The Vikings finished the 2020 season just 7-9, their worst record since 2014, but there are reasons to be optimistic about this team. For one, their major problem last season was special teams, which tends to have a very high variance on a year-to-year basis. The Vikings ranked 8th in offensive DVOA and 18th in defensive DVOA, but ranked only ahead of the Chargers in special teams DVOA, so if they can have even average special teams play in 2021, that alone could lead to a couple more wins for a team who lost a trio of games by 3 points or fewer in 2020.
First down rate differential shows this as well, as the Vikings finished the season 8th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.69%, ranking 3rd in first down rate over expected at +3.01% and 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.33%. Obviously that defensive performance is concerning, but defensive performance tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than offensive performance and the Vikings are set to get some key defensive players back from injury, which could allow them to much more closely resemble the defense that ranked 13th in first down rate allowed in 2019.
The Vikings’ defense was actually a middling unit for most of the season until bottoming out due to so many key injury absences down the stretch. They will probably have more injuries on offense this season, after finishing with the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020 (as opposed to the 3rd most on defense), but their offense was actually the best in football on early downs last season, which tends to be the most predictive down.
The Vikings ranked 1st in the NFL in first down rate on 1st and 2nd down at 34.78% (the Bills ranked 2nd at 33.83% and the league average was 30.01%) and somewhat ridiculously they converted first downs at a higher rate on 1st and 2nd down than all but four teams did when you include all downs (league average 32.72%). If the Vikings had converted 3rd and 4th downs at a higher than average rate last season (16th at 42.65%), they could have been the best offense in the league.
The Vikings didn’t have much financial flexibility in free agency this off-season and lost some key players as a result, but they did do a good job with the limited financial flexibility they had and they arguably had one of the best drafts in the league. I’ll get into all of that later, but one obvious reason for the Vikings limited financial flexibility is the financial investment they have in Kirk Cousins, who has made 94 million from the Vikings since signing with them 3 seasons ago and is set to make another guaranteed 56 million over the next 2 seasons.
It’s certainly debatable whether Cousins is worth that kind of money, but his performance hasn’t been the problem and, despite his team’s record, he had one of the best seasons of his career last season, ranking 10th among quarterbacks on PFF and completing 67.6% of his passes for an average of 8.27 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He played especially well on first down, averaging a ridiculous 9.26 yards per attempt. His 105.0 QB rating was 8th in the NFL and only the second best of his career only to the 107.4 QB rating he had in 2019, which was also the only season in which he ranked higher on PFF, ranking 5th.
Overall, Cousins has completed 69.0% of his passes for an average of 7.77 YPA, 91 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions in 3 seasons with the Vikings, while never finishing worse than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF. Cousins is still in the prime of his career in his age 33 season and hasn’t finished worse than 20th on PFF in 6 seasons as a starter in his career or missed a game due to injury over that stretch, so there is no reason to expect any sort of drop off from him this season, even if he isn’t necessarily quite as good as he has been over the past couple seasons.
The Vikings didn’t have a short-term need for a quarterback this off-season, but part of why I liked their draft so much was the selection of Kellen Mond with the 66th overall pick at the top of the third round, one of four picks the Vikings had in the third round after some movement around the board, including a move down from 14 to 23 in the first round. In a draft that saw 5 quarterbacks go in the top-15, it was a surprise to see Mond, arguably the best of the rest of the quarterbacks in the draft class, fall all the way to #66.
Mond went two spots behind Jeff Trask, who was the 6th quarterback off the board, but Mond possesses a much higher ceiling and could easily develop into a long-term starter. The Vikings aren’t looking to move on from Cousins any time soon, but if Mond develops as a cheaper replacement in the background, they may opt to move on from Cousins at the end of his current deal in 2022 and, in the short-term, the Vikings lacked a clear backup behind Cousins, a role Mond will likely serve in as a rookie. How he would prove as a rookie is unclear, but Cousins’ durability and consistency will likely make that irrelevant.
One consequence of the Vikings’ lack of financial flexibility this off-season was they released left tackle Riley Reiff, who finished last season above average on PFF in 15 starts, but was owed a non-guaranteed 12.75 million for his age 33 season in 2021 and was let go to free up money to address other areas. That would be a big loss if not for the Vikings selecting Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw in the first round, 23rd overall, after trading down with the Jets. Darrisaw could have some growing pains as a rookie, but was the clear 2nd best pure left tackle prospect in the draft class behind Penei Sewell (Rashawn Slater projects best at right tackle or guard) and should be a plug and play starter who will start in the NFL at the always important left tackle position for a long time. He might not be quite as good as Reiff right away, but his addition was a necessary one on draft day.
