NFL

Minnesota Vikings: Injury returnees as important as offseason signings

By Sports Desk March 22, 2021

The 2021 season cannot play out like the last one did for the Minnesota Vikings.

A team that had gone 10-6 in 2019 was looking to return to the playoffs for a second straight year, led by an impressive array of offensive talent.

Those stars certainly were not the issue.

"I do believe, offensively, we've got to the point where we have a chance to be a really, really good football team," head coach Mike Zimmer said at the end of last season.

"For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense."

Unfortunately, as Stats Perform data shows, an awful defensive unit left Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Co. high and dry.

There is work to do to ensure the coming campaign is not another wasted year.

Offense

The numbers back up Zimmer's comments, making it all the more frustrating for the Vikings' offensive players that they limped to a 7-9 record.

Minnesota ranked fourth for yards per game (393.3) and fifth for yards per play (6.15). Only the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans were ahead of them in both categories.

Quarterback Cousins showed signs of progress as he produced a career-high 35 passing touchdowns and increased his passing yards per attempt to 8.3 from 8.1, albeit while throwing 13 interceptions, as many as in his final year in Washington.

Cousins was aided by the success of rookie Justin Jefferson, who provided an effective deep passing option. Four of the wide receiver's seven touchdowns came on passes of 20 yards or more, as he tied Travis Kelce and Calvin Ridley for the most 20-yard catches in the league (23) and led the way in 25-yard receptions (16). Jefferson's receiving average of 15.9 yards ranked eighth.

The ever-consistent Adam Thielen provided substantial support to Cousins and his less-experienced team-mate, posting 74 catches for 925 yards and 14 TDs.

And yet Cousins looked for wide receivers with just 55.2 per cent of his passes. Although Kyle Rudolph's final season with the team was surely his most forgetful - recording just 28 receptions before a foot injury - second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. chipped in with five receiving touchdowns, while there was a single score through the air for Cook.

Of course, the running back's best work came on the ground, where he trailed only Derrick Henry for carries (312), total rushing yards (1,557) and rushing TDs (16), almost singlehandedly giving the Vikings the fifth-best running game in football.

Defense

So how did that offense finish the year with only seven wins?

Unfortunately, the defense gave up 433 offensive points to finish 2020 with the sixth-worst such record.

It was a unit hamstrung by departures and then injuries, with a host of young prospects left to hold the fort.

Minnesota certainly could not have planned for an entire year without Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. Hunter, who had 14.5 sacks and 22 QB hits in 2019, was placed on injured reserve going into Week 1, while new signing Pierce opted out of the year due to COVID-19.

They were always likely to be short at cornerback after losing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but Mike Hughes and Holton Hill each played just four games to exacerbate the issue.

Even star linebacker pairing Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr played together for only two weeks before the latter suffered a shoulder injury.

Simply getting these players back on the field again will go a long way to improving the Vikings' hopes.

It will also come as welcome relief to Cousins and his offensive colleagues, as the quarterback should expect to have the ball in his hands more often, having seen the defensive class of 2020 struggle to get stoppages.

Minnesota's opponents converted 70.8 per cent of their fourth downs and 86.7 per cent from fourth and short (four yards or less).

Offseason

Scarred by 2020, the Vikings have focused their efforts on defensive stars in free agency, boosting their depth even further as a host of injured stars prepare to return.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has arrived on a two-year, $21million contract having posted 3.5 sacks for the New York Giants last year, as many as any Minnesota player besides Yannick Ngakoue (5.0), who left less than halfway through the season.

Patrick Peterson boosts the cornerback ranks, meanwhile, after his three interceptions and eight passes defensed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020.

The need to recruit a pass rusher was outlined by Zimmer and the first move on that front brought Stephen Weatherly back to Minnesota following a single season in Carolina.

But considering this team missed the playoffs, other areas of need are relatively scarce, although free safety Anthony Harris has left for the Philadelphia Eagles and will be a miss.

They have just over $3million in cap space and the 14th pick in the draft, but the Vikings look to be in a solid position to contend for the postseason – so long as that injury curse does not strike again.

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    "It is the same confidence. We didn't change, we won't waver and it is the same confidence we had when we were 2-4," Judon replied when asked about their confidence level.

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