Going into the 2021 season, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was firmly on the hot seat. He had made the post-season in 3 of his 7 seasons in Minnesota, including an NFC Championship appearance, and he overall had a winning record throughout his tenure, but head coaches usually don’t make it as long with team as Zimmer did without building a consistent winner or making a Super Bowl, so, going into his 8th season as head coach in 2021, having missed the playoffs the year prior, a second straight missed post-season would likely spell the end of Zimmer’s tenure following the 2021 season.
There were reasons to be optimistic about the Vikings going into last season though. The Vikings were a middling overall team in 2020 at 7-9, but they had an offense that ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency, with the team struggling to consistently win games as a result of their 28th ranked defense and their 31st ranked special teams, which are both less predictive year-to-year than offensive performance. The Vikings also figured to be significantly healthier and more talented on defense in 2021, as they were set to get key players back from injury after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league in 2020, and they were also adding some additional talent in free agency.
Things did not go as planned, however. The Vikings were barely healthier and barely better on defense, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and 19th in adjusted games lost to injury on defense, with many of the same key players missing time again in 2021. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ offense fell off significantly, despite very similar personnel, in large part due to a significant downgrade at the offensive coordinator position, with Klint Kubiak struggling mightily to fill in his father Gary Kubiak’s shoes following the long-time coordinator’s retirement last off-season. The Vikings again finished out of the playoffs at 8-9 and Zimmer was predictably let go, along with the rest of his coaching staff.
As teams often do after firing a head coach, the Vikings found basically Zimmer’s opposite, replacing an older, stricter, defensive minded head coach in Zimmer with a younger, more innovative, offensive coach in Kevin O’Connell, who is just 37 years old and spent the past two seasons as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams. O’Connell never called plays with the Rams, but he did in his one year as the offensive coordinator in Washington, so he has varied experience, despite his young age, and the recent track record of hires from the McVay coaching tree has been positive, with Brandon Staley, Matt LaFleur, and Zac Taylor all having success away from the Rams.
O’Connell brings former Rams tight end coach Wes Phillips with him from Los Angeles as his offensive coordinator, but O’Connell is expected to call the plays himself for what figures to be a much different, more innovative, pass heavy, and up tempo offensive scheme in 2022. Whether that leads to better results remains to be seen, but it would be hard for the Vikings to get less out of their talent on offense than they did a year ago, when they had a mediocre efficiency rating despite some very talented players who led this team to an elite efficiency rating just the prior year.
Along with almost everyone, quarterback Kirk Cousins saw his play decline from 2020 to 2021, with his completion percentage falling from 67.6% to 66.3%, his YPA average falling from 8.27 to 7.52, and his total passing yard total falling by 4, despite the fact that he threw 45 more passes. Cousins remained an above average starter though, as he has been since his first full season as a starter in 2015, completing 67.7% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 205 touchdowns, and 72 interceptions over that stretch, while finishing average or better on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4th finishes in the top-10.
Cousins has also never missed a game with injury over that stretch, although a late season COVID absence last year led to backup Sean Mannion starting and struggling in a key game in his absence, which had an effect on their season long efficiency. Cousins is only going into his age 34 season though and, barring another fluke absence, has a good chance to remain an above average starter and play the full season again in 2022.
The biggest problem with Cousins is his contract, which pays him like an elite quarterback even though he doesn’t regularly perform like one, which prevents the Vikings from having the financial flexibility needed to get all the talent around Cousins that he needs to be successful and potentially lead this team to a Super Bowl, with Cousins set to make 70 million over the next two seasons. At the same time, it’s hard to find a good starting quarterback and, while the Vikings tried to find a cheaper long-term replacement for Cousins when they selected Kellen Mond in the 3rd round in the 2021 NFL Draft, he reportedly struggled behind the scenes as a rookie and didn’t even get on the field over career backup Mannion when Cousins was out.
