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Mike Hughes determines the future of the Minnesota Vikings

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Tanishka Mhaskar
March 30, 2020
Photo: USA Today Sports Images 

The Minnesota Vikings’ secondary is facing a complete revamp this offseason. With their top three corners from a year ago out the door, the Vikings have a dangerously fluid cornerback situation. 

After two injury plagued seasons, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes faces a pivotal year.

The Vikings hope to find their new top CB in wake of Xavier Rhodes’ decline. Hughes can be it if his injuries don’t stop him. In his first two years, Hughes has already suffered from a torn ACL and a broken neck vertebra. Players that get injured frequently early in their careers don’t pan out to their full potential. 

The team seems confident in Hughes as their top corner due to their lack of free agent moves at cornerback, but ultimately Hughes’ play in 2020 will determine what the Vikings need to do to shore up their secondary in order to compete beyond 2021. 

Hughes’ rookie year couldn’t have started off any better. He showed tremendous potential and ability that only got better as the weeks went on. Hughes was third on the depth chart behind incumbents Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, and he spent time playing the vast majority of his time playing the nickelback position. Hughes was the corner the Vikings were hoping for when his name was called on draft day. 

Coming off of a torn ACL, Hughes’ 2019 campaign had its fair share of ups and downs. For starters, he saw more playing time on the outside as injuries surmounted in the secondary. Hughes succeeded against the likes of Keenan Allen and Golden Tate but struggled mightily, starting outside for the first time, against Amari Cooper. 

Hughes was a primary rotational piece in 2019, but he struggled to overtake Waynes or Rhodes, both of whom had some of their worst career years, for a starting spot. 

He has covered well whenever he’s been in the game, barring a few miscommunications. Hughes rarely missed tackles or caused penalties. His issues mostly came from lack of experience, size and fluidity. He has everything in him to make the necessary leap into being the Vikings top corner. 

The question is, will he? 

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State of the Vikings: Rebuild or Retool?

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Tanishka Mhaskar
March 22, 2020
Photo: Star Tribune

The Minnesota Vikings have impressively managed to keep their roster intact for many years, especially their defense. In the last few years, to keep their Super Bowl window open, the Vikings have restructured and backloaded many contracts. Now that’s coming into full effect, and the team is strapped on cap space. During the first week of free agency, Minnesota parted ways with many beloved players and longtime Vikings, leading many to wonder if the Vikings are in a rebuilding year.

I am here to say that the Minnesota Vikings are not rebuilding. They are, in fact, retooling. There are still plenty of reasons to look forward to the 2020 season. 

It’s important to understand that football is a young man’s game, as said by HC Mike Zimmer at the NFL Combine. The Vikings want to fill the team with youth by a one to two year retool which would potentially create a new Super Bowl window instead of leveraging their entire future to run it back in 2020. 

Why?

If they fail, they would send their team into a three to four year rebuild. This simply wouldn’t be worth it because the Vikings still have plenty of talented players in their prime such as Kirk Cousins, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Cook, etc. 

Back to the retool: for starters, the Vikings lost five defensive starters with the names: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mack Alexander. 

For a team strapped on cap space, the Vikings had to evaluate every player in comparison to the amount they were making. Minnesota first terminated the contracts of DT Linval Joseph and CB Xavier Rhodes. Both players who had once been great for the Vikings severely under performed in 2019.

DE Everson Griffen voided his contract but the thoughts were that the Vikings would bring him back. Reports surfaced on Friday that the Vikings and Griffen had broken off contract talks. Griffen, who played at a high level, is yet another Viking that will not return.

In place, the Vikings have breakout DE Ifeadi Odenigbo and newly signed DT Michael Pierce, a former Raven. 

The Vikings secondary was the weakest link of the team, particularly the cornerback position. Due to this, the Vikings cut Rhodes and let CBs Trae Waynes and Mack Alexander walk. It won’t be terribly hard to find another group of corners or even lean on their younger CBs in Mike Hughes and Holton Hill to take over. 

Mike Hughes was playing phenomenally before his ACL tear, and it’s about time he breaks out. He’s shown incredible signs of promise.

The Vikings also have 12 picks in a draft deep in the cornerback position.

On the offensive side of the ball, Minnesota started free agency by extending quarterback Kirk Cousins for two years. Extending a talented quarterback in his prime points to anything but a rebuild. 

