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Five Vikings Headlines to keep an eye on heading into the 2020 season

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers

The NFL is still planning on having a regular season in 2020, although there is still a lot of time for that to change. If the season can start off when it’s supposed to, the Minnesota Vikings are going to have some interesting headlines heading into training camp and the regular season. 

How big of an impact can the rookie class make in 2020?

The Vikings made 15 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft and landed some of the top names in undrafted free agency. They landed the names of Michael Pierce and Tajae Sharpe in free agency, but also lost Stefon Diggs and the majority of their starting cornerbacks. 

The biggest storyline for the upcoming season revolves around how quickly this rookie class is going to be able to step onto the field and be productive. Over the years, Mike Zimmer has shown no fear in throwing rookie cornerbacks onto the field but has taken some time with other positions such as wide receiver. Diggs showed flashes in his rookie offseason, but it took a few games before the team was comfortable giving him meaningful snaps.  

These are two positions the Vikings desperately needed help at before the draft, and they were able to land some of the top talent in this year’s class at each of them. 

Justin Jefferson is a great fit for Gary Kubiak’s scheme, but a limited offseason could mean the rookies get off to a slow start. Jefferson is going to have to produce early due to the Vikings having limited depth behind him and Adam Thielen. 

The cornerback position added a lot of youth and talent throughout the draft and it is one of the most intriguing positions on the team. The additions of Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler not only add talent to the secondary, but the Vikings also have one of the younger groups in the NFL. Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Holton Hill and Gladney are all 23 years old while Dantzler is 21 years old. 

The Viking secondary is full of youth and untapped potential, all while Zimmer is known for being one of the better cornerback gurus around the league. The cornerback position was one that regressed drastically since the 2017 season, but the team now has the talent to rebuild for years to come. The biggest storyline for the 2020 season revolves around how quickly the rookie class can perform. 

What will happen with Dalvin Cook’s contract? 

The next headline to watch is the ongoing negotiations with Davlin Cook. Cook is coming off a season where he had 1,654 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. He deserves a big pay day, but whether or not that means staying in Minnesota is something to keep an eye on. 

The Vikings drafted Alexander Mattison in 2019, and he proved that he can be a productive running back. However, when Cook wasn’t on the field the Vikings were not the same. The offense and the scheme that Kubiak wants to run revolves around a versatile rushing attack. 

The Vikings have exactly that with Cook, but his injury history should be of concern. He is in the same tier as Christian McCaffery, who just signed a deal for $16 million per year. Cook clearly has the talent to land a big contract like McCaffery, but that’s a lot of money for a running back on a team that is already limited in terms of cap space. 

Cook is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL and he has the ability to do a lot of damage in the pass game as well. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings weigh their options between signing a top level running back or utilizing running backs on a rookie contract to avoid cap casualties. 

Can Kirk Cousins continue to improve while staying in a similar scheme for two consecutive seasons? 

Kirk Cousins has been one of the best Vikings quarterbacks to take the field in the last 20 years, but he still gets a lot of criticism. Whether it’s due to the primetime narrative or his lack of mobility, Cousins takes a lot of heat from the Vikings fanbase. 

The offseason announcement of Kubiak taking over the offensive coordinator position after the departure of Kevin Stefanski was great news for the Vikings. Throughout his career, Cousins has lacked a consistent playbook year over year. With Kubiak taking over play calling duties in 2020, Cousins will have a similar scheme to what was run in 2019. 

This is huge for Cousins because Kubiak knows his biggest strengths and weaknesses. The play-action roll out passes lead to some of Cousins best throws in 2019 and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be utilized even more in Kubiak’s system. 

The loss of Diggs is going to be a blow to the offense, but that can be repaired by more than one player. Cousins was great at utilizing his tight ends in Washington, and the Vikings have a breakout candidate at the position. Irv Smith Jr. showed flashes in his rookie season and should be given more chances in the 2020 offense. Pairing Smith with Rudolph, Jefferson and Thielen gives Cousins plenty of options to stretch the field. 

