Signing Kirk Cousins signaled a change to the Minnesota Vikings entire team-building approach. Giving Cousins a fully-guaranteed contract meant going all-in on constructing an offense best suited to his talents. The shift in philosophy manifested itself in the draft this spring when the Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer and the front office embraced the change, targeting players who could step in right away and prop Cousins up.
Not since 1993, when they took Robert Smith 21st overall, have the Vikings spent their first three draft picks (Qadry Ismail, John Gerak) on the offensive side of the ball. Spielman did that this year—and now seven weeks into the season, with the Vikings riding a three-game winning streak and Cousins playing the best football of his professional career—it’s clear he nailed those selections.
Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith Jr. and Alexander Mattison haven’t been to Cousins what Randy Moss was to Randall Cunningham in 1998. But all three are filling specific holes and needs.
Those ready to jump ship on the Bradbury pick after four weeks of less than inspiring play are pumping the breaks after three consecutive solid performances. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradbury posted a career high blocking grade (85.2) and allowed zero pressures against an extremely talented Eagles’ defensive line. Doing it against the Giants three weeks ago was one, doing it against Philadelphia and now the Detroit Lions is quite another. Bradbury was drafted to help stabilized the offensive line. The zone-blocking schemes requires a great center and Bradbury certainly appears to have turned a corner since the debacle in Chicago. Cousins had all day to throw against the Lions on Sunday (against a below-average pass rush) and the line continued to open up enough holes for Dalvin Cook to rack up another 100-yard performance. What was probably the biggest question mark on the offense heading into the season is looking a lot more stable.
Vikings’ fan have been clamoring for an athletic tight end to pair along side Kyle Rudolph for years now. Spielman finally got his man in Irv Smith Jr. Each week Minnesota is finding ways to get the youngster more touches, providing Cousins with another threat when opposing defenses are keyed on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Sunday in Detroit, Smith shined after Thielen left the game with a hamstring injury. Smith caught five balls on six targets for 60 yards. He made at least two contested catches, including a big 28-yarder down the sideline.
Mattison’s play is obviously (and rightfully) being overshadowed by Cook’s. But his value in the offense shouldn’t be over looked. So much (read: everything) of what the Vikings are doing offensively this year is predicated by the play-action game. Defenses are terrified of Cook, allowing offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to toy with them like a child with a yoyo. But admit it, with every handoff to Cook, Minnesota fans cringe hoping nothing goes wrong with his knee. That’s where the value of Mattison comes to play. While many scoffed at Spielman for drafting him in the third round, the Boise State product has spelled Cook perfectly through seven games. He is making the most of his touches (55 rushes, 270 yards, 4.9 yards per carry), keeping defenses honest when he is lined up behind Cousins in the backfield. For all of the greatness Cousins has shown in the last three weeks, not having a running game to setup those play-action passes would likely destroy what the Vikings have built to date. Having a guy like Mattison is a pretty nice insurance policy.