Even though the Vikings lost Stefon Diggs, who wanted out, they received a huge haul for him, including a first round pick. In this deep wide receiver class, the Vikings gain much flexibility in replacing Diggs. 

The Vikings also have Irv Smith Jr, the second year man from Alabama, who they could lean on more as they find their next WR project. 

The main goal of this retool is to develop the youth. Who’s better than Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak to develop these young guys to run it back in 2021 and beyond? Zimmer took over the worst defense in the league in 2014 and turned it into an elite unit, when the players were young. Why can’t he do that again? Gary Kubiak won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos and many no name offensive players. The Vikings have more than that. 

The draft hasn’t happened yet. There are more free agents out there. The Vikings have enough money to make a run at one or two of them.

The proven coaching staff in addition to the loads of talented players still on this team can still give the fans an enjoyable season and it brightens the future for the Minnesota Vikings.

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Why Did Stefon Diggs Force His Way Out of Minnesota?

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Tanishka Mhaskar
March 17, 2020
Photo: Charles Curtis, ForTheWin

After a whirlwind of drama, Stefon Diggs is finally gone. It seems like it was only a week ago that he caught the Minnesota Miracle, and he was the Vikings’ hero. Many wonder how we got here from such a “good” time. We’ll never really know why Diggs did a complete 180 on this team, but there sure are a lot of theories out there.


To the outsider, it seemed as if Stefon Diggs had everything in Minnesota. He had a new contract, he played alongside his best friend, and contributed to one of the most supportive locker rooms in the NFL. 


It’s overblown to say that Diggs simply didn’t like QB Kirk Cousins because he was happy when the offense was all about him and Adam Thielen in 2018 under OC John DeFilippo.


Of course, when Gary Kubiak and co. came to Minnesota to implement the zone blocking, run first scheme, the offense took a huge leap. Most were happy about that, but Diggs might not have been. 


On #92Noon, Vikings broadcaster Paul Allen’s podcast, he spoke of the week after the Vikings loss at Soldier Field when Diggs’ antics first began. He didn’t show up to practice after the Vikings lost to the Bears in a disheartening 16-6 game. That day, after practice HC Mike Zimmer gave his team a speech in the most ‘subtle’ way possible. 


He said, “Someone isn’t here. F**k him. He left you, and we are moving on without him. So that’s how it works” 


Zimmer and Diggs had such a strong relationship for years, so you would have to assume that this was broiling for a long time. The whole situation rubbed people the wrong way within the organization. To the people with the organization, it was as if Diggs left his alleged friends and people he counted on in the fire.  


“The confused nature of the team that day and the next day when Stef returned, something I’ll never forget. Heads were spinning. Eyes were glazed over. Zimmer’s impassioned speech drew the line in the sand,” said Allen.


Apparently, Diggs requested a trade then, but Zimmer was adamant that the team would not trade Diggs. He made it clear that there would be a steep fine every day he wasn’t here. Diggs came back two days later and was fined $200k. 


For a team with the roster that Minnesota had in 2019, it made sense to not trade the WR In a contending season. 


Now, Diggs is gone and the Vikings got a huge haul for the coveted WR. It’s always painful to lose a fan favorite, especially in the bitter way it ended, but if Minnesota has been through Randy Moss and Adrian Peterson, they will get through Diggs.

It’s time for a new beginning. For everyone.
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Free Agency: Offensive Line

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The Vikings offensive line still needs a lot of work, especially the left side. 
By: Tanishka Mhaskar
March 15, 2020
Photo: Nick Wosika, Icon Sportswire

Five days after sports leagues such as the NBA, MLB, NHL, NCAA and others suspended or canceled their seasons, sports fans receive good news with the NFL sticking to their original schedule. The free agency tampering period begins tomorrow with free agency officially beginning on Wednesday, and the Vikings have a lot of holes and limited money. 


An obvious position need is offensive line. After a horrendous showing in the playoffs where the Minnesota Vikings offensive line allowed six sacks, nine QB hits and a 46% pressure rate, it’s clear that they need a significant amount of work.


The right side of the offensive line is set with Brian O’Neill and Josh Kline, who allowed a total of three sacks. However, as we travel to the left side it gets worse. Garrett Bradbury, the center, had an up and down year, but there were certainly some leaps and bounds by the end of the year. Seeing a few more years of Bradbury is necessary before labeling him as anything.