Mond still has potential, but he doesn’t look like a long-term starter at this point and could easily fail to win the #2 quarterback job for the second straight year, with Mannion still around. Mannion has attempted just 110 passes in 7 seasons in the league, on which he has just a 66.2 career QB rating, so he is a very underwhelming backup option, meaning it would be very telling if Mond couldn’t beat him out for the second straight year. The Vikings should get good quarterback play from Cousins again, but they would be in trouble if he happened to suffer a significant injury for the first time in his career as a starter.
Along with Cousins, almost all of the Vikings’ skill position players were less efficient in 2021 than in 2020. Top receiver Justin Jefferson saw his slash line jump from 88/1400/7 to 108/1616/10, but he also saw 42 more targets and ran significantly more routes on a pass-heavier offense, with his yards per target dropping from 11.2 to 9.7 and his yards per route run dropping from 2.66 to 2.59. Jefferson is still an elite receiver any way you look at it though, finishing 2nd and 3rd among wide receivers on PFF over the past two seasons, and still only going into his age 23 season. It would be an upset if he wasn’t one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come and he should be considered to be among the favorites to lead the league in receiving, serving in the Cooper Kupp role on this offense.
In addition to worse coaching with a new offensive coordinator, the Vikings also weren’t as healthy on offense in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 5th in adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020 to 21st in 2021. One key player who missed time in 2021 after staying mostly healthy the year before is wide receiver Adam Thielen, who fell from a 74/925/14 slash line in 15 games in 2020 to a 67/726/10 slash line in 13 games in 2020, with his efficiency declining as well, going from 8.6 yards per target and 1.86 yards per route run in 2020 to 7.6 and 1.63 respectively in 2021.
Thielen was one of the best wide receivers in the league in his prime, averaging a 91/1205/6 slash line per season from 2016-2018 with 2.13 yards per route run, but that has fallen to 1.77 yards per route run with no thousand yard seasons over the past three seasons, a stretch in which he has also missed 11 games with injury, after not missing any previously in his career. Now going into his age 32 season, Thielen’s best days are almost definitely behind him and he’s much more of a secondary receiver than a primary receiver at this stage in his age career, but it’s possible he could remain an above average #2 receiver for at least another couple seasons. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off completely this season, even if he does continue declining.
Another key player who was hurt last season was tight end Irv Smith, a 2019 2nd round pick who averaged 1.30 yards per route run in 2020, while flashing potential in run blocking as a part-time player in his first two seasons in the league. Smith was set to take on a much larger role in 2021 with veteran Kyle Rudolph no longer with the team, but Smith didn’t play a snap all year due to a knee injury. Instead it was former #3 tight end Tyler Conklin who was forced into the primary tight end role, despite being a former late round pick who struggled in minimal action in his first three seasons in the league prior to last season.
Conklin wasn’t horrible and had a decent 61/593/3 slash line, but he did that mostly on volume, as he wasn’t efficient, with 1.24 yards per route run and 6.8 yards per target, and he struggled as a run blocker as well. He’s no longer with the team after signing with the Jets this off-season, so Irv Smith will get the chance to be the starter this season that he missed last season and, still only in his age 24 season, it’s very possible he could have a mini-breakout year and be a solid starter, assuming he can stay healthy.
Depth is a big problem behind Smith though, with their reserve options being 2021 5th round pick Zach Davidson, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, 7th round rookie Nick Muse, who is very raw, Ben Ellefson, who has just 1 career catch, and, probably the most likely option to win the job, Johnny Mundt, who has spent the past five seasons with the Rams with McVay, but has never played more than 213 offensive snaps in a season and has averaged just 0.93 yards per route run. Mundt has experience in the system, but the former undrafted free agent doesn’t bring much else to the table, as a pass catcher or run blocker. It would be a big problem if Smith missed time again.
With Smith and Thielen missing time last season, the Vikings involved #3 wide receiver KJ Osborn more than they were probably expecting to, giving the 2020 5th round pick 82 targets, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Osborn wasn’t particularly effective though, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run, and, while it’s possible he could keep his job and be better in his second full season in the league in 2022, he’s also likely to face competition from 2021 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who only played 86 snaps as a rookie, but flashed potential with 1.73 yards per route run.
