This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Minnesota tried to retool its defense on the fly amid a salary cap crunch last year, with disastrous results. A solid rushing offense and the emergence of Justin Jefferson could bring the Vikings back to the playoffs, if coach Mike Zimmer and his staff can fix a leaky secondary and anemic pass rush.
- Christian Darrisaw – OT (Rd. 1, No. 23 – Virginia Tech)
Considered one of the top three offensive tackles in the 2021 draft.
- Kellen Mond – QB (Rd. 3, No. 66 – Texas A&M)
A high-upside prospect for the team to groom behind Kirk Cousins.
- Mackensie Alexander – CB (from Bengals)
Returns to a system where he's produced in the past.
- Patrick Peterson – CB (from Cardinals)
Adds a needed veteran presence to the secondary.
- Xavier Woods – S (from Cowboys)
In line to fill the opening at free safety next to Harrison Smith.
- Kyle Rudolph – TE (to Giants)
Departure is bound to create added opportunities for Irv Smith.
- Mike Hughes – CB (to Chiefs)
Oft-injured 2018 first-rounder fell out of favor and was dealt to KC.
- Anthony Harris – S (to Eagles)
Heads to Philly after racking up a career-high 104 tackles in 2020.
A Look Under the Hood
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (Year 8)
Offensive Coordinator: Klint Kubiak (Year 1) - West Coast (wide/outside zone)
Defensive Coordinators: Andre Patterson, Adam Zimmer (Year 2) - 4-3 scheme
2021 Vegas Projected Wins: 9.5 (18th)
2020 Record: 7-9
2020 Points Scored: 430 (11th)
2020 Points Allowed: 475 (29th)
2020 Point Differential: -45 (22nd)
2020 Run-Play Rate: 45.8 percent (6th)
2020 Offensive Snaps: 1,023 (19th)
2020 PFF O-Line Ranking: No. 26
Projected 2021 Depth Chart
FB: C.J. Ham
TE1: Irv Smith
Can the Offense Become Elite?
Minnesota's offense ranked fourth in total yards and 10th in yards per play in 2020, powered by a strong rushing offense (fifth in yards per game) and an outstanding receiving corps. Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a career-high 35 touchdowns, with excellent playmakers to target in Adam Thielen (14 scores) and Justin Jefferson, the latter of whom set a rookie record with 1,400 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Dalvin Cook paced the ground game and is a receiving threat out of the backfield.
But the overall numbers masked erratic output. Cousins began the season with 11 TDs versus 10 interceptions amid a 1-5 start. The offense led the league by converting 57.3 percent of the time on first down but did so just 40.9 percent on third down (16th in the NFL). Continuity could help this season, as the team returns all its key skill-position players, except for tight end Kyle Rudolph. In Rudolph's place, Irv Smith looks ready to take another step in his third year as a pro.
The Vikings also remade their offensive line in the offseason, investing a first-round pick in Christian Darrisaw – who should start at left tackle – and a third-rounder in Wyatt Davis, the potential starter at right guard. They had the 28th-ranked pass-blocking O-line last year, so any improvement in that area may result in big gains for the Vikings.
Rebuilding the Secondary
After ranking in the top 11 in points allowed in each of coach Mike Zimmer's first six seasons in Minnesota, the defense fell all the way to 29th in 2020 amid injuries and turnover in the secondary. In particular, the team lost its top three cornerbacks in free agency and was unable to rebound quickly. As for the holdovers, 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes struggled and was traded this offseason. Jeff Gladney, a 2020 first-rounder, was Pro Football Focus' 102nd-ranked cornerback, and he was cut in August following a felony assault charge from April. Only 2019 third-round selection Cameron Dantzler impressed, as he was PFF's 22nd-ranked corner.
To bolster the back end, the Vikings added a number of veterans since the end of the campaign, namely Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods. While Peterson's play has declined, he still should provide a decent floor of production. Breeland is another option to work as an outside corner, and Alexander has previous experience in the system out of the slot. The team signed Woods in what is hoped to be a lateral move after the departure of free safety Anthony Harris. Woods will join forces with Harrison Smith, who remains an above-average safety at 32 years old. Add it up, and Minnesota is anticipating improvement in its secondary this season.