The left side of the offensive line is pure chaos. It doesn’t help that the left side is QB Kirk Cousins’ blind side. LG Pat Eflein and LT Riley Reiff have combined to give up 9 sacks last season. 


Eflein gave up 38 pressures and had the worst pass-blocking efficiency of any starting guard in the NFL, per PFF. The Vikings must look into free agency to find a new OG. 


Some options include Kelechi Osemele of the New York Jets and Joe Thuney of the New England Patriots. Because of the price tag Osemele is a more expected option. Osemele, who played three games last season, gave up a single sack. He also thrived in the zone-blocking system employed by the Baltimore Ravens and Gary Kubiak. 


He’s almost too perfect for the Vikings with his price tag (around $6-7 million a year) and his opportunity to reunite with Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak.


Another option is Joe Thuney, who has allowed a single sack the last season. His price tag, like Roger Saffold a year ago, seems too high for Minnesota. Anything can happen, however, and a Thuney signing would inevitably ‘fix’ the offensive line.


The Vikings could look to upgrade their LT position because Riley Reiff hasn’t shown much of anything, however those options would have to be sufficed through the draft as Minnesota doesn’t possess much money to make big moves in free agency, and this draft is deep for offensive tackles. 


Minnesota needs to continue to build up front and step one is free agency.

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Good to Great: Trench Warfare

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Tanishka Mhaskar
March 14th, 2020
Photo: Star Tribune

Another year, another suffocating season-ending loss, whether it be in the playoffs or a Week 17 choke. One thing is clear with the Minnesota Vikings, they’re weak where everyone else is strong. They cannot be contenders without winning the trench war. 


When the Vikings lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 in that musty 38-7 game, they faced  a nasty Eagles defensive line rotation consisting of Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett and Tim Jernigan. They abused Case Keenum and a Vikings offensive line forcing multiple turnovers and pressure.


On the other side of the ball, the Vikings simply couldn’t terrorize Eagles QB Nick Foles. Danielle Hunter had a sack, but Foles had days to sit back in the pocket and rip apart the Minnesota secondary.


The Vikings were simply outmanned up front. 


It’s important to note that in 2017 the Eagles had four players with at least five sacks which led to a clean and effective defensive line rotation. In addition to their pass rushing, the Eagles allowed a meager 79.2 rushing yards per game. 


The amount of draft capital Philadelphia spent prioritizing not just their defensive line but also their elite offensive line shows through their results. Since 2010, the Eagles had nine first round picks and SEVEN were spent on linemen. That’s 78% of draft picks. 


It’s only fitting they win a Super Bowl through this strategy. 


The Vikings struggled up front repeatedly in their 2020 matchup in Santa Clara where they lost to the 49ers 27-10. The score is certainly closer than the game felt. The 49ers had a defensive line rotation of their own with Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, Sheldon Day and Solomon Thomas. 


This rotation is arguably deeper than the 2018 Eagles rotation. The 49ers racked up six sacks, nine QB hits and an alarming 46% pressure rate, the highest faced by Kirk Cousins in his two year career with the Vikings. In addition, they bottled up the run game, allowing a scant 21 yards rushing. 


On the other side of the ball, the Vikings defensive line got MOVED by 49ers offensive line. Albeit tired, they allowed 186 rushing yards and players like Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph looked like shells of themselves.


The 49ers had a similar draft strategy to the Eagles in that since 2010 they had 13 first round picks and they spent eight of them on linemen, 62% of draft picks.


Now, let’s take a look at the state of the Vikings. 

Since 2010, they've 12 first round picks, and they've spent only THREE of them on linemen. Minnesota's production up-front is just as small as the amount of draft capital they spend on linemen.

Minnesota’s edge rushers are extremely talented, but the interior defensive line is just that weak. Shamar Stephen, once a rotational player, received a starting role this season and alongside a Linval Joseph who had surgery midway through the season, they both disappeared more often than not. 


Minnesota cut Linval Joseph yesterday, so the Vikings will likely be looking to add some breadth to the middle via draft or free agency.


In the draft, some options include the stud Javon Kinlaw out of South Carolina, Neville Gallimore from Oklahoma or Ross Blaclock from Texas Christian. All of them are plug and play defensive tackles who could very easily improve the trenches.


