2022 NFL Preview: Vikings turn the page, hope Kevin O'Connell can push them further

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The Minnesota Vikings haven't been bad. They aren't boring either; any team with Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson will be fun to watch.

They've just been stuck. Something had to change.

Whether Kevin O'Connell will be a better coach than Mike Zimmer, who was fired after last season, is debatable. Zimmer was 72-56-1 with the Vikings, which isn't bad.

“The guy was well over .500 there," former NFL coach Bill Parcells told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press when Zimmer was fired. "I might take the under on the next guy.”

O'Connell is 37 years old, with a resume highlighted by just three seasons as an offensive coordinator. He has just one partial and mostly unsuccessful season as a primary play-caller. No matter if O'Connell ends up being an upgrade, it was time for a shakeup in Minnesota, at least at the top.

Minnesota had gone as far as it could go with the old setup. That had been clear for a couple seasons at least, but Zimmer was never bad enough to fire. An 8-9 record last season was finally a reason to pull the plug. A final-play loss to the then-winless Detroit Lions in Week 13, when the Vikings still had playoff hopes, was practically the end.

Change for the sake of change isn't always the right thing, but the Vikings had to feel like there was no other choice. They had to do something, even if it wasn't a clean sweep of the organization. The roster is mostly the same as the one Zimmer oversaw. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, an easy punching bag, hasn't been the biggest problem and Minnesota wasn't going to move on despite weeks of trade rumors. He signed a one-year, $35 million extension through 2023. Instead of dumping players, Zimmer and longtime general manager Rick Spielman were fired. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was hired at GM, with the team embracing an analytically based approach, and O'Connell was brought on as head coach after a strange dalliance with University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

It's no mystery why O'Connell was hired. Everyone wants a piece of the Sean McVay tree, and O'Connell was the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. He didn't call plays but nobody seemed to mind.

"Kevin is an impressive and respected leader who has been a part of some explosive offensive schemes," Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said in a statement.

Kirk Cousins and the Vikings will have a new direction this season. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Kirk Cousins and the Vikings will have a new direction this season. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

O'Connell said he will call plays and the scheme will be similar to what the Rams ran. O'Connell spent most of the 2019 season with Washington calling plays after Jay Gruden was fired, and that undermanned offense finished 32nd in points scored and 31st in yards gained.

It doesn't matter to Minnesota. Like plenty of other teams, they just wanted to draft off the Rams' success.

“I’ve been watching the Rams’ offense for a minute now,’’ Jefferson told the Pioneer Press. “They get their playmakers the ball. They have some tremendous plays, Cooper Kupp wide open all the time. So I’m excited for it. This is my first head coach that’s going to be on the offensive side instead of the defensive side, so I’m happy.”

The Vikings aren't bare, like some other teams that hired a new coach. Regardless of what you think about Cousins, he's not a bad quarterback. There is skill-position talent, highly drafted players across the offensive line and a defense that slipped badly the past two seasons but has blue-chip players. O'Connell steps into a pretty good situation, compared to most other first-time coaches.

The problem is mediocrity won't cut it. The Vikings have already had plenty of that.

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

The Vikings' biggest move, in regards to the roster, was signing pass rusher Za'Darius Smith from the Green Bay Packers to a three-year, $42 million deal. He and Danielle Hunter will be the keys to the Vikings' new 3-4 defense. The Smith signing adds to a pretty good front seven, as will former Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. The Vikings lost a few players like tight end Tyler Conklin, center Mason Cole and safety Xavier Woods, with outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson still unsigned. In the draft, the Vikings decided to load up on picks by trading down from the No. 12 spot, then again trading down from No. 34 overall. They ended up with four top-66 picks: Georgia S Lewis Cine, Clemson CB Andrew Booth, LSU G Ed Ingram and Oklahoma LB Brian Asamoah. All of them should contribute soon. It's a little odd to see a team change its coach, GM and not much else, but that's an indication the Vikings believe they're not far off.

GRADE: C-plus

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

Kirk Cousins isn't escaping the narrative that he's a quarterback who can't win, unless he at least gets Minnesota to a Super Bowl. Those who like criticizing Cousins will find his failures and ignore the accomplishments. Cousins was very good last season. The Vikings had the fewest interceptions in the NFL, and it wasn't because he was checking down. Cousins' AY/A (adjusted yards per attempt, a Pro Football Reference stat) was 8.1, sixth in the NFL. His Pro Football Focus passing grade was fourth among all quarterbacks. He gets blame for the Vikings not making a deep playoff run, and some of that is justified. He also wasn't responsible for a defense last season that gave up yards in bulk. He's typecast as a QB who isn't good enough to lead his team anywhere. Unfair or not, that's how he'll be remembered unless he and the Vikings change it.

