Minnesota Vikings 2021 Team Preview

Minnesota Vikings 2021 Team Preview

by August 11, 2021 1 comment

Seven wins were all the Minnesota Vikings had to show for the 2020 NFL season. It was a year when a previously stale offense took a quantum leap forward, but a defense ravaged by injuries hit the wall. A road win over chief NFC North rival the Green Bay Packers in Week 8, when Dalvin Cook ran riot, was one of the season’s few high points. Conversely, the lowest moment was letting Alvin Kamara and the New Orleans Saints gash an overwhelmed defense for 52 points on Christmas Day.

Make sure to check out all of our other 2021 NFL Team Previews.

Offseason Recap

Not surprisingly, beefing up a threadbare defense was the focus of this offseason. General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer did some solid work to answer the challenge. Notably, they added defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson, along with cornerback Patrick Peterson, during free agency. All three will contribute, but a greater impact might be made by those returning from injury, specifically edge-rusher Danielle Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr.

If there’s been a blot on the Vikings’ copybook this offseason, it concerns the team’s response to the league’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout. Senior players, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, have opted against getting the jab, a common theme among the overall group.

Offense

Zimmer needs Cousins back to his best in 2021, something top draft pick Christian Darrisaw can help make happen. Left tackle Darrisaw is being counted on to become the linchpin of an offensive line in transition. Solid protection will let Cousins target a burgeoning contingent of game-breaking playmakers led by second-year receiver Justin Jefferson. He dominated as a rookie, amassing 1400 yards from 88 catches. Jefferson will again be the focal point of the passing game, but watch out for Tyler Conklin, a productive “move” tight end who is perfect for this system.

Klint Kubiak will direct the system after succeeding father Gary as offensive coordinator. This will be a seamless transition with little change in terminology and concepts. That means you can expect to see another heavy dose of Cook running over defenses on zone-stretch plays.

Defense

For the first time in Zimmer’s tenure, the defense is a bigger concern than the offense. In fairness, injuries played a major role in last season’s dismal rankings of 29th in points and 27th in yards. After neck surgery, Hunter missed the whole campaign, and Minnesota’s pass rush floundered without him, registering a pitiful 23 sacks. The run defense also wasn’t helped by mammoth tackle Michael Pierce opting out amid concerns about the pandemic.

Pierce’s return raises an interesting question about what the Vikings’ defense will look like this season. Specifically, will Zimmer switch to a 3-4? Barr is a natural rush linebacker, while Pierce, Tomlinson, and Richardson have all played on three-man lines in the past. Zimmer coached the 3-4 for two seasons under Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys back in 2005 and ’06. He knows what it takes to make the scheme work.

Predicting the 53 Man Roster

QB (3) – Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond, Nate Stanley

The precarious nature of the most important position on the depth chart was highlighted when rookie Kellen Mond tested positive for Covid-19, forcing Cousins and Nate Stanley to also quarantine. Mond’s presence in the quarterback room is interesting because Spielman used a third-round pick this year to select Cousins’ potential successor. Cousins is as good as anyone in the league when he hits a hot streak, but he hasn’t always justified all of those dollars he’s paid.

RB (4) – Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, C.J. Ham, Kene Nwangwu

Cook is a true workhorse who remains the oil in the engine for this offense. It helps to have Alexander Mattison around for relief and fullback C.J. Ham leading the way. Despite rarely reaching his full potential, Ameer Abdullah usually finds a way to cling onto a roster spot. That streak could end if fourth-round pick Kene Nwangwu does enough to impress before the real action begins. He’s another speedster with the burst to make big plays, both in the running game and as a returner.

WR (6) – Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dede Westbrook, Chad Beebe, Whop Philyor, Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The core positions are strong thanks to Jefferson, Thielen, and former Jacksonville Jaguars man Dede Westbrook. Chad Beebe will lock down the fourth spot, but there’s uncertainty after him thanks to a host of untested rookies. Fifth-round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette is under pressure after Zimmer called him out.

Smith-Marsette can return kicks, but so can undrafted Whop Philyor. The battle between the two should be intense, but Zimmer’s hand may be forced by Olabisi Johnson‘s torn ACL. It seems more likely Philyor and Smith-Marsette make the final roster.

TE (4) – Tyler Conklin, Irv Smith Jr., Zach Davidson, Shane Zylstra

The Vikings can justify carrying four bodies at a position set for transition after the Kyle Rudolph era has come to an end. Conklin, Smith, and rookie Zylstra fit Kubiak’s offense as flexible enough to be moved all over the formation. Davidson offers a taller target, and the 6’7″ tight end has been impressing in camp, according to Eric Smith of the team’s official site.

