EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings open 2021 training camp Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:
Will Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s defense return to form in 2021?
You remember what happened as the Vikings crashed and burned into the finish line at the end of the 2020 season. One week after allowing the Bears to rush for 199 yards, the Saints' Alvin Kamara run all over them with 155 yards and six touchdowns. As a result, the Vikings tore the defense down to the studs and started over. The addition of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, their top priority in free agency according to general manager Rick Spielman, should help shore up the run defense. Tomlinson will clog up the middle of the defensive line next to nose tackle Michael Pierce.
Minnesota revamped its entire secondary by shelling out for cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland and giving Harrison Smith a new running mate at safety in Xavier Woods. By the end of the offseason, the Vikings added 16 defensive players through free agency and the draft, making one last push to improve their interior pass rush by bringing in three-technique Sheldon Richardson. They also reworked the contract of Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Last season the Vikings allowed 475 points (third-most in franchise history), 393.3 yards per game (27th in the NFL), 7.65 yards per pass attempt (30th) and ranked 27th against the run by allowing 134.4 yards per game. Zimmer and his staff spent the past few months tinkering with schematic changes, studying different fronts, coverages and how they can adapt to the changes brought on by the evolution of offenses across the league. A once green group now boasts experience and returns players who missed considerable time due to injury, like linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. The Vikings believe this revamped group can take the weight off the offense and carry them back into the postseason.
“It’s probably going to look completely different on the defensive side of the ball than it did last year with the guys coming back and the additions that we made,” Zimmer said. “I am excited about that.”
Cousins is not at risk of losing his starting status this season after the Vikings drafted Mond 66th overall. Mond, a four-year Texas A&M starter, has a long way to go before Minnesota could think about making a change at quarterback, which is why he ended up in the perfect spot given the time he’ll have to develop. Nonetheless, the Vikings have the building blocks of a contingency plan should Cousins, 32, underperform in 2021. That makes this a make-or-break season for Cousins, who has two years remaining on the $66 million extension he signed in March 2020, most of which is fully guaranteed.
Cousins has reached the playoffs once in his nine-year NFL career and has thrown 91 touchdowns to 29 interceptions in three seasons in Minnesota. He knows the ins and outs of this offense despite being on his fourth playcaller since he arrived. He’s in a great situation with playmakers like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and Irv Smith Jr. The Vikings' improvements in pass protection should serve him well, too. If Cousins excels, the Vikings can offer him an extension to lower the monster $45 million cap hit that comes with his contract for 2022. If he doesn’t play well, they’ll have to play some cap gymnastics next offseason and start the process of moving on.
There’s no pressure for Mond to overtake Cousins considering he first has to beat out Jake Browning, who took the majority of second-team reps this spring, for the backup job.
“Here’s what I’ve learned about Kellen Mond: He’s a hard worker, and he loves football," offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said. "Football is his life, and he’s going to [die] before he’s not prepared for a practice or a meeting, so I appreciate that, but you’re not going to coach that into somebody. It’s something that’s built into them.”
Is this make-or-break season for Zimmer and Spielman?
Zimmer and Spielman are entering the first year of the three-year extension and get some benefit of the doubt for the way things played out in a 7-9 season. Neither of them could prevent the rash of injuries that dismantled the Vikings' defense. Because of significant roster turnover following the 2019 season, the Vikings had to rely on a lot of rookies to contribute in roles they weren’t ready for in a truncated season impacted by COVID-19. But now the pressure is on Zimmer and Spielman to get Minnesota back in contention.
The Wilf family has not been delivered a Lombardi Trophy since buying the Vikings in 2005. The closest they’ve gotten was the 2017 NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings recently signed Dede Westbrook to compete for the No. 3 receiver spot, but still have moves they could make to ensure this team is capable of winning big in 2021, like bringing in another defensive end to start opposite Hunter and possibly further shoring up the offensive line. The front office was aggressive in upgrading the roster to give Zimmer and his staff the right group to contend with the NFC’s best. Their challenge is putting all the pieces together to solidify their future beyond 2021.