The Minnesota Vikings are sort of an anomaly in today’s NFL. They exist sort of in the gray area between teams that are contenders and teams that are rebuilding. The Vikings are too good to be bad but at the same time, they are too bad to be good. It’s really a weird situation.
Minnesota is hoping that 2022 is the year where they escape the gray area, hopefully to the contender side. The Vikings are hoping to capitalize on a lack of strong teams in the NFC as well as a possible down year from the Green Bay Packers and make the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
They will need to get a career year out of quarterback Kirk Cousins if they want to be better than the barely-below-.500 team they have been recently. Cousins is a very solid quarterback but that is about all he is: solid. He is not great, which is a major hindrance, especially when you play in the same division as all-time great Aaron Rodgers.
But that is not to say that Cousins can’t be the quarterback of a great team. He just needs some talented players around him on both sides of the ball to help him succeed. The wild card will be new head coach Kevin O’Connell who will bring a new offensive system to the team in hopes of getting the best out of Cousins.
Another great way to boost a quarterback’s production is to give him a superstar wide receiver. The Vikings have already checked that box with the presence of wide receiver Justin Jefferson. The third-year wideout has already developed fantastic chemistry with his quarterback, breaking records for production over the first two years of a wide receiver’s career.
It’s crazy to think that Jefferson is still getting better as he gets more experience in the league considering he has been one of the best wide receivers over the past two seasons. But Jefferson doesn’t want to settle for being one of the best receivers, he wants to be the best, and this may be the season where he asserts that claim.
There is a very good shot that Jefferson has the best season of his young career in 2022, which could be very impressive considering the numbers he has already put up. He should be a huge beneficiary of O’Connell’s new offensive system which is presumably the same one he ran as the offensive coordinator for the Rams (which worked out pretty well for Cooper Kupp).
Jefferson will just be one piece of a potentially dangerous passing attack (albeit the most important part). Minnesota also has veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen, who himself has been a very productive player as a Viking. He has thrived with Cousins and racked up a ton of yards but is getting older and less effective with each passing season. He is still a great player but he is better off as a second option, which is perfect because that is the role he finds himself in.
Minnesota also has playmakers behind Jefferson and Thielen. Wide receiver K.J. Osborn has impressed in the opportunities he has gotten and the same can be said for Bisi Johnson. They also have promising young players such as rookie Jalen Nailor, who could have a big impact pretty soon, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
The Vikings’ secret weapon this year could be tight end Irv Smith, adding one more potentially dangerous option to the offense. Smith had been trending up in his career and looked like he would finally put it all together in 2021 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Now, Smith should have the starting tight end spot all to himself and should experience his breakout year as long as he stays healthy.
One of the underrated aspects of the Vikings is the offensive line. People are aware of running back Dalvin Cook and how much success he has had over the past few years but few give the guys up front the credit they deserve.
Tackle Brian O’Neill and guards Ezra Cleveland and Olisaemeka Udoh all had very impressive seasons in 202, especially considering they weren’t expected to be much more than average starters. The Vikings could still use some better play from center Garrett Bradbury and 2021 first-rounder tackle Christian Darrisaw but overall the offensive line is a relative strength of the team.
The line is a huge reason why Cook has been as successful as he has been, posting three straight seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards. Cook is one of the best all-around running backs in the league and belongs among the elite at the position. The one drawback to his game is his ability to stay healthy. He has missed a handful of games in each of those three seasons and has played plenty of other games at less than 100 percent.
Luckily for Minnesota, they have one of the best backup running backs in the league in Alexander Mattison. He has been very effective when filling in for Cook and has prevented the offense from having to change the game plan. The Vikings also have second-year running back Kene Nwangwu and rookie Ty Chandler to round out a deep and talented position group.
When the Vikings were one of the better teams in the NFC, a large part of that was a defense that was near the top of the league. That is no longer the case. Although some of the veteran players were around back when the defense was elite, the unit as a whole is far from those times.
Safety Harrison Smith was a very important piece of those great defenses and is still important to the team now. He may not be the same player he was when he was younger but the 33-year-old can still get the job done. He is one of the most reliable players on the defense and is still playing well.
Unfortunately, he isn’t getting the help he needs in the secondary. The Vikings attempted to fix at least part of the problem when they selected safety Lewis Cine with their first-round pick in this year’s draft. Cine will be expected to contribute right away and most likely start from day one. He should be up for the task considering he was an exceptional player in college. Being able to learn from a franchise legend like Smith will also be very helpful for the young safety.
The team also has a similar dynamic going on at cornerback with veteran corner Patrick Peterson and third-year Cameron Dantzler. That paring isn’t quite the same though because Peterson is much more removed from his peak years than Smith. Peterson was once one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the game but has lost some of the athleticism that made him so dominant.
Peterson should be a second or third corner at this point in his career but that would require some of the younger corners to really improve their game. Dantzler is the best bet because he has already been fairly productive (8 passes defended last year, second-best on the team) and has the physical makeup to succeed in the NFL. The Vikings could also look to rookie Andrew Booth as well. If he proves he can contribute in his debut season then the Vikings’ corners could be solid this year.
An impactful veteran that Minnesota lost over the offseason is linebacker Anthony Barr, who had been a mainstay on the defense for years. The team feels like they can adequately replace him, though, with linebacker Eric Kendricks (who has been great the past three seasons) and free agent signing Jordan Hicks.
Another big move the Vikings made in free agency was bringing in outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith to bolster the pass rush. Smith was one of the best edge rushers in the league as recently as two years ago but missed almost all of 2021 due to injury. Smith is a risky move given that recent injury but if he regains some of his All-Pro form then it will pay off big time for Minnesota.
A healthy Smith would form a fantastic pass-rushing duo with outside linebacker Danielle Hunter. He is in a similar situation to Smith, having some recent elite years but also succumbing to some injury issues in 2021. The team also has outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum, who led the team with eight sacks last season, to help ensure the pass rush is solid.
There is going to be a ton of pressure on those players to stay healthy and perform this year because the defense is going to need to get after the quarterback effectively to make up for any weaknesses in the secondary.
The last piece of the Minnesota defense that needs to come into place is the defensive line. That part of the team is going to look a little bit different from last year, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Michael Pierce are gone, as is defensive end Everson Griffen.
The Vikings still have big defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to clog up the middle but the rest of the rotation will likely change. Armon Watts will get some more playing time after leading defensive tackles with 46 tackles last season and other young players such as James Lynch and Jaylen Twyman should see more snaps. Minnesota also brought in defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to add another experienced body to the group. He is still relatively young (26 years old) and should be more productive in a bigger role this year.
If the Vikings fail to make the playoffs this season it will most likely be because the defense is a bit too vulnerable. But I don’t think the Vikings will miss the playoffs, which means I have some faith in the defense to improve enough from last year’s unit.
I think the Vikings finish with a 10-7 record but could be even better if they can capitalize on some potentially floundering teams. I still think the Packers will eventually win the division but the Vikings could make the NFC North race a little tight and even win it if Green Bay struggles and drops a head-to-head contest or two.
Minnesota will control their own destiny in the wild card race, though, with plenty of games against other teams that will be vying for those spots. Matchups against the Eagles, Cowboys, Cardinals, and Saints could end up being vital in determining who gets the final three spots in the postseason.
At the end of the day, I think they get one of those spots, mainly because of their offensive firepower. Cousins, Jefferson, Thielen, and Cook should look great in O’Connell’s offense and score plenty of points, getting them to double-digit wins and into the postseason.