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Minnesota Vikings 2020 Season Preview

Can the Vikings reach the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time under Mike Zimmer?

The Vikings have followed a consistent pattern over the past five seasons. When little is expected of them, Mike Zimmer's team finds a way to reach the playoffs and make some noise. Then, with expectations raised, they follow that pleasantly surprising season with an equally disappointing one.

In each of Zimmer's six seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings have alternated missing the postseason (2014, '16, '18) and making it (2015, '17, '19). They've been good-to-great on an annual basis, having won at least eight games in each of the past five years. Zimmer's defenses are always excellent, and the offenses – despite constant turnover at the coordinator spot – have featured plenty of dangerous weapons.

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But the Vikings haven't found a way to get over the hump, let alone make successive playoff berths. In their last two postseason appearances, memorable last-second wins over the Saints preceded demoralizing defeats at the hands of the eventual NFC champion. Erratic performances at quarterback and on the offensive line have prevented this team from becoming a true championship contender. Now, a defense that experienced remarkable continuity in recent years has been completely revamped.

If the trend holds, this year will be a frustrating one for the Vikings. However, there are also reasons to be optimistic about the pattern finally being broken.

Offense

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Despite being led by a different coordinator for the fifth straight year, the Vikings' offense will look much like it did last season. With Kevin Stefanski now the head coach of the Browns, Gary Kubiak has moved from his role as an advisor and will call plays for the first time since 2016. The team was already running Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme last year, and they will continue to employ a run-heavy attack.

The Vikings are hoping Kirk Cousins can continue to shine in this system after he had a career year in 2019. By leaning on play-action passes, especially rollouts and bootlegs that got Cousins in space, the Vikings maximized their quarterback's strengths. The oft-criticized nine-year veteran has his flaws, but he is one of the most accurate and intelligent signal-callers in the NFL.

A major storyline to watch is how Cousins fares without Stefon Diggs, who emerged as one of the league's premiere deep threats in 2019. A fully healthy year from Adam Thielen would help make up for that loss, as would continued growth from young pass-catchers Bisi Johnson, Irv Smith Jr., and first-round rookie Justin Jefferson. The Vikings utilize multiple tight ends as often as anyone, so expect to see Smith and Kyle Rudolph sharing the field frequently.

At running back, Dalvin Cook just needs to stay healthy. He's a dynamic playmaker and an important leader on the team, but his injury history was likely a reason why the Vikings didn't feel compelled to meet his asking price on a massive contract extension. Cook appears to be ready to rock, even though talks have broken down on the extension front.

As always, the offensive line is a major question in Minnesota. Tackles Riley Reiff (solid veteran) and Brian O'Neill (potential star) aren't the issue, it's the trio on the interior. The Vikings need center Garrett Bradbury to take major steps forward in his second season, and for guards Dakota Dozier and Pat Elflein to not be liabilities.

Defense

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The core of Zimmer's vaunted defense had stayed mostly unchanged over the past five years – until now. Gone are mainstays Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes, as well as several other important depth pieces. That exodus of veteran talent caused the Vikings to re-tool things at cornerback and on the defensive line this offseason.

To make matters more difficult, the Vikings' one big free agent signing – Michael Pierce, Joseph's replacement at nose tackle – opted out of the season. That leaves the cupboard slightly bare at defensive tackle, but they're hopeful that a couple young players will step up. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo is a key player to watch as he takes over for a franchise legend in Griffen.

At cornerback, the Vikings may actually improve by moving on from Rhodes and Waynes. In Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, they've assembled an exciting group of young corners, all of whom are under 24 years old. That unit will be tested early and often against a difficult slate of opposing offenses.

The good news for Zimmer is that many of the big names on his defense are still around. The Vikings' top two linebackers (Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr) and safeties (Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris) stack up with any team in the NFL. Kendricks and Smith have compelling arguments as the league's best player at their respective positions. Franchise-tagging Harris was a smart decision for a team that will be relying on inexperienced corners.

The most exciting player on the defense is Danielle Hunter, who is somehow still 25 years old. Last fall, he became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. Hunter is a physical freak of nature who is borderline impossible to keep out of the backfield.

Predicted Record

A 10-6 record last year was bittersweet because of an 0-4 mark against the Packers and Bears. This team has a lot of talent, but Diggs is a big loss and the schedule is fairly tough. There's also a chance regression is coming in the injury and turnover departments, which are fairly luck-based. The 2020 Vikings have a wide range of potential outcomes, but I think 9-7 is the most likely one.

Expected Depth Chart

Projected starters listed in bold

Offense

QB: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion

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RB: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone

FB: C.J. Ham

TE: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin

WR: Adam Thielen, Bisi Johnson, Justin Jefferson (R), Tajae Sharpe, Alexander Hollins, K.J. Osborn (R)

LT: Riley Reiff, Rashod Hill

LG: Dakota Dozier, Ezra Cleveland (R)

C: Garrett Bradbury, Brett Jones

RG: Pat Elflein, Dru Samia

RT: Brian O'Neill, Oli Udoh

Defense

RDE: Danielle Hunter, Jalyn Holmes, 

NT: Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts

3-Tech: Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata'afa, James Lynch (R)

LDE: Ifeadi Odenigbo, Eddie Yarbrough, D.J. Wonnum (R)

LB: Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Eric Wilson, Troy Dye (R), Jordan Fehr (R)

S: Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Josh Metellus (R), Nate Meadors

CB: Holton Hill, Cameron Dantzler (R), Mike Hughes (slot), Jeff Gladney (R), Kris Boyd, Nevelle Clarke (R)

Special teams

K: Dan Bailey

P: Britton Colquitt

LS: Austin Cutting

KR/PR: K.J. Osborn (R)

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