Zimmer, Vikings aim to get over hump with changes inevitable

Mon Jan 13 4:21pm ET
By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Pro Football Writer

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrate a sack in the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)


Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) stands on the sideline during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)


Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs in front of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer speaks at a news conference after the Vikings were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers in an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, foreground, is tackled by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, center, during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. Also pictured at rear is defensive end Dee Ford. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For the first time in his six years with the Minnesota Vikings, coach Mike Zimmer told his assistants to take a break right after the end of the season before the staff reconvenes in a week or so to assess the roster.

The extra time, Zimmer theorized, will minimize the personal sentiment and recency bias in their evaluations. From the exhilaration of the overtime win at New Orleans to start the playoffs to the sobering lopsided defeat by San Francisco that ousted them, the Vikings sure have a lot to sort out for a team that reached the conference semifinals.

Can they stay on a championship track by committing to the same leadership and stars, or do they need a more significant renovation for a franchise beginning its 60th season and still missing a Super Bowl trophy? Zimmer spent an hour on the phone on Monday with his longtime mentor, Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, pondering the big picture.

''We've been to the conference championship. We've been to the divisional game. We've been in a wild-card game where we lost by a field goal,'' said Zimmer, who is 59-41-1 with the Vikings including the playoffs. ''Just trying to figure out, `How do we get over this hump of getting to the next level and eventually winning this thing?'''

Zimmer's contract has just one year left on it, as does general manager Rick Spielman's deal, but team owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf issued a statement of confidence in both of them before the win in New Orleans. Extensions could be coming soon, considering the tension and uncertainty that expiring contracts can create.

''I love these players, this organization. The owners have been outstanding to me,'' Zimmer said. ''I believe that there will be conversations here in the near future and whatever happens, I'm happy with it.''

Change has already started in earnest on his staff, however, with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski landing the job as coach in Cleveland and defensive coordinator George Edwards being let go amid the expiration of his deal. So Zimmer will not only start the 2020 season with a new offensive coordinator for the fifth straight year, he will now have a different-looking defensive staff for the first time since he arrived in 2014.

Defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, his son, are two internal candidates for a post that has less responsibility than on most teams due to Zimmer's preference to call the plays.

Though Stefanski was the play-caller and drew praise for his humility and adaptability when offensive adviser Gary Kubiak arrived, the playbook Kubiak brought from his successful days with Denver and Houston proved to be a sound fit for quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Offensive line coach Rick Dennison, who directed the running game, made a significant impact on an improved position group, too. Quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, the other son on the staff, makes a third internal candidate for offensive coordinator. Zimmer sounded on Monday as though that's his preference.

''I like the scheme, I like the continuity that we have offensively with the coaches, and I feel like if we add a couple more pieces and continue to work on the execution of staying with the same play calls, the same system, the same motions and formations and things like that, it'll definitely help the offensive players,'' Zimmer said.

CROSSROAD FOR COUSINS

Spielman and Zimmer aren't the only ones without contractual security beyond 2020. Cousins has reached the final year of his $84 million deal, coming off a clear improvement from 2018 to 2019. When the running game gets bottled up and the pass rush overwhelms him, as evidenced by the losses at home to Green Bay on Dec. 23 and at San Francisco on Saturday, Cousins can be quite limited.

But when the play-action attack is working as planned and he has time to throw, he can be one of the best in the league. Now, Cousins has a postseason win on his resume, on the road against a heavily favored foe at that.

''I think this may have been his best year that he's played in the NFL,'' Zimmer said.

Extending Cousins appears to be inevitable, with the Vikings holding only the 25th pick in the first round of the draft and no ready-made replacement on the roster. Given their lack of space under the salary cap, a new deal that combines a short-term pay cut with a longer-term commitment could be the ideal scenario for both sides. As a player who has thrived on careful preparation, such stability ought to only help him continue to improve.

''I certainly love it here and love being a Viking,'' Cousins said.

WHAT'S COOKING?

The next-most pressing matter is the status of running back Dalvin Cook, who has also reached the final year of his deal. Cook broke out in a big way with 1,654 yards from scrimmage, playing in a career-high 14 games, but there's always the league-wide question of how much a team can afford to invest in a position with such a short shelf life.

END OF THE ROAD?

One of the hallmarks of Zimmer's time with the Vikings has been the consistency and stability of a defense with six players who've been picked for Pro Bowls and a seventh, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was an Associated Press All-Pro selection in 2019. The overall performance of the group slipped this season, though, and the other factors of age and salary make the first real shakeup of the defensive lineup under Zimmer a near certainty.

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Everson Griffen are the two stalwarts most at risk. Griffen had eight sacks in a solid comeback season, but he's 32 with a scheduled salary cap hit of more than $13 million.

''I want to be a Viking for life,'' Griffen said, ''but it's a business, so we'll figure that out when the time gets here.''

