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Eric, with the longer regular season, COVID-19 protocols and recently-expanded playoff format, what is your take on how the team is positioned to navigate this year successfully with existing personnel and schemes? Thanks for all you do!
— Cullen in Reno, Nevada
Week 1 is here, and it's a beautiful thing. It feels like football season, too, with the weather starting to cool down and the anticipation of weekend kickoffs on the horizon.
As Cullen points out, there will certainly be a bevy of leaguewide storylines to follow each week.
How does the 17th game impact teams? What impact will COVID-19 have on teams? And who can manage to clinch one of the seven precious playoff spots in each conference?
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
And, what does it all mean for the Vikings?
I do think the Vikings are set up to have a successful 2021 season. I'm not going to go out an predict a Super Bowl appearance because that is just so far away, but the team has the pieces in place to be a playoff contender and compete for the NFC North.
If you ask me, the strength of the team will be the defense. That's been the case in almost each of Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's previous seven seasons, but it actually wouldn't have been my answer as training camp started.
But that revamped unit is full of veteran experience and players who know how to deliver in the clutch. Expect big-name players such as Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, Michael Pierce and Patrick Peterson to have impressive seasons.
Offensively, there are some question marks as that unit enters the season. Some of that is based off a somewhat shaky training camp and preseason, plus the loss of Irv Smith, Jr., for perhaps the entire season (more on that below).
There is certainly the potential for this group to be a top-10 unit if Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen light it up, and that scenario probably means the offensive line took a step forward, too.
A sneaky area to watch this season will be special teams, which was just flat-out bad in 2020. If that unit can get any spark in the return game (the Vikings don't have a return for a score since 2016!), and can help flip the field in coverage, that could add up and go a long way in helping to collect an extra win or two.
I won't give a season win total prediction here, and the Vikings will face a tough schedule at times, but there is plenty of hope in Minnesota. And come December, don't be surprised if the team is in the mix for a playoff spot with their sights set on the postseason.
Hmmm, can I say Zimmer here? Kidding aside, nobody seems happier to have No. 99 on the field than the head coach, who absolutely raves about Hunter every chance he gets.
And there's no doubt Zimmer is looking forward to having one of the league's best pass rushers at his disposal after Hunter's absence was immensely felt a year ago.
As for players who will benefit, I think it would easy to say the opposite defensive end — whether that's D.J. Wonnum, Stephen Weatherly or Everson Griffen — simply because Hunter will draw strong attention from opposing offenses.
But I'm actually going to say Peterson here. One of the Vikings go-to defensive mottos is that the pass rush and coverage need to blend together. Coverage and rush, rush and coverage … and so on.
If Hunter can boost a pass rush that struggled mightily in 2020 with a franchise-low 23 sacks, that would force quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quicker and potentially make mistakes.
Peterson could be a beneficiary of that as he looks to prove that he can still play at a high leveal at the age of 31.
I was just curious on your thoughts on the Chris Herndon trade. I get that depth at the TE position was a bit of a problem even before Smith's injury, but trading not only a fourth-round pick for a guy that might not even play half of the teams snaps this year feels like a bit of a reach. While Tyler Conklin has a small sample size playing behind Irv Smith, Jr., and Kyle Rudolph, I think he has a solid shot to go out and make a name for himself this year from the limited action we've seen him in.
— Todd Jewell
I tweeted this last week when the Irv news came out, but his loss is a crushing one, both for the tight end himself and the Vikings offense.
It's not impossible to think Smith was the Vikings best overall player in camp with the plays he routinely made in practice. And he showed that in the preseason finale, too, before he ultimately got injured.
View photos of Vikings TE Chris Herndon who recently joined the team.
As far as the Herndon trade goes, the Vikings had to do something there. There was no way they could stand pat and go into the season with Conklin, Brandon Dillon and Zach Davidson on the roster.
Conklin showed flashes of being a consistent tight end in the final month of the 2020 season, but defenses were also keying in on Smith then, too. I think he can be a middle-of-the-pack starter, which shouldn't be taken as a slight considering he was a fifth-round pick. There is a drop off, however, since it's not a stretch to think Smith would have been a top-five player at his position this season.
Herndon isn't going to be asked to come here and be Travis Kelce, that's for sure. But perhaps the hope is that a change of scenery helps him recapture the magic he had during a solid rookie season. He was injured in 2019 and then was OK a year ago.
With how many multiple tight end sets the Vikings like to run, and would prefer to run to help keep the defense off balance, Herndon will need to be a quick study and make an impact as soon as possible.
View photos of Vikings TE Ben Ellefson who recently joined the team.
The Vikings also currently have Dillon and Ben Ellefson on the 53-man roster, one of which might be inactive on game day. If so, the other will be called upon to fill the TE3 role Conklin admirably held in recent seasons of being a solid blocker and making a handful of catches throughout the year.
The potential of the Vikings tight ends isn't nearly as high as it would be with Smith leading the way. But this is the NFL, and players will be counted upon to step up.
I see big things ahead for Ihmir Smith-Marsette when the coaches decide to turn him loose. He seems to grasp things most rookies miss about how the game is played. Experience will only make Smith-Marsette better, and I believe he will deliver.
Smith-Marsette's initial impact will likely come on special teams, and that's not a bad place for a fifth-round rookie to start.
He is penciled in as the kickoff returner right now, and as I mentioned above, will be asked to deliver any kind of spark possible to help revive a struggling return game in recent years.
Kene Nwangwu looked to have the inside track at kick returner, but a knee injury suffered in the preseason has him on Injured Reserve so he'll be out for at least the first three games of the season.
Speaking of Nwangwu, Smith-Marsette and the rest of the rookies, it looks as if Smith-Marsette will have a chance to make the biggest immediate impact of that 11-man draft class as a returner.
Christian Darrisaw is hurt while Kellen Mond likely won't see the field at all in 2021. Chazz Surratt and Camryn Bynum will be special teamers to start, and Wyatt Davis and Patrick Jones II are reserve lineman on opposite sides of the ball.
Nwangu is on "short-term" IR, Janarius Robinson is on season-long IR and Jaylen Twyman obviously won't play this season. In fact, Davidson is the only drafted rookie currently on the practice squad.
The hope is that draft class can get their feet wet this season and then be major contributors starting in 2022.
If you missed it, there's an article on Vikings.com with 21 Things We’ve Learned ahead of the 2021 season.
Barr and Darrisaw are both included in there, but here's a quick synopsis: neither player was put on IR last week, meaning the team expects them to return to practice sooner rather than later.
I'd put Barr ahead of Darrisaw in terms of getting on the field quicker since the linebacker is a veteran. Barr will still need practice time to shake the rust off, but Darrisaw likely needs more time since he's a rookie who hasn't done much since joining the team.
If both players can make an impact early in the season, or even in the first half of the year, that is a boon to the Vikings depth at linebacker and along the offensive line.
As always, we'll keep an eye out for the injury report now that the season is here. The first one drops Wednesday afternoon.