How Does Minnesota Take Back the NFC North?

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2020 season with mixed expectations. Optimists felt the Vikings still had the talent to make a playoff run, and their playoff win over the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round of the 2019 playoffs was no fluke. Pessimists watched as many key contributors, namely Stefon Diggs, departed the team, leaving the Vikings with several holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

Ultimately, the pessimistic view of Minnesota’s preseason outlook proved to be more correct. The Vikings won just one of their first six games and found themselves essentially out of the playoffs before the halfway point in the season.

Meanwhile, their divisional foes all repeated their 2019 performances during the 2020 season. The Green Bay Packers, once again, finished with a 13-3 record and earned a berth in the NFC Championship game. The Chicago Bears hovered around .500 due to inconsistency at the quarterback position and wound up earning the new No. 7 seed in the NFC playoffs only to be wiped out by New Orleans in the Wild Card round. And the Detroit Lions are, well, still the Lions.

The upcoming offseason figures to be a chaotic one as rumors swirl about multiple big-name players seeking new teams. The Vikings fell victim to this last year when Diggs’ trade demand was granted.

The NFC North could look a lot different when the 2021 season kicks off, especially at the quarterback position. It’s likely that both Chicago and Detroit will have new starting quarterbacks to open next season, and Aaron Rodgers has ignited speculation about his future in Green Bay in the past week.

The Packers are clearly the best team in the NFC North, and the Lions appear to be in the cellar for the time being. But can the Vikings take down the Packers in 2021? What would it take? How do they compare to Chicago and Detroit?

Let’s take a look at the best- and worst-case offseason scenarios for the Vikings and their positioning in the NFC North.

BEST-CASE Scenario

Minnesota missed a real opportunity last offseason to take a big leap forward against the rest of its division. Green Bay, Chicago, and Detroit barely helped themselves during the offseason.

It would be ideal for the Vikings if that happened again, of course.

Rick Spielman has accumulated a large stash of draft picks for the 2021 NFL Draft and can add more when compensation picks are awarded. Between Minnesota’s draft capital and its sliver of salary cap space, they can potentially add starting-quality players where the depth chart needs it most, specifically at defensive end, interior offensive line, and cornerback.

Adding immediate-impact players with draft picks and salary cap change is much easier said than done. But that’s the hole the Vikings have put themselves in.

The rest of the NFC North should benefit from Matthew Stafford‘s departure. He hasn’t been particularly crippling to the Vikings in his career, but his presence alone has kept Detroit more competitive than it deserved to be over the last decade.

Meanwhile, there’s no hiding that the Bears are a competent quarterback away from establishing themselves firmly as the second-best team in the NFC North. The combination of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky didn’t work in 2021. The best-case scenario for the Vikings is one of those two are named the starter next year.

The Packers’ situation is hard to gauge. A realistic scenario in which the Vikings can take down their Border Battle rival is hard to create. Yes, they defeated the Packers at Lambeau this season. But over the 16-game sample of the 2020 regular season, Green Bay was on a completely different level.

Other than Rodgers miraculously leaving town, the Vikings can hope that the Packers again neglect their receiver depth. Aside from Davante Adams, who may be the best receiver in the sport, the Packers’ receiving corps doesn’t leave a lot to be desired. They have Devin Funchess returning next season after he opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, but a true No. 2 receiver threat opposite Adams could take this offense even further.

This best-case scenario requires the Vikings to hit big on a couple of draft picks and find a reliable starter in free agency, all of whom can contribute immediately and respectably. If they can boost their pass rush significantly, shore up interior pass protection, find some reliable help at cornerback, and stay healthy, Minnesota will be more competitive than they were in 2020. Is that too much to ask?

Worst-Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario is entertaining but really harms Minnesota’s long-term prospects in the NFC North.

Chicago is rumored to be in on trying to acquire Deshaun Watson in a trade, which would quickly lift the Bears to contender status. The Bears defense has been stingy throughout the Matt Nagy era; it’s the quarterback position that has held them back.

Watson is an elite quarterback and likely the second-best single asset in the NFL right now behind Patrick Mahomes. If Chicago winds up with Watson, it will create a doomsday situation in Minnesota. Imagine game-planning for Rodgers and Watson twice per season.

If Chicago makes any upgrade at quarterback, let alone upgrading to a top-5 quarterback in the NFL, it will bump the Vikings firmly into the No. 3 spot in the division.

It’s a quarterback-driven league, which is why Detroit surprisingly keeping Stafford also falls into this worst-case scenario. In the event that the Bears acquire Watson and the Lions hang on to Stafford for some reason, the Vikings arguably have the worst quarterback in the division.

Minnesota’s prospects in 2021 require some serious luck — similar to when the Philadelphia Eagles took Jalen Reagor in the first round of last year’s draft, dropping Justin Jefferson into Spielman’s lap. And injury luck, a key component of the Vikings’ unexpected run in 2017, is always required.

Any way you slice it, they are sitting behind the Packers in the NFC North for the foreseeable future — but it could get a lot more ugly than that in the next few months.

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