EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings are six games into the 2020 season, and have a chance to rest up this weekend as the team is on a bye week.
That meant Rick Spielman met with the Twin Cities media on Thursday for his annual bye-week session.
The 30-minute chat gave the Vikings general manager a chance to publicly give his view on the team's 1-5 start and outline where the team goes from here.
Spielman fielded questions on a number of topics on the Vikings and also noted that he is in "constant communication" with the Wilf family regarding the football side of the organization.
How have the Vikings owners felt about the poor start?
"I think everybody is disappointed about being 1-5 right now," Spielman said. "They have been extremely supportive. They understand everything that's going on, and just like all of us, we're looking forward to the challenges coming ahead of us."
Spielman also commented on Thursday's trade of Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens and said he doesn't see that move as the start of a rebuild for Minnesota.
With 10 games left, where do the Vikings go from here?
"Well, our No. 1 goal is to win football games, and where that ends up at the end of the season … we'll find out," Spielman said. "But I know, like I said, what the coaches have done this bye week, how they've analyzed everything. [Head Coach Mike Zimmer] came in — believe it or not, for a guy that's not a big stat guy — with a lot of statistical information for me this week on where he thinks we can get better and why we won, why we lost.
"As we move forward into the season we still have 10 games left and a lot of football left. No one here in this organization thinks that the season is over right now," Spielman added. "We are very excited to get back, and our No. 1 focus is to get ready for a very tough division matchup when we go to Green Bay."
Minnesota plays three consecutive NFC North games after the bye. The division slate begins with a Nov. 1 road trip to Green Bay (4-1) before a Nov. 8 home date against Detroit (2-3). The Vikings will then head to Chicago (5-1) for an appearance on Monday Night Football in Week 10.
"We'll find out pretty quick [where we're at] with our remaining games in the division," Spielman said.
The Vikings host the Bears in Week 15 and close out the regular season in Detroit in Week 17.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Here are three other topics Spielman discussed Thursday:
1. The play of Kirk Cousins
The Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a multiyear contract extension this offseason, adding two years to the final season of his original three-year contract.
The move occurred two months after a playoff road win in New Orleans, and also offered some financial flexibility to a Vikings team that was up against the salary cap.
"When we evaluated Kirk coming off what he did last year, he had his best year in the NFL," Spielman said. "Coming back in the same system and us being able to renegotiate and extend that contract gave us some flexibility from a cap standpoint to go out and get a Mike Pierce [who opted out due to COVID-19] … to do an extension with a Dalvin Cook and some of the other things we were able to do in the offseason."
But after perhaps the best season of his career, Cousins now has a league-high 10 interceptions through six games. He has a pair of three-interception games in 2020 after throwing just six picks in 15 games in 2019.
After Sunday's loss to the Falcons, Cousins said he could be in danger of being benched if the turnovers continue.
"Kirk, I know he's very hard on himself. Some of the interceptions were not his fault. Some of them were poor decisions," Spielman said. "But I don't have any doubt that he's going to be able to rally. I know [Gary] Kubiak and them have broken down a lot of things this bye week on … what he does well, and knowing what's been successful.
"So, you just kind of have to go back and look at the big picture, but I don't think anyone has lost any faith in Kirk Cousins," Spielman added. "I expect him to come back after the bye week and play well for us."
Through six games, Cousins has completed 113 of 175 passes (64.6 percent) for 1,475 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
2. Defensive ups and downs
It appears the Vikings dominating run on defense has come to an end.
From 2015-2019, Minnesota ranked no worse than ninth in points allowed per game.
But at the bye, the Vikings rank 31st in points allowed per game (32.0) and are 28th in yards allowed per game (413.7).
Spielman said the drop-off has been a combination of Pierce, Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr combining for just one full game between them. Hunter is on Injured Reserve and hasn't practiced since mid-August, while Barr joined him on IR after Week 2 with a season-ending pec injury.
Plus, with a host of new and young faces on the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings have had elongated stretches of poor play this season.
"Defensively, we've had our struggles," Spielman said. "When you look back on when we headed into the season, we knew we were going to be young at the corner position, but the thought process was to have Danielle … to have a Mike Pierce, who was one of our big free agent signings during the offseason.
"To lose an Anthony Barr in the second game of the season, those guys are hard to replace," Spielman added. "They're all impact-type players for us on defense."
Spielman noted that more young players could see expanded playing time along the defensive line after the Ngakoue trade.
"I think the biggest thing is you look at some of our defensive guys, and you look at D.J. Wonnum and some of the things he's starting to show," Spielman said. "He played really well last week against Atlanta.
"You're seeing James Lynch starting to rotate in on the defensive line position," Spielman added.
Rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler have become de-facto starters at cornerback — and have had their ups-and-downs — but Spielman expects their growth to continue for the rest of the 2020 season.
"We felt with the two veterans — Harrison [Smith] and Anthony Harris — [could] help the young corners," Spielman said. "And in order to help the young corners in this league, you have to create a pass rush. I think by us losing Barr, who I feel and I think we all feel is one of the best blitzing linebackers in the NFL who creates a lot of pressure on the quarterback along with losing Danielle, those are two critical parts to it that help the back end as far as coverage.
"You have to go through these growing pains, and I think these young corners … we were playing with three rookies this last game [in Gladney, Dantzler and Harrison Hand]," Spielman added. "They are starting to understand the mistakes they make. They are growing from those mistakes, and I think as we continue down the season, you're going to see these guys getting better and better."
3. Assessing the offensive line
Minnesota has used three different starting combinations on the offensive line thus far, as the Vikings have already relied on three starting right guards.
Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill have manned the tackle spots, and with Garrett Bradbury at center and Dakota Dozier at left guard, that quartet has played every snap on offense in 2020.
Pat Elflein and rookie Ezra Cleveland have each started at right guard once, with Cleveland making his first start in Week 6. Dru Samia started in Weeks 2-5.
Spielman was asked about the progress of that unit through six games, and also in recent seasons.
"I think we keep adding. I think Bradbury, from his rookie year to how he's playing right now, has definitely improved, and is continuing to improve," Spielman said. "I think Brian O'Neill is turning into a really good player.
"I think the offensive line, and the physical traits we're looking for, are guys that can do a lot of that outside zone. Guys that are maybe a little bit undersized, but athletic," Spielman added. "Then with what we saw with Ezra, with his first glimpse of any NFL game. I think our offensive line, you know, we are one of the top rushing teams in the league because of the scheme fit, and having Dalvin Cook in the backfield helps with that."
The trio of Bradbury, Cleveland and O'Neill were each drafted in the first two rounds over the past three seasons.
"I think these young guys will continue to build and evolve," Spielman said, "but we're very excited about a lot of the young guys that we have."