Among the many lessons the Vikings learned in 2020, perhaps the biggest is that Danielle Hunter is among the team's most important players.
The defensive end can impact a game in so many ways, and he looks forward to doing so in 2021 after missing all of last season with a neck injury.
"I'm happy to be back and I'm ready to go and I'm just eager to play," Hunter said in mid-June.
Those around the league noticed Hunter's absence, too, as the 26-year-old recently landed in the top 10 in a league-wide poll of the game's best edge rushers.
Hunter snagged the No. 10 spot after barely missing the cut in 2020, the first year of the rankings.
The list was compiled by ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, who wrote about Hunter:
Hunter finished just outside of the top 10 going into last season, but voters recognized just how much the Vikings missed him in 2020. The numbers say Minnesota's pass production cut nearly in half without Hunter, who missed the entire season after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc.
Since 2019, the Vikings have 42 sacks on opponents' 527 dropbacks (8 percent) with Hunter on the field, yet 29 sacks on 679 dropbacks (4.3 percent) with Hunter off the field. Hunter racked up 56 pressures by himself in 2019, yet the Vikings had 137 total pressures as a team last season, fourth-fewest in the NFL.
Expect Hunter to remind Minnesota of his worth in 2021.
"He's kind of like Myles Garrett in that he's built like a Marvel character," an AFC scout said. "Special traits and he has length to win and counter moves to go with it."
Hunter has 54.5 career sacks in 78 career games, even with just 49 career starts. He's also recorded 67 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including two that he has scooped up and returned for touchdowns.
And while he made the list, so too did numerous players the Vikings will see in 2021.
Cleveland's Garrett was ranked first, and he'll be in town for a Week 4 game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt, who was ranked second, visits in Week 14 on Thursday Night Football.
Minnesota will also see the Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (No. 3; at L.A. in Week 10), plus home-and-away matchups against Chicago's Khalil Mack, who was ranked fourth.
The No. 5 edge rusher, Arizona's Chandler Jones, is on the docket for a Week 2 road game, while San Francisco's Nick Bosa is No. 8 and on the schedule for a Week 12 roadie.
Fowler's full list can be found here.
Ezra Cleveland among Edholm's potential breakout players for 2021
Each season, it seems many second-year players around the league take a noticeable step forward from their rookie seasons.
Offensively, current Vikings such as Brian O'Neill, Garrett Bradbury and Irv Smith, Jr., did so in recent years and are now viewed as key pieces for that unit.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports believes Vikings left guard Ezra Cleveland could be the next Minnesota player to do so.
Edholm recently compiled his listed of Year 2 players he expects to turn heads in 2021. And while this list featured 10 players from across the league, he included Cleveland, who was a second-round pick in 2020.
Another player switching spots appears to be Cleveland, who was thrown into the mix last season at right guard — a spot he wasn't very familiar with. The results were uneven, although Cleveland appeared to improve and be trending upward by season's end.
Once he settles in at left guard, his expected position this season, Cleveland could be ready to make a big jump. We're talking about a player who athletically speaking fits the profile of a first-round talent. If he can clean up some little things in his game, including his pad level and hand placement, Cleveland should help lead this young offensive line.
He's a highly athletic blocker, and yet his biggest issues seemed to be with his pass-blocking technique last season. The unfamiliar spot (after playing left tackle three years at Boise State) was the biggest reason.
Moving back to the left side could help unlock a lot of his movement skill in the pass game, and Cleveland already opened some eyes as a rookie with his better-than-expected run blocking.
Cleveland started nine games at right guard in 2020, but worked solely at left guard during offseason practices.
Cleveland said in late May that he is excited for the position switch.
"Right guard was a new experience for me. But as I was playing, I felt like I was getting more comfortable there on the right side playing guard and I was gaining the experience throughout the year," Cleveland said. "By the end of the year, it felt like I had been playing right guard for a long time.
"Right now, I'm playing left guard and I think it'll help me tremendously, just having that experience at guard and moving back to my natural side where I have most of my experience," Cleveland added. "I'm excited for that and I'm excited for this year."
Analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Cleveland a grade of 66.2 for his rookie season, a mark that tied for the second-highest among all rookie guards.