Dougherty: Packers' makeshift secondary vulnerable to Vikings
ORLANDO, Fla. – The Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to make them the NFC North's dominant team and a Super Bowl contender for the next several years.
Minnesota is looking to displace the Green Bay Packers, who won five of six division titles from 2011 through 2016. The Vikings made the boldest move of the NFL offseason when they set a precedent by signing Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year contract.
“Puts everybody else in that division on notice that they’re second fiddle,” said a quarterbacks coach for an NFL team.
Whether the move works depends mostly on two things: That Cousins is the high-end quarterback the Vikings are paying him to be, and how well general manager Rick Spielman manages his roster and salary cap after signing Cousins to a deal that averages $28 million a season.
It’s easy to see why Spielman made the move, even at that cost. With one of the best defenses in the NFL (No. 1 in points allowed and No. 3 in defensive passer rating last season), the Vikings’ limiting factor was quarterback. Case Keenum was never going to be good enough despite his nice season in 2017.
Cousins isn’t one of the great quarterbacks in the league, but a scout and a quarterback coach I talked to this week both said he probably just cracks the top 10 at that position in the NFL. He’s clearly an upgrade over Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings’ starting quarterbacks the last three years.
“Rick (Spielman) kept saying, not very often does a quarterback of (Cousin’s) caliber come on the open market,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings this past week. “That was kind of a big draw, the feeling that we can continue to get him to be better. We have a good team around him.”
Cousins had a 24-23-1 record the last three years as Washington’s starter, which clearly is not the record of a guy who can carry his team. But in that time his passer rating (95.7) ranked No. 6 in the NFL, behind Tom Brady (105), Drew Brees (102.1), Russell Wilson (98.9), Matt Ryan (98.7) and Aaron Rodgers (98.4).
His signing means the Vikings are that much better equipped to exploit a Packers secondary that’s in the early stages of a major rebuild. With Damarious Randall shipped off to Cleveland, Kevin King and newly signed Tramon Williams are the only cornerbacks on the roster likely to be in the Packers’ top three when the season starts.
Unless GM Brian Gutekunst pulls off a surprise trade or hits big on a draft pick, the Packers will have a patchwork secondary. Cousins isn’t dangerous outside the pocket but throws well enough to put up big numbers if the Packers don’t upgrade their personnel over the next month.
“(Cousins) gets the ball out, can throw it down the field, he’s not afraid,” the quarterbacks coach said. “Moves in the pocket well. Really quick release. Has played at a high level multiple years.”
With Cousins’ signing, the Vikings’ odds of winning the Super Bowl, after they advanced to the NFC title game last season, went from 12-1 in February to 9-1 last week, according to Bovada.lv. The Packers in that time dropped from 9-1 to 14-1.
The Vikings clearly have the most overall talent in the NFC North and probably in the conference, though the Los Angeles Rams are making a run at that. Spielman has put together a defensive roster full of Pro Bowl-caliber talent – five of their defensive players were voted to the Pro Bowl or added as injury replacements in both of the last two seasons. This year they had two on offense as well (receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph).
The Packers are counting on Aaron Rodgers to close that gap, but Guteknust and coach Mike McCarthy have to feel some urgency to upgrade their roster quickly after the Cousins signing.
“(The Vikings) had a really good team last year,” Gutekunst said. “How much that changes their team, we’ll see. I think (Cousins’ contract) puts a lot of cap guys up at night, you know, with the guarantee and everything like that. But I think we’re kind of more focused on our team. We kind of think if we take care of the things we need to take care of, we shouldn’t worry too much about what’s going on outside of us.”
The Vikings’ challenge beyond 2018 is the same that has sidetracked the Seattle Seahawks over the last year or so. The Seahawks were built around an even better defense than Minnesota has, but after Russell Wilson’s big pay day in 2015, age and cap issues have beset them the last couple seasons. When he was on his rookie contract they had cap room galore, but Wilson’s new deal ($21.9 million) ate up a big chunk of that, and he’s due for a new extension sometime in the next year or so.
The one problem with building a top defense is it often requires having four or five high-quality players, at least. Things can deteriorate quickly if you lose one or two of those top guys to age or as cap casualties.
The Vikings have four defensive players whose cap numbers will be $10 million or more in 2019 and 2020: Xavier Rhodes ($13.4 million in ’19 and $12.9 million in ’20), Everson Griffen ($11.9 million and $13.9 million), Linval Joseph ($10.7 million and $12.95 million) and Harrison Smith ($10.75 million and $10.75 million).
Three of their other better defenders are in the last year of their contacts this season: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter.
It’s hard to see how the Vikings can keep that group together as well as provide Cousins with the help he needs on offense, though Zimmer said it was a primary point of discussion before signing Cousins.
“I voiced my opinion,” he said. “I felt like we won 40 games in four years because we played good on defense, we stayed in games. … That was important to me, that we don’t throw away the whole team for one guy. I’ve seen it before in other organizations. Rob Brzezinski is our cap guy, he’s a magician with that.”
He better be. But either way, there’s no getting around this. The Packers right now are looking up at the Vikings, not the other way around.