The Minnesota Vikings finished with a mediocre 7-9 record in 2020. Despite an underwhelming team mark, their offense was a strong point. The Vikings ranked fourth across the NFL in total offense—including the fifth-most prolific rushing attack spearheaded by Pro Bowl tailback Dalvin Cook—and finished 11th in scoring with 26.9 points per contest.
Minnesota’s defense, on the other hand, was downright atrocious. Despite former D-coordinator Mike Zimmer manning the head coaching duties, the Vikings ranked 27th in total defense and 29th in points allowed (29.7) per game.
For the Vikings to return to the postseason, their defense must get a lot better. They will need certain players to elevate their game. With that in mind, let’s look at three breakout candidates—two of which line up for their much-maligned defensive unit—for the Vikings in 2021.
1. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler
2020 third-round pick Cameron Dantzler appeared in just 11 games (10 starts) in his rookie campaign. Rib injuries and a concussion, plus a stint on the Covid-19 reserve list, forced him out of action for five contests. The rookie managed to earn a spot in the Vikings’ starting lineup due to his above-average play and a lack of other reliable options in an underwhelming secondary.
Dantzler accumulated two interceptions, 46 combined tackles (four tackles for loss), four passes defended, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery as a rookie. His best performance came in Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, swiping his first career interception and forcing a fumble (which he recovered) in a 27-24 OT win.
Cam Dantzler 1st career interception pic.twitter.com/3h2FVwy3Fd
— Sean Borman (@SeanBormanNFL) December 6, 2020
Pro Football Focus declared him the Defensive Player of the Week after his stellar outing versus the Jaguars. In addition to forcing two turnovers, the Vikings cornerback allowed just one pass to be caught against him in coverage despite being targeted seven times by Jaguars quarterback Mike Glennon.
Dantzler received plenty of other praise from Pro Football Focus, despite some early-season rookie hiccups. PFF’s Sam Monson believes the cornerback is the most underrated player on the Vikings’ roster.
Entering his second season, Dantzler will be counted on more than ever. Jeff Gladney, a fellow 2020 NFL Draft selection, has major off-the-field issues. Gladney, a slot cornerback, faces a third-degree felony domestic violence assault charge after he allegedly struck his girlfriend during an argument. The former first-round pick turned himself into authorities on April 5. His status for 2021 remains unclear.
Given the uncertainty around Jeff Gladney’s status with the Vikings after an alleged domestic assault, which legal proceedings are on going, signs point to Mackensie Alexander being No. 1 nickel on the depth chart.
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) May 13, 2021
With a member of the secondary possibly not in action, more responsibility will fall on Dantzley’s shoulder, even though Gladney does not line up at the same exact position on the field. In addition to Gladney’s potential absence, the Vikings traded former 2018 first-round pick, Mike Hughes, to the Kansas Chiefs on Thursday.
Dantzler and free-agent signee Patrick Peterson will be tasked with leading the Vikings’ new-look secondary.
2. Tight end Irv Smith Jr.
Irv Smith Jr. showed plenty of promise in his second pro season in 2020 when given ample playing time. Kyle Rudolph’s foot injury allocated more snaps to Smith Jr. in the final four weeks of the season. In those four contests, Smith registered 15 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns.
Rudolph was released this offseason and joined the New York Giants in free agency. Smith Jr. is now the Vikings’ undisputed starting tight end and should flourish in that role. He is an excellent receiving option, something he displayed during his time as a backup early in the season and also when thrust into the starting job.
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) March 3, 2021
Among tight ends, Smith Jr. ranked eighth in yards per catch (12.2) and yards per target (8.5), 10th in average target distance (8.3), and 14th in route participation (73 percent), according to Player Profiler. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had the NFL’s second-best passer rating (133.2) when targeting Smith Jr., per Player Profiler.
All signs point to Smith Jr. producing a monster 2021 season.
3. Defensive End Hercules Mata’afa
While Dantzler and Smith Jr. seem all but certain to break out in 2021, defensive end Hercules Mata’afa is more of a wild-card choice. After going undrafted in 2018, the Vikings signed the former Washington State standout and one-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Mata’afa tore his ACL in June 2018, months before his rookie campaign should have begun. The former All-American was cut by the Vikings before they brought him back after he cleared waivers. He made his NFL debut in 2019. Even last year, the Vikings cut him before again bringing him back into the fold.
In his first career start in the 2020 regular-season finale, Mata’afa mustered the team’s only sack in a 37-35 victory over the host Detroit Lions. He appeared in 13 games on the year, producing 24 total tackles, six quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
WSU’s Hercules Mata’afa with the sack against the Lions
— WestCoastCFB.com (@WestCoastCFB) January 3, 2021
Mata’afa won’t enter Vikings training camp as a starter, but perhaps he could showcase his talents enough in preseason to change that status.