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Spring drills underway, Vikings still trying to lose ‘bitter taste’ of 2018

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) and tackle Rashod Hill (69) react on the sidelines in the fourth quarter of their Dec. 30, 2018, game against Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Vikings arrived this week for offseason workouts, they still had last season’s finale on their minds

To make the playoffs, the Vikings needed a win or a tie Dec. 30 at U.S. Bank Stadium against Chicago, which had clinched the NFC North and didn’t have much on the line. But Minnesota lost, 24-10, and finished a season that had begun with Super Bowl aspirations 8-7-1.

“We left a lot on the table,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “The main goal is to go win the Super Bowl, and we left that on the table. We didn’t achieve our goal, so we have a bitter taste in our mouth.”

Not making the playoffs gave players three extra weeks before the start of spring drills than they had in 2018, when Minnesota advanced to the NFC Championship Game. So, they’ve had plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.

“For me, it feels super long, especially if you don’t make the playoffs,” safety Harrison Smith said this week. “It gets boring. You’re trying to find things for you to stay busy. So, it’s great to be back in the building and have some semblance of preparing for something and working towards a goal together.”

The Vikings failed to make the playoffs despite ranking fourth in the NFL in total defense, their third straight season in the top four. But they were without middle linebacker Eric Kendricks for the final two games of the season because of a hamstring injury.

“I thought if we made a little run, I’d be able to come back and contribute,” Kendricks said.

Instead, Kendricks and teammates cleaned out their lockers the day after losing to the Bears.

“It’s definitely hard when you see everybody in the playoffs, chasing the Super Bowl,” Kendricks said. “That definitely sucks. But it also gives you a chance to reflect on yourself, your own performance a little bit. What you could have done a little bit better, what the team could have done better.”

The defense hasn’t changed much. The most major difference is the absence of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who left for Cleveland as a free agent and will be replaced by Shamar Stephen, who returns after being with Minnesota from 2014-17.

On offense, departures included backup running back Latavius Murray, who signed with New Orleans, and starting guards Mike Remmers and Tom Compton moving on. Remmers was released and Josh Kline was signed as his likely replacement on the right side. Compton joined the New York Jets after not getting an offer to return, and the Vikings eventually signed Jets free agent Dakota Dozier as a candidate to replace him at left guard.

There also were changes on offense with the coaching staff. Gary Kubiak, who coached Denver to a win in Super Bowl 50, was named assistant head coach/offensive adviser and Rick Dennison offensive line coach/run game coordinator. Kevin Stefanski was retained as offensive coordinator after serving in that role for the final three games of 2018.

“Just getting back to work, building a foundation,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We’re learning football all over again, if you will.”

The Vikings are moving forward, but can’t help but look back.

“It’s always hard when you don’t meet expectations,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Everyone knows how our expectations were this time last year, coming off playing in the NFC Championship Game. … We have to earn our way back.”

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