The Vikings also used a draft pick, one of their third round picks, on Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis, who could compete to start at left guard, the Vikings’ other offensive line position of need on draft day. Journeyman and 7-year veteran Dakota Dozier made 16 starts at left guard last season, after making just 11 starts in his first 6 seasons in the league, and it did not go well, with Dozier finishing 82nd among 86 eligible guards on PFF. Dozier is going into his age 30 season, so he’s unlikely to get better at this point, but it wouldn’t be hard for Davis to be an upgrade by default if he can get into the starting lineup at some point.
Regardless of who starts at left guard, the Vikings have young talented starters at their other three offensive line spots as well. Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings first round pick in 2019, starts at center, while 2018 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill starts at right tackle, and 2020 2nd round pick Ezra Cleveland starts at right guard. Bradbury struggled as a rookie, finishing 30th out of 37 eligible centers on PFF, but he took a step forward in 2020 and was about an average starter. It’s not what you would want out of a first round pick and Bradbury is a little older than his service time would suggest, going into his age 26 season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take another step forward, even if that’s not a guarantee.
O’Neill is the best of the bunch and probably will be their best offensive lineman overall. He’s taken a step forward in every season in the league, going from a middling starter in 11 starts as a rookie to PFF’s 33rd ranked offensive tackle in 15 starts in 2019 and their 24th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season. The Vikings probably considered moving him to right tackle before selecting Darrisaw because the left side is the more important side, but it was probably best to add a left tackle and leave O’Neill at the position he is playing well.
Ezra Cleveland didn’t take over as the starter until week 6 and only made 9 starts total as a rookie, but he earned PFF’s 29th highest grade for a guard and was an obvious upgrade over Dru Samia, who made 4 starts and finished as PFF’s 85th ranked guard out of 86 eligible. This off-season, the Vikings upgraded on Samia as a reserve, acquiring Mason Cole from the Cardinals for a late round pick.
Cole is an underwhelming offensive lineman, but a serviceable and a versatile one. He’s made 32 career starts and played 4 different positions in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2018 and he provides good insurance on the interior in case of injury. The Vikings also have Rashod Hill as their swing tackle and he’s shown a lot of promise in 17 career starts, so they have good depth overall. Losing Reiff hurts, but this is a talented young offensive line with a high upside across the board.
While the Vikings have an intriguing offensive line, the reason they were so good offensively last season was their offensive skill position players and, if they play at a high level offensively again this season, that will once again be the reason why. The Vikings have a pair of great wide receivers who I will get into later, but this is a team built around the run, which is a big part of why they play so well on early downs.
The difference between Dalvin Cook’s performance on first down and the rest of the downs was not as pronounced last season as Kirk Cousins, but he still averaged 5.48 yards per carry on first down. On top of that, Kirk Cousins had the 5th highest play action QB rating in the league at 122.3 (as opposed to 97.6 on non-play action plays) and Cook’s presence almost definitely was the biggest reason for that. That was also the case in 2019 when Cousins had the 4th highest play action QB rating for the league at 129.2 (97.2 on non-play action plays) alongside Cook having another dominant season.
All in all, Cook has totaled 2,692 yards and 29 touchdowns on 562 carries (4.79 YPC), while adding 97 catches for 880 yards and another touchdown through the air over the past two seasons, and he has earned PFF’s 7th and 3rd highest overall grades for a running back in those two seasons. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cook was known for his durability issues and talent early in his career, rushing for 4.68 YPC, but on just 207 carries in 15 games combined in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s been as durable as any running back in the league over the past two seasons, despite a significant workload. It’s always a risk that a running back gets hurt or slows down after a big workload, especially if they have an injury history, but Cook has a good chance to remain among the league’s best running backs for a third straight season, still only in his age 26 season.
