The 2016 Vikings schedule was released Thursday, and the Vikings have a handful of interesting games, including [four matchups scheduled for prime time](http://www.vikings.com/news/article-1/Vikings-Slated-for-4-Prime-Time-Games-in-2016/723df6ac-5e08-48e8-bd51-3617a75041ff?campaign=sf24429576 sf24429576). Of the 16 games slated for Minnesota, which will be the most challenging? The Star Tribune's Matt Vensel weighed in on which five he expects to be the toughest.
NFC North rival Green Bay took up two of the five spots on Vensel's list. In 2015, the Vikings split the series with Green Bay, defeating the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 to take the division title. Vensel predicted Minnesota's home opener to be the fifth-most challenging game.
I was tempted to put the season opener against the Titans on this list because of that Bay Area beatdown the 49ers gave them last year. One big issue in that loss, besides the long flight out west, was that some players were too hyped up for it, which will more likely be the case in Week 2 when the Vikings play their first real game at U.S. Bank Stadium against their biggest challengers in the North.
Vensel penciled the Thanksgiving game at Detroit as No. 4, citing home-field advantage for the Lions in addition to a short week for the Vikings. Arizona at Minnesota in Week 11 came in as third-toughest for Vensel, although he likes the Vikings chances at home better.
On paper, before the draft and training camp and the preseason, the Cardinals look to again be one of the top contenders in the NFC. Quarterback Carson Palmer still has a ton of weapons, and their defense is tough, too. The shorthanded Vikings put up a pretty good fight against the Cardinals on the road last season but came up short. This year, the matchup will be played in Minneapolis, which helps.
Super Bowl 50 contender Carolina came in as a runner-up for Vensel, with the Vikings Christmas Eve road game against Green Bay topping the list.
For the second straight season, the NFC North title could come down to a late-season showdown between these two rivals. The Vikings stormed into Lambeau Field to steal the division last season. It was their first win there since 2009. Can they go in there and take out Aaron Rodgers and the Packers again? It will be a pretty tough task, but the Lambeau mystique is now shattered for this young group.
View images of the Vikings opponents after the 2016 schedule was released on Thursday.
How the Rams-Titans Draft trade could affect the Vikings
The 2016 NFL Draft is now less than two weeks away. Last week, the Titans and Rams pulled off a blockbuster trade in which Tennessee gave up the No. 1 overall pick for a slew of picks in the first three rounds. While the Vikings were not involved in the transaction, John Holler of Viking Update explained that the trade could still affect Minnesota come draft night.
As Holler pointed out, with the Rams and Browns now having the first two picks, analysts' mock drafts up to this point have been disrupted.
The conventional wisdom was that top WR prospect Laquon Treadwell would have to drop past a minefield of potential suitors before the Vikings would be on the clock. One of the most often discussed landing spots was the Rams at No. 15. Now that option is off the table.
Holler also said the move could mean that three quarterbacks – Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch – will be off the board before the Vikings make their selection at No. 23.
Seeing as the Vikings aren't in the market for a quarterback in the first round, as many picks that can be made at positions the Vikings aren't considering is a benefit for them.
It's always hard to predict how the chips will fall when players start coming off the board, but it seems the shakeup with Tennessee and Los Angeles may not be a bad thing for Minnesota.
2016 could be big year for Jerick McKinnon
With the Vikings voluntary offseason program kicking off today, ESPN's Ben Goessling focused in on where the team stands in a few areas. Goessling called running back Jerick McKinnon a "player on the rise" headed into 2016:
[McKinnon] looked like he was ready to become a multi-faceted weapon in the Vikings' offense at the end of last season, and as he heads into his third season it stands to reason the Vikings will try to carve out an even bigger role for him in their offense. McKinnon averaged 8.55 yards per touch in the final three weeks of the regular season, getting the ball on handoffs, jet sweeps and passes as a slot receiver.