State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Minnesota Vikings: Time for Mike Zimmer's crew to strike

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Vikings organization, Vikes fans around the world and those who are now starting to grow tired of having to explain what Skol means:

The Vikings have been one of the better teams in the NFL over the past few years, reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2017 and authoring some of the most improbable playoff wins in recent memory (sorry, Saints fans). In Mike Zimmer's seven seasons as head coach so far, Minnesota has only logged two losing campaigns. Unfortunately, last season was one of them. The disappointment of going 7-9 underlined the broader frustration of being a perpetual contender (at least on paper) that always hangs around the playoff picture without really breaking through.

The Vikings' competitive window has not closed -- anything but. However, it feels like something needs to give here. There need to be some answers. This feels like a pivotal year.

How the Vikings got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Justin Jefferson's amazing rookie season. Just as we predicted he would last year in this space -- and all over the place -- the receiver went off. Jefferson set a rookie record for receiving yards with 1,400. Only Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert had a better first pro season in 2020. (Yes, that's correct, Vikings fans: Herbert was better, even if you can find some advanced metrics that support the argument that Jefferson had the superior campaign.)
  • Winning five of six games after the Week 7 bye. This stretch of success leveled Minnesota up to 6-6, and it looked like the team was potentially going to be in the playoff mix.

The lows:

  • Losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Week 14. Falling to the Bucs kickstarted a run of failure against eventual playoff teams; Minnesota lost three in a row (to Tampa, Chicago and New Orleans) to drop to 6-9, sliding out of relevance before finishing the season with a meaningless win over the Lions.
  • Missing the playoffs. After that 5-1 midseason sprint, it was really a deflating way to end the season.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Zimmer. It's an odd-numbered year, which means Zimmer is going to kill it this season. Check out this pattern: The Vikings have reached double-digit wins three times under Zimmer: in 2015, 2017 and 2019. So Minnesota is a lock to win 10-plus in 2021. I know this is the kind of logic typically reserved for walking into a Las Vegas casino, looking at the payouts on the roulette wheel and concluding a certain color is "due." Still.

I'd actually have Zimmer in the top 11 of NFL coaches, regardless of the year, because the Vikings have been competitive each season Zimmer has been coach. Yes, even in the even-numbered years -- even in parts of 2020. After all, the down Zimmer years would qualify as great seasons for some other teams (looking at you, Lions). The Vikings have never finished with less than seven wins during his tenure. (Maybe that consistency isn't always so great; if the Vikings had kept going on the 1-5 pace they started with last year, they would have been in the mix for a quarterback like Justin Fields. Wait, am I saying the Vikings need a new quarterback? Not exactly. But we'll talk more about that in a moment.)

I do want to point out the coordinator situation is a family affair. Klint Kubiak takes over for his dad, Gary Kubiak, as the team's offensive play-caller. (Kubiak has previously worked with Gary and was the team's quarterback coach the last two years.) And Mike's son, Adam Zimmer, is heading into his second season as co-defensive coordinator. This is kind of like the Vikings' version of the legacy stable from the WWE years ago (which I was a huge fan of, but then again, I'm a Cody Rhodes mark).

Quarterback: Kirk Cousins. In my recent ranking of how the NFC North quarterbacks would look if Aaron Rodgers were to leave the Packers, I had Cousins second, behind Bears rookie Justin Fields. Vikings fans were upset -- but I'm still trying to figure out if it was because Cousins was ranked too high or too low. It's weird that the mild-mannered Cousins is such a polarizing figure. Who would hate Kirk Cousins? It's like taking an extreme position on Tom Hanks, who we all just sort of genuinely agree seems like a pretty great person. Even though some might not like his movies or performances (I, for instance, can't stand the "Woody" character from Toy Story), most people probably still have a favorable impression of Hanks.

I see Cousins the same way. He's never going to be in the conversation about the best quarterback in the NFL. But he's consistent, having thrown for at least 4,000 yards in five of his last six seasons. He's topped 30 touchdown passes in two of his last three. He's solid -- like Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can.

All that said, I'm curious about whether the Vikings will start to consider other options. Cousins is 32, under contract for two more seasons and, like I wrote, seems to have a definite ceiling. There was a report by Pro Football Talk that the team was in on Fields, which, if true, would make the Ohio State product landing with the rival Bears even more interesting. I'm sure if Fields becomes a stud QB, Bears fans won't bring this up at all.

