The Minnesota Vikings underwent a defensive roster transformation this offseason, signing a whole new secondary while retooling their front seven. Perhaps most importantly, they added depth at linebacker and cornerback, positions that were problematic last year.
Even with these additions, the Vikings need some of their younger players to step up. To succeed next year, these three players must make the next leap forward.
When Garrett Bradbury was drafted with the 18th-overall selection, he earned comparisons to Jason Kelce of the Philadelphia Eagles because of their similar quickness and mobility. After two seasons, it’s safe to say that hasn’t come to fruition.
It is fair to question how much the league-worst guard play has impacted Bradbury. In his rookie year in 2019, Bradbury played next to Pat Elflein, who allowed six sacks and 32 pressures. Last year Bradbury played in between Elflein and Dakota Dozier, who allowed six sacks and 46 (!) pressures, the second-highest in Vikings franchise history.
Bradbury posted a PFF grade of 58.1 in his rookie year before improving to 61.4 last season. It is important to note that his overall grade is greatly skewed by the run-blocking split in his grade. In 2019, his run-blocking grade was 58.1 while his pass-blocking grade was 38.7. Bradbury’s pass-blocking went up by 0.1, to 38.8 last year, but his run-blocking took a jump to 69.3 and caused his overall grade to get better.
However, for the Vikings’ offense to take another step forward, the interior offensive line, led by Bradbury, must get better at pass-blocking. PFF recently ranked NFL centers, and analyst Ben Linsey placed Bradbury at 27, saying this about the Vikings’ center:
“Bradbury has shown redeeming qualities as a run blocker over his first two NFL seasons, but it’s hard to ignore just how poor he has been in pass protection. He ranks last at the position in pressure rate allowed (5.2%) and pass-blocking grade (36.3) since 2019. He hasn’t been dominant enough as a run blocker to look past those numbers.”
His improvement in Year 3 will dictate the quality of the Vikings’ interior offensive line, which in turn will dictate how the offense performs in crunch-time situations.
The Vikings struggled mightily at cornerback last year, leading them to add Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, and others in free agency. However, despite these struggles, Cameron Dantzler emerged as a promising young player.
Dantzler struggled initially, allowing four touchdowns, a 72.5% completion rate, 347 yards, and a 123.7 quarterback rating. However, after his neck injury at Lambeau Field in Week 8, Dantzler emerged as a new player.
He played six more games in 2020, and his allowed completion percentage dropped to 51.6; he gave up 178 yards and no touchdowns. Dantzler also recorded three turnovers (two interceptions and one forced fumble and recovery) and a 61.6 quarterback rating in this span.
Bashaud Breeland is expected to compete with Dantzler for the outside cornerback spot opposite Patrick Peterson. Breeland signed a one-year deal with the Vikings; Dantzler is here for the long haul. While Breeland will provide exceptional starting ability, the Vikings like to rotate their cornerbacks, so they need Dantzler to pick up where he left off — and they need him to pull it together for an entire year.
Irv Smith Jr.
The Vikings drafted Kyle Rudolph‘s successor two years before they moved on from their long-time tight end. They believed that Smith had the potential to make their offense even more explosive.
Even though his targets were limited for his first two seasons in the NFL, Smith made the most of them, hauling in 73% of his targets and producing a passer rating of 139.7 when targeted.
Smith emerged as a force last season when Rudolph went down with a foot injury. In four games without Rudolph, Smith posted 15 receptions for 183 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings’ offense runs through their trio of superstars in Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook. For a fourth option, Smith’s numbers were pleasant.
In comparison, in eight games with Kyle Rudolph in 2020, Smith Jr. had 15 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns. His production virtually doubled.
They may see another rise in his production. From 2019 to 2020, Smith PFF grade jumped from 65.0 to 70.0. His 82.6 receiving grade from Week 5 through 17 ranked fourth among all tight ends.
To make sure their offense doesn’t fall off, the Vikings not only need Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook to play well. They also Smith to be another dynamic, reliable playmaker and add depth to their passing attack while Bradbury firms up the o-line and Dantzler improves the secondary.