It’s been a difficult past decade for the Minnesota Vikings. Carried to 4 playoff appearances during the 2010’s on the backs of some elite Mike Zimmer defenses, the team completely flipped the script in 2020, finishing with the NFL’s fourth best offense (Pro Football Reference), but saw their defense, maligned by injuries and overall poor performance, fall to sixth-worst. In 2021, Minnesota appears ready to put it all together, with elite defensive players returning from injury, and one of the league’s most well-balanced units on offense back for Year 2.
Kirk Cousins has come into his own as an above average passer, as he threw for a career-high 35 touchdowns in 2020 compared to 13 interceptions, for his second consecutive season with a passer rating over 100. Cousins thrives in Minnesota’s play-action centric passing game, and his smart decision making and excellent accuracy make for a deadly aerial attack with budding sophomore star receiver Justin Jefferson and the ever-underrated Adam Thielen. Combine that with Dalvin Cook’s versatile, explosive rushing ability behind the Vikings’ fearsome run-blocking line, and that makes for what should once again be an elite offense.
Mike Zimmer is one of the NFL’s best defensive minds, but Minnesota as a group struggled mightily in 2020. They gave up well over 6,000 yards of total offense last season, surrounded by the likes of the Bengals and Falcons in the category. However, being riddled by injuries and with a scheme that had to cracked eventually, expect a rebound in 2020.
If all goes how it looks on paper, the Vikings will be in for an excellent 2021. Here are 4 bold predictions for them in 2021.
4. Vikings defense has explosive return to form
While it was perplexing to see Minnesota suffer so much on defense last season, they missed lynchpins Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Pierce each for most of or all of 2020. With those three back and healthy in the fold in 2021, as well as the additions of Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Mackenzie Alexander, and Xavier Woods, and this group is now loaded with both depth and talent once again.
For any defense, it all starts in the trenches. Seeing as the Vikings will now be able to generate a formidable pass rush, everything opens up in the playsheet for Zimmer. As a master of sending complex blitz packages and creating chaos, this group will leap back into the leaderboards for sacks and takeaways, en route to a top-ten total defense finish.
3. Dalvin Cook leads the league in rushing
As Cook has played at least 14 games in consecutive seasons now, it seems he’s dispelled the notion that he’s an injury-prone player. And, in making the leap from 1,135 yards to 1,557 in 2020, Cook has now increased his rushing yardage total by at least 250 in each of the 4 seasons that he’s played.
He’s physically gifted, but clearly his ability to grow in his knowledge in the game and improve the weak points in his game from year to year is what pushes him into the elite tier of backs. Now that the Vikings should have a much better defense that leads them into favorable game scripts, they’ll be able to hand the rock to Cook to salt the game away much more often in 2021.
Given that Derrick Henry was the only back within 370 yards of Cook, and Henry’s workload is sure to be decreased now that Julio Jones is in town in Tennessee, Dalvin will be able to pass King Henry in rushing in 2021 for the throne.
2. Justin Jefferson eclipses 1,500 yards
Without any sort of preseason action, a limited offseason, and only 14 games started in 2020, Jefferson turned in a historic rookie campaign, breaking the rookie record with 1,400 receiving yards. Amassing a massive 125 targets with his already-elite route running chops, it was stunning to see such explosiveness come out of the Vikings passing game seemingly out of nowhere.
Heading into Year 2 with a full offseason to build more chemistry with Cousins, and Adam Thielen not getting any younger, Jefferson will demand even more volume as he continues to improve as a player. His route running ability and feel for defenses is truly rare, and with a full season of experience reading NFL coverages under his belt, he’ll be able to exceed expectations yet again.
Prediction: 140 targets, 100 receptions, 1,530 yards, 8 TDs
1. Vikings pull off playoff upset
The NFC North is full of talent this year, as the Bears have exciting rookie Justin Fields ready to head a loaded skill position group, and the Packers retain much of their 13-3 roster from 2020.
The Vikings will have to duke it out in with those two and other Wild Card contenders across the NFC, but they arguably have more potential on both sides of the ball than any of last season’s non-division winners. Throw in experienced coaching staffs, savvy leadership in Kirk Cousins, and a ground game built for winter football, and the Vikings should be able to find a playoff berth. Just like their Miracle in Minnesota and overtime thriller against the Saints in 2019, they’ll be able to pull off an upset in 2021, but fall short of championship glory.