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Zimmer: Cousins Can 'Continue to Ascend' with Continuity, Protection

INDIANAPOLIS — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was the very last of dozens of NFL coaches and general managers to speak at the podium at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine Wednesday afternoon.

But when he got on stage — and in a side chat with Twin Cities beat reporters shortly after — Zimmer made it quite clear that he likes where the Vikings offense stands currently and has lofty expectations for the unit in 2020.

"Honestly, I'm really pleased with where our offense is right now – the run, play-action and getting the ball down the field," Zimmer said. "I think Kirk [Cousins] plays a great deep ball; I think we've got receivers who can go up and get it.

"We'll always add wrinkles … but I'm happy with where we're at," Zimmer added.

With so many changes at quarterback and among offensive play-callers in recent years, Zimmer struck a different tone Wednesday than he has in previous seasons in Indianapolis.

The main reason for Zimmer's optimism is the stability that will surround the unit in the offseason, which should then lead to strong results when the regular season rolls around.

Start with the scheme, which will be led by Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was given that title in January after being an offensive advisor and having his fingerprints on the offense in 2019.

The similar scheme will be a breath of continuity in Minnesota, where the Vikings haven't used the same offensive system for two straight seasons since 2014-2015.

And it will help Cousins, who will be in the same system for a second consecutive season for the first time in five seasons as a starter.

Cousins had what was perhaps his best NFL season in 2019, as he completed 307 of 444 passes (69.1 percent) for 3,603 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions in 15 games. His career-high passer rating of 107.4 ranked fourth in the NFL.

Zimmer expects his quarterback to be even better going forward, which includes continuing to play fast, make the correct reads and get the ball out of his hands.

"Well, the first thing is, I think part of the deal is keeping the scheme the same, OK, so now he can go all in," Zimmer said. "Kubiak's an unbelievable coach. He does a great job with that.

"But keeping the continuity of the scheme [Cousins has] to learn … the same as you'd probably tell him, two years ago, he had to change protection, get all through different things, then come back to the other side, change it again, check to this and check to that," Zimmer added. "Now he's just playing football, and to me, that was a big factor in how he did. I don't see him taking a step back. I see him continuing to ascend."

The Vikings will also return a cast of skill players who made an impact in 2019.

Running back Dalvin Cook racked up 1,135 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in 14 games on the way to his first Pro Bowl nod.

Wide receiver Stefon Diggs — whom Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman anticipates being on the team in 2020 and beyond — was a lethal deep threat, averaging 17.9 yards per catch on the way to a career-high 1,130 receiving yards.

Wide receiver Adam Thielen played roughly half the season and still tied for the team lead with six touchdowns catches with Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who proved that he could still be effective in his ninth season.

With tight end Irv Smith, Jr., running back Alexander Mattison and others expected to contribute more in 2020, Zimmer said the offense has potential to be a consistent scoring unit.

But if there is an area to focus on in the coming months, Zimmer mentioned that "we've got to continue to improve the offensive line."

The Vikings allowed 28 regular-season sacks in 2019, which tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. Zimmer still thinks the unit could be better.

"I really believe in my heart that if we continue to give Kirk time, he's going to continue to ascend," Zimmer said. "That's part of it. Just continuing to improve the offensive line whether it's technique or players that are here or players in the draft and free agency."

Zimmer, who opined that the offensive tackle group is better than the interior linemen for the 2020 draft class, was then asked if moving left tackle Riley Reiff inside was a potential option.

"Yeah, I think that's a possibility. I have not talked to Riley about moving because we haven't gotten that far down in the discussions," Zimmer said. "I think he likes being here. And he's one of those team guys, so I think he'd do whatever we want him to do. But I have not talked to him about it.

"Everybody is speculating [Brian] O'Neill is going to [move to] left and all these other things, too," Zimmer added. "You always discuss these things, but it's not like, 'OK. We're going to do this.' We're going to wait until we figure out where we're going with everything and go from there."

The Vikings offense ranked eighth with 25.4 points per game and finished 16th in yards per game (353.5) in 2019.

While those are respectable numbers, there is belief that with the scheme, continuity and cast of characters staying the same in 2020, the Vikings offense will take yet another step forward.