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Lunchbreak: Forbes Identifies 4 'Key Players' to Vikings Improving in 2022

#84 Irv Smith Jr. action photo
#84 TE Irv Smith Jr.

A new month is upon us, and while football feels a little far away at the start of July, the Vikings will be hosting Back Together Saturday at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

Minnesota went through an exciting offseason, with the hires of General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell.

They worked in tandem to build the roster, selectively adding players at certain spots in free agency and selected 10 players in the 2022 NFL Draft.

While incoming leadership and new players want to help Minnesota finish better than the 8-9 showing in 2021, there's also an opportunity for returning players to help lift the team.

With the latter in mind, Forbes' Steve Silverman opined "four key players must show improvement" for the Vikings in 2022.

Silverman listed tight end Irv Smith, Jr., center Garrett Bradbury, defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and left tackle Christian Darrisaw.

Smith, of course, missed all of 2021 after tearing his meniscus in the preseason finale at Kansas City. It was a tremendous setback for him, as well as the Vikings offense based on everything Smith and the team had shown in the preseason.

Of the fourth-year pro, Silverman wrote:

The Vikings are depending on Smith to help take the pressure off of [Justin] Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and it is clear that the former Alabama star has to step up and deliver. The Vikings have moved on from Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Conklin in recent years, and Smith needs to fill a major role.

Rudolph caught 28 passes for 334 yards and a score in 2020, his final season with Minnesota.

Smith caught 36 passes (a record for a Vikings rookie tight end) in 2019, finishing with 311 yards and two scores. He followed with 30 more receptions for 365 yards and five touchdowns. A number we're interested in keeping an eye on is yards per catch, which went from 8.6 as a rookie to 12.2 in 2020.

Silverman noted Bradbury is a bit bulkier this year, which could help him more during pass-blocking situations against some of the interior behemoths.

Bradbury is athletic enough and moves fairly well for a center, but he needs to be bigger and stronger. He has spent a good part of the offense bulking up and is up to 305 pounds after playing last year at 295. His goal is to demonstrate his improvement and win a long-term position with the team.

View the best photos of Vikings DT Dalvin Tomlinson from the 2021 season.

Silverman wondered if Tomlinson might be tasked with — and able to deliver in — a larger role as an interior pass rusher.

Nose tackles are not usually known for registering huge totals when it comes to tackles or sacks. But with the combination of Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith occupying the minds of most offenses in the upcoming season, Tomlinson should have a chance to become more of a pass rusher in Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell's defense.

Darrisaw's debut as a starter was delayed until Week 6, but he showed multiple times what the Vikings projected in their evaluations. He and Brian O'Neill have been mentioned by O'Connell multiple times as offensive linemen the Vikings are excited to build around for years to come.

Darrisaw improved steadily through the end of the season and was the team's rookie of the year. His greatest strength has been as a run blocker to this point, but he has also demonstrated his talent as a pass blocker. That is the key to his long-term future as a consistent left tackle in the NFL.

NFL.com's Shook predicts first-time Pro Bowlers

The Pro Bowl is a long way away, but it's an easily identifiable accolade. Some players return several years in a row, while others make their debut to cap their first standout season.

NFL.com's Nick Shook predicted a first-time Pro Bowler for each squad and opted for second-year running back/kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu.

The Vikings are in a strange state for this exercise. They have plenty of returning Pro Bowlers, but the younger portion of their team doesn't offer many slam dunks (yet) for future accolades. I'm going to turn to special teams, then, and choose an overlooked returner who took two kicks back for touchdowns in his rookie season. Nwangwu probably won't see much action as a running back, but he proved to be a weapon in the kick return game despite only fielding 18 kickoffs last season. Give him the job over a full season, and we might even see that total hit three, at which point he can no longer be overlooked.

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