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Zimmer, Vikings aim to get over hump with changes inevitable

Mon Jan 13 4:21pm ET
By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Pro Football Writer

Players: Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrate a sack in the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)


Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) stands on the sideline during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)


Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs in front of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer speaks at a news conference after the Vikings were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers in an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, foreground, is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, center, during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. Also pictured at rear is defensive end Dee Ford. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For the first time in his six years with the Minnesota Vikings, coach Mike Zimmer told his assistants to take a break right after the end of the season before the staff reconvenes in a week or so to assess the roster.

The extra time, Zimmer theorized, will minimize the personal sentiment and recency bias in their evaluations. From the exhilaration of the overtime win at New Orleans to start the playoffs to the sobering lopsided defeat by San Francisco that ousted them, the Vikings sure have a lot to sort out for a team that reached the conference semifinals.

Can they stay on a championship track by committing to the same leadership and stars, or do they need a more significant renovation for a franchise beginning its 60th season and still missing a Super Bowl trophy? Zimmer spent an hour on the phone on Monday with his longtime mentor, Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, pondering the big picture.

''We've been to the conference championship. We've been to the divisional game. We've been in a wild-card game where we lost by a field goal,'' said Zimmer, who is 59-41-1 with the Vikings including the playoffs. ''Just trying to figure out, `How do we get over this hump of getting to the next level and eventually winning this thing?'''

Zimmer's contract has just one year left on it, as does general manager Rick Spielman's deal, but team owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf issued a statement of confidence in both of them before the win in New Orleans. Extensions could be coming soon, considering the tension and uncertainty that expiring contracts can create.

''I love these players, this organization. The owners have been outstanding to me,'' Zimmer said. ''I believe that there will be conversations here in the near future and whatever happens, I'm happy with it.''

Change has already started in earnest on his staff, however, with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski landing the job as coach in Cleveland and defensive coordinator George Edwards being let go amid the expiration of his deal. So Zimmer will not only start the 2020 season with a new offensive coordinator for the fifth straight year, he will now have a different-looking defensive staff for the first time since he arrived in 2014.

Defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, his son, are two internal candidates for a post that has less responsibility than on most teams due to Zimmer's preference to call the plays.

Though Stefanski was the play-caller and drew praise for his humility and adaptability when offensive adviser Gary Kubiak arrived, the playbook Kubiak brought from his successful days with Denver and Houston proved to be a sound fit for quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Offensive line coach Rick Dennison, who directed the running game, made a significant impact on an improved position group, too. Quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, the other son on the staff, makes a third internal candidate for offensive coordinator. Zimmer sounded on Monday as though that's his preference.

''I like the scheme, I like the continuity that we have offensively with the coaches, and I feel like if we add a couple more pieces and continue to work on the execution of staying with the same play calls, the same system, the same motions and formations and things like that, it'll definitely help the offensive players,'' Zimmer said.

CROSSROAD FOR COUSINS

Spielman and Zimmer aren't the only ones without contractual security beyond 2020. Cousins has reached the final year of his $84 million deal, coming off a clear improvement from 2018 to 2019. When the running game gets bottled up and the pass rush overwhelms him, as evidenced by the losses at home to Green Bay on Dec. 23 and at San Francisco on Saturday, Cousins can be quite limited.

But when the play-action attack is working as planned and he has time to throw, he can be one of the best in the league. Now, Cousins has a postseason win on his resume, on the road against a heavily favored foe at that.

''I think this may have been his best year that he's played in the NFL,'' Zimmer said.

Extending Cousins appears to be inevitable, with the Vikings holding only the 25th pick in the first round of the draft and no ready-made replacement on the roster. Given their lack of space under the salary cap, a new deal that combines a short-term pay cut with a longer-term commitment could be the ideal scenario for both sides. As a player who has thrived on careful preparation, such stability ought to only help him continue to improve.

''I certainly love it here and love being a Viking,'' Cousins said.

WHAT'S COOKING?

