The Minnesota Vikings had one of their better offseasons in recent memory in 2021. They essentially rebuilt a defense that was ranked 29th in terms of scoring last year and attempted to solidify the offensive line through the draft.
Some key veteran names were added such as Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and most recently Sheldon Richardson.
All of these names are expected to make a big impact on the defensive side of the ball, whereas Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis were taken early in the draft to fix a unit that has been below average since Kirk Cousins’ arrival in Minnesota.
These players all have high expectations ahead of training camp, but there are some other names that fans should get used to hearing about before that kicks off in July.
Here are three names that have the potential to turn some heads in 2021.
Harrison Smith has been a staple to the Vikings defense since coming into the league in 2012. Most recently he played alongside Anthony Harris, a former undrafted free agent out of Virginia. Harris turned into a star in 2019 after leading the league in interceptions, and this speaks to the philosophy of the spot opposite of Smith.
The Vikings have never had a superstar playing in the other safety role and that isn’t necessarily changing in 2021. However, it seems as if Xavier Woods, who they signed as a free agent this offseason, has all the tools to compliment Smith’s game.
Woods has had a strong few weeks in terms of OTAs and minicamp and most recently received some high praise from senior defensive assistant Paul Guenther. In a clip posted by the Vikings social media team, Woods is mic’d up and talking with Guenther.
“I’ve been coordinating this defense for eight years and I’ve been an assistant since 2008,” Guenther said. “I’ve never seen a guy communicate in his first year as good as you, keep it going.”
In 2020 Woods played in a similar role as Smith in the Dallas defense, but it’s unlikely he’ll be up in the box as frequently considering that’s Smith’s strong suit. Instead, Woods will get the chance to be a deep roaming safety, an area of his game that he’s had success in. He has the flexibility to play up in the box as well, so Mike Zimmer has two safeties he can move around like chess pieces.
The combination of Smith and Woods should have Vikings fans excited, especially considering how much better the defense should be in 2021. Having these two roaming the field while having an improved pass rush and cornerback room should instantly boost the strength of the defense.
Despite having two superstars in their receiving corps, the Vikings depth behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson isn’t great. There are names like Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson that will likely see some playing time, but there’s a fifth-round rookie that has the chance to make use of the limited depth.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette played his college ball at Iowa, a school that’s not known for producing top-tier quarterbacks. He’s a slippery route runner that was frequently open in college but doesn’t have the numbers to show for it with the poor quarterback play.
On top of being a good athlete in the passing game, Smith-Marsette will likely be in the competition for returning kicks, another area in which the Vikings struggled last season.
It’s been noted that the former Iowa receiver has been sticking around Thielen throughout the first few weeks of practice. Zimmer also mentioned in a recent press conference that he doesn’t remember the last time he saw a rookie wide receiver come into the league with as much confidence as Smith-Marsette.
The Vikings usually ease their receivers into the offense, as they did with Stefon Diggs and Jefferson. The emergence of Smith-Marsette might not happen until a few games into the season, but there’s a chance he takes over as WR3 at some point in 2021.
I think it would be fair to say someone could throw a dart at the defensive end section of the roster and any of the players could be picked as a potential head turner in 2021. D.J. Wonnum could step up in his sophomore year, the return of Stephen Weatherly could make a difference or one of the rookies could step into that role immediately.
Many fans and analysts have called for the team to consider using what they have left in cap space on the position, but from what I’ve heard the Vikings like what they have in terms of pass rushers.
My favorite of the youthful group is former Florida State DE Janarius Robinson. In terms of physical traits, Robinson is an absolute freak and bult to play the position. Although he wasn’t the most productive player throughout his career at FSU, he should still be looked at as a potential steal where he was drafted in the fourth round.
Robinson is good in the run game and has some solid pass rushing maneuvers. Pairing his traits with a coach that has a proven track record at developing pass rushers should only help him as he begins his NFL career.
Honorable mention: Kellen Mond
Look, I know Kirk Cousins is the starting quarterback for the next two years, but that doesn’t mean the Vikings should feel comfortable at the position. It was time to find a succession plan to Cousins and I believe they might have found that in Kellen Mond.
It’s unlikely that fans will get to see Mond outside of the preseason, but this gives them something to be excited about when watching the three games before the regular season kicks off.
Mond had a prolific career at Texas A&M and he has the chance to learn behind one of the better Vikings quarterbacks in the last few decades. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the former Aggie throughout OTAs and minicamp and it sounds as if each day has been better than the prior.
The Vikings needed to get a haul in the draft and throughout free agency to give Zimmer a team that’s ready to win now. They did exactly that, and on paper this team looks poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Football isn’t played on paper though, so Vikings fans should buckle up for a fun season in 2021.