Even if Smith-Marsette doesn’t win the starting job, he should be a good #4 wide receiver, with veteran Albert Wilson also around as a low end depth option, in his age 30 season with a 1.34 yards per route run average for his career. Justin Jefferson elevates this group significantly by himself, but they could be better behind him this season, with Irv Smith and Adam Thielen probably being healthier and KJ Osborn possibly being better now with another full year under his belt. This is an above average group overall.
The Vikings were also not as effective on the ground in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 4th in the NFL with 4.88 YPC to 19th in the NFL with 4.30 YPC. Feature back Dalvin Cook saw his effectiveness fall off a little bit, from 4.99 YPC to 4.65 YPC, but the bigger problem was that Cook was one of the Vikings’ key players who missed time with injury in 2021, carrying the ball just 249 times in 13 games, after carrying the ball 312 times in 2020. That forced backup Alexander Mattison into significant action, in which he struggled mightily, averaging just 3.66 YPC on 134 carries and driving the team average down significantly, while finishing as PFF’s 57th ranked running back out of 64 eligible on the season in overall grade.
Cook has been the Vikings feature back for the past three seasons, totaling 4.75 YPC and 35 touchdowns on 811 carries, but durability has been a problem for him throughout his career, as he’s never surpassed 14 games played in a season and has missed 25 games total in 5 seasons in the league, and it’s unlikely to get better going forward, with Cook getting up there in age and usage for a running back, going into his age 27 season with 1200 career touches. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off suddenly this season and he should remain a true feature back, but he’ll probably miss at least a little time with injury again.
Cook also might not have quite as many carries per game on a pass-heavier offense in 2022, but he could compensate for that with increased usage in the passing game. Cook has been pretty good in the passing game in his career, with a 1.37 yards per route run average in total, but that surprisingly fell off to 0.85 last season. He might not bounce all the way back as a pass catcher, but I would expect him to be more involved and more effective in that aspect than a year ago, in a pass-heavier system.
Mattison also didn’t do much in the passing game last season, averaging 1.16 yards per route run, in line with the 1.19 yards per route run he has averaged in three seasons in the league, since being selected by the Vikings in the 3rd round in 2019. Mattison also hasn’t been effective as a runner either in his career. His career 4.20 YPC average on 330 carries isn’t horrible, but he has finished dead last out of 45 eligible, 37th out of 47 eligible, and 43rd out of 50 eligible in carry success rate in his three seasons in the league, on rates of 38%, 47%, and 44% respectively, meaning he hasn’t consistently kept this offense on schedule when given opportunity (for comparison, Cook is at 49%, 56%, and 47% over the past three seasons).
Mattison will likely remain the #2 back and still may have untapped upside in his age 24 season, but he’s mostly in that role for lack of a better option, as 2021 4th round pick Kene Nwangwu is more of a return specialist than a running back and had just 17 rookie year touches, while 5th round rookie Ty Chandler has upside and could replace Mattison as the #2 back in 2023 and beyond, with Mattison heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but is unlikely to make a significant positive impact as a rookie. Dalvin Cook is one of the better running backs in the league, but he has durability issues and the Vikings have depth issues behind him.
Another key player who missed time on this offense last season was left tackle Christian Darrisaw, their 2021 first round pick and a replacement for long-time left tackle Riley Reiff, who was a big part of their offensive success in 2020, finishing 40th among offensive tackles on PFF in 15 starts. Darrisaw proved to be a solid replacement when on the field, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 35th ranked offensive tackle, but an off-season injury delayed the start of his career and limited him to just 10 starts total. Now healthier and going into his second season in the league, Darrisaw is an obvious candidate to take a step forward and should remain at least a solid starter even if he doesn’t improve. Just having him healthy for all or most of the season will help this offense.
Most of the rest of this group was the rest from 2020 to 2021 and will remain that way in 2022, with Ezra Cleveland remaining at left guard, Garrett Bradbury remaining at center, and Brian O’Neill remaining at right tackle. Bradbury missed 4 games with injury last season, but his return won’t be a big deal, as the 2019 1st round pick has been a mediocre player since entering the league, making 45 starts over the past three seasons, but finishing 31st out of 41 eligible centers, 28th out of 39 eligible centers, and 29th out of 36 eligible centers respectively on PFF.