The next-most pressing matter is the status of running back Dalvin Cook, who has also reached the final year of his deal. Cook broke out in a big way with 1,654 yards from scrimmage, playing in a career-high 14 games, but there's always the league-wide question of how much a team can afford to invest in a position with such a short shelf life.

END OF THE ROAD?

One of the hallmarks of Zimmer's time with the Vikings has been the consistency and stability of a defense with six players who've been picked for Pro Bowls and a seventh, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was an Associated Press All-Pro selection in 2019. The overall performance of the group slipped this season, though, and the other factors of age and salary make the first real shakeup of the defensive lineup under Zimmer a near certainty.

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Everson Griffen are the two stalwarts most at risk. Griffen had eight sacks in a solid comeback season, but he's 32 with a scheduled salary cap hit of more than $13 million.

''I want to be a Viking for life,'' Griffen said, ''but it's a business, so we'll figure that out when the time gets here.''

MARKET PRICE

The list of unrestricted free agents is led by safety Anthony Harris and cornerback Trae Waynes, with the secondary headed for undoubtedly the most significant change. Nickel back Mackensie Alexander will be a free agent, too, as will backup safeties Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse.

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT

Tennessee and San Francisco both proved the run-heavy strategy can still work in the current NFL, riding it to reach their respective conference title games. Investing more heavily in the offensive line will be an important next step for the Vikings to make sure their ground game isn't as vulnerable to stalling and that Cousins can cut further down on sacks.

Player Notes
Drew Brees Oct 28 6:20pm ET

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is not a strong option at QB in Week 8 against the Bears. Chicago allows the fewest fantasy points to QBs and Brees may be without Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders once again this week. Therefore, this week will pose a stiff challenge for Brees if he doesn't have a strong receiving corp against a top defense. If there are better options, it's best to go forth with them for this week.

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Alvin Kamara Oct 28 6:20pm ET

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is an RB1 this week against a tough Bears Defense. Kamara posted 14 carries for 83 yards and eight catches for 65 yards last week, displaying his versatility and importance in both the rushing and passing game. The Bears present a tough matchup for RBs generally, but Kamara's volume should keep him as a strong play, and his value would only escalate if Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders don't suit up.

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Michael Thomas Oct 28 5:30pm ET

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle, hamstring) did not take part in practice on Wednesday. Thomas tweaked his hamstring in practice last week and was unable to play, and he should be considered highly questionable to suit up in Week 8 against the Bears. The 27-year-old All-Pro wideout has been a huge bust for fantasy managers as the consensus top overall wideout heading into the 2020 season after his monstrous 2019 performance. With Emmanuel Sanders also questionable after being put on the COVID-19 list and missing last week, rookie Marquez Callaway and Tre'Quan Smith could once again have bigger roles in the offense alongside tight end Jared Cook, although Chicago's defense has been one of the stingiest in the NFL through seven weeks.

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Dak Prescott Oct 28 5:20pm ET

The Dallas Cowboys are expected to sign quarterback Cooper Rush to their practice squad once he passes COVID-19 protocols and a physical, which is likely to be next week, according to a source. With Dak Prescott (ankle) out for the season and Andy Dalton (concussion) looking doubtful to play in Week 8 against the Eagles, the Cowboys are desperate for some depth in the QB room. Rush was tendered as a restricted free agent by Dallas but was then cut when the team brought in Dalton. The Giants claimed rush off waivers but cut him this year. Rookie Ben DiNucci should get the start this Sunday if Dalton can't clear the concussion protocol, but the first-year signal-caller will be a poor low-end QB2 if he gets his first career start.

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John Brown Oct 28 5:10pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver John Brown (knee) was able to return to practice on Wednesday. That is a good sign after Brown was unable to play during the Week 7 win over the New York Jets. It sounds like there is a chance that Brown returns here versus the New England Patriots. His return would mean Gabriel Davis wouldn't see as much time on the field. Sadly for Brown, the Pats have a top-10 secondary, so he won't be anything more than a low-end WR3.

