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Justin Jefferson
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Offseason Team Previews

2021 Vikings Offseason Preview

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: February 22, 2021, 1:05 pm ET

My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).

 


Vikings 2020 Recap

Vikings2020

Various injuries and free agent departures forced the Vikings into starting multiple inexperienced players on defense. They were specifically vulnerable at corner (23rd in passing EPA defense) and at edge rusher (28th in adjusted sack rate), ultimately leading to the fourth-most points allowed. Minnesota’s offense was another story, however. Kirk Cousins had a career-best 35 touchdowns thanks to Justin Jefferson’s breakout rookie season, and Dalvin Cook headlined the No. 9 rushing EPA offense. Some red zone luck helped their 2020 scoring numbers -- Minnesota was sixth in percentage of red zone trips ending in a touchdown -- but the Vikings look poised to run back a borderline top-12 offense with Cousins, Jefferson, Cook, Adam Thielen, and Irv Smith all expected back. Whether the defense responds will depend on how the offseason shakes out and how much the youthful cornerback depth chart develops.

 


Vikings 2021 Offseason

Notes

 

Vikings Cap Space

-$8.6 million (24th)

Vikings Draft Picks

1.14, 3.79, 3.91, 4th, 4th, 4th, 5th, 5th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks

Vikings Departures

FS Anthony Harris, EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Eric Wilson, DT Jaleel Johnson, Slot CB Chad Beebe, RB Mike Boone

Vikings Cut Candidates

LT Riley Reiff ($11.8M cap savings), TE Kyle Rudolph ($5.1M)

 


Vikings Depth Chart

Position

Base Offense

Notable Backups

Personnel

12

-

% of Passes

27%

-

QB

Kirk Cousins

 

WR

Justin Jefferson

Bisi Johnson

WR

Adam Thielen

 

TE

Irv Smith

Tyler Conklin

TE

Kyle Rudolph

 

RB (Early Down)

Dalvin Cook

Alexander Mattison

RB (Third Down)

Dalvin Cook

 

LT

Riley Reiff

Oli Udoh

LG

Dru Samia

 

C

Garrett Bradbury

 

RG

Ezra Cleveland

 

RT

Brian O’Neil

 

 

Offensive Coordinator: The Vikings opted to go the nepotism route at offensive coordinator with Gary Kubiak heading into retirement. His 33-year-old son, Klint, will take over and likely change close to nothing that wasn’t already installed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing after the 2020 season the Vikings had. They are more balanced than most, including myself, would like (28th in neutral pass), but Kirk Cousins has perfected the play-action pass, ranking fourth in play-action YPA (9.6) among 39 qualifiers. If not for their No. 26 neutral pace offense, the Vikings likely would’ve finished higher than their No. 11 points for ranking in 2020. Expect the slow-paced, play-action attack in 2021. The question is if it will include more 11-personnel instead of the Kubiak staple of 12-personnel.

Passing Offense: Kirk Cousins turned in arguably the best season of his career, finishing fifth in completion percentage over expected (+4.7) and ninth in passing EPA per dropback out of 29 qualifiers. Minnesota’s 29% play-action rate was 11th highest, and Cousins was a precise intermediate and deep passer. Justin Jefferson’s separation skills aided in the Vikings’ seventh-highest ranking in percentage of passes traveling 15-plus air yards. The rookie certainly answered the “where’s the deep threat?” question and projects as a top-10 real-life and fantasy receiver in 2021. Adam Thielen will be the No. 2 receiver in an offense that could opt for more 11-personnel if Kyle Rudolph is traded or released ($5.1 million in cap savings). That would unlock 2019 second-rounder Irv Smith as a third-year breakout candidate at tight end. Unless Gary’s son proves to be an inadequate play-caller in his first year doing so, there’s no reason to believe the Vikings will regress in 2021. They were 11th in passing EPA.