It’s possible Bradbury could have some untapped upside and have his best year yet in his 4th season in the league in 2022, but he was an old rookie and is already in his age 27 season, so it looks unlikely he’ll ever develop into more than a capable starter. The Vikings understandably declined his 5th year option for 2023, which would have guaranteed him 13.202 million, so this could easily be his final season in Minnesota. He’ll remain the starter for lack of a better option, but I don’t expect much from him, even if he can stay healthier than a year ago.
Cleveland and O’Neill, meanwhile, made every start in their position last season and both had comparable seasons in 2021 as opposed to 2020. Cleveland was just a 2nd round rookie in 2020, but finished as PFF’s 29th ranked guard in 9 starts and then ranked 30th last season. Only in his age 24 season, Cleveland should remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the ability to develop into a consistently above average starting guard long-term. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in his third year in the league.
O’Neill is probably the Vikings’ best offensive lineman, having finished 34th, 24th, and 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF across 48 of a possible 49 starts over the past three seasons and still only going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick in 2018, O’Neill was extended on a 5-year, 92.5 million dollar deal last year, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league. It’s a steep price, but he’s one of the best players in the league at his position, so it’s not a bad contract.
The only new starter on this line will be at right guard, which is a good thing because that was a huge position of weakness in free agency. The Vikings signed experienced veteran Jesse Davis in free agency, who has made 72 starts in the past five seasons, seeing action at both guard and tackle, but they’re probably hoping out of their young guards can step up and take the job, as Davis hasn’t been more than a marginal starter in his career, regardless of where he plays, and now heads into his age 31 season. He would be best as a versatile reserve.
Those young guards are 2021 3rd round pick Wyatt Davis and rookie 2nd round pick Ed Ingram. Ingram looks like a future starter, but might not necessarily play well as a rookie, while Davis didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the selection of Ingram in this year’s draft is not a good sign for his long-term future. Right guard could easily remain a position of weakness, but they at least have some young players with upside and it wouldn’t be hard for whoever starts to be an upgrade on last year’s starter Oli Udoh, who was PFF’s 72nd ranked guard among 90 eligible across 16 starts.
Whichever guards lose the right guard competition will be their primary reserves, along with Udoh, who can also play some tackle if needed, albeit probably not at a high level, with the 2019 6th round pick struggling mightily in the first extended starting action of his career in 2021. It’s a bit of a concerning depth situation, but they don’t have a bad starting five and, if they can stay relatively healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were an above average unit.
As I mentioned, the Vikings have had a lot of defensive injuries over the past two seasons and by far the most important player who has missed significant time for them over those two seasons is edge defender Danielle Hunter, who missed all of 2020 with a back injury and then had his 2021 season ended by a torn pectoral after 384 snaps in 7 games. That was a huge loss because, prior to 2020, Hunter had been a top-19 edge defender on PFF in 3 of the previous 4 seasons, playing the run well and adding a total of 48.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate, while playing all 64 games (49.1 snaps per game) over those 4 seasons, including a career best 2019 season, finishing 7th among edge defenders and totaling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate.
Hunter still showed some of that form in 2021 before getting hurt again, ranking 12th among edge defenders at the time of his injury and totaling 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate as a pass rusher, despite missing more than half of the season, and he’s still only in his age 28 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back if he can stay on the field in 2022. That’s far from a guarantee and he probably won’t be quite as good as his career best year in 2019, but he should be at least an above average every down option on edge as long as he’s on the field.
Opposite Hunter, the Vikings added a free agent who is also coming off of a serious injury, but who also has a high upside if he can stay healthy, ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith, who joins the Vikings on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. That could prove to be a steal, as Smith finished 41st, 2nd, and 15th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, totaling 34.5 sacks, 56 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate in 48 games, in addition to holding up against the run, but Smith also comes with a lot of risk, given that he missed all but 18 snaps last season with a back injury and now heads into his age 30 season.