If Cook can’t do that, the Vikings have a good insurance policy in 2019 3rd round pick Alexander Mattison. Mattison doesn’t offer much as a pass catcher, but has averaged 4.57 yards per carry on 196 carries in 2 seasons in the league and should be involved as a backup even if Cook stays healthy, on a team that ranked 8th in the NFL in carries last season. #3 running back Mike Boone also flashed last season with a 5.36 YPC average on 11 carries and, while he’s no longer with the team, the Vikings used a 4th round pick on Iowa State’s Kene Nwangwu, helping to ensure they continue to have good depth at the position. They have one of the best running back groups in the league.
As I mentioned, the Vikings have a pair of great wide receivers. That has been the case for this team since 2016, but from 2016-2019 those two receivers were Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. In 2020, those receivers were Thielen and Justin Jefferson, a rookie wide receiver who the Vikings selected 22nd overall with a draft pick acquired from the Bills in a trade for Stefon Diggs, who was growing upset with being the 1b receiver on a run heavy team and was consequently traded.
The common opinion is that both teams won that trade because both Jefferson and Diggs had incredible seasons in 2020, but that ignores the key factors of age and salary. Diggs certainly isn’t over the hill, now heading into his age 28 season, but he had 55.5 million over 4 years remaining on his contract when acquired, while Jefferson, who is still only going into his age 22 season, is on a rookie deal that will pay him just 13.123 million over the first 4 seasons. Diggs led the league in receiving in his first season in Buffalo and posted a 127/1535/8 slash line overall, but Jefferson finished 4th with a 88/1400/7 slash line, despite playing on a run-heavier team and not breaking into the starting lineup until week 3.
In all, Diggs received 41 more targets than Jefferson and averaged 1.95 yards per target fewer. Yards per route run also showed Jefferson to be the more efficient player, as he ranked 2nd at 2.66, while Diggs ranked 6th at 2.51. Jefferson also had the slight edge in overall grade on PFF, ranking 2nd while Diggs ranked 4th. It’s not as if the Bills lost the trade because Diggs was exactly what their offense needed and we don’t know if they would have selected Jefferson had they not traded the pick, but the Vikings got a comparably good player who is 6 years younger and a fraction of the cost, so they clearly did better for themselves in the deal. Jefferson might not be quite as efficient as he was last season in every season of his career, but it looks obvious that he is going to be one of the best receivers in the league for years to come.
Adam Thielen kind of got lost in Justin Jefferson’s shadow, but also had a solid season himself, finishing with a 74/925/14 slash line on 108 targets, ranking 3rd in the NFL in receiving touchdowns, averaging 1.86 yards per route run, and earning PFF’s 6th highest grade for a wide receiver. Thielen had his 2019 season derailed by injury, but this level of production has become expected from Thielen when healthy, as he’s averaged a 88/1153/8 slash line per 16 games, excluding 2019, and has otherwise missed just 1 game due to injury. He’s also finished in the top-20 among wide receivers on PFF in each of his last four healthy seasons, including three straight healthy seasons in the top-8.
Now going into his age 31 season, it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thielen slow down over the next few years and, either way, he looks likely to take a backseat to Jefferson going forward and operate more as a true #2 receiver. As a #2 receiver, he’s one of the best in the league, even if he’s unlikely to maintain last year’s touchdown rate regardless of whether or not he drops off. Even if Thielen isn’t quite as good as he’s been, he and Jefferson should remain one of the top wide receiver duos in the NFL.
With a wide receiver duo this good and a talented pass catching back in Dalvin Cook, on a team that is more run heavy than pass heavy, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for other pass catchers in this offense. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had been with the team since being selected in the 2nd round in 2011, was disappointed with his role, receiving just 37 targets in 12 games last season, and consequently asked for his release when requested to take a paycut. Rudolph has been a solid player for this team for a long time, but he wasn’t worth his 8.8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary to play a part-time role in what would have been his age 32 season.
Rudolph’s release should free up more playing time for third year tight end Irv Smith, a 2019 2nd round pick who has been splitting playing time with Rudolph since entering the league. Smith has posted slash lines of 36/311/2 on 47 targets and 30/365/4 on 43 targets in two seasons in the league and I would expect a significant increase on that in his 3rd season in the league, as a good portion of the 42.5 targets per season that Rudolph received in 2019-2020 will now be going Smith’s way. He comes with significantly more pass catching upside than the veteran Rudolph, although his blocking still needs some improvement.
