It seemed as if all the buzz in recent months was that Irv Smith, Jr., was going to be the Vikings biggest breakout player this season.
But with Smith possibly out for the entire season with a meniscus injury, ESPN's Courtney Cronin has picked a new under-the-radar player to shine in 2021.
That player is also a tight end, as Cronin recently tabbed Tyler Conklin as a player to keep an eye on starting Sunday in Cincinnati.
With Irv Smith, Jr., expected to miss the entire 2021 season while recovering from knee surgery, his tight end counterpart will have even more opportunities to stand out. Conklin, who is entering a contract year, caught 15 of 21 targets in the final four games last season, showing promise beyond his role as a blocker. The Vikings utilize sets with two tight ends often, so expect Conklin to be consistently involved in the offense. Even [Head Coach Mike Zimmer sees an expanded role for the former fifth-round pick. "He's kind of emerged as a guy that's moving upward," Zimmer said this offseason.
Conklin thrived in the final four games of the 2020 season, catching 15 passes for 168 yards and four scores.
He will now be counted on to be Minnesota's No. 1 tight end, with the likes of Brandon Dillon, Chris Herndon and Ben Ellefson also on the roster.
Cronin also offered up a bold prediction for the Vikings, opining that Adam Thielen will lead the Vikings in receiving touchdowns for the second straight season.
Justin Jefferson put the NFL on notice as a rookie, so you can expect even more attention geared toward the second-year wide receiver in 2021. The more teams key in on Jefferson, the more opportunities Thielen will have to shine as [Kirk] Cousins' No. 1 target. Thielen had a career-best 14 touchdowns last season. He will top that number in 2021, given how few receiving options the Vikings have outside of their top two receivers, and how comfortable Cousins is finding Thielen in the red zone.
Thielen's 14 touchdown catches a season ago were the fifth-most in team history for a single season. Randy Moss had 17 touchdowns twice (1998 and 2003), while Cris Carter hit that mark in 1995. Moss also recorded 15 touchdown catches in 2000.
Cronin's full season preview of the Vikings, and where they stand in ESPN's Football Power Index poll, can be found here.
Krammer profiles Udoh before season opener
When the Vikings take the field Sunday in Cincinnati, their starting offensive line will have exactly 100 combined starts between them.
Brian O'Neill leads the way with 42, followed by Garrett Bradbury (32), Rashod Hill (17) and Ezra Cleveland (nine).
Olisaemeka Udoh, Minnesota's starting right guard, will be making his starting debut in Week 1 and was recently profiled by Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune.
Krammer wrote that the Vikings are high on Udoh, especially after he thrived in training camp while switching from tackle to guard.
Krammer wrote the Vikings have a belief in Udoh "in part because of his 320 pounds and an above-average strength that can help anchor against bigger defenders. His style plays into coach Mike Zimmer's directive to field bigger offensive linemen after the interior was bullied in 2020."
"I'm 6-6, long arms, kind of quick," said Udoh, 24, a 2019 sixth-round pick out of Elon. "If you can put that in a compact area, you got a pretty good guard, and I guess that's what they saw in me."
Krammer later wrote Udoh will be the latest in a long line of players to suit up at guard for Minnesota:
Perhaps Udoh will stop the Vikings carousel at the position. He will be the 17th different guard to appear in a regular-season game since [Mike] Harris and Brandon Fusco made every start in 2015. With veteran backup Rashod Hill starting at left tackle, second-year guard Ezra Cleveland switching sides, center Garrett Bradbury looking for improvement and Udoh in his first starting role, the line again conjures questions.