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Cole Beasley Oct 28 5:10pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley is coming off his biggest performance of the season versus the New York Jets in Week 7. He hauled in 11 of his 12 targets for 112 yards in that one. Beasley has been a reliable PPR option all season long, so expect that trend to continue. The New England Patriots have a strong secondary, but nothing has been able to stop Beasley thus far. Fantasy owners in PPR leagues can continue plugging Beasley into their starting lineups.

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Zack Moss Oct 28 5:00pm ET

Buffalo Bills running back Zack Moss put together his best performance of the season against the New York Jets in Week 7. He rushed seven times for 47 yards and caught three passes in the backfield for 25 yards in the win. He'll continue to split up the carries with Devin Singletary going forward. However, Moss might actually have more value, assuming the Bills continue using him in the passing attack. Moss could hold some low-end PPR value against the New England Patriots this week. His value is dependent on how much they use him in the receiving game.

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Cameron Dantzler Oct 28 5:00pm ET

The Minnesota Vikings placed rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday. The Vikings have not disclosed whether Dantzler tested positive himself or has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person(s). Dantzler is probably a long shot to play in Week 8 against the division-rival Packers, and the rookie's absence would make it even tougher for Minnesota to slow down Aaron Rodgers and company in the passing game. Regardless of whether Dantzler is cleared this weekend, fantasy managers should be looking to avoid the Vikings Defense at all costs.

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Stefon Diggs Oct 28 5:00pm ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been a favorite target of quarterback Josh Allen all season long. He already has three performances with 10 targets or more in a single game. Sadly, Diggs hasn't been able to turn those targets into yards lately. He hasn't been able to hit the 50-yard mark in receiving over the last two games. It's unlikely that his luck changes with a top-10 pass defense in the New England Patriots on the horizon. Fantasy owners should be able to lean on Diggs as a low-end WR2 here.

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Josh Allen Oct 28 4:50pm ET

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Justin Jefferson Oct 28 4:40pm ET

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson will try and keep his hot streak going against the Packers in Week 8. The rookie receiver has exploded over the last month of play, averaging 116.75 yards per game over his last four games with three 100+ yard games and three touchdowns. The Vikings will face a Packers team that is allowing the 11th fewest fantasy points to wide receivers this season but the Vikings were able to move the ball against them in the air in Week 1. Jefferson is a must-start in Week 8 and will carry WR2 status with WR1 upside against the Packers.

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Kirk Cousins Oct 28 4:30pm ET

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins will have his hands full against a talented Packers team in Week 8. Cousins passed for 343 yards with three touchdowns in Week 6 but three first-half interceptions doomed the Vikings in a 40-23 loss to the Falcons. The stat-line looks promising but those touchdowns all came with the team out of reach. Now the veteran passer will face a Packers Defense that is allowing the 12th fewest fantasy points to opposing passers and Cousins passed for 259 yard with two touchdowns against them in Week 1. Cousins has a decent chance at passing for multiple scores but the Vikings could be scoreboard chasing in this game. Cousins lacks top-12 fantasy appeal in Week 8.

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Adam Thielen Oct 28 4:30pm ET

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen will try and burn the Packers one more time this season when the two teams lock horns in Week 8. Thielen caught six passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 against Green Bay. Thielen is averaging 81.6 receiving yards per game over his last three contests with four touchdowns and has seven scores on the season. The Vikings season is hanging by a thread and the Packers have an explosive offense. Thielen has a strong chance at WR1 numbers in fantasy in a must-win game for Minnesota in Week 8.

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Davante Adams Oct 28 4:20pm ET

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Robert Tonyan Oct 28 4:20pm ET

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Aaron Jones Oct 28 4:20pm ET

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Anthony Miller Oct 28 4:10pm ET

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Aaron Rodgers Oct 28 4:10pm ET

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Jimmy Graham Oct 28 4:00pm ET

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Darnell Mooney Oct 28 4:00pm ET

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