Rushing Offense: When healthy, Dalvin Cook lived up to his newly-signed contract in 2020. He was the RB3 overall in PPR points over expected per game (+3.2) -- an efficiency stat -- and was the RB2 overall in PPR points per game (24.1). Another three-down workhorse role is on the docket with 2019 third-rounder Alexander Mattison clearly in line for No. 2 duties. Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah are free agents. Minnesota has some work to do along the offensive line, however. They struggled in 2020, finishing 26th in adjusted sack rate and 29th in short-yardage EPA, and likely will need to find two new starters. Last year’s starting LG Dakota Dozier will be a free agent, and LT Riley Reiff is a cut candidate ($11.8 million in cap savings). The good news is that the rest of the offensive line is young and should get better in 2021. 2020 second-round RG (and potential tackle) Ezra Cleveland, 2019 first-round C Garrett Bradbury, and 2018 second-round RT Brian O’Neill all come with high pre-draft pedigree.

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Position

Base Defense

Notable Backups

Coverage

Cover 2 Zone

 

% of Plays

23% (4th)

 

CB

Mike Hughes

Harrison Hand

CB

Cameron Dantzler

Kris Boyd

CB (Slot)

Jeff Gladney

 

SS

Harrison Smith

 

FS

???

Josh Metellus

LB

Eric Kendricks

Troy Dye

LB

Anthony Barr

 

DT (1T)

Michael Pierce

Shamar Stephen

DT (3T)

Armon Watts

James Lynch

Edge (5T)

Jalyn Holmes

Hercules Mata'afa

Edge (7T)

Danielle Hunter

D.J. Wonnum

 

Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer was heated coming out of the 2020 season, and it’s easy to see why. The Vikings were 29th in points allowed, couldn’t rush the passer, and didn’t have the cornerback talent to win in the modern NFL. Getting DE Danielle Hunter (0 games) back and allowing the youthful secondary to develop with another offseason should clean things up in 2021. Schematically, the Vikings are a two-high team, one that finished fourth in percentage of snaps in Cover 2 zone. They rotate into Cover 1 and Cover 3 rarely, but we’ll see what happens next year with high-end FS Anthony Harris expected to sign elsewhere. Ultimately, the Vikings are likely to improve against the pass in 2021 solely because Hunter (14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019) will be back on the field.

Passing Defense: In the 2020 offseason, the Vikings lost CBs Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander, so it was expected that Minnesota would struggle at corner last year. 2020 first-round slot CB Jeff Gladney did just that, and 2018 first-round CB Mike Hughes only played four games. Their best corner arguably was 2020 third-rounder Cameron Dantzler who fell in the draft after running a 4.64 forty. Those three should play better in 2021 if only because they’ll be more experienced, but it’s still a unit that lacks high-end talent. Up front, Danielle Hunter will lead an edge rush group that ranked 28th in adjusted sack rate. DEs Jalyn Holmes and D.J. Wonnum are both former fourth-rounders, and Hercules Mata'afa is a 2018 undrafted free agent. Edge is a need.

Rushing Defense: Star LB Anthony Barr only played in two games last season, so he’ll be a welcomed upgrade over 2020 starter Eric Wilson, a 2017 undrafted free agent. Between Barr and Eric Kendricks, the Vikings are more than set at linebacker. It’s one of the best duos in the NFL when healthy. They combined for 11 games in 2020. The defensive interior is a far, far bigger issue when it comes to improving the Vikings’ No. 26 rushing EPA defense. With DT Jaleel Johnson hitting free agency, the Vikings will hope that 2020 free agent signee Michael Pierce is ready for the upcoming season after opting out last year. He's a starter if so. 2019 sixth-rounder Armon Watts, 30-year-old journeyman Shamar Stephen, and baby-armed 2020 fourth-round DT James Lynch are also in the mix. Defensive tackle is a minor need.

VikingsDEF

 


Vikings Team Needs

1. Offensive Guard - Last year’s starting LG Dakota Dozier is set for free agency, and current fill-in Dru Samia is an inexperienced 2019 fourth-rounder. RG Ezra Cleveland and C Garrett Bradberry are plus starters on the interior, but the Vikings need one more starter here, especially if Cleveland pushes to tackle if and when LT Riley Reiff is released. Minnesota was 29th in short-yardage rushing EPA last season.

