The Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota ended after eight mostly good seasons — Zimmer went 72-56-1 in his tenure with the Vikings, never winning fewer than 10 games, and topping out at a storybook 13-3 season in 2017 with Case Keenum at QB. But those Vikings got walloped in the NFC Championship Game by Philadelphia, and Minnesota decided it needed to upgrade at quarterback, bringing in Kirk Cousins.
Despite overall success — the Vikings had a top-half offense in each of the last three years, including the league’s fourth-best offense by total yardage in 2020 — Cousins’ tenure has resulted in the same number of playoff wins as Keenum’s, with one. And after back-to-back losing seasons, Minnesota fired both Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman, hiring Rams OC Kevin O’Connell and Browns assistant GM Kwefi Adofo-Mensah to fill the big jobs.
From a roster-building standpoint, it will be a big shift for the Vikings. Adofo-Mensah has a background in economics and finance, while Spielman came from a traditional scouting background.
For O’Connell, it’s the Vikings attempting to capitalize on the success of the young but exciting Sean McVay coaching tree. McVay (with O’Connell as OC) just won the Super Bowl in his second try, beating a former McVay assistant (Zac Taylor, who was McVay’s QB coach) in the process. The tree also includes Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Brandon Staley in Los Angeles.
The Vikings have been frustrated with QB Kirk Cousins, something Zimmer was vocal about. But it’s going to be very difficult to upgrade this off-season. So it seems likely that O’Connell will look to rekindle the relationship he has with Cousins, whom he coached as Washington’s QB coach in 2017.
The Kevin O’Connell File
Playcalling Experience: Partial season following Jay Gruden’s firing in Washington in 2019
Other Coaching Experience: Browns QB coach (2015), 49ers assistant (2016), Washington QB coach, passing game coordinator, and offensive coordinator (2017-2019), Rams OC (2020-2021)
Offensive Coaches Worked Under: John DeFilippo (2015), Chip Kelly (2016), Jay Gruden (2017-19), Sean McVay (2020-21)
Notable: Five-year NFL QB (2008-12), Super Bowl LVI Champion (2021)
Potential Offensive Changes
The Vikings were a zone-running team in recent years under both Gary Kubiak and Klint Kubiak, and that will continue to be the case under O’Connell.
But as The Athletic’s Arif Hasan points out, the Kubiaks focus was more on inside zone, while O’Connell — via the McVay system — builds his run game on outside zone. And O’Connell is expected to run the McVay system in Minnesota.
The beauty of the McVay system is that it’s overall pretty simple. The whole thing is built around outside zone and manipulating the defense using that, building the passing game off of it as well. At times, that includes using league-high percentages of play-action passes.
From Hasan’s piece linked above:
“Running the football and the marriage with the right kind of pass game is what makes an offensive system what it is,” O’Connell explained. “We’ve talked about that term: ‘illusion of complexity.’ You’ve got to be able to do both. You’ve got to have balance because if defenses have to defend both things and they don’t know … we’ve got an advantage right there to go do a lot of things on that particular snap that will help us score points on that drive.”
That should be music to the ears of Kirk Cousins. Why? Because per PFF, Cousins was the NFL’s highest-graded QB on play action in 2021 (he was 7th on non-play action passes). Cousins’ “advanced” metrics, stats, and grades always seem to be better than the film and perception of the guy — both publicly and internally — but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think he can’t succeed from a fantasy perspective in O’Connell’s offense.
Players about whom we’re feeling more optimistic based on the playcaller changes.
Justin Jefferson (Min) — I mean, duh. We just saw Cooper Kupp have arguably the best season in the history of the NFL playing in O’Connell’s offense. Do I need to say more?
Kevin O'Connell will be making Justin Jefferson the Cooper Kupp in Minnesota, which means that among other things Jefferson will be moving around in the offensive formation. https://t.co/ekiaFIjh6B— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 3, 2022
O’Connell mentioned the “illusion of complexity.” Moving Jefferson all around might seem complicated for a defense, but it all comes from the simple mindset of “get the ball in the hands of your best player.” That, plus Kirk Cousins’ general successes on play action, should mean a massive season forthcoming for JJ.
Dalvin Cook (RB) — When Cook is healthy — a big part of the equation — you can easily make the argument he’s the best back in football, and certainly the best back for fantasy. He’s an exception zone-scheme runner, as he’s displayed in his years in Minnesota already, so he should fit like a glove into O’Connell’s offense. But it’s also worth noting that in O’Connell’s two years as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, the Rams were third (2020) and seventh (2021) in screen passes run. While that does include a high percentage of screens to WRs — one reason we’re high on Justin Jefferson in the new offense — I fully expect O’Connell to take advantage of Cook’s receiving ability and his explosiveness after the catch.