The Vikings did draft Kellen Mond -- a dual-threat quarterback compared by NFL.com's Lance Zierlein to Colin Kaepernick -- in the third round. That's a pick I really like. Mond has a lot of games under his belt, but he'll benefit from sitting behind Cousins early in his NFL career. Even so, don't be surprised if there are some opportunities for Mond this season.

Projected 2021 MVP: Dalvin Cook, running back. The 2017 second-round pick spent the first two years of his career battling injuries, and you were wondering if it was ever going to happen for him. Kind of like when Bryan Danielson first started with the WWE. We knew he was awesome in Ring of Honor. But you didn't know if it would ever translate to the biggest stage. Well, Cook broke through with his first 1,000-yard campaign in 2019 and was even more amazing last year, rushing for 1,557 yards and scoring 17 total touchdowns.

Maybe the most important figure is that Cook carried the ball 312 times in 2020, which is kind of a lot, considering he played in 14 games. You might have heard, but the NFL Is expanding to 17 games this year. And with Cook's history of injuries, the Vikings are surely going to be very cautious with him. In fact, you have to wonder if we'll see some NBA-style load management during the season. Because the Vikings don't want their star running back going into any kind of Arian Foster- or Larry Johnson-type decline. So expect them to protect Cook -- and look out for Alexander Mattison to be in the mix a lot, too.

2021 breakout star: Irv Smith Jr., tight end. Believe me, I know a lot of my excitement over Smith comes from a fantasy perspective, and I might need to temper my enthusiasm. But a lot of us fantasy dorks think Smith can become a better version of Kyle Rudolph, who was released after 10 seasons with Minnesota. I know Zimmer said he doesn't think there will be "any bigger role for \[Smith\] whatsoever," going on to name-drop Tyler Conklin as an emerging tight end. But even as I read that, I just see the Ron Burgundy "I don't believe you" meme in my head. Why do you have to play with my emotions, Mike Zimmer? Smith is going to be the breakout guy.

New face to know: Patrick Peterson, cornerback. Hey, Peterson signing with Minnesota was big news. First of all, it's good to see Peterson take advantage of the NFL rule change that will allow him to wear the No. 7 (which he wore at LSU) even though he's a cornerback. That's awesome. But as an eight-time Pro Bowler, he's also a solid addition to this team, which ranked 25th against the pass in 2020. Sure, Peterson turns 31 this summer. But the dude is durable. He's never missed a game due to injury in his NFL career. The biggest question is, can he stay with two of the best in the business, Bears receiver Allen Robinson and Packers receiver Davante Adams, in the two times he faces each this season?

Another new face to know: Dalvin Tomlinson, defensive tackle. For years, the Chargers led the NFL in players named Melvin. And now the Vikings are content to lead the league in guys named Dalvin. Oh, and Tomlinson is also a good football player. The Vikings needed help on both lines, and while Tomlinson's signing might not have been the splashiest, it was a damn good one.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Vikings look built to win right now. You don't bring in pieces like Peterson and Tomlinson just to settle for .500. If Aaron Rodgers ends up out of the division -- which might merely be wishcasting on my part, as a Bears fan -- the Vikings would be expected to compete for the NFC North title. If you took that to mean the Vikings can't compete for the NFC North title if Rodgers stays in Green Bay, well, you took it correctly. (OK, a wild-card spot should still be solidly on the table, but let's keep things snappy here.)

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 at Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings open with two roadies, going to Cincinnati before hitting the desert. Winnable games, for sure, but nothing is guaranteed. That Bengals game could be tough, and if that one gets out of hand, Minnesota will have to get up for this Pat Pete REVENGE GAME.
  • Week 4 vs. Cleveland Browns. The Kevin Stefanski REVENGE GAME -- although I'm not sure why the ex-Vikings-offensive-coordinator-turned-Browns-head-coach would be so mad. At any rate, this feels pivotal, given that Minnesota has two home games in the first four weeks: this one and a matchup with the Seahawks in Week 3. I know some Vikings fans feel like they will be 4-0 to start the year. I'm not completely convinced of that.
  • Week 11 vs. Green Bay Packers. The Vikings' first look at Jordan Love! I'm kidding. But this will be the first time they face the Packers this season. They also have a date in Lambeau in Week 17 in the penultimate game of the regular season.