He doesn’t have much of an injury history outside of last season (6 games missed in his 6 seasons in the league prior to last season) and he’s not totally over the hill yet, so he has a good given to remain an above average player when on the field, even if he’s highly unlikely to match his career best year from 2019 and even if he has durability concerns. He and Hunter have a ton of upside as an edge defender duo, but they also come with a lot of downside because of their recent injury history.
With Hunter missing most of last season, DJ Wonnum led this position group with 951 snaps last season, but he was terrible, finishing 117th among 129 edge defenders and managing just 8 sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate, despite getting all of that action, and, with Hunter retain and Smith being added, Wonnum is expected to be the 3rd edge defender at best, barring injury ahead of him on the depth chart. An injury is certainly possible, but if Hunter and Smith stay relatively healthy, this edge defender group should be better not just because of the performance of Hunter and Smith, but because it pushes Wonnum into a smaller role, where the 2020 4th round pick could prove to be more effective.
Wonnum also struggled with only a 8.1% pressure rate in a part-time role as a rookie and he could continue to struggle in 2022, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and, even if doesn’t take a step forward, he almost definitely won’t have to play as much as he did a year ago. He’ll compete for reserve roles with a pair of second year players Patrick Jones and Janarius Robinson, who only played 99 snaps and 0 snaps respectively as rookies, despite a need at the position, but who still have the upside to take a step forward in year two in 2022. This should be a much more talented edge defender group than a year ago, barring the absolute worst case scenario where both Hunter and Smith miss most of the season again.
Another key defensive player who didn’t play much for the Vikings over the past two seasons was interior defender Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season and then was limited to just 251 snaps in 8 games last season by injury in 2021. The Vikings cut him this off-season ahead of a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2022, even though he was still PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in his limited action last season, but they did a good job replacing him with free agent addition Harrison Phillips, who comes to Minnesota on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal, after spending his first four seasons in the league with the Bills, who drafted him in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft.
As a rookie, Phillips was a solid run stuffer, but only played 389 snaps in a pure base package role and he had just a 4.5% pressure rate. Then in his second season, he tore his ACL after 77 snaps in three games and did not appear the same upon his return in 332 snaps in 12 games in 2020. Phillips looked a lot healthier a year later though, finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender, playing the run well and also posting a career high 8.6% pressure rate.
Phillips is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and it only came on a snap count of 473 total snaps, which is still a career high for the 4-year career, but he’s still in his early prime in his age 26 season and he at least has a good chance to remain an above average starting interior defender, or at least a high level rotational player. With Pierce missing a lot of last season, Phillips is more of a replacement for capable starter Sheldon Richardson (688 snaps) than anything, but he should be an upgrade on Richardson and more durable than Pierce.
Phillips figures to start opposite another recent free agent acquisition, ex-Giant Dalvin Tomlinson, who was signed to a 2-year, 21 million dollar deal last off-season and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender across 641 snaps in his first season in Minnesota, playing the run well and adding 2.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. That’s in line with how the 2017 2nd round pick played in his first four seasons in the league, when he finished 22nd, 31st, 17th, 25th among interior defenders on PFF and totaled 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate, while playing 617 snaps per season. Still only in his age 28 season, having missed just 1 game in 5 seasons in the league, I don’t see any reason to expect anything different from him this season.
Armon Watts also returns after playing a significant role last season (669 snaps) and figures to see a significant role again. A 6th round pick in 2019, Watts showed promise on snap counts of 121 and 392 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, before earning an average grade from PFF in his first significant role in 2021, struggling against the run, but earning PFF’s 31st highest pass rush grade among interior defenders on PFF, while totaling 5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate. Watts is now going into his age 26 season and, while he might not have a big upside, he has a good chance to remain at least a solid rotational player on 500-600 snaps, with Phillips and Tomlinson also to likely be around similar snap counts, as long as everyone is healthy.
