The Focus Shifts to the 2021 Minnesota Vikings

2021 Minnesota Vikings

Not many fans or experts expected the Minnesota Vikings to upset the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Day. Still, the Vikings needed to win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Not even three minutes into the game, though, Saints running back Alvin Kamara ran in virtually untouched from 40 yards out, and a defense that head coach Mike Zimmer had tried to glue and tape together all season finally fell apart. Kamara tied an NFL-record with six rushing touchdowns, and he would have had one more had Sean Payton not inexplicably given Taysom Hill a touchdown at the one-yard line. To cap it all off, the 52-33 loss included the most points allowed by the Vikings since 1963. The playoffs hopes were dead, and the focus turned ahead to the 2021 Minnesota Vikings season.

The Focus Shifts to the 2021 Minnesota Vikings

Defense

Zimmer alluded to the fact that the Vikings needed the help of reliable veteran defenders to help fix the defense. Before the season even started, defensive tackle Michael Pierce opted out due to Covid-19. Linebacker Anthony Barr played all of two games before tearing a pectoral muscle. Linebacker Eric Kendricks has been out for three straight games with a calf injury. And star defensive end Danielle Hunter has missed the entire season with a neck injury. With those four back in 2021, the Vikings should improve to at least an average defense.

There are more questions on defense than just the absence of these four starters, however. No player on the current roster has more sacks than Ifeadi Odenigbo with 3.5 sacks, and he appears to be a role player more than a regular starter. Rookie D.J. Wonnum has flashed at times, but at this point appears to be on a trajectory towards a high-level role player. Outside of these two players coming back as reserves, no one else on the defensive line has done anything to inspire confidence moving forward. Starting interior linemen Jaleel Johnson and Shamar Stephen have combined for two sacks and consistently get pushed backward at the point of attack. Johnson likely will not be back in 2021. Stephen is a favorite among coaches so he could be back, but if the plan is for him to start again, the Vikings can expect more of the same next year.

On the back end of the defense, the young rookie cornerbacks have improved as the season has progressed. Jeff Gladney has struggled at times when tackling in the open field but overall looks the part. Cameron Dantzler appears to be well on his way to being a top-tier corner (if he can stay healthy).

The other young cornerbacks haven’t fared as well, however. Mike Hughes, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2018, has struggled to stay healthy and cannot be counted on moving forward. Kris Boyd flashed in 2019, but in 2020 has struggled with inconsistency. And Chris Jones will almost certainly not be brought back.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the Vikings’ 2020 season has been the play of safety Anthony Harris. Hit with the franchise tag in the off-season, it was expected that he and Harrison Smith would provide the veteran leadership that the inexperienced cornerbacks would need. Smith, like always, had a great season, intercepting four passes and being a force all over the field. Harris, meanwhile, has no takeaways and has been a part of numerous blown coverages throughout the season. Even more disappointing is that this came after he combined for nine interceptions and a fumble recovery in 2018 and 2019. He will almost certainly not be back in 2021, likely wanting to explore free agency for the first time. The 2021 Minnesota Vikings will likely feature a younger, cheaper option at safety who can give equal or better production.

Offensive Line

Another year, another off-season trying to fix the offensive line problems. Left tackle Riley Reiff might be having the best season of his career, but he is nearing the end of his career, and the Vikings could look to save some money by cutting him and saving $12 million. If Minnesota moves on from Reiff, they could potentially slide rookie Ezra Cleveland to left tackle. The overall offensive line play improved in 2020 when Cleveland entered the lineup at right guard, but at 6-6 and 310 pounds, he is built better for the outside.

Unfortunately, moving Cleveland to tackle would open up another hole at another guard position. Dakota Dozier has been okay in the run game, but in pass protection has been a massive liability, struggling with stunts and being walked backward routinely by power rushers. Dru Samia struggled even worse in his limited time starting, and he cannot be looked at as a viable option for 2021. Center Garrett Bradbury has had a bit of an inconsistent season, but appeared to improve on his rookie season and would likely be helped by improved guard play. Right tackle Brian O’Neill is still probably the best lineman on the team, but even his 2020 has been more inconsistent than the team could have hoped for.

Mike Zimmer

While it is hard to fault Zimmer for all of the problems from a defensive unit that has been ravaged by injuries, he still enters the off-season with the most pressure he’s felt in his Minnesota tenure. A defensive mastermind, the Vikings defense has already given up their most points (440) since 2013 (480 under Leslie Frazier). Combine this with the Vikings scoring their second-most points in the Zimmer era (393), and for the first time, Zimmer’s defense is the clear-cut weakness of the team.

It is hard to imagine that the defense will not improve for the 2021 Minnesota Vikings, but for the fourth time under Zimmer, the Vikings will miss the playoffs. They have not made the playoffs in back-to-back years under Zimmer, and some rumors swirled that had the Vikings lost their wild-card matchup against the Saints in 2019, Zimmer could be traded to Dallas. Minnesota, of course, won that game before losing to the 49ers the following week.

Zimmer likely has one more chance to get the Vikings where he wants them to be. With a more traditional off-season ahead, the young roster should have more time to get the practice and work that they sorely needed in 2020. And with a few more pieces added in free agency and the draft, a quick turnaround could be on the horizon.

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