Kirk Cousins, Vikings enter camp with make-or-break year in sight

The Minnesota Vikings open training camp on July 26 at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minn. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines to watch headed into the 2019 season.

What do the Vikings need to do for coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman to get contract extensions?

Winning cures all. Zimmer is third among all Vikings coaches in wins and one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL. He spoke this offseason about his goal of stringing together winning seasons for the first time in his career as a head coach. With one of the best rosters in the NFC and a favorable shot to win the division, if Zimmer can get this team back to the playoffs he’ll be in line for a contract extension going into next season. Spielman addressed a handful of offensive needs early in the draft and managed to upgrade the offensive line while adding several pieces around Kirk Cousins. Though Zimmer and Spielman have been tied to each other throughout their time together in Minnesota, it appears more might be resting on the GM’s shoulders in 2019 given the team’s decision to go all-in for Cousins, who still has to prove he was worth the $84 million investment, and bring back a handful of players this offseason (Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, Kyle Rudolph) that the front office believes will play a critical role in a deep postseason run.

If Dalvin Cook rushes for more than 1,000 yards and catches more than 50 passes, how does it affect the Viking offense?

If Cook generates that much production and is finally able to show his dynamic playmaking ability, it almost assuredly means he has made it through the season without injury, which would be huge for the third-year rusher as he eyes a contract extension in the near future. Cook is the perfect fit in a zone-blocking scheme with his elusiveness and ability to make defenders miss and should see his usage increase in Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak’s system. That’s going to help the Vikings' offense generate the explosive plays that it lacked a year ago.

What does Cousins need to do to get a contract extension in 2020?

Zimmer and Spielman were adamant this offseason that eye-popping statistics from their quarterback won’t suffice if they don’t translate to playoff wins. In order to convince ownership that Cousins is worthy of being extended before he enters his final season under contract, the QB needs to lead his team to the playoffs and win a postseason game. That’s uncharted territory for Cousins, who has one playoff appearance that resulted in a loss. With the emphasis the Vikings placed on bolstering the supporting cast around their quarterback, from new coaches to personnel, Cousins has everything at his disposal to take his game to the next level. Now it’s on him to execute.

Which position battle is the most intriguing entering camp?

The Vikings need a No. 3 pass-catcher behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Often times in Gary Kubiak’s offenses, the No. 3 receiver ends up being a tight end. While Chad Beebe, Jordan Taylor and Bisi Johnson emerged in the spring as contenders for the position; it’s likely that a tight end could take on that role. Expect Rudolph’s target share to increase, especially in the red zone where he has posed the biggest threat to defenses throughout his career. Given the Vikings haven’t typically had an F-tight end like Irv Smith Jr., it’s possible that the rookie could take on a heavy role in the passing game while other true receivers are used on a situational basis.

How much better will the offensive line be this season?

This storyline will be one to follow throughout the 2019 season. The Vikings spent two of their first four draft picks on offensive lineman, finding their starting center in Garrett Bradbury and a steal in Dru Samia, who could push Josh Kline to start at right guard. Right away, the interior of the offensive line appears much improved from a year ago. The Vikings ranked 29th in pass-blocking efficiency last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which had a lot to do with their personnel at the guard and center spots. Now that Pat Elflein is able to move back to guard, where he thrived at Ohio State, the number of pressures allowed by the interior may decrease, though it could take Bradbury some time to settle in as a pass-blocker. Brian O’Neill is being relied upon to make a big jump at right tackle while Riley Reiff continues to hold down the left tackle spot