Along with Smith’s blocking, the other concern at tight end is their lack of depth. 2018 5th round pick Tyler Conklin is tentatively penciled in as the #2 tight end and should see a significant role in two tight end sets on a team that uses them with above average frequency, but he’s struggled throughout his career on just 869 career snaps, struggling both as a blocker and a receiver (32 career catches in 47 games). He could be a little better by default in 2021, but with only him behind Smith on the depth chart, the Vikings tight end depth is very suspect.
At wide receiver, the Vikings didn’t have another wide receiver aside from Jefferson and Thielen with more than 30 targets and, in all, other Vikings wide receivers saw a total of just 49 passes thrown their way. That number may come up a little bit in 2021, but with the other pass options available on an otherwise run based offense, there just isn’t a lot of opportunity for other wide receivers in this offense, not to mention the fact that the Vikings really lack depth at the position behind Thielen and Jefferson.
Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson split the #3 receiver role last season, playing 314 snaps and 239 snaps respectively, but neither showed much. Neither has a history of success either, as Beebe is a 2018 undrafted free agent who had played 89 career snaps prior to last season, while Johnson is a 2019 7th round pick who saw more playing time as a rookie when Thielen was out (538 snaps played), but hardly did anything with the opportunity, finishing with a 31/294/3 slash line.
The Vikings used a 5th round pick in this year’s draft on the position, taking a player in Ihmir Smith-Marsette who could have gone in the 3rd round and could prove to be a steal, but that’s not a guarantee he’ll contribute as a rookie, even if he probably has the most upside of the Vikings’ options for the #3 receiver job. Regardless of who wins the job, the Vikings badly need both Thielen and Jefferson to stay healthy, as this is a very top heavy receiving corps that lacks depth. All of the pieces are in place for the Vikings to have a dominant offensive season, but they might not be as lucky injury wise as they were last season and lack depth at a couple key spots.
While the Vikings might not be quite as lucky injury wise on offense, they will almost definitely have better injury luck on defense, where the absence of several key players for extended periods of time sunk this defense to among the worst in the league. It’s not hard to see how they could be significantly improved on this side of the ball if they can stay relatively healthy. Arguably their biggest injury absence was edge defender Danielle Hunter, who went down for the season before the season even began.
Hunter was one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2019, finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender and totaling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 14.2% pressure rate, so it’s hard to understate how big his absence was. The Vikings attempted to replace Hunter by trading a 2nd round pick to the Jaguars for the franchise tagged Yannick Ngakoue, but Ngakoue was only a middling player in 6 games and, with a tough start and some bad luck close losses leading to a 1-5 start, the Vikings cut their losses and sent Ngakoue to the Ravens for a third round pick. Without him, the Vikings didn’t have another edge defender who finished the season with more than 3.5 sacks.
Prior to the injury, Hunter had been one of the best pass rushers in the league throughout his career, totaling 54.5 sacks, 32 hits, and a 13.3% pressure rate in 94 career games. It took him a couple years to develop against the run and become a complete player, but he had developed into one of the most complete players in the league at his position. A return to form for Hunter is not guaranteed given the severity of his injury, but prior to the injury, he was as dependable as they come, missing just 2 games in his first 5 seasons in the league, including 48 straight starts from 2017-2019, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, so Hunter’s chances of bouncing back would seem to be better than most. Even if he’s not quite as good as he was in 2019, Hunter’s return to the lineup would be a huge boost for this defense.
The other spot opposite Hunter is still a question mark though. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who led this group with 696 snaps played and 3.5 sacks last season, signed with the Giants this off-season and, while he won’t be hard to replace, the Vikings didn’t add a clear upgrade. Veteran Stephen Weatherly, added in free agency, is the most likely option to start, now actually in his second stint with the team. Drafted by the Vikings in the 7th round in 2016, Weatherly spent his first four seasons in Minnesota before spending last season with the Panthers, but he struggled in Carolina, finishing 107th out of 119 eligible edge defenders on PFF and not recording a sack on 358 snaps in 9 games, and he was subsequently cut 1 year and 6.65 million into a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal.
Weatherly returns to Minnesota on a cheap one-year deal worth just 2.5 million, but he doesn’t come with much bounce back potential because he didn’t play all that well with the Vikings either, most recently finishing 113th out of 121 eligible edge defenders on 422 snaps in 2019. All in all, he’s totaled just 6 sacks, 15 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate in 58 career games and hasn’t been much better against the run.
