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21 Things We've Learned About the Vikings Ahead of the 2021 Season

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings are off this weekend but will get back to work Monday in preparation for the Bengals.

Minnesota opens the 2021 season on Sept. 12 in Cincinnati, with kickoff scheduled for noon (CT).

In the meantime, here are 21 things we've learned about the Vikings this offseason while we eagerly await Week 1.

1. The Vikings are in win-now mode

Expectations are high inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. The Vikings have continuity on offense, a revamped defense and an experienced coaching staff. And while the schedule is daunting at times, especially in the second half of the season, Minnesota has every expectation to be in the playoff race come December.

"On all sides of the ball, I feel like we are going to be pretty good," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "But you still have to go out there and prove it."

2. Big 3 on track for Week 1

There was a little bit of consternation for the lack of a touchdown by Minnesota's offense through the first 10-plus quarters of preseason play, but those periods were played completely without Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson.

Adam Thielen was in for four snaps against the Colts. He left Minnesota's second preseason game after taking a knee to the thigh, but he appears ready to let the dog out in Cincinnati.

The return of the "Big 3" to the lineup injects scorers of 38 touchdowns last season: 16 rushing and one receiving by Cook, 14 receiving by Thielen and seven receiving by Jefferson.

3. Replacing Irv Smith, Jr., will be a collective effort

The tight end was primed for a monster year before his meniscus injury. The Vikings will now need to get creative in terms of formations, but they also need tight ends such as Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon and Chris Herndon to step up.

Minnesota also could utilize three-wide receiver sets more than initially planned.

4. Zimmer gearing up for future challenges

This offseason and preseason have already posed their share of challenges, including the recent loss of Smith, but Zimmer has rolled with the punches.

"I think it's been eight years," he quipped when asked about challenges so far this year. "Yeah, it seems like the book is going to be a good book, when I write it. From kidney stones to eyes to Adrian [Peterson], and there's a lot that you guys don't know. I'd have to go get all my notes. But you know what? It's like that at probably every place. Everybody has their trials and tribulations, I guess."

5. Klint Kubiak will call plays from the booth

The Vikings first-year OC transitioned from the sideline to the booth in the preseason finale and said that post offered a better view and clearer communication than working from the sidelines. He plans to be upstairs full-time, beginning in Cincinnati.

6. Danielle Hunter is healthy and motivated

Hunter was held out of the preseason, but he showed plenty in training camp practices, including that he's fully healthy. Expect him to be among the league's top pass rushers once again in 2021.

"Danielle, when he's out there, is pretty special," Zimmer said.

7. Versatility in rushing passers

There's more than one way to sack a quarterback, and if things go according to plan, a multitude of Vikings capable of doing so in 2021. Expect Minnesota to try to capitalize on some positional flexibility to try to find the most favorable matchup during a pass-rush situation.

Assistant Head Coach and Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson said the Vikings versatility and depth allow him "to be the mad scientist" in game weeks.

8. Darrisaw didn't enter the season on IR

The Vikings did not place first-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw on Injured Reserve, which is a good sign for the rookie. Darrisaw practiced once in full pads during training camp and recently underwent another surgery. Three weeks is the minimum amount of time before a player on Injured Reserve can play in a game.

9. The offensive line is set

The "Minnesota Moving Co." has been moving forward with generally the same first-team combination of left tackle Rashod Hill, left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury, right guard Olisaemeka Udoh and right tackle Brian O'Neill. Cleveland has switched sides, and Udoh changed positions, but the Vikings appear settled to open 2021.

10. Big men in the middle

The Vikings were active in free agency this summer and added defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson alongside nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Tomlinson and Pierce have already shown they can lock down the middle, and Minnesota also can rotate in Sheldon Richardson, who returned to the team after two seasons away.

11. It's a waiting game with Anthony Barr

Barr hasn't practiced since Aug. 6 with an undisclosed injury, but Zimmer seems optimistic about him returning soon. Similar to Darrisaw, Barr hasn't been placed on IR, which is encouraging, but he'll need to practice a bit before suiting up for his first game since Sept. 20, 2020.