James Lynch also saw a limited role at the interior defender position for the Vikings last season, but the 2020 4th round pick struggled mightily, finishing as PFF’s 114th ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 304 snaps, after also struggling on 59 snaps as a rookie. Only in his age 23 season, it’s possible he could be better in 2022, but even if he’s better, that doesn’t mean he’ll even be a passable rotational player. He probably isn’t guaranteed a role, with his top competition likely to come from Jaylen Twyman, a 2021 6th round pick who missed his rookie season with injury, but who is now healthier and still has upside. This is a solid overall position group.
Every down off ball linebacker Anthony Barr also missed a lot of time over the past two seasons, limited to just 2 games and 11 games in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Barr had been a good starter for the Vikings for several seasons and was still PFF’s 32nd ranked off ball linebacker across 783 snaps in 2021, but he was going into his age 30 season in 2022 and the Vikings opted not to bring him back as a free agent, replacing him with another player in his age 30 season who the Vikings are hoping will be more durable, Jordan Hicks, signing as a free agent on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season.
Hicks had injury problems early in his career, with the 2015 3rd round pick missing 21 games across his first four seasons in the league, but he hasn’t missed a game in three years since. His age is a concern and he hasn’t been the same player in recent years as he was early in his career, when he finished 11th, 3rd, and 13th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, 2016, and 2018 respectively, but he was still PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker in 2021 across 61.9 snaps per game as a 17-game every down starter with the Cardinals and, even if he’s unlikely to ever return to his top form, he could definitely repeat that same season in his new home in Minnesota, not totally over the hill yet.
Hicks will start alongside another every down player Eric Kendricks. Kendricks hasn’t missed as much time over the past two seasons as other key Vikings defenders, but he did miss 5 games in 2020 and 2 games in 2021, which was a significant absence for this defense. Kendricks fell to 37th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2021, after finishing 1st and 4th in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and now heads into his age 30 season, but he’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could easily do so for the 7th straight season in 2022, even if his best days are also likely behind him at this point. If Kendricks and Hicks can stay relatively healthier, they have a good chance to be at least a solid every down linebacker duo, an upgrade for a group that had #3 linebacker Nick Vigil play 718 snaps and finish 80th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season, with Barr and Kendricks both missing significant time.
Vigil is gone, which should be addition by subtraction, but the Vikings don’t really have an experienced replacement for the #3 linebacker role. Blake Lynch was solid on 218 snaps last season, but he went undrafted in 2020 and struggled on 77 rookie year snaps, so he would be a projection to a larger role who could easily struggle if forced to play significant snaps. The Vikings also used a 3rd round pick on off ball linebacker Brian Asamoah, who will compete for a role, after using a 3rd round pick in 2021 on Chazz Surratt, who didn’t play as a rookie because of a neck injury, but who still could develop into a useful player. Troy Dye, a 2020 4th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s struggled in 255 career snaps in two years in the league thus far. Depth is a bit of a concern, but as long as Hicks and Kendricks are healthy, none of their other linebackers would have to play other than base packages, with Hicks and Kendricks likely to be a solid every down duo.
Injuries were also a problem for the Vikings at the cornerback position last season. Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler were both solid starters when healthy, but they both missed four games each with injury, leaving Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland to play 689 snaps and 675 snaps and struggle mightily, finishing 133rd and 127th respectively on PFF among 134 eligible cornerbacks. Alexander and Breeland are both gone though, while one or both of Peterson and Dantzler could easily be much healthier this season, and another talented cornerback, Andrew Booth, was added in the second round of the draft. Booth comes with his own injury issues, missing significant time in college with multiple ailments, but he probably would have been a first round pick if not for his injury issues, so he comes with obvious upside.
Booth isn’t necessarily a guarantee to see significant snaps as a rookie, with the Vikings also adding veteran slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan in free agency and likely to start him as the #3 cornerback, at least at the beginning of the season. Sullivan has been underwhelming on snap counts of 729 and 826 respectively over the past two seasons though, including a 110th ranked finish out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF last season, and he only was signed for 1-year, 1.75 million, so he’s not a lock to be the primary slot cornerback all season. The Vikings also added another young cornerback in the draft, taking Akayleb Evans in the 4th round, but he’s unlikely to see much rookie year action.
