The Vikings offseason program is in the rearview mirror as the team completed mandatory minicamp last week.
Minnesota's players and coaches will now get some much-deserved time off before returning to town in late July for U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp.
And with offseason practices in the book, ESPN Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin took a look back to identify a player that was a surprise standout in recent weeks at Organized Team Activity practices and minicamp.
Cronin went with cornerback Harrison Hand, who stepped up in a crowded position room and with plenty of newcomers around him.
View the best photos from minicamp at the TCO Performance Center shot in black-and-white by the Vikings team photographer, Andy Kenutis.
Hand, a former fifth-round pick, got a lot of reps with the first-team defense in OTAs and minicamp. He came away with a couple of interceptions. The Vikings moved Hand around as an outside corner and even lined him up in the slot, which should help his chances for making the roster this fall.
The secondary looks a lot different this year. While [Cameron] Dantzler (if healthy), Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland will be the front-runners to earn starting jobs, Hand's strong spring showing could put him in line to duke it out with Kris Boyd for one of the final spots on the depth chart.
Hand played in 14 games with one start as a rookie. He recorded his first-career interception off Drew Brees in Week 16 and had three passes defensed on the season.
As Cronin noted above, the Vikings played Hand both outside and in the slot this spring.
He made plays in both spots, including an interception while in single coverage on Justin Jefferson near the end zone in one practice.
The Vikings added Peterson, Breeland and Mackensie Alexander as free agents this offseason, but all of them missed at least one practice due to various reasons. Hand took advantage of his chance to get first-team reps and consistently impressed coaches.
Hand's strong spring also was mentioned in Vikings.com's top takeaways from the offseason program.
Rosenthal: Hunter, Richardson part of new-look Vikings D-line
It's no secret the Vikings defense struggled in 2020. Minnesota ranked 27th in yards per game allowed (393.9) and 29th in points allowed per game (29.7).
Some of that was due to injuries, bad luck or just inconsistent play, but it was a far cry from the standard that Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has set during his tenure in Purple.
The Vikings best stretch came in 2017, when the defense left the league in yards and points allowed per game, and in 2018, when the unit was fourth and ninth, respectively, in those same categories.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com recently wrote that with Danielle Hunter and Sheldon Richardson back in the mix — both of them starred on the 2018 defense — the Vikings should have a much more formidable unit than they did in 2020.
Hunter's importance to the Vikings defense was deeply felt during his absence. They had no pass rush without him and still look thin on the edge even after the team enticed him back to work with a sensible compromise: They accelerated some guaranteed money in his contract and added an option for 2022 that guarantees he'll make $20 million or hit free agency next year.
Then again, the Vikings don't look nearly as thin up front after signing Richardson to a one-year deal. (He also played for them in 2018.) No one is expecting miracles at this stage of Richardson's career, but he's a dependable starter who will wind up making less than a lot of inferior free agents because the Browns released him so late in the offseason. With Richardson, Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson up front, Minnesota's defensive line should look a lot better than the ugly unit we saw in 2020.
Vikings [Head Coach] Mike Zimmer has more depth in the secondary and some difference-makers up front again. A return to a top-10 defense is possible, and that's all the Vikings should need for a return to the playoffs.
Hunter set a career-high with 14.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl in 2018. (He matched both of those feats again in 2019 with the same sacks total and another Pro Bowl honor).
View photos of DT Sheldon Richardson who signed with the team on June 15.
Richardson had 4.5 sacks (and 16 quarterback hits) in his lone season with the Vikings in 2018.
Those two players will join with defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson to potentially form one of the league's top defensive lines in 2021.
Cunningham makes U.S. Olympic team in high jump
Football fans will recognize a familiar last name if they turn on the Olympics later this year.
Vashti Cunningham, the daughter of former Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham, qualified for the United State women's track and field team by winning the high jump at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
Tyler Dragon of USA TODAY recapped Cunningham’s success.
Cunningham didn't eclipse her personal best, but a gold medal and trip to Tokyo is a more than worthy consolation prize. The 23-year-old won the women's high jump at 6-5 to qualify for her second Olympics.
"The final was very exciting for me. I couldn't stop thinking about it days leading up to it. I was so ready to be there," Cunningham said. "I didn't quite jump the height that I wanted to, but I was just happy to go through (and) to win my first trials title."
Cunningham is coached by her father, who played 16 NFL seasons and is viewed as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in league history.
Randall Cunningham helped lead the Vikings to 15-1 season in 1998, throwing for 3,704 yards with 34 touchdowns in 14 starts.
Vashti Cunningham will compete in her second Olympics, as she placed 13th in the high jump in 2016. Her personal-best mark of 6 feet, 7½ inches — which she set in May — is the top clearance in the world this year.