NOTEBOOK: Zimmer Connects with Cousins’ Past, Talks Griffen’s Future

This year at the Annual League Meeting in Arizona, 26 of the 32 NFL head coaches gathered for a group photo.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer wound up right in the middle of Super Bowl LI, between Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn.

It turns out that Zimmer was able to check in this week with another coach involved in the same Super Bowl, 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator before his hire in San Francisco.

Prior to that, Shanahan was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and had the same post in Washington from 2010-13, during which the Redskins drafted Kirk Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Zimmer mentioned on Tuesday morning at the NFC Coaches Breakfast that he spoke with Shanahan about Cousins, who will be in his second season as Vikings quarterback.

“I had a really interesting conversation with Kyle Shanahan last night about Kirk and a lot of things about him,” Zimmer told media members. “He’s going to play good, and this offense with [Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary] Kubiak and [Offensive Coordinator Kevin] Stefanski is going to be right down his alley. I think this is going to be a really good fit for him.”

Zimmer, a defensive guru, has enjoyed spending a considerable amount of time in meetings with offensive coaches this offseason, enjoying the dialogue between Stefanski, 36, and Kubiak, 57, who entered the NFL in 1984 as the quarterbacks coach for the 49ers under Bill Walsh and Mike Shanahan.

Zimmer has gained insights on “the philosophy of the offense and commitment to running the football and the play-action pass.”

“And it’s the way [Mike] Shanahan, Bill Walsh, Kubiak have taught the quarterbacks,” Zimmer said. “For me, sitting in the room with the offense — I haven’t sat in the defensive rooms much [although] I have given them some assignments — but this has been just eye-opening for me. To be able to sit there and listen to those guys and how they talk about the quarterback and how they talk about philosophy. Why they run this play, why they run that play … it’s just been really good.”

Cousins passed for 4,298 yards, the second-highest single-season total in franchise history, in 2018. He also became the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, complete at least 70 percent of passes and throw 10 or fewer interceptions in a season (Drew Brees finished 2018 with 3,992 yards, 32 touchdowns, a 74.4 completion percentage and five interceptions in starting all 15 of the games he played).

Cousins had seven games with a passer rating of 100 or higher, including two of the final three games of the season with Stefanski as interim offensive coordinator, but he had four games with a passer rating lower than 85.0.

Trevor Siemian, who backed up Cousins but didn’t play in the regular season, signed with the Jets, leaving Kyle Sloter as the only quarterback on the Vikings roster.

Sloter was signed as an undrafted free agent by Denver in 2017 when Kubiak was a senior personnel advisor for the Broncos. The Vikings lured him to Minnesota’s practice squad, then then signed him to the active roster that September.

He hasn’t played in a regular-season game yet.

“We’re looking at everywhere. We’d like to have a veteran, if we could, but we’re not going to rule out bringing in a rookie or Kyle, either,” Zimmer said. “Any of them. But it’s something we have to look for, yeah.”

The meeting with Everson Griffen

Everson Griffen restructured his contract earlier this month, showing his commitment to the Vikings organization that helped support him when he needed to step away from football for a bit last season.

The defensive end is the team’s longest-tenured player, having been drafted in the fourth round in 2010, and has flourished since becoming a starter in 2014 under Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson.

Zimmer and Patterson spoke with Griffen before the three-time Pro Bowler re-worked his deal and helped the salary cap-strapped Vikings for 2019.

“It was actually, I just kind of wanted to see where he was at, what he was thinking,” Zimmer explained when asked about the meeting. “He wanted to visit with me, and I wanted to visit with him, so it was real easy. We talked about a lot of different things, really, that I’m not going to discuss, but he was in a great frame of mind, he was excited to get back. I think he felt like this organization was the best place for him, and I agreed with him. I [think it is], too.”

Griffen has recorded 49 of his 66.5 career sacks since 2014.

Assessing the corners

After discussing flexibility for the upcoming draft with regard to the offensive line, Zimmer couldn’t help but quip, “Or a defensive corner, because everybody wants us to take corners.”

The Vikings have selected three cornerbacks in the first round since 2013: Xavier Rhodes that year, Trae Waynes in 2015 and Mike Hughes in 2018. Minnesota also tabbed Mackensie Alexander in the second round in 2016 and then added undrafted rookie Holton Hill a year ago.

“It’s good to have those guys. They’re good players,” Zimmer said of Rhodes and Waynes before adding that he thinks Rhodes can play better than he did in 2018, which was just a year removed from his first All-Pro and second straight Pro Bowl selections.

“I’m going to make sure that he plays better, because those guys are important in our defense and what we do,” Zimmer said. “That’s going to be part of it. It’s partly my job to make sure that he plays better, and I’m going to do it.”

Even though Rhodes was banged up for much of the season, Zimmer said he “hasn’t lost athletic ability.”

“He’s kind of gotten away from his technique a little bit, and we’re going to get back to it,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also assessed Hughes, Hill and Alexander.

“I think we’ve got some good corners. I think Mike Hughes is going to be a really great player. It was really unfortunate that he got hurt,” Zimmer said. “Holton Hill has a chance to be a really good player.

“We’re always going to keep looking for corners because they get hurt, and it’s important in our defense that we have them,” Zimmer added. “I think Mackensie played very well. He played better than he’s played in the three years that he’s been there, and that helped us a lot with the things we do. The nickelback position plays 700, 800 plays a [season] now, so it was good that he played better.”

Still kicking around an idea

Zimmer mentioned back at the combine that he was considering the addition of a coach to focus only on the kicking game. Zimmer said the idea remains under consideration.

“We’re still working through it,” Zimmer said. “I talked to Dan Bailey about it. I just wanted to hear from a kicker’s point of view. I’ve talked to some other people about it, and we’ve got, I’ve got a small pool of guys that we’ve talked to, and I just have to figure out and make a decision.”

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