2020 was by no means a grand cru year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Expectations were high, but after five defeats in the first six games, Vikings fans knew it was going to be a lost year. Kirk Cousins was again the king of the ups and downs, Dalvin Cook was again unable to play a full season and the defense was dramatic. A bright spot in all that northern darkness was the outburst of rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson. He immediately made the departed Stefon Diggs forget and even made it to the Pro Bowl.
Still, things have to get better in 2021. Kirk Cousins gets one last chance at glory and success.
Offensively, things weren’t all that bad for the Vikings in 2020, so the entire focus in the offseason went to strengthening – say reinventing – defense. No less than five new starters were brought in in free agency. Minnesota found reinforcements for the D-line at Dalvin Tomlinson and Stephen Weatherly. For Weatherly it is his second visit to the Vikings after a year with the Carolina Panthers. Also Michael Pierce is actually a newcomer to the D-line. Although he already signed with the Vikings in 2020, after a COVID-19 opt-out, he will not make his debut for the team until 2021.
The Vikings also tackled the secondary. The biggest addition was cornerback Patrick Peterson. The three-time First Team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year deal for $8 million. The other starting cornerback is also new. Bashaud Breeland, Super Bowl winner with the Kansas City Chiefs, signed for one season. The Vikings also found a replacement for departed safety Anthony Harris at Xavier Woods. He came over from the Dallas Cowboys.
Offensively it was quiet around the Vikings in the intermediate season. On the outgoing side, the departure of OT Riley Reiff and tight end Kyle Rudolph was noted.
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During the NFL Draft, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman showed a strong piece of craftsmanship. Due to excellent negotiation skills, the Vikings eventually managed to pick 11 new players, the most of all teams (along with the Cowboys and Panthers). Already in the first round, the Vikings received applause from all benches as they traded back 9 places, from 14 to 23, and selected Virginia Tech’s left tackle Christian Darrisaw. Darrisaw will start immediately, unless his injury throws a spanner in the works.
In the third round, the Vikings chose no less than four players. The two most interesting picks were Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis and Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. The Vikings’ O-line was nothing to write home about in 2020 and so Davis will immediately have a chance at many minutes next season. The choice for Kellen Mond showed that the Vikings will not be patient with Kirk Cousins forever. If he does not live up to it in 2021, the Vikings have found his possible replacement at Mond.
The offensive line may still be a question mark in Minnesota, but Mike Zimmer can count on a talented group of attackers. Even in the lost year of 2020, the Vikings had the fourth best offense in the National Football League (NFL). With 430 runs scored, 2020 was the third most successful season ever for the offensive unit. If the weapons arsenal remains fit, there is no reason why production should decline in 2021.
The big star of this team is running back Dalvin Cook. Cook gets better every year, hitting 1557 rushing yards in 14 games last season. He also scored 16 touchdowns in those 14 games and deservedly pocketed a Pro Bowl roster. The Vikings hope that Cook can complete a full season for the first time in his career. Alexander Mattison is already a solid reserve should something go wrong at Cook again. Minnesota can’t complain about its receivers either. Adam Thielenhas been a reliable ball catcher for years. Last year he caught 14 touchdowns, a personal best. Then, of course, there’s Justin Jefferson. The 22nd pick in 2020 was fantastic in his rookie season, with 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The Vikings hope that he will do even better in his second year.
As so often, however, everything stands or falls with the quarterback’s performance. Kirk Cousins has always been a controversial figure and 2020 was no different. He again alternated top performances with complete no-shows and again failed to prove that he is the man who can lead the Vikings to the promised land. With the weapons at his disposal, it will be now or never for Kirk Cousins. With Kellen Mond on the ropes, Cousins knows he can’t afford volatility anymore. It’s time for regularity.
After a terrible 2020, the defense has taken on a new face for the new season. seven of the eleven starters are new names. Certainly the D-line underwent a metamorphosis. Only Danielle Hunter is a familiar face with the Vikings. He had to miss last season due to a neck injury, but he hopes to regain his 2019 First Team All-Pro form next season. The linebacker group is led by Eric Kendricks. Kendricks was one of the few players of the same level in defense last year. He should be able to maintain that level in 2021 with a stronger unit in front of him. Another bright spot last season was safety Harrison Smith. Smith caught five interceptions, tying his personal best. He saw his buddy Anthony Harris leave, but should also be efficient next to Xavier Woods. With the experienced Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland in the Secondary, the defense of the Vikings already looks a lot stronger on paper.
The Vikings spent most of their resources on last season’s two biggest weaknesses: defense and the O-line. The team looks better that way than last year and should be able to be competitive all season long. However, the schedule is not up to scratch and the Green Bay Packers are still one step higher within their own NFC North. In addition, doubts still linger around quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Vikings will improve on last season, but competing for the marbles in the strong NFC will again fail.