As the Vikings make their final preparations before the start of their 61st season, it’s time for season predictions, my sixth attempt at predicting the Vikings’ season outcome. Here are my past predictions:
Prediction: 10-6. Actual: 11-5.
No prediction after Bridgewater went down.
Prediction: 12-4. Actual: 13-3.
Prediction: 13-3. Actual: 8-7-1.
Prediction: 11-5. Actual: 10-6.
Prediction: 11-5. Actual: 7-9.
Last season’s prediction was off in large part due to the injuries suffered on defense, which was among the hardest hit units in the league, and had a big impact on the season results. Three of the remaining four seasons I was only a game off, so pretty respectable those years. Injuries will always be the wild card, but assuming the Vikings have an average or better season in terms of injury losses, here is how I see the season unfolding for the Vikings.
Offense Building on Last Season
I predicted the Vikings offense would improve last year, and so it did, despite a still weak offensive line and what turned out to be a very poor defense. The Vikings scored more points (430 vs. 407) and gained more yards (6,262 vs 5,656) last season than in 2019, as continuity, and the emergence of Justin Jefferson helped overcome a weak interior offensive line, the loss of Stefon Diggs, and defense and special teams units that did them no favors. The Vikings were also relatively healthy on offense, which contributed to their improvement as well.
This season the prospect of an improved offensive line, largely in the form of Oli Udoh at right guard, and an improved Ezra Cleveland at left guard, should help provide Kirk Cousins with better protection, and Dalvin Cook with better running lanes. Rashod Hill starting at left tackle remains a question mark, as does first-round pick Christian Darrisaw, given he wasn’t able to participate in the off/pre-season program, and his ability to win the starting job could be at least a month off. Garrett Bradbury also remains a question mark in pass protection, although he may be helped at the margin by having better guards next to him. Overall, Cousins is unlikely to have the type of pass protection that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes have enjoyed over most of their careers this season, but with luck his pass protection could improve from well below average to average, which would have a positive impact on his performance. The key will be how well his pass protection holds up in 3rd and long and other obvious passing situations.
Cousins will be helped by having perhaps the best starting WR/RB trio in the league, in Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. The loss of Irv Smith Jr. for what may be the season is certainly a setback, coming after the release of Kyle Rudolph earlier this year. But overall the Vikings had about 900 receiving yards between Rudolph, Smith Jr., and Tyler Conklin last season, and despite those player losses, could still manage similar numbers with Conklin and other replacements this year, whether they’re wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs.
The combination of Brian O’Neill, Oli Udoh, and Garrett Bradbury blocking on the right side could prove to be a boost for Dalvin Cook’s production, and could lead to more favorable 3rd down situations and big-plays as well.
It will be interesting to see how the distribution plays out between Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson- JJ will likely be matched by the opposing defense’s best corner- but that could lead to more production for Thielen, who remains a skilled and savvy route runner who can gain separation despite turning 31. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see JJ and Thielen combine for over 2,500 receiving yards, an improvement over their 2020 season, but with one more game this year. The Vikings didn’t get much production from their third wide receiver last season, and while that remains a question mark again this year, it wouldn’t take much from a Dede Westbrook or other receiver to make a significant improvement. If he was able to equal his 2019 production- 660 yards- in Jacksonville, that would be a notable improvement over Chad Beebe/Bisi Johnson/Tajae Sharpe of last season.
Overall, with a slightly improved offensive line, I expect the Vikings to field a top ten unit offensively this season, and with more help from the defense and special teams units, could even manage to crack the top 5. Klint Kubiak could prove to be a bit of a wildcard here, both in his play-calling and any scheme wrinkles he introduces.
Defense Bounces Back Strong
The results on defense last season were largely the product of the loss of key starters for most or all of the season. But this year they’re all back and healthy, and there are some notable upgrades as well.