Weatherly will probably be the week one starter by default, but third round rookie Patrick Jones has the most upside of the bunch and could easily be a starter by season’s end, as part of what looks like a very strong draft class overall. 4th round rookie Janarius Robinson isn’t as exciting of a prospect, but I wouldn’t rule out him having a role as a rookie. DJ Wonnum and Jalyn Holmes, recent 4th round picks in 2020 and 2018 respectively, will also probably be in the mix for snaps, but both struggled on 471 snaps and 617 snaps respectively.
Wonnum has a little more upside of the two, still only in his 2nd season in the league, but Holmes has struggled throughout his career on 748 total career snaps, most noticeably struggling as a pass rusher with just 1 career sack and a miniscule 5.0% pressure rate, and he doesn’t seem like he’s about to turn a corner and develop into a useful contributor. The Vikings will need Danielle Hunter to be something close to his top form because of their lack of other reliable options at the position, but getting anything from Hunter by default should make this group better than it was a year ago.
It wasn’t as big of a loss as Danielle Hunter, but the Vikings also had a key defensive tackle whose season was over before it started, as free agent acquisition Michael Pierce, who the Vikings signed last off-season for 27 million over 3 years, opted out of the season for medical reasons. Pierce will be back in 2021 and the Vikings used some of what limited financial flexibility they had to sign free agent Dalvin Tomlinson to a 2-year, 21 million dollar deal to start opposite Pierce, so after Shamar Stephen (662 snaps), Jaleel Johnson (654 snaps), and Armon Watts (392 snaps) all earned middling or worse grades from PFF as the team’s leaders in snaps played among defensive tackles, the Vikings should be in much better shape at the position this season.
Prior to his opt out, Pierce was one of the best pure run stuffing defensive tackles in the league. He had a bit of a down year in 2019 due to injury, but he finished in the top-14 among interior defenders in run stopping grade in three straight seasons from 2016-2018, including a career best 4th ranked finish in 2018, and even if that was a couple years ago, he’s still theoretically in his prime in his age 29 season.
Pierce is not much of a pass rusher and he’s never topped 594 snaps in a season as primarily a base package player throughout his career, but his 6.9% pressure rate is better than you’d expect from a 340 pounder. He’s a risky projection because of the full missed season, but he should be able to give this defensive line a big boost against the run, even if he isn’t as good as he was at his best.
Tomlinson also is a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he’s a more complete player and a much less risky projection, having played all 64 games in his first 4 seasons in the league and only going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick by the Giants in 2017, Tomlinson has finished in the top-31 among interior defenders on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2019, when he was PFF’s 14th highest ranked interior defender against the run.
Tomlinson only has a career 6.0% pressure rate with 8 career sacks, but he took a big step forward as a pass rusher last season with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate. Even if he can’t quite continue that level of pass rush productivity, he should be a plug and play above average starter for this team based off of his ability against the run and his history of consistently and durability.
Depth is still a concern at the position though, especially since both Tomlinson and Pierce are likely to come off the field in many passing situations. Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, who were the de facto starters last season, are no longer with the team and, while neither played well in their extended action, they could be valuable reserves and the Vikings are now left with fewer options behind their new starters.
Armon Watts is still around, but he didn’t show much on 392 snaps and the same was true for him as a rookie in 2019, when the 6th round pick played just 121 snaps. James Lynch, who the Vikings selected in the 4th round in 2020, could see a bigger role in his second season in the league, but it’s hard to expect too much from him if he couldn’t get on the field for more than 59 snaps in a weak position group as a rookie. The Vikings used a 6th round pick in this past draft on Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman, who could have easily gone in the 3rd or 4th round and who easily could prove to be a steal, but that doesn’t ensure he’ll be able to contribute in any meaningful way as a rookie. Pierce and Tomlinson are a solid starting duo, but depth remains a concern at this position.
The Vikings also had injury issues in their linebacking corps, with their two talented every down linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr both missing extended action with injury. Barr went down for the season week 2 after just 94 snaps played on the season, while Kendricks missed the final 5 games of the season, which coincided with this defense bottoming out at the end of the season. On top of that, the Vikings tried to improve their depth at linebacker this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and signing veteran Nick Vigil in free agency.
