The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: NFC North – Minnesota Vikings

TheProfessor_NFL preview-vikings

Minnesota Vikings

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

There was a time, back in the 2019 offseason, when the Minnesota Vikings were the prime example folks pointed to while asking whether the salary cap was real, but the bill came due in the 2020 offseason.

That cap situation led to a roster turnover that has left the Vikings with one of the youngest teams in the league. There are some things that will have to go right (which is true of any team), but general manager Rick Spielman has done a terrific job reshaping this roster to provide head coach Mike Zimmer with a team he can win with.

Early in Zimmer’s tenure, Minnesota’s calling card was defense and the run game, but while running back Dalvin Cook is a top tier threat, the addition of receiver Justin Jefferson to complement Adam Thielen in last year’s draft allowed the Vikings to field one of the league’s top duos despite trading Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills. The offensive scheme that Klint Kubiak will carry over as he replaces his father Gary as offensive coordinator suits quarterback Kirk Cousins well, so there’s no reason to call for an uptick in passing volume. They’re plenty explosive enough when they do decide to throw it.

Kubiak will have an interesting decision to make regarding personnel use in his first year on the job, as a tight end, Kyle Rudolph has moved on to the New York Giants. Former second-round pick Irv Smith profiles as more of a “move” tight end, and regardless of Smith’s role, the Vikings need an adequate replacement to play as much 12 personnel as they have in recent years. Fifth-round draft pick Zach Davidson may surprise, and Tyler Conklin could transition from playing adequately in a limited role to handling more snaps, but there’s not a proven player for Rudolph’s role. Playing fullback C.J. Ham more in 21 personnel packages seems like an option at first glance, but that also forces Smith into an inline role that wouldn’t appear to play to his strengths.

However they deploy their skill players, the group could end up working with the best offensive line Minnesota has had in years. Center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O’Neill have steadily improved since entering the league, and O’Neill in particular has emerged as a noted difference-maker with an excellent range as a run blocker. Ezra Cleveland is likely to improve in his second season after solid results at right guard in his rookie campaign, and Mason Cole, who has made huge strides in his three seasons in the NFL, presumably will shift from center to right guard after his trade from Arizona, as Cleveland is expected to slide back to the left side. They might have been able to get by with Rashod Hill at the left tackle given the way they run this offensive system, but added a player with more upside in first-round pick Christian Darrisaw, which should allow Hill to slot into a role as the swing tackle, which shifts him from a potential liability to strength in terms of roster construction.

However, it wasn’t the offense that kept Minnesota out of the playoffs last season, and Zimmer is certainly motivated to ensure that he gets his calling card fixed. Given that they’re slated to add two excellent defensive tackles (Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce), and an elite defensive end (Danelle Hunter) back to the mix, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in that regard.

Eric Kendricks played at an elite level last season, a common theme in recent years. While a foot injury ended his season early, he should be among the league’s best once again in 2021, and Harrison Smith continues to be a difference-maker at safety behind him. Anthony Harris moved on after a disappointing year on the franchise tag, but the Vikings added Xavier Woods from Dallas to pair Smith with a veteran partner. While Woods has seemingly earned little respect playing on terrible Cowboys defenses, he’s stood out as a solid player against both the run and pass and has been consistently available. He profiles as a good fit in Zimmer’s Cover 4 heavy scheme, and while Harris had put up two excellent seasons in 2018 and 2019, it won’t be difficult for Woods to top his 2020 performance.

The big question, aside from the obvious one about whether this is the year Minnesota finally maximizes Anthony Barr’s skillset, is whether the corner group improves. The Vikings added veteran Patrick Peterson to start on the outside, along with former slot corner Mackensie Alexander. Alexander’s addition could mean that Jeff Gladney stays on the outside in the nickel package in his second season, but Cameron Dantzler’s play improved down the stretch of his rookie season, and if he’s the third corner, Gladney could continue to slide to the slot in the sub-package.

The Vikings are a team that needs to click on all cylinders because while Kirk Cousins is more than good enough to win with, he’s not in the discussion as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. However, this roster has the potential to be good at every position group, and if that happens, Minnesota will be a tough out in the playoffs.

QB Passing Projections

Kirk Cousins1517371.9537.90.698.014306.131.310.717.53

QB Rushing Projections

Kirk Cousins151751.23.12159.8110.25.317.53

Skill Projections, Rushing

Dalvin CookRB117299.84.641390.712.859.769.617.65
Alexander MattisonRB1831761.04.17254.42.612.114.14.10
Ameer AbdullahRB2591722.64.54102.
Kene NwangwuRB2661767.64.17282.

Skill Projections, Receiving

Dalvin CookRB11778.253.18.88471.41.812.65.717.65
Justin JeffersonWR191768.085.816.001372.97.823.525.013.37
Adam ThielenWR421763.980.512.651017.59.423.430.011.67
Irv Smith Jr.TE1421767.238.010.78409.36.610.521.15.85
Alexander MattisonRB1831775.821.67.52162.
Bisi JohnsonWR2081767.526.810.31275.
Tyler ConklinTE2331770.826.08.84230.
Ameer AbdullahRB2591770.315.16.5999.
Ihmir Smith-MarsetteWR2931776.712.813.68174.
C.J. HamRB3211766.612.27.5692.
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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.