The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused the cancelation of preseason games, but it didn't stop evaluation of teams as they stand less than three weeks from the season opener.
CBS Sports is rolling out its annual all-division teams, and Jared Dubin recently posted his All-NFC North squad, which included five Vikings. He started with offensive skill positions, where Dalvin Cook claimed one of two running back spots (Green Bay's Aaron Jones) and Kyle Rudolph one of two tight ends (Detroit's T.J. Hockenson).
Dubin also said the division has "three really good candidates for the quarterback spot" in Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, but he ultimately gave the honor to Rodgers.
Three Vikings showed up on the defensive side of the ball. Danielle Hunter joined Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack, Eric Kendricks joined fellow linebackers Roquan Smith (Bears) and Jamie Collins (Lions), and Harrison Smith was tabbed for the safety spot along with Chicago's Eddie Jackson. Dubin wrote:
Hunter transitioned over the past few years from sub-package star to all-around superstar, and he remains one of the best edge players in the league. Count me among those skeptical that he is going to suddenly fall off without Everson Griffen rushing across from him. Mack was not as dominant last season as he was during his first year with the Bears, but he is still an electric pass rusher and very strong run defender. It physically pained me to leave Za'Darius Smith off this roster, but I'm not sure how to justify taking him over either Hunter or Mack.
Dubin said that Kendricks is "just fantastic in coverage."
He's one of the most athletic linebackers in the league, and he makes life monumentally tough on opposing tight ends and running backs.
And as for Smith, Dubin had nothing but praise for the five-time Pro Bowler entering his ninth season with the Vikings.
If it [wasn't] for guys like Earl Thomas and Jamal Adams, both safeties on our list would get discussed more often in "best safety in the league" conversations. Both Jackson and Smith are aces in coverage, with Jackson playing more of a deep role and Smith coming down into the short and intermediate ranges more often. They are also both tremendous run support players, Smith in particular. They're flat-out stars.
Hunter in top 10 of PFF's 25 best edge defenders entering 2020
There's no denying that Hunter is a special player, and it seems he's finally starting to get the credit he deserves from those outside Minnesota, as evidenced by his first career Pro Bowl nod in 2019.
In 2019, Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history (25 years, 40 days) to accrue 50 career sacks. (Stats became an official stat in 1982).
Analytics site Pro Football Focus on Monday tabbed its top 25 edge defenders entering the 2020 season, noting that 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends were included together.
PFF's Sam Monson ranked Hunter 10th overall in the NFL and wrote the following:
Hunter is one of the most physically gifted edge rushers in the league, and while he has always been racking up the sacks, last season was the first time he really matched that with a high volume of pressure and a down-to-down consistency that saw his overall PFF grade jump more than 10 grading points from his previous best. Hunter ended last season with 97 total pressures (including the postseason) and was leading the league for much of the year. He enters the 2020 season still at just 25 years old, with his best football very possibly still ahead of him, which should be a scary proposition for anybody who has to block him.
For what it's worth, those ranked ahead of Hunter were, from 1-9, J.J. Watt (Texans), Mack (Bears), Cam Jordan (Saints), Von Miller (Broncos), T.J. Watt (Steelers), Myles Garrett (Browns), Nick Bosa (49ers), Joey Bosa (Chargers) and Brandon Graham (Eagles).
Irv Smith, Jr. equipped to help Vikings offense 'step up' in 2020
The Vikings are well-stocked at tight end with Kyle Rudolph and 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith, Jr.
Minnesota's offense under coordinator Gary Kubiak likely will feature heavier personnel packages on a fairly consistent basis, so having the Rudolph-Smith duo should work in the Vikings favor during the 2020 season.
Forbes contributor Steve Silverman opined recently that Smith "has the tools to help the Vikings offense step up" this season. Silverman wrote:
[Smith] flashed his talent [in 2019] by catching 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, and the Vikings coaching staff is hoping that Smith has just scratched the surface of his ability level.
Silverman said that Smith, listed at 6-2 and 242 pounds, "has that kind of size and athleticism that could allow him to become a consistent big-play maker."
He is able to demonstrate his speed on longer routes, and his route running has improved quite a bit since his first training camp.
That's the part of the game that could allow the Vikings to run a lot more two-TE sets this year than they did in the past. Rudolph is one of the better tight ends in the league as he excels on third-down plays and in the red zone.
Smith has the kind of skills that will allow him to make plays in those situations, but it is his ability to stretch the defense that could give the Minnesota offense the special quality that is needed if the team is going to exceed expectations and go beyond what was accomplished a year ago.