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The Skinny Post: Vikings Kicking Off 2017 on 'Monday Night Football'

It's time for the real deal.

The Vikings open up the 2017 season in grand fashion as they host the New Orleans Saints at 6:10 (CT) tonight on ESPN's Monday Night Football.

There are plenty of storylines in this one, whether it's a stout Minnesota defense going up against New Orleans' high-powered offense, the return of running back Adrian Peterson, or legendary Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss going into the Vikings Ring of Honor.

Minnesota will try to get off on the right foot after an 8-8 campaign saw them miss the postseason in 2016. The Saints have gone 7-9 for three consecutive seasons and have missed the playoffs each of the past three years.

Here are three areas to watch in tonight's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

Debut of Cook & Murray | By@pcraigers

Vikings fans were able to see glimpses of rookie running back Dalvin Cook and a little less of veteran Latavius Murray during the preseason.

Minnesota's coaches didn't game-plan their four exhibition contests but were able to observe the skill sets and running styles of the new additions.

Both players have said they have respect for what Peterson accomplished in 10 seasons with the Vikings, but they don't view their roles as replacing the 2012 NFL MVP.

"That's going to be the key, to stay the course and be me," Cook said. "Don't try to stick out or be anybody else, just be me and be the best version of me for my teammates. Trying to be anybody else can take you out of your game, so being the best version of Dalvin and giving 100 percent [will be my approach]."

Cook rushed 17 times for 70 yards with an average of 4.1 yards per carry and a long of 15 in three games this preseason. He also added six catches for 35 yards with a long of 10.

He showed versatility at Buffalo, being involved in three different ways on the Vikings first three offensive snaps, and had three straight runs of 15, 9 and 9 at Seattle the following week.

Murray was limited during the offseason as he rehabbed an injury. He only played in the third preseason game, carrying the ball twice on runs that moved the chains, and making two catches.

Fresh faces on the O-line | By@EricLSmith

The Vikings mixed and matched their offensive line all preseason, looking for the best combination to protect quarterback Kyle Rudolph and move the pile on the ground.

The unit Minnesota has a fresh look, as none of the five projected starting linemen started at the same position in 2016. 

Free agent acquisition Riley Reiff is the left tackle. Nick Easton won the gig at left guard. Rookie third-rounder Pat Elflein is the center while Nick Easton, who opened the 2016 season as the starting center, is now at right guard. Mike Remmers, another free agent addition, is the right tackle.

While the unit has worked together in practice the past few weeks, it is yet to line up next to each other in a game.

The Vikings were ravaged by injuries and inconsistency on the offensive line in 2016, so a healthy unit and cohesiveness could go a long way in determining Minnesota's success this season.

Defending Drew | By@LindseyMNSports

Saints quarterback Drew Brees is entering his 17th season in the NFL, but the Vikings defense isn't about to sleep on the 38-year-old passer.

Tonight is likely to be a battle between two highly respected units: Brees and his reputable passing attack against Minnesota's impactful defensive line. The Vikings line mates have been together for three-plus years, with Danielle Hunter receiving the starting nod to kick off his third pro season, and they are prepared to have their hands full with the veteran play caller.

While Brees isn't known as a scrambler, he does have the proven ability to move smoothly around the pocket and extend plays just long enough to find his open targets. Brees won't be passing to receiver Brandin Cooks, who signed with the Patriots in free agency, but will have a weapon on Michael Thomas, who recorded 1,137 yards and nine receive touchdowns as a rookie in 2016.

It will be important for the Vikings defensive line to get quickly to Brees in order to contain the Saints passing game. Starting defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who spent three seasons with New Orleans prior to signing with Minnesota in 2014, said it's important for the line to rush as a unit.

"Drew is going to be prepared. He can make every throw. He's going to be looking for openings, but we can't get flustered," Johnson said. "He's going to make throws, guys are going to catch balls. We've just got to rush as a unit, try to make him flustered and make him make throws that he doesn't want to make and capitalize on it."

Substantial Stats

— The Vikings were one of three defenses in 2016 that finished in the top six in both yards and points allowed per game. Denver and Seattle were the others. Minnesota was third in yards allowed per game (314.9) and sixth in points allowed per game (19.2).

— The Vikings are expected to start three rookies in Monday night's opener in running back Dalvin Cook, center Pat Elflein and linebacker Ben Gedeon (if Minnesota opens in its base defense).

— Saints quarterback Drew Brees ranks third all-time with 465 career touchdown passes. He is also third in NFL history with 66,111 passing yards, trailing only Peyton Manning (71,940) and Brett Favre (71,838).

— Minnesota's Marcus Sherels had two punt returns for touchdowns in 2016, which tied for the most in the league. Sherels was one of three players to return a pair of punts for a score.

Quotable

"Every season is exciting. This is why we do this. This is why we go out and practice. This is why we go out and lift weights and condition and all of the things we do: one game, each week. Every week, it's exciting, a chance to go out there, compete and execute the best you can and play together as a team." — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on the 2017 season opener.

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