With his two seasons with the Vikings, Cousins is averaging just over 3,950 yards per season, 28 touchdowns and rating of 103.6. The numbers show that he has been a top ten quarterback since his arrival even though he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. The narrative of not being able to win against a winning team on the road was shut down after his great performance against the Saints in the playoffs. However, Cousins will have to continue to win in the spotlight moving forward to gain the respect of the rest of the fanbase. Cousins will get the chance to negate this narrative in two true primetime games this season, and one Christmas Day game in New Orleans.  

How will the offensive line improve? 

The Vikings have received some criticism for not addressing the offensive line more frequently throughout free agency and the draft. With the struggling play of Pat Elflein and the surprise release of Josh Kline, the interior of the offensive line is the biggest question mark. 

Garrett Bradbury had his ups and downs in 2019 but that is the norm for most rookies along the offensive line. The Vikings selected Ezra Cleveland with their second-round pick and his metrics are similar to those of Brian O’Neill. Although he might not start in 2020, Cleveland is a perfect scheme fit and has the upside to be a long-term left tackle for the Vikings. Riley Rieff has been consistent at the position and could still be the starter in 2020. If Cleveland can come in and start on day one, it is possible the Vikings could move Rieff down to the guard position. 

The guard position is where things get the most interesting. The Vikings could still bring in a guard from free agency, but as of now the battles between Elflein, Dru Samia and Dakota Dozier. There has been a lot of buzz around Samia, who basically had a redshirt season in 2019. 

The offensive line is another position that could get hurt by the weird offseason. Limited reps could end up forcing the Vikings to go with what they know best, meaning Elflein would likely be the starting left guard again. He received a lot of negativity around his play last season, but he was battling with injuries. 

Regardless of who the five starters are, the offensive line needs to continue to get better. The unit was far from great in 2019, but it’s important to remember how much better they were than the 2018 season. Cousins needs to do his part by having better pocket awareness, but the offensive line needs to improve again in 2020 if the team wants to have any success. 

Who will step up as the next pass rusher? 

The Vikings defensive line lost Stephan Weatherly, Linval Joseph and potentially Everson Griffen this offseason. Joseph’s replacement was found with the acquisition of Pierce in free agency, but the Vikings need someone to step up if Griffen signs elsewhere. 

The early favorite for the other defensive end position is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who showed flashes last season. He saw limited playing time but was still able to finish just one sack behind Griffen with seven total sacks. 

Odenigbo is the clear favorite to win the full-time starter position opposite of Danielle Hunter, but the Vikings were able to add in some more depth pieces behind them. D.J. Wonnum was a fourth round pick out of South Carolina. He is a raw pass rusher that Andre Patterson really liked heading into the draft. He has drawn some comparisons to the Hunter selection in 2015, strictly because of his athleticism paired with his lack of production in college. 

Another player to keep an eye on throughout camp is seventh round pick Kenny Willekes. The former Michigan State Spartan is another athletic pass rusher who probably shouldn’t have fallen all the way to the seventh round. 

The Vikings got younger along the defensive line and got Patterson the tools he needs to rebuild at the position. This is another position where the limited offseason could affect the outcome in 2020 but is still set up for a bright future.

Since Zimmer arrived in Minnesota in 2014, the Vikings have made the playoffs every other year. The schedule in 2020 isn’t the easiest, but there are a few fun games to keep an eye on. 

The Vikings play the Panthers at home, who now have Teddy Bridgewater under center. They play the annual away primetime game in Seattle, giving Cousins a chance to shut down his narrative once and for all. Opening Sunday is a home game against the Green Bay Packers for the first time in franchise history. And they have an away game against the Buccaneers in December, getting a chance to play Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Antoine Winfield Jr. 

2020 could be a down year for the Vikings but they could also take a step forward with all the young talent they added throughout the draft. Whenever teams can resume normal football activities, it will be vital that the Vikings get off to a fast start.

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