Eric Wilson (1,034 snaps) and Todd Davis (201 snaps), who struggled in significant action last season, are no longer with the team and, while Troy Dye (281 snaps) is still around, he’s a 2020 4th round pick who could still develop long-term and it doesn’t look like he’ll be any higher than the 5th linebacker on the depth chart, with Kendricks and Barr retaining their every down roles and Surratt and Vigil likely to compete for the third linebacker spot.
Kendricks has only played all 16 games once in 6 seasons in the league, but last season was also the first time he had ever missed more than 2 games in a season and, prior to going down with injury, he had been one of the best linebackers in the league over the past two seasons, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s 1st ranked off ball linebacker and ranking 4th at his position in 2020 at the time he got hurt.
Kendricks had never played at that level prior to 2019, but he’s been a consistent starter since entering the league as a 2nd round pick in 2015 (81 career starts) and he has taken his game to another level over the past two seasons. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect him to regress this season and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he has been over the past two seasons, he should still be one of the best every down middle linebackers in the league.
Barr isn’t quite as good, as the 3rd ranked season on PFF among off ball linebackers that he had in 2015 stands out as a huge outlier in his 7-year career, but he’s also earned an above average grade for his play in all but one healthy season as a starter and, prior to last season, he had only missed 11 games in 6 seasons in the league. A first round pick in 2014, Barr has started all 87 career games he’s played, playing an average of 61.9 snaps per game, showing ability in coverage, against the run, and as a pass rusher (15 sacks, 28 hits, and 18.6% pressure rate on an average of 7.6 pass rush snaps per game). Still only in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect any sort of significant drop off from him this season.
At the third linebacker spot, the veteran Vigil may be the favorite to start week one, but the Vikings are probably hoping Chazz Surratt can win the job at some point. Not only does Surratt have the higher long-term upside, but it wouldn’t take much for him to be a short-term upgrade, as Vigil has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 5 seasons in the league. He has plenty of experience, playing 2,839 snaps in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s mostly just shown himself to have a limited ceiling as a player. Even if he does win the job, the third linebacker comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, so Vigil is unlikely to exceed the 312 snaps he played last season regardless. This has the potential to be a strong group thanks to the return of Kendricks and Barr and the addition of Surratt as a high upside young option.
The Vikings also had a key player miss time with injury in the secondary as third round rookie Cameron Dantzler, who was their best cornerback when healthy, missed 5 games. When on the field, Dantzler played 601 snaps and made 10 starts in 11 games, while finishing as PFF’s 28th highest grade for a cornerback. Even with the time missed due to injury, Dantzler showed himself to have a bright future and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in a full season in 2021, though that’s not necessarily a given.
Dantzler was one of three cornerbacks the Vikings drafted last off-season, along with 1st round pick Jeff Gladney and 5th round pick Harrison Hand. Neither Gladney nor Hand has nearly as bright of a future as Dantzler though. Gladney struggled as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 110th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible in 15 starts and, while he would have been a strong candidate for a second year leap, he was arrested this off-season on serious charges that could end his career if proven true. In the short-term, Gladney’s status for the start and all of the 2021 season are very much in doubt. Hand, meanwhile, played just 163 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a projection to a larger role, if he can even earn one.
Fortunately, the Vikings did sign Patrick Peterson in free agency, even before the news broke about Gladney, one of two big free agent signings they made this off-season. Peterson was once one of the best cornerbacks in the league and, while he seems past his prime, going into his age 31 season off of back-to-back middling seasons, he should still be a capable starter and a stabilizing veteran presence for a Vikings team that needed one even before Gladney’s arrest. His deal is only for one season and may prove to be an overpay at 8 million, given the depressed market overall this off-season, but he’ll fill a big hole as the starter opposite Dantzler.
The Vikings also brought in another two veteran cornerbacks in free agency, ex-Chiefs Bashaud Breeland and a familiar face in Mackensie Alexander, a 2016 second round pick who spent the first four seasons of his career in Minnesota before playing for the Bengals in 2020 on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal. Alexander wasn’t bad on a career high 642 snaps for the Bengals last season and has proven himself as a capable 3rd and 4th cornerback for the Vikings in the past, so he could prove to be a great value on a deal that barely pays him over a million for a season to return to Minnesota.
