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Last week's Monday Morning Mailbag talked about the O-Line. One key member of the O-line, Brian O'Neill, is on the last year of his contract. Per Overthecap.com, Kirk Cousins takes up $45 million in cap space next year. If O'Neill [is] the only priority that would be one thing, but both safeties and two of the three starting cornerbacks are also not signed for 2022. How does it all fit?
— Dave Sinclair in Rio Rancho, New Mexico
A great question from Dave to start us off, and one that hits on a topic that is relevant all year round, but also an issue that every single team likely has to deal with every season.
If you missed the recent news, the NFL and the NFLPA recently agreed that the 2022 salary cap ceiling will be $208.2 million. Again, that is the ceiling, meaning it's the absolute max it could be.
The final number could come in below that, but that ceiling figure would be almost $30 million more than the $182.5 million cap that is in place for 2021.
View the best images from Week 2 of OTAs at the TCO Performance Center shot in black-and-white by the Vikings team photographer Andy Kenutis.
So, how does it affect the Vikings?
For one, based on the large cap hit that Cousins is due to carry, the team is likely hoping for as high as salary cap as possible. That would reduce the cap percentage that Cousins has and also give the front office more money for those players/positions you mentioned.
O'Neill is near the front of the line for a possible extension, as he is entering the final year of his rookie deal and has developed nicely while starting 42 of the 46 games he's played. (There's also the potential for a Danielle Hunter extension).s
As for the players that are either on one-year deals (Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Woods) or someone entering the final year of a multi-year contract (Harrison Smith), that all remains to be seen.
Peterson, Alexander and Woods all agreed to 1-year deals in free agency, and the reduced salary cap likely played a role in that, as well as the likelihood it would return to the pre-pandemic trajectory. Those players will certainly be out to prove they deserve a longer-term deal with big money.
If they do excel with in Purple, that likely means they get the pay day they're looking for. From the Vikings perspective, those players helping on the field could mean a return to the playoffs. And there's no reason to think the team wouldn't want them back if they exceed expectations in 2021.
As for Smith, he's a special case since he's a veteran who is entering his 10th season with the Vikings. Many would have a hard time seeing him in a different uniform (myself included), so perhaps his representatives and the Vikings can agree to extend his career in Minnesota.
All of this is to say that Rob Brzezinski — who has solved many of the team's salary cap puzzles as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations — will be a busy man in the coming months, especially once the offseason hits.
Then again, that's a role Brzezinski is used to. And why every NFL team likely has someone (or multiple people) devoted to figuring out how the math works with contracts and the salary cap when they keep coming around year after year.
Is Kirk Cousins going to be able to take hard hits? Is our offensive line going to protect him better?
— Darla Balk
Darla offers up a two-part question, but I'll go in reverse order with my answers.
As Dave mentioned above, we did dive into the offensive line in last week's Mailbag. The main gist of that conversation was that the Vikings appear poised to have one of the league's best offensive lines in a year or two if everything breaks right and strong development ensues.
Again, there's no guarantee that will happen, but the potential is certainly there. And yes, I think some of that growth will be seen in 2021.
Cousins was sacked 39 times this past season, the sixth-highest total in the league. A very early prediction from me is that tally will be lower in 2022 than it was a year ago.
And I have no concerns about Cousins taking hits. Perhaps his best trait since joining the Vikings in 2018 (and since when he was drafted, for that matter) has been his durability.
Since he became a full-time starter in 2015, he has started 108 of 109 possible games, including the playoffs. The one game he did not start was the 2019 season finale when the Vikings were assured of being the No. 6 seed, so Cousins and many other starters rested up before going on the road to stun the Saints.
Like all of us, Cousins is getting older and he'll turn 33 in August. But his track record of staying healthy has been incredibly impressive. Knock on wood, I don't see that changing anytime soon.
View the best photos of Vikings QB Kirk Cousins from the 2020 season.
I really hope that this is the last year of the Zimmer era.
— Sylvester Jackson
These emails from fans always fascinate me, mostly because it offers the chance to peer into the totality of Zimmer's career in Minnesota.
If we go back a bit, the Vikings were among the league's worst teams in 2013, the year before Zimmer got here, and literally had the league's worst defense that season.
Since then, Zimmer has gone 64-47-1 in seven seasons, and has taken the Vikings to the playoffs three times in seven seasons, a stretch that includes a pair of NFC North titles.
Minnesota has never finished last in the division, and Zimmer has helped mold the Vikings into a team that, most of the time, nobody wants to play against … especially opposing quarterbacks at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Plus, and this is important, the Wilf family does value stability and would prefer not to make big-time changes every few years.
With all that said, the 2021 season is surely an important one for Zimmer and the entire organization. Everyone was frustrated and disappointed with how last year went, and I'd place Zimmer at the top of that list, especially with how the defense performed.
I think Zimmer would be the first to tell you that his team needs to be better in a lot of areas, and the early signs from offseason practices are encouraging.
When I get emails like this, I can't help but think that it probably doesn't help that the Vikings have been in this weird on-again, off-again relationship with the playoffs that is seemingly based on whether or not it's an even or odd-numbered year. (Minnesota missed the dance in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020, but made it in 2015, 2017 and 2019).
Because the Vikings are coming off a season where they did not make it, people tend to be a little less patient when it comes to Zimmer's job status. It should be noted, by the way, that he's entering the first season of a three-year contract extension that was signed last summer.
At the risk of rambling along, my main point in all of this is that while there needs to be a bounce back season in 2021, we must look at the entirety of Zimmer's career in Purple.
Have the Vikings reached their ultimate goal under Zimmer? No. But they have arguably been in the top third of the league since he took over.
Zimmer is the last head coach hired in a group of seven that remains with his team.
Bill O'Brien went 52-48 from 2014 to early 2020 with Houston and 2-4 in playoff games. Jim Caldwell was respectable 36-28 (0-2) in playoffs in four seasons with Detroit. The Lions are 14-33-1 in three seasons since letting him go.
Jay Gruden went 35-49-1 and 0-1 in the playoffs with Washington (2014 to part of 2019). Mike Pettine was 10-22 in two seasons with Cleveland, Lovie Smith was 8-24 in Tampa Bay, and Ken Whisenhunt was 3-20 with Tennessee.
The grass may not always be greener on the other side.