Vikings' offseason to-do list: Bolster both lines, part with pricey veterans

MINNEAPOLIS -- After a 37-35 victory over the Detroit Lions in the finale on Sunday, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer rattled off many factors that contributed to a 7-9 season.

They had several good players get hurt, especially on defense. They were affected by nose tackle Michael Pierce's decision to opt out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. They had opportunities to win games and blew it, like one-point losses to the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks. And frankly, they weren't good enough to be in the playoffs.

"We fought like crazy and 7-9 is not great, but under the circumstances and everything that went on, maybe it's the best we could have done," Zimmer said.

The Vikings head into the offseason with a long to-do list to help improve the roster before spring workouts. Here's a look at Minnesota's most pressing needs.

Prioritize pass-rush help

Minnesota finished with 23 sacks in 2020, the fewest in franchise history. And yes, Yannick Ngakoue, who hasn't played for the Vikings since he was traded after Week 6, ended as the leader in sacks with five.

The defensive line will be in a better state with the expected return of Pierce and end Danielle Hunter, who had 14.5 sacks in 2019. But Hunter also is coming off season-ending neck surgery and reportedly wants a pay raise, which seems lofty given the circumstances. Still, Minnesota needs to be prepared for whether they'll have Hunter and if they don't, how to replace him.

With the 14th overall draft pick, a top-end defensive tackle could be the target to shore up the three-technique spot. Or they could look to free agency, but will have to create cap space first.

The Vikings were forced to play backups in starters' roles because of turnover and injuries, further depleting their depth.

"That's what separates championship teams," defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo said. "Like, ‘Hey, this guy went down earlier this year.' I guess the strongest teams have the most depth. Obviously, you can go back like this went wrong or that went wrong or this went wrong and that went wrong -- at the end of the day there are still plenty of teams that still got the job done."

Improving the pass rush will help the young secondary's development as well.

Settle on Cleveland's position, add more OL help

The Vikings' offensive line finished 18th in pass block win rate (56.3%). Quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked 39 times (sixth-most most in the NFL). Clearly, Minnesota needs an upgrade on the offensive line.

When a trade for Trent Williams fell through in April, the Vikings picked Ezra Cleveland at No. 58, believing he would replace left tackle Riley Reiff after the 2020 season. Cleveland, who played left tackle in college, spent his rookie year at right guard, starting nine games and faring well considering he'd never played the position.

An opening is likely created at left guard with Dakota Dozier's contract expiring soon. The Vikings should decide whether they want to keep Cleveland at right guard or move him out to left tackle before doing anything else. That decision allows them to shape their plans for Reiff. If Cleveland stays inside, the Vikings could restructure the final year of Reiff's contract (convert his salary to a signing bonus and prorate or extend him) after one of his best seasons in recent years with 21 pressures (one sack) allowed. If Cleveland moves to tackle, the Vikings can move on from Reiff and free up $11.75 million in cap space.

Restructure or release expensive veterans

The Vikings are an estimated $10.2 million over the cap for 2021, but they have time to get into the black by reworking a couple of deals.

Linebacker Anthony Barr is coming off season-ending surgery for a torn pectoral muscle and is set to earn $12.3 million in 2021. He will have the third-highest cap hit on the team ($15.5 million). Since it doesn't seem likely the Vikings will move on from Barr and sign pending unrestricted free agent Eric Wilson, Minnesota needs to reduce Barr's cap number with a restructure. The Vikings could save $7.7 million if they release Barr, but would also be near the same number in dead cap.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph's release seems inevitable. His deal has no guaranteed money left and the Vikings would save $5.1 million against the cap (while incurring $4.35 million in dead money). Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin have shown the future is bright at the tight end position in Rudolph's absence the past month and would allow Minnesota to move on.

After his late-season struggles, kicker Dan Bailey could be out the door with a kicking competition in August. That comes with $1.7 million in cap savings. The Vikings could also offer safety Harrison Smith, who is entering the final year of his contract, a short-term extension to bring down his $10.25 million cap number for 2021 and secure at least one safety to play in the secondary for a few more years.

Improve the offensive scheme

It appears the Vikings could be about to search for their sixth offensive coordinator since Zimmer arrived in 2014.

Sources with knowledge of the situation indicate that Gary Kubiak, 59, is mulling retirement, as first reported by NFL Network. If that happens, Zimmer could replace him from within with offensive line coach Rick Dennison or quarterback coach Klint Kubiak. They could look outside the franchise, but finding someone who aligns with Zimmer's offensive philosophy could be challenging.

Finding the right fit at offensive coordinator will be crucial for the success of Cousins, who hasn't had the same playcaller in consecutive seasons more than once in his career.

The Vikings must upgrade areas of their zone-based scheme. It became too predictable at times, especially with how often they ran in any situation on second down (with the highest designed-run percentage). They were too reliant on running back Dalvin Cook, who totaled 356 touches and led the NFL in yards per game from scrimmage.

Minnesota found what worked best for Cousins in a run-first offense, but should look to take things a step further with the passing game coming off Justin Jefferson's incredible rookie season and Adam Thielen's 14-touchdown campaign. Improving on third down is a priority, and that starts with finding ways to get the ball in their best playmakers' hands.