Breeland, meanwhile, has been a starter for most of his 7-year career, starting 88 of 94 career games and, while he’s been somewhat inconsistent, he’s generally been a solid starter with the exception of a couple seasons. One of those exceptions was 2019, when he finished 122nd among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 912 snaps with the Chiefs, but he bounced back well in 2020, finishing 36th among cornerbacks across 690 snaps, the 2nd best finish of his career behind his 21st ranked 2015 season. He’s not the most reliable player, but he’s a good cheap option for this team to add at a position of need. The addition of Alexander and Breeland ensures the Vikings won’t need to rely on Gladney for a big role in 2021 and the Vikings also used a 4th round pick on Camryn Bynum, who could have easily gone a round earlier.
At safety, the Vikings lost Anthony Harris to the Eagles on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal, but Harris had a down year in 2020, finishing 38th among eligible safeties on PFF, after finishing 5th and 3rd in 2018 and 2019 respectively, so he might not really be missed, especially since the Vikings did a great job of replacing him with former Cowboys safety Xavier Woods on a one-year deal worth just 1.75 million.
Woods had a down year with the Cowboys last season as just about everyone on that defense did, but he still earned about a middling grade from PFF, after earning above average grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season, including a career best 28th in 2019. A mere 6th round pick in 2017, Woods has already started 48 games and is only going into his age 26 season. He could prove to be one of the biggest steals of the off-season in the likely event he bounces back to his pre-2020 form, now away from that horrible Dallas defensive scheme.
Woods will start opposite Harrison Smith, a mainstay on this defense who stood out as their best defensive player throughout last season. Smith may be slowing down a little bit, as he is going into his age 32 season now and his 15th ranked finish among safeties on PFF last season was his 2nd lowest since 2014, but that is just a reminder of how good he has been over the years. At his best, he’s finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF 4 times in his 9-year career. Even if he continues to slow down, he should remain a solid starter at least for another couple seasons. The Vikings’ safety depth is suspect, but the rookie Camryn Bynum could potentially move to safety if needed and overall this is a solid secondary on what looks like a much improved defensive unit.
The Vikings were one of the worst special teams in the league last season, finishing 31st in special teams DVOA. They had a lot of problems, but their worst spot was kicker, with Dan Bailey finishing dead last among kickers on PFF, making just 86.0% of his extra points and 68.2% of his field goals, including just 9/16 on field goals from 30+ yards. Bailey is gone and the Vikings will almost definitely have a better kicking situation by default, but they still don’t have a reliable kicker, with veteran Greg Joseph and undrafted rookie Riley Patterson set to compete for the starting job.
Joseph was the Browns’ kicker in 2018, but he finished 32nd among 36 eligible kickers on PFF, going 25/29 on extra points and 17/20 on field goals, with a long of just 51 yards. He made all 9 extra points for the Titans in two games last season, but didn’t attempt a field goal and doesn’t have an impressive track record from his collegiate days, making just 69.5% of his field goals in college, including just 2/6 from 50+ yards. He probably won’t be as bad as Bailey was in 2020, but he figures to struggle if he wins the job.
The same is true of Patterson, who was only had a slightly more impressive collegiate career than Joseph and was never a real candidate to be drafted, after making 77.1% of his collegiate field goals, including just 68.2% in his senior year, and 9/18 on 50+ yard field goals as a 4-year starter. He might be the better option by default, but it’s up for grabs who wins this job. Bailey also struggled on kickoffs last season, but it’s unclear if his replacement will be any better in 2021. A big part of their kickoff issues can be attributed to their supporting cast, which the Vikings also needed to upgrade significantly this off-season.
The Vikings also had big problems in the punting game last season, in part because of that supporting cast, but also because of punter Britton Colquitt, who finished 35th among 40 eligible punters on PFF. The Vikings didn’t add any competition for Colquitt this off-season, but last season was the worst season of the 12-year veteran’s career and, only in his age 36 season, which is still relatively young for a punter, he has a good chance to bounce back in 2021. Even if he isn’t quite as good as he was in 2019 when he was PFF’s 4th ranked punter, he should be better in 2021, which will definitely benefit this team. The Vikings still have concerns at kicker, but it wouldn’t be hard for them to get better play from both the kicker and punter spot in 2021.
The one area where the Vikings did not finish below average in DVOA last season was their kickoff return unit, which barely scored a positive mark. Ameer Abdullah (23.5 yards per on 15 returns) and KJ Osburn (21.6 yards per on 14 returns) were their primary kickoff returners and will face competition for the job from 4th round rookie running back Kene Nwangwu and 5th round wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who averaged 28.7 yards per return and two touchdowns on 53 returns and 26.8 yards per return and 1 touchdown on 92 returns respectively as collegiate returners.
