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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Tabs 8 'Under-the-Radar' Vikings to Impact 2021 Season

The Vikings have 17 regular-season games ahead of them, starting with Sunday's game against the Bengals in Cincinnati.

While it may be too early to know how Minnesota will fare this season, The Athletic's Arif Hasan took a look at eight "key, under-the-radar" Vikings whom he says could "make or break" the 2021 campaign. Hasan wrote:

For this, we'll look at players whose contract averages to less than 3.0 percent of this year's cap, roughly $5 million a year. We'll also avoid first- and second-round picks still on rookie contracts as they might meet the criteria but are clearly meant to play larger roles on the team.

Hasan first spotlighted Rashod Hill, who is set to start at left tackle in Week 1, and then cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a free agency addition to Minnesota's secondary. Hasan wrote that Breeland "overtook promising second-year player Cameron Dantzler for the starting job and has largely looked good in camp and the preseason."

Because cornerback is a "weak-link" position where the unit's performance is dependent on its worst-performing player, the corner opposite Patrick Peterson must play at a high level.

With a schedule that includes dynamic duos at receiver in a number of games – the Bengals, Seahawks, Panthers, Cowboys, Chargers, Steelers and Rams are all good examples – the Vikings can't afford to have either corner slip. Breeland has had an up-and-down career but has been better on the outside than in the slot. If the Vikings can keep him there, Breeland might be able to make good on his one-year contract and set himself up for a longer-term payday.

Another cornerback Hasan discussed was Mackensie Alexander, who returned to Minnesota after spending the 2020 season in Cincinnati.

When the Vikings aren't in their base defense, Hasan noted, Alexander "should be on the field."

The slot position is becoming more important for offenses with each passing year, and with that comes the concurrent significance of the nickel corner. Alexander has played well enough for the Vikings in the past and has been a part of some of their stellar defenses, but with more slot threats in the NFL — Tyler Boyd, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Keenan Allen and CeeDee Lamb are all on the schedule — the nickel corner role will be more important than it was even two years ago.

Of course, if a nickel corner can't stop the run, then nothing stops an offense from putting three receivers out onto the field just to run at the small cornerback lined up in the slot. … Some offenses run through their slot receivers and if Alexander can't at least slow down those players, then teams like the Cowboys, Steelers and Panthers will mow them down. They won't need an All-Pro year from Alexander to be successful, but they will need a good one.

The other "under-the-radar" players highlighted by Hasan were defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, guard Olisaemeka Udoh, D.J. Wonnum, tight end Tyler Conklin and linebacker Nick Vigil. To see his full breakdown, click here.

Michael Pierce could 'shift balance of power' in NFC North

Once again, the Vikings will be on the hunt this season for the division title.

Minnesota hasn't won the NFC North since 2017 and is looking to regain the crown. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora recently looked at one player from each division who could "shift the balance of power in 2021," and in the NFC North he spotlighted Vikings defensive tackle Michael Pierce.

Pierce signed with the Vikings in March of 2020 but then opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns, so fans will have their first chance to see him in game action this Sunday. La Canfora wrote:

One of the jewels of Minnesota's 2020 offseason can do an awful lot for a man of his size, and [Vikings Head Coach] Mike Zimmer is just the kind of coach to know how to best deploy him.

He has no shortage of motivation, and if the Vikings can close the gap on the Packers this season, I suspect Pierce has plenty to do with it. Not the first guy you think of, but a potential glue guy for this defensive line and someone who could give Aaron Rodgers some fits, especially as Green Bay works through some injuries up front. His return, and Danielle Hunter getting back in form, could transform a defense that fell hard a year ago.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bengals.

Below are the players La Canfora tabbed for each of the other seven divisions.

NFC East: Washington Football Team RB Antonio Gibson

NFC South: Saints QB Jameis Winston

NFC West: 49ers T Trent Williams

AFC North: Browns OLB Jadeveon Clowney

AFC East: Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds

AFC South: Colts QB Carson Wentz

AFC West: Chargers T Rashawn Slater