12. Linebackers on special teams

Minnesota opted to keep seven linebackers, which tied 2016 for the second most during Zimmer's tenure. It's a notable increase over the five who were on the initial 53-man roster in each of the past three years and has a good bit to do with special teams.

"We kept a bunch of linebackers this year because they're the best special teams players, and we put an emphasis on that this year," Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said.

13. The defense needs Patrick Peterson to be good

Peterson sat out the whole preseason, and Vikings fans are looking forward to his debut. The 11-year veteran has plenty of experience and will be counted on to be a leader and playmaker at cornerback this season.

14. 'The Hitman' is locked in for the long-term

The Vikings last Sunday signed safety Harrison Smith to a multiyear extension, which he celebrated with cookies. "The Hitman" has played a crucial part in Minnesota's defense since being drafted 29th overall in 2012 and now is set to finish his career in Purple. He has 28 career interceptions.

15. Greg Joseph is accurate from inside 50 yards

Joseph made four of his six field goals in preseason play, hitting from 25, 26, 34 and 49 yards. His two misses? They were from 50-plus (51 and 52 yards). Joseph hasn't kicked a field goal in a regular-season game since 2018, when he was 1-for-2 from 50-plus.

16. Last-minute punter switch

Minnesota on Thursday signed former Steelers punter Jordan Berry, who has appeared in 91 regular-season games with a career average of 44.4 yards per punt. Berry was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and later punted at Eastern Kentucky from 2009-13. The Vikings released punter Britton Colquitt. This is the third time since cut weekend in 2018 that Minnesota has opted to go a new direction at the position.

17. Smith-Marsette poised for kickoff return

If preseason games are an indicator, it seems that rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette is set to serve as the Vikings kickoff returner. Minnesota drafted the receiver out of Iowa in the fifth round, and he showed improvement throughout training camp. Ameer Abdullah, who has returned kickoffs for the past two-plus seasons, was signed to the Vikings practice squad.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

18. Don't rule out Dede Westbrook making a difference

The veteran receiver signed just before training camp opened and has been working his way back from a torn ACL. Although he didn't play in the preseason, Westbrook impressed with his workout before signing and has plenty of equity with receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who coached the former fourth-round pick for four seasons in Jacksonville.

Westbrook caught 66 passes in 2018 and 2019 for the Jaguars, and his experience on special teams is another feather in his cap.

19. Practice squad veterans

Minnesota has reached the practice squad maximum of six veterans who have more than two accrued NFL seasons. The list includes RB Ameer Abdullah, CBs Tye Smith and Parry Nickerson, G Dakota Dozier, T Zack Bailey and QB Sean Mannion.

Under rules implemented in 2020, the Vikings are able to protect up to four practice squad players per week from being signed to another team's 53-man roster. Up to two practice squad players can be elevated the day before a game without removing players from the 53-man roster (a player can be elevated twice by a team in a season). An additional player can be elevated within 90 minutes of a kickoff if a team has a player test positive for COVID-19.

Asked how the changes help teams navigate game-day, Kubiak said "you'd be really fired up" to have a guy like Abdullah able to come in and play.

Practice squads have traditionally been about bridging to the future, and that remains true, but the impact now goes beyond developing young players.

20. Mannion re-signing adds more continuity for Cousins

Although he's on the practice squad, the re-signing of Mannion is another example of Minnesota's efforts to build continuity around Cousins, who is playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons with the Vikings.

Kubiak has been his quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons, and Mannion was along for the ride, providing support for Cousins during game preparation.

21. Working with extra time and new roster rules

The elimination of the fourth preseason game for 2021 allowed roster cuts to be moved to Tuesday, Aug. 31, several days ahead of a process that had fallen on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend for years.

The Vikings utilized the extra time and some new rules. The most interesting maneuver the Vikings made was releasing long snapper Andrew DePaola and defensive end Everson Griffen. They did so essentially with handshake agreements until they could officially bring Griffen and DePaola back because of the need to wait to put Irv Smith, Kene Nwangwu and Dan Chisena on Injured Reserve until the day after roster cuts. Had the Vikings put any of the players on Injured Reserve before the Aug. 31 roster deadline, they would have been unable to play at all this season. It is believed that Smith faces the longest timeline to recovery of the three.