Osburn also returned punts last season, but struggled in that aspect, as did the rest of the team, which combined to average 4.3 yards per return on 16 punt returns. Chad Beebe was their other primary punt returner along with Osburn, but he has just a 5.5 yards per return average for his career. Neither of the Vikings rookie kickoff returners have punt return experience, but fortunately, the Vikings did add Dede Westbrook in free agency and he has a career 9.8 yards per punt average across 47 returns with a touchdown in his career. He seems likely to win the punt return job over Beebe and Osburn. Like at kicker and punter, the Vikings could easily get better play from the kickoff and punt return spot in 2021.
Even if the Vikings get better play out of their kicker, punter, and returners, they will still need to get better play out of their supporting special teamers to be significantly improved on special teams in 2021. The Vikings had some special teamers who were solid overall players last season, but they didn’t have a single player who saw more than 150 snaps and finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF and they had some other players who were clear weaknesses.
They added Nick Vigil in free agency and he had a better season than any Vikings special teamer did a year ago, finishing 63rd among special teamers on PFF across 211 snaps, but he has an inconsistent history and might only prove to be a replacement for Hardy Nickerson, a solid, but unspectacular player across 229 snaps last season, who is no longer with the team. The Vikings also added Mike Boone, who played 230 snaps on special teams last season, but he struggled, so he could be addition by subtraction.
Aside from that, the Vikings’ other big move this off-season was letting go of special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf and replacing him with long-time assistant Sam Ficken. Normally shaking up leadership after a terrible special teams year is a good idea, but it’s not a guarantee they’ll be significantly better in 2021. Josh Metellus (257 snaps), Tyler Conklin (186 snaps), Harrison Hand (144 snaps), Ryan Connelly (196 snaps), Dan Chisena (255 snaps), and CJ Ham (215 snaps) are their best returning special teamers were a year ago, but only Ham is proven over more than one season, with the others coming off the best seasons of their career and likely to not all be as good again in 2021.
Meanwhile, Ameer Abdullah (250 snaps), Troy Dye (141 snaps), Olabisi Johnson (119 snaps), and Kris Boyd (116 snaps) all struggled last season and don’t have any history of success, so they would likely struggle again in a significant role. This group might not be that bad this season, especially if they benefit from new coaching and contributions from their rookie class, but they will likely hold this group back from being significantly improved even with other upgrades elsewhere. I wouldn’t expect this to be a terrible special teams unit again in 2021, but I would guess they would be below average.
The Vikings went just 7-9 last season, but injuries and bad special teams were a big part of the problem and both of those things should be better in 2021 due to sheer regression to the mean. They were in a tough situation this off-season from a financial flexibility situation, but they made the most of the resources they had, including a draft class that looks like it could potentially be one of the most impactful in the league in year one.
With a potentially dominant offense and defensive and special teams units that look likely to be better after being among the worst in the league last season, the Vikings should be in playoff contention in the NFC and, with uncertainty in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers’ long-term situation, Minnesota could easily sneak in and win the division, with both Chicago and Detroit both having a less promising outlook. I will have a final prediction for the Vikings at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: Special teams is more predictive than I thought, which isn’t a good thing for the Vikings, but they should be better on special teams this season, even if it remains a weakness, and they’ve done a great job of shoring up weaknesses on the rest of this roster, adding Dede Westbrook to be the #3 receiver, Sheldon Richardson to give more depth at the interior defense spot, and Bashaud Breeland to give them another veteran cornerback. They could play well enough on both sides of the ball to contend despite underwhelming special teams play.
9/4/21: Irv Smith’s injury hurts this offense a little, as their projected starting tight end is expected to miss the entire season, but left tackle Christian Darrisaw’s injury seems less concerning than originally expected, with the left tackle avoiding injured reserve to begin the season, while their defense has counted to add valuable veteran pieces with the re-addition of Everson Griffen, who spent 2010-2019 with the Vikings and could still have some juice left as a situational pass rusher. The Vikings’ offense might not be quite as good as a year ago, but their starting from a high base point, while their defense seems likely to be significantly improved due to better depth and health. With the Packers likely to take a small step back, the Vikings are a value bet to win the NFC North.
Prediction: 11-6 1st in NFC North