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Can the Vikings Be NFL's Offensive Juggernaut Under Kevin O'Connell in 2022?

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonContributor IJune 28, 2022

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings' motto for 2022 should be: Spread them out and dice them up. With Kirk Cousins as the skilled chef behind center, they have the personnel to field a top-five scoring offense.

No, the Vikings didn't overhaul their personnel with splashy free-agent additions or use high draft picks on skill players. They didn't need a makeover on this side of the ball. Instead, new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah hired head coach Kevin O'Connell, who can unlock and better utilize the team's talent in a modernized scheme.

Perhaps that's the best-case scenario in the minds of Minnesota fans, but wide receiver Justin Jefferson highlighted the need for change, per USA Today's Jori Epstein: "We had an old-style offense last year. It's 2022. You get into a new age and move to a new generation. Adding new things to the offense definitely allows us to be more comfortable with the offense and work in different areas of the fields."

Jefferson's blunt critique of the Vikings' approach under former head coach Mike Zimmer speaks volumes. Jefferson said the offense will be "less predictable" by changing tempo and using pre-snap window dressing to keep defenders on their toes.

In Epstein's report, O'Connell, who intends to call plays, emphasized "being aggressive on your terms" and spreading out defenses:

"For so long the game kind of became this condensed game where everybody was building things, the marriage of the run and the pass. But as times kind of moved forward, I think spreading the field out, not playing the game in a phone booth has been a productive thing for some offenses. Putting the game in the quarterback's hands a little more, trying to run some premier plays vs. premier looks. And really, when in doubt, trust space-rhythm-timing of offenses to hold you true to your core and what you're trying to get accomplished."

Though Cousins took a lot of the blame for the Vikings' shortcomings and underwhelming seasons in recent years, Minnesota fielded a top-10 scoring offense only twice (2017 and 2019) in eight years under the defensive-minded Zimmer. Even in those campaigns, the ground game was a staple, ranking seventh and sixth in yards with passing games that ranked 21st and 30th in attempts.

Here's a thought: Maybe we haven't seen the best of Cousins.

Jefferson expects Minnesota to pivot from a run-heavy offense, which may bode well for the three-time Pro Bowl signal-caller.

"Our offensive style, it's not a run-first offense anymore," Jefferson said on NFL Total Access (h/t NFL.com's Kevin Patra). "Just us being able to put different people in different positions and distribute the ball, really. I'm so excited in this offense. Us just being in OTAs, learning the plays, going through it with our defense and stuff."

Last year, Minnesota had balance, ranking 11th in pass attempts and 16th in carries, but the team listed 27th and eighth in 2020. O'Connell may put more on Cousins' shoulders as he looks to ramp up the urgency and keep pace with the league's top-scoring units.

You'll notice the Vikings have similarities with the top five scoring offenses from 2021.

Last year, the Dallas Cowboys accumulated the most points and yards. They've transitioned from a run-heavy offense that featured Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in carries for two of his first three campaigns, to a Dak Prescott-led unit.

In 2021, Prescott ranked ninth in pass attempts, and the Cowboys listed sixth (Prescott missed one game). They finished 12th in carries. Despite the combination of Elliott and emerging running back Tony Pollard, Dallas put a lot on Prescott, who is playing on a contract that averages $40 million per year. In 2022, Prescott won't have star wideout Amari Cooper, whom the team traded to the Cleveland Browns.

This offseason, the Vikings signed Cousins to a one-year extension, which moved him to eighth with Russell Wilson on the average annual value scale among signal-callers at $35 million, per Over the Cap. They showed confidence he will operate at a high level in O'Connell's offense.

Though Minnesota has a three-time Pro Bowl running back in Dalvin Cook, it could further shift away from the ground game. If that's the case, Cousins could post career numbers in 2022.

The Vikes don't have a generational talent comparable to Tom Brady, who led the league's No. 2 scoring offense last year, but they have just as many playmakers as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did.

In a pass-heavy scheme, Brady led the league in yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43) with the help of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette.

The Buccaneers offense may take a step back without Brown and Gronkowski, who retired. And Godwin is recovering from a torn ACL.

With O'Connell's philosophy, Cousins can toss 40 or more touchdown passes with Jefferson, Cook and two-time Pro Bowl wideout Adam Thielen as his primary targets. If tight end Irv Smith Jr. bounces back after he missed 2021 with a torn meniscus and wide receiver K.J. Osborn continues to blossom after he caught 50 passes for 655 yards and seven touchdowns last season, Cousins will have more than enough options.

O'Connell's ability to elevate Cousins could compare to former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's impact on Josh Allen.

Daboll needed three seasons to mold Allen into a star, and he has special physical traits with his strong arm and mobility, but O'Connell has a more polished product in Cousins, a full-time starter for seven years.

By the way, Cousins' production—in what Jefferson called an outdated offense—lines up with Allen's numbers over the last two years.

2020

  • Allen: 4,544 passing yards, 37 TD, 10 INT, 69.2 completion rate
  • Cousins: 4,265 passing yards, 35 TD, 13 INT, 67.6 completion rate

2021

  • Allen: 4,407 passing yards, 36 TD, 15 INT, 63.3 completion rate
  • Cousins: 4,221 passing yards, 33 TD, 7 INT, 66.3 completion rate

If Cousins is a fit in O'Connell's system, he could eclipse Allen's totals.

A team's ability to appropriately match its play-caller and signal-caller can make a huge difference. Don't be surprised if the Bills' third-ranked scoring offense and particularly Allen regress following Daboll's departure for the New York Giants' head coaching job.

Keep in mind that as the quarterbacks coach for Washington, O'Connell worked with Cousins in 2017. They have familiarity to speed up the jelling process.

In terms of accolades, the Vikings' playmakers don't match up with the Kansas City Chiefs' 2021 personnel, which featured quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, who have seven All-Pro seasons among them.

However, like Kansas City, Minnesota can get creative with its personnel packages and usage.

The Chiefs targeted Hill for big plays and used him in space. Kelce attacked the middle of the field and the seams. Mahomes built a rapport with running back Darrel Williams, who caught 47 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns.

Without Hill, the Chiefs' fourth-ranked scoring offense could take a step back, leaving a spot open for the Vikings.

O'Connell has a versatile trio of wide receivers. He can use Jefferson, Thielen and Osborn out wide or in the slot. Cook can line up on the outside and beat linebackers in one-on-one situations. Smith can put additional pressure on second-level defenders and safeties. Minnesota can attack all three levels of the field.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has garnered the spotlight in a high-powered offense that ranked fifth in scoring last year, and rightfully so. With that said, you have to acknowledge his pass-catching trio, which features a dynamic wide receiver duo in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams along with running back Austin Ekeler.

We can easily draw comparisons between the Chargers' and Vikings' key skill players. Like Los Angeles, Minnesota has one of the league's most productive wide receiver tandems. Jefferson is a budding star, and though Thielen will turn 32 years old in August, he has 24 touchdowns since 2020. Ekeler and Cook stand on equal ground as two of the top dual-threat running backs in the game.

What did last year's top-five scoring offenses have or do between the lines that the Vikings cannot replicate?

With a fresh outlook under O'Connell, the Minnesota offense matches up well with those units that routinely went up and down the field.

Adofo-Mensah hired O'Connell and possibly handed him the keys to unlock a juggernaut.


Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.

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