Mike Zimmer called last year’s Vikings defense the worst he had ever coached. But his unit in 2021 will be capable of functioning closer to its customary level alongside the best offense Zimmer’s had since arriving in Minnesota in 2014. The NFC North still runs through Green Bay. But with better health defensively, a stronger start by quarterback Kirk Cousins and fewer special teams meltdowns under new coordinator Ryan Ficken, Zimmer can continue his streak of making the playoffs in every odd-numbered year. (Of course, Zimmer also has a streak of missing the playoffs in every even-numbered year, including last year’s injury-riddled 7–9 season.)
“This is a better football team than last year,” says GM Rick Spielman, who signed six defenders before the draft and used three of his top four draft picks on offensive players. “We had a lot of holes on defense. We addressed those, and we have key players coming back from injuries and opting out last season. Offensively, we got better, starting up front.”
First-year coordinator and play-caller Klint Kubiak, promoted when his father Gary retired, will run the same system that produced the 11th-ranked scoring offense in 2020. He inherits one of the NFL’s two or three most explosive dual-threat backs in Dalvin Cook. He also inherits a 21-year-old superstar receiver in the making in Justin Jefferson, not to mention Jefferson’s veteran cohort and red zone threat Adam Thielen. And he inherits a good-enough quarterback to win with. But …
The Vikings’ perennial question mark is up front, where Spielman has invested in a first- or second-round pick in four consecutive drafts. Rookie first-round pick Christian Darrisaw filled a huge hole as a sturdy plug-and-play left tackle who replaces Riley Reiff. Right tackle Brian O’Neill, a second-round pick in 2018, is one of the better young tackles in the league. Center Garrett Bradbury, a first-rounder in 2019, has a future but has struggled with being a bit undersized. Bradbury’s limitations have led to an edict from Zimmer to surround him with bigger guards. Former college left tackle Ezra Cleveland, a 2020 second-round pick, added more size and competence to right guard when putrid play ahead of him forced the Vikings to move him there in Week 6. Left guard Dakota Dozier failed as a starter last year and probably will return to being a backup. Rookie third-round draft pick Wyatt Davis, a big, bruising right guard from Ohio State, is good enough to start. He would be better suited at right guard with Cleveland moving to his more natural left side.
Cousins’ skill set does the guys up front no favors. He’s got the arm and accuracy to deliver big, but only from a clean pocket. When things break down, he’s a stationary strip-sack waiting to happen. The Vikings need to run the ball effectively to unleash Cousins’ play-action skills. Meanwhile, Cousins needs more consistency — he threw 10 interceptions in the first six games last year and three in the final 10 games — and he needs to be a leader more often in critical moments late in games.
Other questions offensively include whether there’s enough depth behind Jefferson and Thielen, and how much tight end Kyle Rudolph will be missed after 10 seasons with the team. The Vikings used the fewest three-receiver sets in the league last year. Granted, they’re a run-oriented team that likes to use fullback C.J. Ham and multiple tight ends. But they also need Bisi Johnson and/or Chad Beebe — two promising young receivers — to take the next step. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. could have a breakout season in Year Three, and Tyler Conklin is an underrated player who will get better with more opportunities.
The unit bottomed out on Christmas Day in New Orleans when Alvin Kamara tied Ernie Nevers’ 91-year-old record with six rushing touchdowns. By that time, however, the Vikings’ defense was so decimated by injuries that undrafted rookie Blake Lynch became the seventh linebacker to start a game. Zimmer’s once-proud defense, which ranked No. 1 in points and yards allowed in 2017, finished 29th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed in 2020. “This is a bad defense, the worst I’ve ever had,” he said after the Saints game.
The good news is many of the fixes for 2021 are as simple as key Pro Bowlers and All-Pros returning. Left end Danielle Hunter, one of the NFL’s more dominant edge rushers, had neck surgery and missed the entire season. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr, a four-time Pro Bowler who knows this defense as well as Zimmer, missed 14 games. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks was on his way to a second straight first-team All-Pro season when he missed the final month, pretty much sealing the Vikings’ losing campaign. Nose tackle Michael Pierce, the prized free agent signing of 2020, took the COVID-19 opt-out because of asthma.
All the injured players are set to return, although it’s reasonable to wonder whether Hunter will be the same player after neck surgery. Also, he alone won’t fix an anemic pass rush that posted a franchise record-low 23 sacks last year. The Vikings brought Stephen Weatherly back after one season in Carolina but also will need continued growth from second-year pro D.J. Wonnum or have raw rookies Patrick Jones II and/or Janarius Robinson rise more quickly than anticipated.
Dalvin Tomlinson, this year’s top free agent signing, is a nimble-footed 3-technique in a nose tackle’s body. He should join Pierce in stopping the inside run game while helping Hunter by keeping quarterbacks from stepping up to avoid pressure off the edge. Minnesota also brought back Sheldon Richardson, who started all 16 games and recorded 4.5 sacks for the Vikings in 2018.
Zimmer admitted after last season that he misjudged the impact of relying so heavily on rookie cornerbacks. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler started 15 and 10 games, respectively, by far the most playing time by a pair of rookie corners under Zimmer. The good news, of course, is all that experience will help both players this season, assuming Gladney is available after facing third-degree felony family violence assault charges in April.
The Vikings didn’t take a cornerback in the draft, but they did bring in a trio of free agents. Patrick Peterson is an eight-time Pro Bowler who will be trying to regain his form at 31 this season. Slot corner Mackensie Alexander is back with Minnesota after spending one season with the Bengals while Bashaud Breeland started 26 games for the Chiefs over the past two seasons. The Vikings also have a promising young corner in Kris Boyd and are hoping 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes prevails in a make-or-break year.
The Vikings also signed Xavier Woods to replace Anthony Harris at safety alongside Harrison Smith, the 32-year-old who has shown no signs of slipping from his spot as one of the league’s best and most versatile safeties.
After cutting formerly reliable veteran Dan Bailey — who missed five field goals and five extra points in the final five games last year — the Vikings head into camp with 26-year-old journeyman Greg Joseph and rookie free agent Riley Patterson competing for the job in a total toss-up. Punter Britton Colquitt returns after a poor season that included two blocks and only 11 punts inside the 20. A terrible return game needs new life from draft picks Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, both standout kick returners in college.
Overtaking the Packers in the division is too much to ask, but nine wins and a wild-card berth are within reach. The young offensive line will need to jell quickly. Last year’s anemic pass rush will need Hunter to return to form and for another playmaker or two to emerge. Pierce and Tomlinson must plug the middle of a leaky run defense. The secondary needs the young corners to mature and Peterson to regain his form. An inexperienced kicker must grow up immediately. And, of course, Cousins needs to be more consistent than he was early last season.