The Minnesota Vikings finished 7-9 and weren’t close to meeting expectations this season. While they were hit hard by the injury bug, especially on defense, they were simply outmatched in many of the games they played. The 2020 season will definitely go down as one of the more frustrating ones in recent Vikings’ history, but there are some things to take away from the lost year.
The Vikings missed playing in front of a home crowd
Even in the worst Vikings seasons, they were always competitive at home because of the loud and raucous crowd that would fill the Metrodome and eventually U.S. Bank Stadium. Entering this season, the Vikings were 23-9 in their new stadium. The players clearly fed off of the energy of the home crowd and the atmosphere created with the fireworks, Gjallarhorn, and of course, the Skol Chant. Opposing offenses couldn’t hear their own calls and the crowd noise made calling an audible at the line damn near impossible.
Without the fans in the stands, they had no energy to feed off of. The Vikings came out flat in a majority of their home contests and were a far cry from the energetic, hungry team we saw just a season ago when the noise was blaring throughout the stadium. Opposing teams also had no problems making adjustments at the line and found it fairly easy to counter what the defense was showing. Without fans filling the seats, Minnesota was 3-5 at home in 2020.
This season we learned that the Vikings need fans in the stands; home field isn’t an advantage for them if the seats are empty. Hopefully, things will go back to normal next year and they can get the boost they need from playing in front of a full house.
They can’t rush the passer without Danielle Hunter
Heading into the 2020 season, the Vikings felt good about their group of pass rushers. They had one of the best in Danielle Hunter, and he was going to have a new starting linemate in Ifeadi Odenigbo, who was coming off a seven-sack breakout season. They weren’t able to resign Everson Griffen but had an exciting fourth-round rookie, D.J. Wonnum, who they were expected to work in on passing downs. It was also widely assumed that Zimmer would be able to generate some additional pressure blitzing Harrison Smith and rookie corner Jeff Gladney.
Turns out that without Hunter in the lineup the Vikings can’t get a sniff of opposing quarterbacks. Things went horribly wrong for the Vikings’ pass rush this season. First Hunter was lost for the season with a neck injury, so the team went out and traded for Yannick Ngakoue. He had five sacks in six games for Minnesota, but they went 1-5 in that stretch and he was traded to the Baltimore Ravens during the bye week. Without Ngakoue and Hunter, Odenigbo was elevated to the primary pass rusher and struggled mightily. He was neutralized in just about every single game and could only muster 3.5 sacks on the season.
Wonnum and Jalyn Holmes split duties opposite Odengibo, and while they flashed at times, they couldn’t consistently put heat on the quarterback. Zimmer’s creativity also failed: No matter what type of exotic blitzes he worked up with Smith, he couldn’t get him to create any big plays coming in off the edge. The Vikings will get Hunter back in 2021 and may use their first pick on an edge rusher. This would put Odenigbo back to a part-time role where he’s better suited, and Wonnum should improve with a full offseason under his belt. The Vikings pass rush revolves around Hunter, and the team learned that the hard way this year.
The special teams needs to start from scratch
The Vikings special teams were flat out awful in 2020. Everything that could go wrong just about did. It was a complete failure from top to bottom, and no player who plays on this side of the ball should feel comfortable with their job security after this season. Mike Zimmer already announced Tuesday that special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf would not be returning.
The biggest wart on the Vikings’ special teams was kicker Dan Bailey. He started the season off well, hitting the majority of his kicks, but suffered a late-season case of the yips. He became unreliable late in the season and melted down completely in Tampa Bay where he missed all four of his attempts.
The Vikings also replaced their long snapper mid-way through the season. After second-year man Austin Cutting dribbled a few snaps back to holder Britton Colquitt, he was let go and replaced with veteran Andrew DePaola. They also had a rotation at their return positions. The Vikings used a fifth-round pick on K.J. Osborn, who was supposed to be both the kick and punt returner. Although he was handed the job without much competition in camp, he didn’t do much with it. He failed to show any burst or wiggle and averaged just 3.9 yards a punt return and 21.6 yards per kick return. He was inactive much of the season and replaced with Ameer Abdullah and Chad Beebe — neither of whom was much better.
Colquitt also struggled this season: His 45.1 yards per punt average was 24th in the league. This unit also had some odd things happen like multiple blocked punts in one game, allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown, and having gunner Dan Chisena routinely run past the returner.
The Vikings found out in 2020 that their special teams unit is one of the worst in the NFL, and they need to tear it down and build it back up from scratch. There will be plenty of new faces on this unit in 2021.
They have some serious firepower on offense
The Vikings’ offense was one of the few bright spots this year. This group really came alive about halfway through the season and was basically the only strength on this team by the time the season mercifully ended. The Vikings can rest easy knowing they have two dynamic weapons secured for the next handful of years in Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson was the bigger surprise of the two. Minnesota traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for the 22nd pick, which they used to take Jefferson. They hoped he would eventually become the type of receiver that Diggs was, but no one expected it to happen so soon. Jefferson showed precociousness in his route running and understanding of the game. He also displayed toughness and a will to win, as he didn’t give up when the team was blown out and always fought and scrapped for extra yardage. The Vikings learned they have found their future No. 1 wide receiver thanks to his record-setting rookie season.
Minnesota also learned what a healthy Cook can do and have to be giddy to have him signed for five more seasons. The running back played at an MVP level and had a stretch of four games during the middle of the season where he ran for nearly 600 yards. He’s fast, elusive and tough, making him incredibly difficult to stop. Had he not missed a couple of games, he could’ve challenged Adrian Peterson for the Vikings’ rushing record. Minnesota looks like they’ll be having a new offensive coordinator in 2021, but whoever it is will surely realize the weapon they have in Cook and make him the focal point of the offense.
The Vikings’ offense could be going through some changes in the coming years, but no matter what, they know they have two explosive weapons that they can build around.
They don’t need Kyle Rudolph anymore
Kyle Rudolph will go down as one of the greatest tight ends in Vikings history and will assuredly be in the Ring of Honor one day. He’s been an excellent player for the Vikings on the field, with a knack for making acrobatic catches in the red zone. He has proven to be an even better person off the field with his help and commitment to the Minneapolis/St. Paul communities. As great as Rudolph is, the fact is he’s 31 and owed over $9 million next year.
Rudolph was hurt in the Week 12 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and didn’t see the field after that. In his absence, Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin stepped up and proved they can handle the tight end duties for Minnesota moving forward. Smith also suffered an injury midway through the season but when he returned to the lineup in Week 14, he went on a tear catching 15 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns.
Conklin’s emergence was a much bigger surprise. He hadn’t shown a ton in his career prior to this season but he hauled in 15 passes after Rudolph’s injury for 168 yards. He also found the end zone for the first time in his career, and a lot of those catches were impressive — he was laying out for the ball or catching it while being draped by a defender.
It will be hard for the Vikings to say goodbye to an all-time great like Rudolph, but they learned that the offense can function just fine in his absence.