These five players can help Vikings take next big step

For the Minnesota Vikings to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:

Kirk Cousins, quarterback: The Vikings have two major expectations for Cousins: lead the franchise to a Super Bowl and provide stability they haven't had at quarterback in decades. Accomplishing both of those tasks might not happen in his first season, but a repeat trip to the playoffs after getting through a gauntlet of a schedule in 2018 relies heavily upon the QB play. Cousins had a strong résumé before he got to Minnesota, stringing together 6.77 yards per play with a 97.5 passer rating and a 94-47 touchdown-to-turnover ratio. How he is able to continue that trend while fixing some of the issues that he has had with turnovers in the red zone will be critical in elevating his game and executing an attack that can carve through the NFL's best defenses en route to a title.

Dalvin Cook, running back: It has been said before, but the Vikings' offense will go as far as its run game can carry it. Cook might end up as the team MVP if he is able to pick up where he left off after tearing his ACL last season. Cook averaged 5.2 yards per carry in four games in 2017 and brought a new wrinkle to the offense with his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. In his return this spring, Cook got involved in the passing game again in various different ways, sometimes lining up as a receiver. The sheer amount of what he can do in this offense and the load he'll carry has a direct impact on how deep the Vikings can go in the playoffs.

Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, wide receivers: OK, so we sort of cheated here by listing two players, but it's difficult to discuss the importance of one of these receivers without the other. Diggs and Thielen are widely considered the NFL's top receiving duo, and they will play a critical role in the success of Cousins and the Vikings' offense. Their versatility is unparalleled: Nearly 63 percent of Diggs' snaps came in the slot two years ago, while 2017 saw him transition outside; comparatively, Thielen spent most of his time outside in 2016, earning the highest rating for receivers on go routes (142.8), per Pro Football Focus, and he was in the slot on 51.1 percent of his snaps in 2017. These two produced game-changing results last season by combining for 12 touchdowns and 155 receptions, often while making ridiculously difficult contested catches look easy, and they elevated the play at quarterback. Even beyond the 2018 season, finding a way to keep Diggs and Thielen on the roster will be so important.

Eric Kendricks, linebacker: He already has proved himself as an invaluable part of the Vikings' defense and one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. Coming off a season when he recorded a career-high 113 tackles, a sack and an interception, Kendricks' role in coverage and against the run made him the leader among Minnesota's core of linebackers. The Vikings were the best team against running backs who caught passes out of the backfield last year with Kendricks often in coverage, according to PFF. Minnesota allowed 490 receiving yards and one touchdown on 100 targets to running backs in 2017.

Harrison Smith, safety: The Vikings' defense operates at its peak when Smith is playing. His skillset is unmatched, and his versatility allows him to line up anywhere -- including near the line of scrimmage, deep in the secondary and as a hybrid linebacker/safety. Smith's impact was felt everywhere last season, from his career-high five interceptions to the impact he played in Minnesota's second-ranked run defense, stopping teams in the red zone and stifling opponents' passing attacks, allowing just 35 completions of 20 yards or more. According to PFF, Smith was one of seven safeties last season not to allow a single touchdown in the regular season. Call it cliché, but Smith is the quarterback of the defense, and his presence has grown more valuable in each year with the Vikings.