,790 yards and a 113.6 passer rating. The problem is, for the second straight season Cousins had a slow start. Cousins was mediocre during a 1-5 start. Cousins has been good for the Vikings. He has a 91-29 TD-to-INT ratio, more than 4,000 yards per season for a coach that would rather run the ball, and a 103.6 passer rating over three seasons. For reference, Aaron Rodgers’ career passer rating is 103.9. Cousins has been pretty good, it just hasn’t resulted in enough wins for the Vikings. And Cousins’ contract will always be held against him. But a fair evaluation of Cousins puts him among the top half of NFL quarterbacks.

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The Vikings’ win total at BetMGM is 9. I prefer the over, but the bet I like more is Minnesota to win the division. Minnesota has +250 odds to win the NFC North. If the Packers can’t resolve the Aaron Rodgers situation, Minnesota should be favored to win the division and perhaps by a healthy margin. Even if the Packers have Rodgers under center for Week 1 and beyond, it’s possible they regress and the Vikings are in the mix to win a division title. Either way, +250 seems like great value.

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From Yahoo Sports’ Scott Pianowski: “Irv Smith showed notable improvement in his second season, though it was masked by low volume. But if you squinted, you saw the growth — his yards per catch jumped by 3.6 yards, and he caught five touchdowns on just 43 targets. Now Kyle Rudolph is gone, and Smith — a former first-round pick — steps into a meatier role in his third season. If you like to play the value game, Smith is intriguing as Yahoo’s No. 16 tight end, checking in at an ADP of 122.”

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The Vikings, for some terrible reason, didn’t start Justin Jefferson the first two games last season. He had five catches (on six targets) for 70 yards through two games. Then the Vikings decided to play him more and he had arguably the best season a rookie receiver has ever had. Jefferson put up an 88-1,400-7 line, breaking the NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie. He probably would have put up 1,500 yards had the Vikings not been playing Olabisi Johnson over him for two weeks (Minnesota went 0-2 in those games, by the way). Jefferson is an instant star, and a reason the Vikings got back in playoff contention in the second half of the season. He could do even more this season, assuming the Vikings don’t limit him for the first two games again.

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How do all the new defensive pieces fit?

If you count nose tackle Michael Pierce (2020 opt-out), defensive end Danielle Hunter (missed all last season with a neck injury) and linebacker Anthony Barr (played in only two games due to a torn pectoral muscle), Minnesota could have seven new defensive starters. That’s a lot of change in one offseason, but Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is happy.

“Our guys in the front office have done an outstanding job,” Zimmer said, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s probably going to look completely different on the defensive side of the ball than it did last year with the guys coming back and the additions we made. I’m excited about that.”

Zimmer hadn’t had a defense finish lower than 11th in points allowed from 2011-19. The Vikings finished 29th last season. The Vikings were 27th in yardage allowed, the first time a Zimmer defense has been outside the top half of the NFL in that category since 2007. The low point came on Christmas when New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara tied an NFL record with six rushing touchdowns and the Saints scored 52 points. Given Zimmer’s track record, he’ll get the most out of the new talent on hand. Minnesota could be back in the top half of the league on defense.

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It is weird to talk about another team’s player when you evaluate a team’s chances, but we know what it means for the Vikings if Aaron Rodgers is traded. Let’s look at the scenario if Rodgers is still in Green Bay. The Vikings can still win the division. The defense will improve after a rough 2020. Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook are undeniable stars. If Kirk Cousins avoids a slow start, he can put up his biggest season to date. The Vikings might be closer to the Packers than we think right now. An NFC North title, even if Rodgers is back, is possible.

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It would be rough for the Vikings if the Packers fall off and it’s the Chicago Bears who take over the NFC North. That’s possible. Perhaps the defense is still mediocre, some of the older vets age quickly and Kirk Cousins plays most of the season like he did in the first month of the past two seasons. It’s still hard to imagine the Vikings finishing worse than 7-9 because that’s not what Mike Zimmer does, but they could end the season watching the Packers take a big step back and missing the opportunity to take advantage.

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The Vikings have settled into good-not-great mode. They’re not Super Bowl contenders but there’s a very small chance they lose double-digit games. Their range of realistic outcomes might be the narrowest of any NFL team. Weird things happen in the NFL, but it’s hard to imagine the Vikings winning fewer than seven games or more than 10. I think Aaron Rodgers stays with the Packers, Green Bay wins the division again and the Vikings have another unsatisfying season. Not too good, not too bad.

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals