The 2021 NFL season is on the horizon, and few divisions are as intriguing entering the new year as the NFC North. The reigning champion Packers are still trying to appease Aaron Rodgers, the face of the franchise. The cellar-dwelling Lions are kicking off a new era under Dan Campbell. The Bears are fresh off their most promising quarterback addition in years after drafting Justin Fields. And the Vikings might quietly be the most underrated of all, with Kirk Cousins entering somewhat of a critical year under center, Mike Zimmer looking to return his defense to form and veterans like Patrick Peterson on board for a potential playoff run.
What’s new and what’s familiar about the Vikings entering 2021? Here’s a full rundown of their depth chart heading into OTAs and training camp, including projected Week 1 starters at every position on both sides of the ball:
Note: Asterisks denote rookies.
The Vikings’ offense looks largely the same since the last time Minnesota took the field, save for a major change at left tackle, where veteran Riley Reiff has been swapped for first-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw. Even if Darrisaw is just serviceable, he’ll replace Reiff adequately. Gone also is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who said goodbye after 10 seasons and gives way to Smith, who has flashed as a pass catcher and should be due for a breakout as a full-timer.
The biggest pieces, of course, reside at QB, RB and WR: Cousins has been mostly good but rarely elite and now has a more gifted No. 2 lurking behind him for motivation; Mond probably isn’t ready to challenge for snaps, but he’s at least got play-making upside and warranted a big Day Two investment from the front office. Cook remains the centerpiece of the offense, though Mattison is solid insurance. And Jefferson emerged in 2020 as this club’s most electric weapon. It’s important that he and Thielen stay healthy, as the Vikings’ WR depth leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Zimmer’s defenses have almost always had top-10 finishes since the coach took over in 2014, but that changed in 2020, with injuries and inexperience ravaging that side of the ball. The new faces on “D” reinforce that, with the Vikings paying Tomlinson, Peterson and Breeland to bring stability to the front four and secondary. All three are more than capable of doing just that, but the unit is also asking lower-tier vets like Vigil and Woods to replace departed starters Eric Wilson and Anthony Harris, who both fled to Philadelphia.
The biggest question mark, not so unlike 2020, is at pass rusher. Hunter is coming off a season lost to injury and may or may not still be seeking a pay raise or trade, but even if he’s back, happy and healthy (and in that case, he’s easily one of the game’s top defensive ends), the Vikings lack a proven complement. Tomlinson should help up front, but no one else on the roster has a long or overly promising resume getting after the QB. Barring another surprise Rick Spielman swing a la the Yannick Ngakoue trade, Minnesota will be banking on one of its youngsters really stepping up to aid the rush.