OL (9) – Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Wyatt Davis, Brian O’Neill, Dakota Dozier, Mason Cole, Rashod Hill, Zack Bailey

Darrisaw is the key to making this line work as an upgrade over incumbent Riley Reiff. It would also help for Darrisaw’s fellow rookie Davis to win a starting spot at guard. If he does, it will likely be on the right because Darrisaw’s arrival means Ezra Cleveland slides inside to left guard. Cole will be an important swing backup who can play anywhere along the interior.

DL (5) – Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, Sheldon Richardson, Armon Watts, Jordon Scott

Landing Tomlinson from the New York Giants was something of a coup for Zimmer. He now has a natural magnet for double teams who has some disruption to his game. Tomlinson likely plays over a guard while Pierce aligns head up over the center. Scott is the wildcard. The rookie free agent is a natural space-eater who may have landed in the ideal spot if Zimmer decides to show more three-man looks.

EDGE (4) – Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly, Patrick Jones II, D.J. Wonnum

The number of edge players the Vikings carries will depend on what shape the defensive scheme ultimately takes. Hunter could remain on the edge or kick inside to the three-man line. Weatherly might have the inside track on the other side because he played for Zimmer before spending last season with the Carolina Panthers. Third-round pick Jones is one to watch. The 6’5″, 260-pounder has the ideal frame to be a hybrid rusher on the outside. Interestingly, Zimmer has been using second-year man Wonnum as a hybrid during camp, with decent results, per Dustin Baker of Vikings Territory.

LB (5) – Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Chazz Surratt, Nick Vigil, Ryan Connelly

Barr’s absence was sorely felt when he missed all but two games in 2020. His return alongside tough and resourceful Kendricks will be key to a defensive revival. Rookie Surratt has the chance to use his athleticism in passing situations. He could see the field in the team’s nickel package, although Zimmer has traditionally liked to use both Barr and Kendricks for his third-down, A-gap blitz packages. Depth is solid at best thanks to veteran retread Vigil and Connelly.

CB (6) – Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, Kris Boyd, Tye Smith, Harrison Hand

Former Kansas City Chiefs starter Breeland joins Peterson as the main faces of the Vikings’ overhaul on the back end. A more familiar face should man the slot after Alexander returned for a second tour with the team. Boyd will also play his way into the mix off the back of some decent showings last season. Smith can survive final cuts, even if he couldn’t become a starter for the Tennessee Titans.

SAF (4) – Harrison Smith, Xavier Woods, Camryn Bynum, Josh Metellus

Smith will have a more dependable partner as the last line of defense thanks to the arrival of Woods from the Dallas Cowboys. He’s flexible and has the range to let Smith play in the box more often, where No. 22 is at his ferocious best. The Vikings were smart to take Bynum off the board in the fourth round, and the former California standout should see snaps as a rookie. Metellus took his lumps during 15 games for a flawed defense in 2020 but should stick as the fourth safety.

ST (3) – Riley Patterson, Britton Colquitt, Andrew DePaola

The kicking game was almost as big a mess as the defense last season, but rookie Patterson ought to send Greg Joseph packing during camp. Joseph couldn’t stick with the Titans or Cleveland Browns, so Zimmer must hope Patterson makes the grade. The coach will also be counting on significant improvement from Colquitt after the veteran dropped just 11 of 54 punts inside the 20 last season. DePaola keeps his spot, if only for lack of credible competition.

One Player to Add

Acquiring another defensive end makes sense, but giving Cousins another weapon at wideout is the smarter move. Preferably, a sure-handed, chain-mover who will help curb the quarterback’s more reckless habits. Handing an incentive-laden, one-year deal to Larry Fitzgerald makes sense, and the future Hall of Famer would likely relish returning to play for a franchise he’s been familiar with since childhood. The 37-year-old still hasn’t officially hung up his cleats just yet, and he’d give Jefferson and Thielen the productive third wheel they need.

2021 Outlook & Odds

This Vikings roster has the look of a team destined to muscle its way into the Wildcard playoff picture with a late run. A lot will depend on how well the retooled defense performs. Zimmer’s history on that side of the ball means the omens are good for a quick turnaround. So does the quality of new arrivals like Tomlinson and Peterson.

Minnesota’s 2021 schedule isn’t the softest, but some of the toughest games, including facing the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, are at least on home soil. The over/under for wins is nine, reflecting the daunting parts of the slate, while also respecting the Vikings’ experience and potential. Leaning on a dependable running game and a rugged defense is a tried and tested formula for getting stronger later in the season, so the Vikings should play a part in the league’s postseason drama.

Season Prediction: 10-7 and a wild-card berth in the playoffs

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