2. Free Safety - The Vikings don’t want to lose Anthony Harris, but they prioritized other positions and players over the last two offseasons. He’ll likely walk and get paid handsomely elsewhere. Minnesota needs to find a replacement to pair with SS Harrison Smith. Josh Metellus is a 2020 sixth-rounder who projected as a special teamer.

3. Edge Rusher - 2020 showed how reliant the Vikings are on DE Danielle Hunter, who missed the entire year due to a neck injury. They were 28th in adjusted sack rate last season. Luckily Minnesota has Hunter locked up long term, but he needs more around him for the Vikings to take the next step. Coach Mike Zimmer said, “A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers.”

4. Defensive Tackle(s) - Minnesota was 26th in rushing EPA defense last season. Getting DE Danielle Hunter and LB Anthony Barr back healthy and NT Michael Pierce back from opt out will help that metric out in 2021, but the Vikings can still upgrade their defensive tackle spot. Jaleel Johnson is a free agent, and Shamar Stephen and Armon Watts are best suited for backup roles.

5. Quarterback - Kirk Cousins isn’t going anywhere in 2021 on his contract, and he’s been pretty good with the Vikings anyway. Cousins was 9th in EPA last season and set a new career-high with 35 passing touchdowns. A rookie quarterback dart throw would only make sense for 2022 when the Vikings can save $35 million by cutting Cousins.

 


2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.

Dalvin Cook (RB1) - With the offense essentially all back, Cook is firmly in the top-three overall discussion. He averaged 24.1 PPR points on 20.9 expected PPR points per game when healthy -- both were RB2 overall -- and his game-script independence keeps his weekly floor at elite levels. Aside from his heightened injury risk, there’s no weakness in Cook’s fantasy profile. He’ll be 26 years old in 2021.

Justin Jefferson (WR1) - As noted in Fantasy Splits To Know, Jefferson averaged 9.8 expected PPR points per game before the Vikings’ bye and 14.7 expected PPR points after. Despite not being utilized heavily early in the season, Jefferson finished as the WR14 per game (16.5 PPR points). He was among the most efficient receivers, ranking seventh among 105 receiver qualifiers in PPR points over expected per game (+3.8). Any negative regression will be washed with more volume. He’s simply a top-10 real life receiver and should be treated as such in fantasy. Just check out the other receivers to reach 2.00 yards per route run with 75 targets as rookies (tweet).

Adam Thielen (WR3) - He’s a good player and has been an underrated fantasy asset, but Thielen may go overdrafted in 2021. He’ll be 31 years old and has negative touchdown regression coming. 68% of his 19 red zone targets went for touchdowns last year when the NFL average was 28%. Thielen also saw his usage scaled back after Jefferson emerged. In healthy games after the bye, Thielen averaged just 12.5 expected PPR points compared to 15.0 before the bye (full splits column). That’s a lot to overcome following his WR11 per-game finish last year.

Alexander Mattison (RB4) - With Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah headed for free agency, Mattison likely will have the No. 2 job secured to himself in 2021. A poor small sample showing in two 2020 starts will hurt his perceived 2021 value, but there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have an RB1 workload in games Cook misses. 

Kirk Cousins (QB2) - A career-high 35 passing touchdowns was only good enough for a QB12 per game finish last year. Cousins’ ceiling is severely capped, particularly with negative touchdown regression expected. The Vikings’ 28th neutral pass rate and 26th neutral pace aren’t helping either.

Irv Smith (TE2) - Rudolph isn’t happy about his receiving usage and the Vikings would save $5.1 million by trading or cutting him, so there’s a clear path to a 2021 breakout for Smith. Adding to the promise is Minnesota’s lack of a third receiver and the long history of third-year tight end breakouts. Smith has flashed enough as a receiver since being drafted in the second round to view him as a double-digit round sleeper this offseason.