If the Vikings choose to focus on other needs early in the draft, they could focus on free agency to land a talented interior pass rusher. Some names include Jordan Pilipps of the Buffalo Bills and Jarran Reed of the Seattle Seahawks.


Philipps had 9.5 sacks for the Bills last year and could provide an immediate improvement over Stephen/Joseph. Reed, who was suspended for six games last year has proven to be a disruptive pass rusher. When he last played a full season, he accrued 10.5 sacks and was a fractious run defender. 


On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings have made leaps and bounds from 2016, finding a RT stud in Brian O’Neill and signing Josh Kline. Last year’s first round pick Garrett Bradbury had a bit of an up and down year but he was clear improvement from Pat Eflein who the VIkings can officially label ‘bust’ after falling off post an impressive rookie campaign. 


The struggles of this offensive line are primarily on the left side with Eflein and LT Riley Reiff. Minnesota’s best interests would be to simply bench Eflein and make some sort of deal with Reiff (maybe a restructure). 


Some options in the draft include Andrew Thomas from Georgia, Josh Jones from Houston or Austin Jackson from USC. All would thrive under OC Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme.


The Vikings could also look to target Kelechi Osemele or Joe Thuney in free agency to shore up Elflein’s spot. 


In essence, Minnesota desperately needs to shore up their trenches if they want to accomplish the final goal, in a Super Bowl. If they do, they could become nearly unstoppable. The NFL playoffs have turned into trench warfare, and Minnesota needs to shore up, up front. Only then can the Minnesota Vikings take the step from good to great.

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Good to Great: The Dom Capers Influence

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Tanishka Mhaskar
2/17/20
Photo: USAToday.com

The Minnesota Vikings defense has faced plenty of ups and downs in the last few years. They went from the league's best just two years ago to a steady decline which included falling out of the top ten statistically this year. It was almost quite clear that some kind of change was needed.


Head Coach Mike Zimmer chose to clean the house in regards to the coaching staff, hiring new people to run almost all positions on the defense. Similar to what he did a year ago by hiring Gary Kubiak and company to reinvent the offense, Zimmer hired former Packers and Jaguars coach Dom Capers as a defensive advisor. 


Now, most people will be quick to blow this off as a terrible hire as Capers’ defenses have mightily struggled in recent years, however, Capers’ role with this team will be revolving around bringing new ideas to the table. He runs a 3-4  defense which is the complete opposite of the primary 4-3 that Zimmer prides himself in. 


In his career, Capers has run multiple top ten defenses, and a common denominator in those defenses is usually a star pass rusher, an outside linebacker. Some superstars that Capers developed include Kevin Greene, Lamar Lathon and Julius Peppers. 


For the Vikings, this star player could be Anthony Barr. When he was drafted, many thought he would pass rush more than he has. Even after he declined a contract from the New York Jets, who tried to lure him by promising him he would get to play like he did in college, his pass rushing snaps did not see an increase.


In this copy-cat league, it’s always essential to come up with new ideas, and the VIkings could look to Capers to create some of those 3-4 fronts and essentially run almost as much 3-4 as they do 4-3.


When you look at the personnel of this team, you see the two stud defensive ends in Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter who have been tremendous for so long, but many questions linger with Griffen’s future with the team as his cap hit is upwards of 12 million dollars for the 2020 season. 


Behind Hunter and Griffen, Minnesota has Ifeadi Odengibo who broke out in 2019 but if Griffen leaves the Vikings lose a big part of their rotation.

This is where Capers comes in. His 3-4 scheme could lead to the Vikings unleashing Barr and his pass rushing capabilities, and also giving linebackers Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon an increased opportunity. Wilson fits the 3-4 scheme just as well as Barr and seeing him rush the passer more could enhance this Vikings defense.


After a brilliant 2017 campaign, the rest of the league sort of figured out the Zimmer defense. If the VIkings want to take the next step to become a great team, the first step is to get the defense on track, and that starts with creativity. As Capers said during his press conference last week, “The more familiar people become with it, you have to look and try to find the next best thing.”


The different types of players this team is set to have under contract next season gives them a multitude of ways to get creative to really let their defense take the next step, which in turn lets the team take the next step.

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