If recent history is any indication, 2021 should be a bounce-back season for the Vikings.
This is Mike Zimmer's eighth season in Minnesota, and his teams have alternated missing and making the playoffs during the previous seven. Last year was another opportunity to finally reach the postseason in consecutive years, but it went terribly wrong. An injury-ravaged and talent-deficient defense, Kirk Cousins' inconsistency, and horrific special teams were the catalysts to a 1-5 start that became a disappointing 7-9 campaign.
This year, the goal — no, the requirement — is to once again avoid breaking the trend. The Vikings went all-in on fixing their defense this offseason, believing that a return to Zimmer's typical effectiveness on that side of the ball will complement an offense that returns most of its key players. Make no mistake, the Vikings aren't rebuilding or hoping to sneak into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed. This is a team that thinks it can win the NFC North and potentially contend for a championship.
On paper, the talent is there. The coaching probably is too. There are plenty of reasons to believe in this team. But the schedule is tough, several major question marks remain, and injuries have already begun leaving their mark again.
This feels like a team that could win seven games again just as easily as it could win 12. If they come up short of the playoffs, major changes are likely coming. The pressure is on for Zimmer, Cousins, and GM Rick Spielman. The 2021 Vikings have to win.
In 2020, the Vikings exceeded expectations by finishing with a borderline top-10 offense — they were fourth in yards per game, eighth in offensive DVOA, 11th in scoring, and 11th in EPA per play. And they did all of that despite having an interior offensive line that couldn't pass protect to save its life.
Dalvin Cook stayed healthy and showed why he's at least a top-three running back in the league, Justin Jefferson burst onto the scene with a record-breaking rookie year that numbed the pain of Stefon Diggs' huge season in Buffalo, Adam Thielen caught 14 touchdown passes, and Cousins turned things on in the second half as he frequently does.
The core remains the same in 2021, although there are some important differences. Klint Kubiak steps in as a first-time offensive coordinator, taking the reins from a highly proven coach who happens to be his father Gary. Kyle Rudolph is gone and his replacement, budding star Irv Smith Jr., is likely out for the season, leaving Tyler Conklin and Chris Herndon as the Vikings' top two tight ends. The Smith loss is a really unfortunate one given that he looked like one of their best players throughout all of training camp. Left tackle Riley Reiff is also gone, with veteran backup Rashod Hill stepping in until first-rounder Christian Darrisaw gets healthy (which should be soon). Minnesota has a new right guard in Oli Udoh, as well.
The success of this offense will come down to a few things: the health, availability, and performance of their quarterback — who is one of the most prominent anti-vaccine players in the NFL — and top three weapons, Kubiak's debut season calling plays, and whether or not the offensive line can improve at least a little bit in pass protection (they're great in run blocking!). The Vikings would also love to see someone else step up as a reliable weapon on offense, whether that's Conklin, Herndon, or a receiver like K.J. Osborn or Dede Westbrook.
The pieces are there for another top-10 offense, but losing Smith hurts and things could fall apart quickly if Cousins struggles or other key players go down.
Last season hurt Zimmer to his core.
Not only did the Vikings struggle, but it was his defense that was the primary culprit. One of the few defensive head coaches remaining in an offense-driven league, Zimmer takes great pride in his tradition of success on that side of the ball. He wants to stop the run, get you into third-and-long, and then beat you with creative pressure packages and blitzes.
Zimmer simply didn't have the personnel in 2020 to make that happen. Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr missed the season. Nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out. Eric Kendricks got hurt late. Mainstays like Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, and Mackensie Alexander left in free agency, leaving the Vikings to rely on young players at defensive end and cornerback. Trading for Yannick Ngakoue didn't work out, so they traded him again less than two months later.
It was a mess. The Vikings finished towards the bottom of the league in most defensive statistics, although Zimmer somehow managed to still lead them to remarkable efficiency on third down and in the red zone. Rock bottom was giving up 52 points to the Saints on national TV on Christmas Day.
So the Vikings went out this offseason and made sure that wouldn't happen again. In addition to the returns of Pierce, Hunter, Barr, and Kendricks, the Vikings spent big money on Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson, got Bashaud Breeland and Xavier Woods for bargain money, and brought back four members of Zimmer's previous defenses: Alexander, Griffen, Sheldon Richardson, and Stephen Weatherly. They also made sure Harrison Smith sticks around by signing him to a major extension.
The best way to summarize how different the Vikings' defense will be in 2021 is this: Kendricks and Smith are the only starters from last year who are among the starting 11 this year.
On paper, this could be a top-five defense with Zimmer calling the shots. The front seven should be excellent with Hunter, Pierce, and Kendricks leading the way, but the big question mark is the revamped secondary, which has four new members out of five. If Peterson and Breeland can turn back the clock and play at a high level, this defense is going to be very tough to score on.
The Vikings have a good head coach, one of the best trios of skill-position weapons in the NFL, and a defense loaded with talent at all three levels. Those are reasons to be optimistic. But Cousins hasn't put together a complete season of high-level play during his three years in Minnesota, and concerns about the offensive line, injuries, and special teams persist. The schedule is tough, particularly in the second half. I wouldn't be shocked by anything from 7-10 to 13-4, so I'll split the difference and go with 10-7.
Expected Depth Chart
Projected starters listed in bold, (R) means rookie
QB: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Kellen Mond (R)
RB: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu
FB: C.J. Ham
TE: Tyler Conklin, Chris Herndon, Brandon Dillon, Ben Ellefson
WR: Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Dede Westbrook, Ihmir Smith-Marsette (R)
LT: Rashod Hill, Christian Darrisaw (R)
LG: Ezra Cleveland, Mason Cole
C: Garrett Bradbury, Mason Cole
RG: Oli Udoh, Wyatt Davis (R)
RT: Brian O'Neill, Blake Brandel
LDE: Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly
NT: Michael Pierce, Armon Watts, James Lynch
3-Tech: Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson
RDE: D.J. Wonnum, Everson Griffen, Patrick Jones II (R)
LB: Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Nick Vigil, Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt, Blake Lynch, Ryan Connelly
S: Harrison Smith, Xavier Woods, Josh Metellus, Camryn Bynum (R)
CB: Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander (slot), Cameron Dantzler, Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand
K: Greg Joseph
P: Jordan Berry
LS: Andrew DePaola
KR: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (R)
PR: Dede Westbrook
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