MARKET PRICE

The list of unrestricted free agents is led by safety Anthony Harris and cornerback Trae Waynes, with the secondary headed for undoubtedly the most significant change. Nickel back Mackensie Alexander will be a free agent, too, as will backup safeties Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse.

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT

Tennessee and San Francisco both proved the run-heavy strategy can still work in the current NFL, riding it to reach their respective conference title games. Investing more heavily in the offensive line will be an important next step for the Vikings to make sure their ground game isn't as vulnerable to stalling and that Cousins can cut further down on sacks.

Player Notes
Green Bay Packers Jan 17 5:20pm ET

The Green Bay Packers Defense faces a tough task this weekend in the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. In their regular-season meeting, the Packers gave up 37 points and only dropped Jimmy Garoppolo only three times. They also failed to generate any turnovers. Green Bay's defense may need to lend their offense a helping hand by creating a turnover or two to swing the field position game. If Za-Darius and Preston Smith can ramp up the pressure, the Packers will have a good chance of generating a turnover or two and winning the game. It certainly won't be easy, considering how formidable the 49ers offense has been this season.

From RotoBaller

Jimmy Graham Jan 17 3:50pm ET

Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham gets a tough matchup against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Graham has back-to-back 49-year receiving performances, but those games came against teams that struggle to defend the tight end position. The 49ers are not one of those teams. They allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points to tight ends all season and were the league's stingiest pass defense. Maybe Graham makes a play in the red zone. Still, he's a cheaper DFS play but by no means a comfortable one.

From RotoBaller

Geronimo Allison Jan 17 2:40pm ET

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison (illness) is trending in the right direction to play in the NFC Championship game this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers. Even if available, Allison isn't an option in any fantasy format. The 25-year-old hasn't caught more than four passes in a game this season. It sure doesn't seem like he'll eclipse that mark against the league's best defense with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

From RotoBaller

Allen Lazard Jan 17 2:30pm ET

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard (ankle) is currently questionable for the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. There's certainly a risk for injury, considering he re-aggravated the ankle in last week's playoff game. Still, it's hard to ignore the two-game stretch Lazard had to end the season, where he saw 17 targets. That alone makes him worth a gamble, particularly in a must-win game for a Packers team in desperate need of another threat at receiver. Just beware, the matchup isn't ideal. The 49ers allowed only 172 passing yards to the Vikings last week.

From RotoBaller

Davante Adams Jan 17 1:40pm ET

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams gets a tough matchup against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game this weekend. Adams produced only 43 receiving yards and a score against San Francisco in the regular season but still had 12 targets. The star receiver has seen double-digit targets in nine of 13 games played this year. There's not many receivers that you can virtually pencil in for double-digit targets- but Adams is one of them. If fellow receivers Geronimo Allison (illness) and Allen Lazard (ankle) suit up, they may be limited. Adams could be looking at more work than usual, even in a matchup this difficult.

From RotoBaller

San Francisco 49ers Jan 17 1:30pm ET

The San Francisco 49ers Defense enter Championship weekend as the highest-priced fantasy defense. The Niners face the Green Bay Packers, who they demolished 37-8 in Week 12. In that previous contest, the Niners relentlessly harassed future Hall of Famer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, dropping him five times and forcing a fumble. The Packers were a meager one for 15 on third down conversions. The 49ers will need to follow that blueprint again in the critical NFC Championship to emerge victorious. With a higher-intensity contest expected, it could be difficult to splurge on a defense in fantasy compared to other addressable positions.

From RotoBaller

Deebo Samuel Jan 17 1:00pm ET

San Francisco 49ers wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders both offer solid fantasy value in the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. Both players were limited to under 45 yards apiece in last weekends Divisional Round blowout but were featured early on when the game was still in question. The rookie Samuel has emerged as a consistent dual threat in the latter half of 2019 and is likelier the safer floor. Sanders, the savvy vet has proven himself as a reliable chain-mover with big-play potential. Against the Packers 10th-best pass defense by DVOA, either option seem primed to pop in Sundays winner-take-all battle.

From RotoBaller

Jamaal Williams Jan 17 1:00pm ET

Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams will face off with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game this weekend. Williams has been playing second fiddle to Aaron Jones quite a lot recently, as he hasn't seen double-digit carries since Week 13 against the Giants. It's worth noting that Williams played a large role in the regular-season game against the 49ers, which saw him rack up 18 touches. Green Bay very well could utilize Williams in spurts to keep San Francisco guessing, though his recent downtrend in usage makes him hard to trust.

From RotoBaller

Jimmy Garoppolo Jan 17 12:50pm ET

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is a reasonable DFS bet for Sundays NFC Championship matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Priced as the third-best quarterback, Jimmy G squares off against a strong Packers defensive line that ranked 12th-best in adjusted sack rate during the regular season. Garoppolo was not pressed into service in the Divisional Round blowout win, but will likely be tasked with a tougher test on Sunday. While the Niners have mostly ridden its dominant running game throughout the year, Garoppolo has answered the bell in multiple occasions with three four-touchdown games. With dangerous weapons surrounding him, Garoppolo shouldnt be ruled out in the biggest game of his career to-date.