Will the Vikings be able to …

Get Danielle Hunter back to being Danielle Hunter? Hunter, who collected 29 sacks over 2018 and '19, missed all of last season with a neck injury that was initially described as a "tweak," and the Vikings' defense struggled against the pass, finishing 28th in sacks. Minnesota needs him to return to form. It's not a huge deal that Hunter was not at OTAs -- you don't want one of the best defensive ends on the planet to ramp things up too quickly, and those workouts are voluntary. But it's also fair to wonder if Hunter's interest in a new contract will eventually become a sticking point, with his participation in mandatory minicamp being something to watch. (UPDATE: Hunter will report to minicamp with a restructured contract in which significant money will be moved up, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.)

Find a solid No. 2 corner opposite Patrick Peterson? 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney's status is up in the air, given that he's facing a felony family violence assault charge. 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. 2020 third-rounder Cameron Dantzler, however, earned high marks from PFF (listed as the 22nd-best cornerback in the NFL), and the spot will likely come down to him, Mackensie Alexander (returning to his old team after a year with the Bengals) or newly signed veteran Bashaud Breeland.

Get a boost from the new talent on the offensive line? The offensive line has been pretty bad over the past few years, ranked 26th by Pro Football Focus last year and 19th in 2019. But the unit could be good this season. Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein are gone, while major draft prize Christian Darrisaw (No. 23 overall) arrives as the latest highly picked offensive lineman, joining expected starters Ezra Cleveland (Round 2, 2020) and Garrett Bradbury (Round 1, 2019). I was impressed that Minnesota was able to trade down and still snag the first-team All-ACC performer -- it was almost non-Vikings-like to add extra picks and still come away with Darrisaw. Plus, third-rounder Wyatt Davis could be in the mix to start at guard, too. I've got to be honest: This was a really good draft for the Vikings.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Xavier Woods' signing. This was a pretty nice pickup. I know a lot of folks might consider losing Anthony Harris to be a huge detriment this season. But he really didn't play that well last season, checking in as Pro Football Focus' 38th-ranked safety. And if the Eagles were willing to spend a lot of money on him, well, then they should enjoy themselves. I kind of like what Woods will be able to bring to the table in Minnesota -- being four years younger (25) than Harris (29) is a nice start. I hate to say it (not enough to keep me from doing it), but it could be a New Day in the Vikings' defensive secondary. Fine. I'll show myself the door.

... people are overthinking: The impact of a potential Justin Jefferson regression. Vikings fans might not be expecting a regression, but fantasy enthusiasts -- yes, I'm aware I continually apologize for being a fantasy dork here -- are afraid Jefferson won't be able to match his numbers from last season. Like, even Randy Moss went from 17 touchdown catches in his rookie year to 11 the following season. Of course, 11 is still really good. So while it's not unreasonable to think Jefferson might see a small decline -- especially if, for instance, the defense is better -- I would still look for Jefferson to once again be one of the most reliable receivers in the NFL.

For 2021 to be a success, the Vikings MUST:

  • Get to the playoffs. I'd even say the Vikings need to win a postseason game or two. Rick Spielman and Co. put together a squad that looks ready to compete right now. Zimmer is signed through the 2023 season, so it's kind of hard to imagine his job is on the line. But making the playoffs, even if it's as a wild-card team, seems to at least be the minimum expectation. While Minnesota's consistent performance has been admirable, it's time to up the ante a little bit and push for more than just reliably decent. Because if the pieces don't come together, and the Vikings spend another humdrum year as second-tier NFC also-rans, things could start to turn sour, with the potential to really go bad in a year or two.

In closing

This will be an interesting year. I know I wrote earlier that the Vikings will have no chance to contend for the division if Rodgers stays in Green Bay. But let me walk that back a little. Because the Vikings have all the ingredients to be one of those squads that shakes off a "good-not-great" early designation and ends up making an actual deep playoff run. Minnesota has a good coach, a good quarterback (for real) and offensive and defensive lines that could make serious strides this year, especially if Darrisaw is as good as we think he can be.

While the path to victory would no doubt be easier with Rodgers gone (duh), Minnesota should still be aiming for the top spot. If Rodgers leaves Green Bay and the NFC North becomes wide open, the Vikings absolutely have to take advantage -- but frankly, it would do a lot for everyone involved if this team were to take a step forward and morph into a true power regardless of who's playing quarterback for the Packers. (Please let this be Blake Bortles!)

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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