Rebooting the Pass Rush
Health and personnel issues in the Vikings' front line compounded woes in the secondary last year, as the defense recorded just 23 sacks after notching 50 and 48 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Coming off back-to-back 14.5-sack efforts, Danielle Hunter was lost for all of 2020 with a neck injury that required surgery in October. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce was expected to fill a key role after signing as a free agent but opted out of the campaign.
The team subsequently jettisoned much of a defensive line that saw no player amass more than 3.5 sacks after Yannick Ngakoue was dealt midseason. Namely, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo all left in free agency.
In their place, Minnesota signed veteran linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Stephen Weatherly. Neither player has had high sack totals – Tomlinson is a run-stuffing tackle – but they provide a strong base, while the team hopes for significant growth from 2020 fourth-rounders D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch, and contributions from a quartet of rookie draftees.
A return to health from linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks – who missed 19 games combined last season – also should have a big impact, but much will depend on Hunter's recovery. Fortunately for the Vikings, the star defensive end didn't appear limited at the start of training camp.
⬆️ Rising: WR Justin Jefferson
Jefferson led the NFL in yards per target (11.2) and was fourth in receiving yards as a rookie, despite not becoming a starter until Week 3. He could improve with more targets and added red-zone looks in 2021.
⬇️ Falling: WR Chad Beebe
Under Mike Zimmer, no Vikings No. 3 wideout has logged more than 33 catches or 302 yards since 2016. That seems unlikely to change this season whether Beebe, Ihmir Smith-Marsette or Dede Westbrook win the role.
😴 Sleeper: TE Irv Smith
Smith's receiving skills improved in his second NFL season, and he's set for a larger snap share with Kyle Rudolph no longer in the mix. The tight end thus may become the clear third option in the team's passing offense.
🌟 Pivotal Player: Dalvin Cook
Cook set career highs last season with 1,557 rushing yards, 17 total touchdowns and 5.0 yards per carry. Minnesota's run-focused offense keys on the elusive back, who led the league in broken tackles. The 25-year-old needs to stay healthy after missing nine games over the last three years and needs to continue to pose a threat in the passing game.
Pierce suffered a calf injury this summer that capped his practice reps at the start of training camp. However, at this point, he's still expected to be ready for Week 1. Pierce signed a three-year, $27 million contract in March 2020, but he later opted out of last season due to concerns about his asthma. He and Dalvin Tomlinson should form one of the better interior run-stuffing duos in the league, with Sheldon Richardson likely coming off the bench to provide a pass rushing element. The 28-year-old Pierce had 151 tackles but only 3.5 sacks in four seasons with the Ravens, mostly serving as a nose tackle on early downs.
Kendricks sat out the final five games of last season with a calf injury, but he participated in spring workouts and was healthy to begin camp. The linebacker was in the midst of a strong season before suffering his injury, recording 107 tackles over his 11 appearances. For his career, Kendricks also has posted nearly 128 stops per 17 games in six pro campaigns.
LB Anthony Barr
Barr appeared in only two games in 2020 before suffering a pectoral tear, but he took part in the offseason program and is back to full health. By the time Week 1 rolls around, he'll be operating in his usual every down role, which he used to notch 79 tackles (54 solo), 1.5 sacks, four pass breakups and one interception in 14 contests back in 2019.
Most of the key roles on offense are settled, but the No. 3 wide receiver job and distribution of targets beyond Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson is uncertain. Tight end Irv Smith could be a bigger piece in the passing attack and effectively nullify the need to heavily involve a third wideout. Tyler Conklin could be a factor, too, if the Vikings frequently elect to utilize two tight-end sets. In any case, there's a battle for the WR spots immediately behind Thielen and Jefferson between Chad Beebe, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Dede Westbrook, Blake Proehl, Dan Chisena, K.J. Osborn and Whop Philyor.