The more things change, the more they stay the same. After heading into the 2020 season with a background of turmoil and upheaval, the Minnesota Vikings will begin their 2021 campaign facing a whole new batch of unanswered questions that will determine whether they can be a genuine threat to the Packers dominance of the NFC North.
Mike Zimmer’s Vikings made the playoffs in 2015, 2017 and 2019 but failed in 2014, 2016 and 2018, so it was no surprise that after a 1-5 start to their season in 2020, the Vikings limped in with a record of 7-9, despite rallying to 6-6 after a hot streak in November where they won 4/5 games including victories over all their divisional rivals.
The 2020 Vikings enjoyed one of the most potent offensive seasons in team history, with a triple threat attack featuring a 4,000-yard season for QB Kirk Cousins, a stellar 1,400 yards for rookie receiver Justin Jefferson and 1,557 yards rushing for Dalvin Cook.
The offense scored 55 TDs to rank 2nd in Vikings history and ranked 4th in the NFL in total offense, the highest-ranking since 2004, and 7th on PFF’s team grade for offense, with Jefferson and veteran WR Adam Thielen ranking 2nd and 6th respectively in their positions.
In a move that will surprise few observers of NFL nepotism, Klint Kubiak takes over as Offensive Coordinator after spending 2019 and 2020 as QB coach, following the retirement of his father Gary Kubiak from the OC role in the offseason.
Despite drafting QB Kellen Mond with a third-round pick, GM Rick Spielman maintains that Kirk Cousins “know’s he’s our guy” and is keen to maintain competition behind Cousins, rather than manufacture a Jordan Love-style controversy in Minnesota.
Under Klint’s guidance, Kirk Cousins has produced two of his better seasons in the NFL, if you can gloss over the 13 interceptions he threw last year. However, the Vikings will be relying on a rebuilt offensive line in 2021, after parting ways with LT Riley Reiff and spending the 23rd pick in the draft on Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw in addition to taking Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis in the third round and acquiring centre Mason Cole from the Cardinals in free agency.
Kirk Cousins' strength as a play-action specialist, creating confusion for defenses with the implied menace of Dalvin Cook hinges on the O-line limiting pressure. Mike Zimmer has been vocal about the need for better interior protection for Cousins after watching far too many pockets collapse and seeing his QB take 116 hits and 39 sacks in the regular season, so the success of the offensive line is critical to the team’s fortunes.
The other key question for the Vikings on offense will be at the tight end position, with veteran Kyle Rudolph exiting in the off-season and heading to the NY Giants, Irv Smith will be expected to step up to be the number one target. Rudolph’s departure was inevitable from the moment the Vikings drafted the Alabama player with their 2nd round pick in 2019, but Smith will need a considerable bump in production, after notching just 365 yards in his sophomore season; although his final six games saw him catch 19 passes for 216 yards and 5 TDs.
If the offense has some cause for concern, it will be the issues facing the defense that gives Mike Zimmer sleepless nights. Woeful in 2020 after being decimated by injuries and withdrawals,
Minnesota ranked 27th overall for defense as per PFF, with Zimmer himself describing it as “the worst I’ve had”.
Things began to unravel before the season had even begun; shortly after signing with the Vikings following four successful seasons with the Ravens, DT Michael Pierce decided to opt-out of the 2020 season due to health concerns related to COVID-19.
Then star edge rusher Danielle Hunter missed the entire season with a herniated disc in his neck, for which surgery was required, whilst pro-Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr’s campaign was over by week 2 with a torn pec.
Without Hunter and Barr, Minnesota struggled to generate any form of pass rush, as the Vikings could only generate wholly underwhelming sack and pressure numbers.
But with Hunter and defensive tackle Michael Pierce returning, combined with the additions of free-agent signings Dalvin Tomlinson from the NY Giants and Sheldon Richardson, who returns to the Vikings after a productive spell with the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota’s defensive line should be much improved during the upcoming season.
However, the secondary may prove to be the Vikings’ biggest weakness. Rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler had a baptism of fire at corner last year, as the Vikings allowed 475 points, ranking 29th in the league.
With Gladney now cut from the roster after being indicted by a grand jury on a domestic assault charge, the Vikings have brought in veteran talent with the free-agency signings of Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland who will add 17 years of experience to the Vikings’ cornerbacks room.
Patrick Peterson may be a former All-Pro but is very much in the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old turning in a 55.2 PFF grade season with the Cardinals in 2020. Bashaud Breeland is currently rehabbing a shoulder injury suffered last season, but has the experience of two Super Bowl appearances with the Chiefs.
Pro-Bowl safety Harrison Smith led the Vikings with 5 interceptions but overall his numbers were down on the exceptional production he has delivered during his nine seasons in Minnesota, and at the age of 32, in the final year of a 5-year contract, the Vikings will need to ensure that his successor is on the roster.
So how do the Vikings fit into the NFC North picture this season? Despite his inconsistencies and wobbles under pressure, Kirk Cousins has never finished with a worse record than 7-9 after six seasons starting in Washington and Minnesota.
With his counterpart in Green Bay mired in controversy, the turmoil that has blighted the Packers off-season could quickly dissipate now Aaron Rodgers has reported to training camp, but the ‘Last Dance’ could still swiftly turn toxic if the Packers roster fails to pull together behind Rodgers on the field, leaving the division wide open.
If Justin Jefferson can avoid a sophomore slump and continue to shine for the offense, whilst keeping Thielen and Cook healthy and on the field, and if the Vikings’ defense can begin to resemble the top-tier units Zimmer has consistently delivered over the previous five years, then the Minnesota Vikings COULD transform from pretenders to contenders in 2021.
However, the news that before the start of training camp, the Vikings were forced to shunt offensive line coach and run game coordinator Rick Dennison into a new ‘virtual’ role rather than allowing him to attend team practices, meetings and games after he refused to receive a COVID-19 vaccine will not have been helpful to Mike Zimmer’s preparations.
The subsequent disruption to practices caused by QB Kellen Mond testing positive for COVID-19, with fellow quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley deemed high-risk close contacts, and consigned to a five-day quarantine has also drawn attention to the Vikings’ unwanted accolade as the least vaccinated team in the NFL.
With Zimmer publicly voicing his disappointment at those responsible, including several high-profile leaders on the team, the Vikings locker room is unlikely to be heading into the new season in the right mindset to tackle the challenges ahead, especially when their $66 million quarterback has rejected vaccination in favour of having plexiglass installed in the QB’s room.
“I’m going to be vigilant about avoiding a close contact. I’ve even thought about, should I just set up, literally, plexiglass around where I sit so that this could never happen again? I’ve thought about it because I’m going to do whatever it takes.”