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

The Vikings' win total at BetMGM is 8.5, right in the middle of the road. That is fitting for the Vikings. It's almost impossible to know how rookie NFL head coaches will do. Kevin O'Connell could be the next Bill Walsh, the next Ben McAdoo or anything in between. We don't know. But the Vikings have a pretty good roster. I'll lean under that win total with the uncertainty over the new regime, but without much conviction. Maybe O'Connell brings the spark the Vikings have lacked the past couple seasons.

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

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "The early Yahoo ADP is a familiar drumbeat, a hoarding of running backs. Six of the top seven players off the Yahoo board are runners, with only Cooper Kupp breaking the trend. Justin Jefferson currently sits with a Yahoo ADP of 8.7.

"Let’s pound the table over this — grab that Jefferson discount while you can.

"The NFFC market is more proactive with big-name receivers, taking Kupp, Jefferson, and Ja’Marr Chase in the Top 7. Jefferson’s ADP in those rooms is a hair above 5. A three-pick difference would be insignificant in later rounds, but it’s notable when we’re talking about first-round options.

"Jefferson’s efficiency actually had a mild dip in his sophomore year, but that’s mostly a comment on how ridiculous he was in 2020. Jefferson has the most receiving yards in football over the last two years, and last year’s touchdown count (10) might be his floor this year, as he invariably gets better at scoring short-yardage and space-dominating touchdowns. Adam Thielen has been the collector of the short pitches in recent years, but no one suggests Thielen’s upside is remotely close to Jefferson’s.

"Jefferson also benefits from Minnesota’s especially narrow passing tree; this is not a team that throws to a cast of thousands. A first-round receiver isn’t for everyone — some fantasy managers become anxious if they’re not loading up the backfield in the first round — but Jefferson will be a proactive part of my 2022 portfolio."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

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

If you need one stat to sum up the greatness of Justin Jefferson through two seasons, this is it:

Jefferson has been a grand slam draft pick for the Vikings, and he's already in the discussion for the NFL's best receiver. Between Jefferson, Adam Thielen (still a productive No. 2 receiver entering his age-32 season), KJ Osborn and tight end Irv Smith returning off injury, there are plenty of pass catchers for Kirk Cousins. A more creative passing attack under Kevin O'Connell could lead to some huge numbers for everyone, especially Jefferson.

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

What will Kevin O'Connell's offensive and defensive schemes look like?

Sometimes it's wrong to assume a new coach changing teams will copy the schemes of his old team. But O'Connell hasn't been shy about incorporating most of what the Rams do on offense. That likely means pre-snap movement to confuse a defense, more three-receiver sets and plenty of play-action passing.

"Things people have seen our offense do in L.A. ... they’ll absolutely see our offense do here in Minnesota," O'Connell said, via the Daily Norseman.

Defensively, the Vikings will be shifting to a 3-4 look with new coordinator Ed Donatell, a 31-year NFL veteran, though Donatell said the team will use multiple looks up front. The Vikings defense had surprisingly cratered under Mike Zimmer, finishing 30th in yards allowed last season, but there's still talent. It starts with safety Harrison Smith, who O'Connell called "the perfect player for the defensive structure we want to play," in terms of versatility and disguising coverages. There are a couple of impact pass rushers in Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, good interior defenders and a solid inside linebacker in Eric Kendricks. There will be a transition period for the Vikings defense but perhaps the changes will have a quick and positive impact.

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

It's possible this ranking is way too low for the Vikings. There is some uncertainty about the new coaching staff and a roster that has stagnated, but that uncertainty could be a positive. Maybe a shakeup will lead to a big improvement. Kirk Cousins has plenty of talent around him on offense, and the defense should be much better than it was the past two seasons. The Green Bay Packers are very good but also perhaps a little vulnerable. It's not crazy to think the Vikings can win the NFC North. A deep playoff run from this Vikings group is hard to buy until we see it, but a division title would be a great way to kick off the Kevin O'Connell era. And it could happen if everything breaks right.

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

Mike Zimmer's message and maybe even his schemes might have gotten stale, but on the whole he was an above-average coach. We don't know what Kevin O'Connell is yet. If he's worse, or even a good coach who goes through some rookie growing pains, the Vikings could finish below last season's 8-9 record. There's some disconnect with this group or players, which should have done better than 15-18 the past two seasons. If there is a step back the franchise might wonder next offseason if it finally needs to tear down the roster, a year after changing out the coach and GM.

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

I'll be watching the Vikings closely early in the season, because it's the kind of team that could be a big surprise. I like many of the players. The Vikings have been frustrating because it seems like this group is capable of way more than it has shown. Nobody can know what to expect from Kevin O'Connell, but maybe a new approach unlocks something that has been missing. For now I'm projecting the Vikings to be below average, because that's what they've been the past couple seasons and O'Connell is an unknown, but that could change in a hurry.

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

32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers

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