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I have been a Vikings fan for close to 55 years, even though I was born and raised in California. It is tough to watch a team that at times has so much talent and promise consistently underperform year after year. The defense needs an overhaul as well as the offensive line. Too many things to list. It is fairly obvious that there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed during this offseason. What are the priorities, or is this a multi-year endeavor?
— Jed Johnson in Concord, California
Well, folks, we made it. After 16 games and plenty of drama, the Vikings put a bow on the 2020 season with a 37-35 win over the Lions.
And just like that, we're already at the starting point of Minnesota's 2021 offseason. With that said, here are three things on the top of my mind as we start to look ahead:
1. Hope for good (defensive) health in 2021
It's no secret the Vikings defense was obliterated by injuries and absences in 2020. Danielle Hunter (injury) and Michael Pierce (opt out) didn't play a game, while Anthony Barr saw the field for less than six quarters.
Eric Kendricks missed the final five games of the season, and the Vikings cornerbacks group (except for Jeff Gladney) all missed multiple games with various injuries. Mike Hughes, a 2018 first-rounder, played in just four games when he was expected to be relied upon as a consistent starter.
Assuming all of those players make a full recovery this offseason, there's no doubt that collective group will give the defense a boost in 2021. But one could argue that more work needs to be done on defense.
The run defense struggled all season, and while there are young players with potential in D.J. Wonnum and maybe James Lynch, perhaps the defensive line gets a bit of a makeover. Some players up front have been here for a few seasons and might not be back, as roster turnover is a constant in the league.
And speaking of potential changes, Anthony Harris and Eric Wilson are scheduled to become free agents, so the Vikings will have to reach new deals with them or see them on other teams next fall.
If the Vikings are at full health (or at least have better health), and with the young players getting more familiar with Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's scheme, Minnesota's defense should be much improved in 2021.
Let's hope for a little luck in 2021.
2. Keep improving the offensive line
Kirk Cousins is among the league's most efficient and accurate quarterbacks when given time to throw. That wasn't always the case this season, as Minnesota's offensive line struggled at times in pass protection.
Cousins was sacked 39 times in 2020, and has now been sacked 105 times in his three seasons with the Vikings. Is some of that on the quarterback for holding the ball too long? Yes, and Cousins has said so himself. But some of those sacks came from pressure on the interior, which is an area the Vikings could focus on this offseason.
Minnesota has young building blocks along the line in Brian O'Neill, Garrett Bradbury and Ezra Cleveland. Riley Reiff played well this season in 15 games, and that was after restructuring his contract before the season. He's a true pro and is one of the most respected players on the team.
However, the Vikings do have some questions to figure out going forward. Do they want to move Cleveland to left tackle, where he starred in college? Or are they fine keeping him at one of the guard spots?
O'Neill is also entering the final year of his contract in 2021, so will negotiations take place in the coming months? And do the Vikings bring back Dakota Dozier, who had his own ups and downs while starting all 16 games at left guard?
As usual, the offensive line will be a focus in Minnesota.
3. Take advantage of the skill players
Zimmer said something about Justin Jefferson after Sunday's game that caught my attention:
"Jefferson's a good player. I love the way he competes. He catches everything. He's continually getting better and better and better. He's a great weapon to have and should be for many, many years."
Jefferson had just wrapped up a stellar rookie season with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven scores. He set a Vikings rookie record for catches, and set an NFL record for yards in the Super Bowl era.
However, it's clear that he is not focal point of the Vikings offense. That title belongs to Dalvin Cook (who is certainly a worthy candidate) because of the Vikings affinity for being a run-first offense.
Can that strategy work in order to win games? Absolutely. But it's not as if the Vikings have a standout running back and not much else in the skill department.
Between Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith, Jr., Alexander Mattison, Tyler Conklin and others, Minnesota has some of the top offensive talent in the league.
Cook carried the majority of the load this season with 356 total touches in essentially 13.5 games. (He didn't play in two games and missed nearly all of the second half in Seattle).
Jefferson, Thielen, Rudolph and Smith combined to have 313 targets in 2020. Is there a way to spread the ball to more players and create a more dangerous offense?
Cook would be fresher and still have his big-play ability, while the other skill players would have a chance to have more of an impact than they did in 2020.
The Vikings showed they have all the pieces to be one of the league's top 10 offenses, finishing sixth in yards per game. Minnesota ranked fourth in rushing yards per game but finished 18th in passing yards per game.
Hello, with the season wrapping up Sunday and players cleaning out their lockers, what are the plans to bring back several key veterans on the defensive line? What is the latest update on Danielle Hunter? Is he expected to fully recover by next offseason workouts?
— Robert Uceda in Irvine, California
We'll see what happens along the defensive line in terms of personnel moves. We talked about Hunter, Pierce and others above … but it's clear that unit needs to be much better collectively than it was in 2020.
As for Hunter's health, we haven't heard much on him since he went on Injured Reserve a few days before the season opener. And we haven't heard from Hunter himself since before training camp began.
I imagine Zimmer will be asked about the star defensive end at his end-of-the-year press conference on Tuesday morning. But there's no doubt that Hunter's health and return will be one of the biggest storylines of the 2021 offseason, and we'll be sure to provide updates when available.
It's easy to forget just how dominant a player he'd become with 14.5 sacks in both 2018 and 2019. If he's healthy and ready to go, he is in the conversation for the most impactful defensive players in the league.
View game action photos as the Vikings take on the Lions in Detroit for the 2020 season finale.
Thanks for everything the team (and you) did this season. You taught me to have a deeper look into the team performance. Thanks to the team for the effort after that terrible start, but there were so many things we weren't able to overcome, like injuries. We will keep in touch and watch for the draft and 2021 season.
— Juan Parks in Mexico
Appreciate the kind words, Juan. And I'd like to give a big shoutout to you and all of the other Vikings fans who submitted thoughtful and interesting questions for the Mailbag throughout the season.
It was certainly a year to remember (or maybe forget). If anything, it will likely go down as one of the most unique seasons in NFL history.
Was it ultimately a disappointment in Minnesota? Yes. Anytime you miss the playoffs, it feels like you came up short.
But as touched on before, there are plenty of bright spots to look forward to with the Vikings.
And you can bet that those of us here in Vikings Entertainment Network will look forward to covering the offseason developments in the lead up to the 2021 season.
Happy New Year, Vikings fans … and SKOL.