No Matter Who the Vikings Draft or Sign, 2021 Could Be a Big Test
The Minnesota Vikings had a very disappointing 2020 season which has caused an uproar for changes all over the field. Some people want a new quarterback, others want a new head coach, and everyone wants a better result. While I am certainly hoping 2021 is a more exciting year, today I will be playing a little devil’s advocate. Even if there weren’t covid salary cap problems, or if Minnesota had a crystal ball telling them what to do in the draft, the 2021 season was never going to be a walk in the park. Here are a few reasons why.
The past two seasons from Dalvin Cook have been extremely impressive. Back-to-back 1,000 yard and 13+ touchdown seasons have put him on the radar as one of the best RBs in the league. There is always something about him that lingers in the back of my mind, though. That is his injury history. It completely derailed his first two seasons in the league, and it even popped up at times during his 2020 campaign. We all remember when he missed the fourth quarter of the Seattle game and all of the Atlanta game, both of which ended in losses.
What if his increased usage over the past two years brings more wear and tear on his body, and he is forced to miss extended time in 2021? It could spell disaster for a Vikings team that has come to depend on his running ability. Prior to the 2020 season, I wrote that 2020 was a big year for NFC North running backs because history says once running backs get past age-25, their prime years are mostly behind them. We will have to wait and see what happens with Cook this year.
Anthony Barr’s injury is not all that concerning. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle in week two against the Colts, but he underwent a successful surgery and should be back to full strength for 2021. It’s a fairly common procedure and not something to typically cause a ton of lasting issues. J.J. Watt suffered the same injury in 2019 and bounced back to have a successful 2020 campaign.
So what is my concern with Barr? Well, he is being paid a lot of money over the next three years, $38 million to be exact, and he has not had much to show for it to this point. In 2020 he played all of one and a quarter games, and in 2019 he recorded 1.5 sacks and six TFL while recording his worst Approximate Value rating (per Pro-Football-Reference.com) since his rookie season. That’s not the production you’d like to get out of a guy being paid nearly $13 million a year. Could he have gotten a little lax after signing his big deal?
At any rate, Minnesota has an opt out of Barr’s contract this offseason, but if they choose to cut him, they will be left with very little veteran presence at the OLB position. It will be interesting to see if they believe in a bounce back this year, or if they attempt to re-negotiate or cut Barr altogether.
Danielle Hunter’s injury, especially for one in the neck area, can be pretty scary. Herniated discs are typically pretty easy to treat, but it is common to experience recurring pain in the area of herniation. Not only that, but we have a recent example, once again J.J. Watt, where the disk completely re-herniated for a second time just three weeks into the season following his initial surgery.
Given that Hunter’s injury happened in training camp, he does have the advantage of a full 12-month recovery period. However, it is possible, almost likely, that the injury will have some sort of flare-up down the road, even if it just means missing a game or two here and there. The scariest part is that when I tried to research the odds/causes of recurring pain, there is no real way to tell how or why a relapse could occur. Sometimes, it just happens.
This article is kind of just turning into a doomsday preparation, but Hunter’s condition is certainly one to keep an eye on going into 2021. The Vikings and their fans should be prepared for the idea that their star DE may not be 100% for stretches of the 2021 season.
As if the possibility of recurring injuries to star players wasn’t enough, the Vikings did not get a cake walk of a schedule for 2021 even though they finished at 7-9. We know about the NFC North and how rivalries will be tough games no matter what the roster looks like, but let’s check out the other matchups.
The NFC West was predicted as the toughest division in the league by many going into the 2020 season. Had it not been for a rash of injuries to the 49ers and a second half decline of Kyler Murray, it probably would have been just that. Of course, the NFC North would get stuck with playing that division in 2021. With the Niners coming back fully loaded next year, Matthew Stafford teaming up with a Sean McVay offense, Russell Wilson existing, and Murray being another year wiser, that stretch of games will be no joke for Minnesota.
The Vikings also got stuck with the AFC North, what just so happened to actually be the toughest division in 2020. There is a case to be made that all four teams are playoff contenders in 2021, assuming the Bengals draft wisely and Joe Burrow is 100%. Again, going against quarterbacks the likes of Big Ben, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Burrow will not be easy. Toss in that Pittsburgh and Baltimore were the second and third best scoring defenses in 2020, and that stretch of games could be a nightmare scenario.
Finally, the Vikings got matched up with the Panthers and Cowboys, who also finished third in their respective divisions. Carolina has recently become a player in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes. Outside of that, Christian McCaffrey looks to return for 2021, and they have plenty of moves to make in the upcoming draft to improve their defense. Finally, Dallas should return a motivated Dak Prescott who is coming off a gruesome ankle injury and still does not have the contract that he desires. If he is fully healthy and goes on a revenge tour, that could become a difficult game for Minnesota as well, especially given that Minnesota already lost to that team without Prescott in 2020.
Like I said to start, this article was purely meant to serve as a devil’s advocate to all those that are hoping for better results in 2021. If all of the things mentioned above occurred in the same timeframe, the Vikings may just truly be cursed. That said, we do have to take a step back and realize that no matter what this team looks like, 2021 could be another difficult test for Minnesota.
Whether they will pass the test or not remains to be seen. If their star players return to the field 100% and remain healthy, this team should be a contender. If they don’t, and their opponents come back as strong as they were in 2020, that will lead to different conversations about this team’s potential.