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Note: Team Reporter Eric Smith normally handles the Monday Morning Mailbag, but he and his lovely wife were finally able to celebrate their wedding after a delay caused by the COVID-19 shutdown. It was a great honor to celebrate the special couple this weekend, and I look forward to filling in for him below.
Before we get going on this week's questions, I'd first like to express my sympathies to the family of Jerry Burns and those who were fortunate enough to connect with Burnsie during his incredible run in Minnesota. Coach Burns' 18 seasons as an offensive coordinator with one team set an NFL record and he followed with six seasons as the Vikings head coach.
I enjoyed the opportunity to walk with Burnsie and Vikings Vice President of Football and Media Communications Bob Hagan during a tour of U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016. Several construction workers did double takes when they saw Burnsie on the concourse, and warm greetings and pictures followed. We'll do our best around here to make sure future generations of Vikings fans know Burnsie's legacy on the organization and in the NFL. He was truly one of a kind to say the least.
View photos of former Vikings head coach and Ring of Honor member, Jerry Burns.
Just hoping this year's team will start strong and finish strong. First, the Vikings HAVE to do better in the Norse division. While they only count as a single game, it essentially equates to two in the standings when playoffs come around. Second, the Vikings can't be dropping games they should win.
Which side of the ball do see giving the Vikings the best chance of at least one home field game in the playoffs?
I say it's the D with those monstrosities in the middle of the line, [Dalvin] Tomlinson and [Michael] Pierce.
— J.D. in Alaska
With last week's full release of the 2021 schedule, we all can circle certain dates and matchups of particular interest, as well as pinpoint the toughest stretches. You won't catch this Vikings writer tabbing anything as an "easy" win. Just hasn't been the team's style (see Jacksonville in overtime last December).
The 2020 Vikings opened 1-5 before a Week 7 bye. Minnesota rallied with five of the next six but faded in the final month of the season. The Vikings went 4-2 in the NFC North with a sweep of road contests in a season of mostly empty stadiums.
This year, Minnesota again gets a Week 7 bye, and again has only one division game before its break. It will be key to avoid such a rough start out of the gate.
The Vikings final five games of the 2021 regular season are home against Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football, at Chicago on Monday Night Football, home against the Rams, at Green Bay on Sunday Night Football and home against the Bears. That's a contender-vs.-pretender stretch that likely will require consistently good football to impact playoff destiny.
What I most love about J.D.'s question — in addition to his support from Alaska — is the optimism for hosting a playoff game, because there's a sincere hope that fans will be back in full force at U.S. Bank Stadium, providing what's become one of the top home-field advantages in the NFL.
The Vikings put up impressive offensive numbers, but the defense in 2020 wasn't what fans have come to know. Special teams also had its fair share of struggles. I truly believe that the teams with the best likelihoods of hosting playoff games have strengths — or at least minimal weaknesses — in all three phases. That said, I'm definitely looking forward to the combination of Pierce and Tomlinson on the interior of the defensive line.
After bolstering and fixing the offensive line, what is believed to be the next targeted hole if any?
— Tyler Robinson
Bring back [Cordarrelle] Patterson.
— Ron Hooker
I combined these two questions — I guess one is more of a request — because one area where the Vikings need to be better in 2021 is the return game.
View photos of Vikings players at practice during rookie minicamp on May 15.
I like Tyler's faith in Minnesota's use of two of its first four draft picks on offensive linemen. You can read more about the bond that is building between Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis here. But I will caution that the investment of high picks does not guarantee immediate gratification. We'll have more on this in the future, but there was a directive from Head Coach Mike Zimmer about adding size and strength up front while still trying to have offensive linemen who can reach the second level on some of Minnesota's run plays.
First things first, Patterson is under contract with the Falcons and no longer available.
But the Vikings have struggled to find the spark that Patterson provided as an electrifying kickoff returner, and they also haven't enjoyed the consistency — and big-play potential — that Marcus Sherels provided as a punt returner.
Since leading the NFL in kickoff return average (28.3 in 2015 and 27.3 in 2016) in consecutive seasons, Minnesota's numbers have declined to 22.4 in 2019 (16th in the NFL) and 21.9 last season (17th).
Punt return dropped off considerably from 10.9, which ranked sixth in 2018, to 6.8 in 2019 (21st) and 4.3 last season (32nd).
New Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken, a longtime assistant, has an opportunity to lead units that can boost these numbers. While much focus is on the player with the ball in his hands, an effective return can come down to one key block.
Minnesota added Iowa State RB Kene Nwangwu and Iowa WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fourth and fifth rounds of the draft.
Nwangwu returned 92 kickoffs a total of 2,470 yards (26.8 per return) during his career with the Cyclones. Smith-Marsette returned 53 kickoffs a total of 1,520 yards (28.7 per return) for the Hawkeyes.
The former rivalry foes will certainly have some looks at the kickoff return role this offseason.
As far as punt return, Chad Beebe led Minnesota with nine returns for 42 yards last season. Rookie K.J. Osborn added seven returns for 27 yards in limited action.
View photos of Vikings players at practice during rookie minicamp on May 14.
I think the Vikings should reach out to Larry Fitzgerald to see if he wants to come home to finish his HOF career. He may be 37, but would be our best WR3 option. He still has great hands, which make him a valuable possession receiver and end zone threat. Plus he is an excellent blocker and outstanding community guy. Do you see any chance the Vikings give him a call? Skol!
— Ryan G., active duty Navy stationed in San Diego
Are there any discussions with bringing in Larry Fitzgerald to play and mentor the younger receivers on the team?
— Ryan Dwyer in Inver Grove Heights
Two Ryans are thinking along the same lines, and each outlined some of the attributes that have helped Larry Fitzgerald thrive in a remarkable career that includes 11 Pro Bowl selections and garnering Walter Payton NFL Community Man of the Year honors in 2016.
It is impossible to understate Fitzgerald's career, his on-field production and his impact in the community that would make him enticing to multiple teams.
It also remains to be seen what the Vikings will want from their WR3 spot behind starters Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, or how big of a role that might be in Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak's system.
With the drafting of [Kellen] Mond, what are the Vikings impressions of QB's [Jake] Browning & [Nate] Stanley as the backup or third stringer?
— Steve Lindberg
Mond, what do you think?
— Chuck Larsen
We'll close this week with a bit about the backup quarterbacks. Our colleague Lindsey Young covered Friday's rookie minicamp practice, which was Mond's first time on the field in a purple helmet (and red, no-contact jersey). That session was the only one open to media over the weekend.
Mond, who was selected 66th overall two weeks earlier, joined Browning, a 2019 undrafted free agent, and Stanley, who was picked in the seventh round last year, for the sessions.
Neither Browning nor Stanley was able to show what he could do with live reps last year since preseason games were canceled.
Mond impressed statistically at Texas A&M and with his leadership at the position. The Vikings clearly liked what they saw from him during their evaluations to invest a relatively high pick on a player to develop behind starter Kirk Cousins.
Zimmer was asked Saturday about Mond and said the following:
"I think the biggest thing for him right now is learning the process of the plays, getting in the huddle and out of the huddle, calling the different plays and different checks that we have. I want him to be himself. We brought him in here as a talented, athletic quarterback and I just want him to be himself. But the things he can learn from Kirk are the way that he handles the games, the way that he goes about his business in the classroom and on the field, how to work. A lot of these guys, when they come in, they don't know how to be professional. Part of that is in the locker room and in the weight room. All those types of things."