As the starters outside, Dantzler and Peterson are in different stages of their career, with the 2020 3rd round pick Dantzler on the way up and Peterson on the way down, now in his age 32 season. Dantzler still has only made 17 career starts and has missed time with injury in both seasons in the league, but he’s also earned an above average grade from PFF in both seasons, ranking 28th and 21st respectively, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he stayed healthier and make his biggest impact yet in his third season in the league in 2022, even if he isn’t quite as good on a per play basis as he has been thus far.
Peterson made the Pro-Bowl in 8 straight seasons to begin his career from 2011-2018, after being the 5th overall pick, but he hasn’t made one in three seasons since and, in those three seasons, he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF. He hasn’t been bad, but he’s definitely not the same player he was in his prime. He could remain a solid starter in 2022, but it’s possible he declines further, in which case he could be a liability. He didn’t have a big market in free agency this off-season, re-joining the Vikings on a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal, after joining them on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal last off-season.
The Vikings also used a high draft pick on the safety position, taking Lewis Cine 32nd overall in the first round, as a replacement for Xavier Woods, a solid starter in 17-games last season. The Vikings could have used Camryn Bynum as a replacement for Woods, after the 2021 4th round pick flashed a ton of potential on 211 rookie year snaps, earning a grade from PFF in the 91st percentile among safeties, albeit in a very limited role, but the Vikings also are likely viewing Cine as a replacement for long-time veteran Harrison Smith, who now enters his age 33 season, and adding Cine also allows them to continue to have good depth at the position with Bynum as the primary reserve.
Smith’s age is a concern, heading into his 11th season in the league, but he hasn’t shown many signs of dropping off yet and, even if he does in 2022, he could still remain a well above safety. His 15th and 12th ranked finishes among safeties on PFF over the past two seasons are a decline from a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and four career finishes in the top-5 at his position for a season, and he could decline further from there, but that likely would still make him a very valuable player for this defense. I don’t expect them to completely drop off suddenly, even if that is a possibility. He might still be the top defensive back in what should be a better group than a year ago, with Dantzler and Peterson likely to be healthier and several depth options added to replace Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland.
The Vikings had a slightly above average special teams in 2021, ranking 13th in special teams DVOA, and they should be similar this season, with largely the same personnel. The strength of their special teams was their kick return game with rookie running back Kene Nwangwu, sparingly used on offense, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and ranking as PFF’s highest ranked return man overall. He should continue being highly effective in 2022.
KJ Osborn will likely take over as the primary punt returner and could be a decent replacement for the middling Dede Westbrook, who is no longer with the team. Aside from Westbrook though, the rest of their key special teams return, bringing back their two top core special teamers Troy Dye and Ryan Connelly, a pair of top-50 special teamers on PFF a year ago, as well as mid-level kicker/punter duo Greg Joseph and Jordan Berry. This should be a solid group again.
The Vikings have finished just 7-9 and 8-9 over the past two seasons, but missing key personnel on defense has been a big part of the problem, particularly Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, and Cameron Dantzler. Hunter and Dantzler could easily be healthier in 2022 though, while Pierce and Barr have been replaced by comparable talents and healthier players in Harrison Phillips and Jordan Hicks, with edge defender Za’Darius Smith also being added in free agency, a potentially huge addition if he too can stay healthy.
Age is a bit of a concern for this defense with five likely starters (Smith, Hicks, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Eric Hendricks) all set to be 30 years or older, with the possibility of a couple of them dropping off significantly, but they still have a solid defense on paper. Meanwhile, their offense figures to be better in 2022 with better coaching getting more out of all their talent. In a weaker NFC, the Vikings have the talent to compete for a wild card spot, even if they’re likely to remain behind the Packers again in the division. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Vikings are still behind the Packers in the NFC North, but have a good chance at a wild card spot.
Prediction: 10-7, 2nd in NFC North