From RotoBaller

Aaron Jones Jan 17 12:30pm ET

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones will take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game this weekend. The 49ers Defense held Jones to just 38 rushing yards in their regular-season meeting. However, the star back has been playing some seriously good football in his last five games, with 501 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He's also had 20-plus carries in three straight contests. Expect Green Bay to utilize Jones early and often in screens and runs to combat the 49ers mighty pass rush. Even if Jones doesn't pile up over 100 yards, his propensity to find the end zone and role in the passing game make him a safer play this weekend.

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Aaron Rodgers Jan 17 12:10pm ET

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will take on the San Francisco 49ers this weekend with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The 49ers Defense held Rodgers to just 104 passing yards and one touchdown in their regular-season meeting. However, there are a couple things that are different ahead of this matchup. First, tackle Bryan Bulaga will play in this game after being injured in the first quarter against the 49ers previously. Rodgers should have better protection than he had when these teams met. Secondly, Rodgers himself is playing better football than he was during the regular season before this matchup. He has 566 passing yards and four touchdowns in his last two contests. There is also the added motivation of denying a Super Bowl berth to the team that could have drafted him. Play Rodgers on Sunday, despite the tough matchup.

From RotoBaller

Kendrick Bourne Jan 17 12:00pm ET

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne is worth a gamble for Sundays NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. Bourne scored the only receiving touchdown for the Niners in the Divisional Round, adding to his 2019 resume as a legitimate red-zone threat. The third-year pro has just 33 catches this year, including the playoffs, but collected six scores. Despite his risks as a zero-floor fantasy option, Bourne has emerged as a trustworthy target in clutch situations.

From RotoBaller

Raheem Mostert Jan 17 11:40am ET

San Francisco 49ers running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert are both bankable DFS options in Sundays NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. The two backs combined for 163 rushing yards in the Divisional Round, with Coleman riding a hot hand to two touchdowns. Considered a backup for the latter half of the regular season, Coleman played 46 percent of snaps last Sunday compared to Mosterts 34 percent. While the touch forecast for either back is cloudy, the Niners draw one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. The Packers ranked 23rd in rushing DVOA during the regular season with the second-worst defensive line in the league, yielding 4.96 adjusted yards per carry. With a likely floor of 10 touches for each Coleman and Mostert, both runners have great opportunities to make a splash.

From RotoBaller

George Kittle Jan 17 11:30am ET

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (ankle) was a full participant in Thursdays practice and should be fine for Sundays NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. Kittle scared Niner Nation with soreness on the left ankle he chipped earlier this year, but confirms he feels fabulous. Kittle factored more as a blocker in last Sundays Divisional Round blowout but the Niners passed just 19 times. The All-Pro is an integral piece in all facets of the offense so is worth his premium TE1 price in DFS on Sunday.

From RotoBaller

Danny Amendola Jan 17 1:13am ET

Detroit Lions WR Danny Amendola is set to become an unrestricted free agent, but he's a 'prime candidate' to be re-signed, in the opinion of The Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett.

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Antonio Callaway Jan 16 6:33pm ET

Free-agent WR Antonio Callaway (Browns) signed with the Tampa Bay Vipers of the XFL Thursday, Jan. 16.

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LeSean McCoy Jan 16 5:43pm ET

Kansas City Chiefs RB LeSean McCoy (illness) remained out of practice Thursday, Jan. 16.

Fantasy Spin: McCoy played just one offensive snap in last week's Divisional Round game against the Houston Texans. He's clearly behind RB Damien Williams and is no longer worth starting.

From TheHuddle

Morris Claiborne Jan 16 5:43pm ET

Kansas City Chiefs QB Matt Moore (illness) and DT Chris Jones (calf) didn't participate in practice Thursday, Jan. 16. DT Khalen Saunders (knee), CB Morris Claiborne (shoulder), CB Kendall Fuller (knee), DE Tanoh Kpassagnon (neck), C Austin Reiter (wrist) and G Andrew Wylie (ankle) practiced in full.

From TheHuddle

Marcedes Lewis Jan 16 5:33pm ET

Green Bay Packers DL Kenny Clark (back), TE Marcedes Lewis (non-injury), LB Preston Smith (ankle), FB Danny Vitale (knee) and CB Tramon Williams (non-injury) were limited participants in practice Thursday, Jan. 16. S Adrian Amos (chest), OT Bryan Bulaga (non-injury), WR Ryan Grant (non-injury), LB Blake Martinez (hand) and OL Billy Turner (ankle) practiced in full.

From TheHuddle

Travis Kelce Jan 16 5:33pm ET

Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (knee) remained limited at practice Thursday, Jan. 16.

Fantasy Spin: Kelce earned a light practice week while catching 10 of 12 targets for 134 yards and three touchdowns against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round. He's the week's top tight end option once against this week so long as he takes the field.

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