The defensive line of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Everson Griffen/DJ Wonnum/Stephen Weatherly, backed up by Armon Watts and Sheldon Richardson on the interior, may be the most formidable defensive line the Vikings have fielded since 2017, when they were the #1 defense in the league behind Hunter, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson/Shamar Stephen, and Griffen. Indeed, Sheil Kapadia from The Athletic is predicting the Vikings will have the #1 ranked defense again this season.
At linebacker, the Vikings have a bit more of a question mark behind Eric Kendricks, one of the best linebackers in the league, as Anthony Barr has been injured for much of the past year, and the depth behind him is unproven. But Barr looks to be improving and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s able to start week one against the Bengals. Other guys like Nick Vigil, Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt, Blake Lynch and Ryan Connelly have the potential to improve and help out Kendricks and Barr, but the Vikings have also experimented with D.J. Wonnum at an outside linebacker spot too, so what the Vikings intend to do there will be interesting to watch.
The Vikings’ defensive backs feature a couple of aging All-Pros in Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith. Peterson is looking to reset his career under Mike Zimmer as a top cornerback, having seen his performance slide the past couple seasons as he turned 30. Having a new situation in Minnesota may help, along with his reportedly losing about 10 pounds this off-season to help get back some of the quickness he may have lost over the last couple years. The Vikings just re-upped Harrison Smith’s contract, which is a sign that they like what they see in Smith, who is now the longest tenured Viking at age 32. Smith had a down season last year, which is typical when the pass rush in front of him drops off a cliff, which is what happened to the Vikings last season. The other two starting defensive backs are Xavier Woods at the other safety spot, and Bashaud Breeland at the other outside cornerback spot. MacKensie Alexander returns as the slot corner. All three have been solid, if unspectacular in recent years, and could be helped by being in a better situation this season with a more effective pass rush in front of them. Cameron Dantzler, who had a solid rookie season- particularly the last half- has struggled the entire off-season, is a backup at the outside cornerback spot, along with Kris Boyd- who did well in preseason- and Harrison Hand, who backs up Alexander at slot corner.
But the other thing to keep in mind about the Vikings defense this season is that they’ve installed some new scheme changes this season that we’ve yet to see on the field. These changes could also be a wild card, but I’m optimistic these updates could lead to better outcomes defensively, as the Vikings have the talent and experience to execute them, and they could prove to be more difficult for offenses to counter effectively.
While it’s difficult to be too optimistic at this point about improving field goal made percentage, given Greg Joseph hasn’t really proven anything at this point, and didn’t have a great FG made percentage in training camp or preseason, there is reason to believe the special teams coverage and return units will be better this year compared to last.
First, the Vikings appear to have made special teams a bit more of a focal point when it comes to evaluating the bottom of their roster, and that should help in having more capable personnel. Secondly, new Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken appears to have streamlined the plays, which requires less thinking from the special teams units, allowing them to flow and block and react faster and leaving less chance of a blown assignment. Beyond that, there’s reason to be optimistic that between Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Kene Nwangwu, kick returns will improve, and between ISM and Dede Westbrook, punt returns may improve as well. All that would lead to better starting field position for both the offense and defense, which makes a difference.
Projecting Win Totals
Overall, I expect the Vikings to be better in the trenches, which in football is the often invisible hand that makes skill position players look better. Quarterbacks make more plays when they have time to throw, rather than under pressure, and receivers get open more often when they have more time to do so. And running backs tend to do better when they have more space and get more yards before contact.
Conversely, defensive backs tend to do a better job in coverage when they only have to cover for a couple seconds before the ball is out or the quarterback is down. They also tend to do better in unfavorable 3rd and long passing situations, when defenses can employ blitz packages that make converting even more difficult, and quarterbacks under pressure tend to make more wayward throws.
I expect the Vikings will remain a top ten unit on offense, given the return of their top skill position players, a slightly improved offensive line, and better situations from the defense and special teams. Defensively, I expect the Vikings to rebound back to being a top ten- or better- unit defensively. Mike Zimmer’s defenses have done that time and again consistently, with last season being an injury-led anomaly. The improved defensive roster could very well lead the NFL by season’s end if they remain healthy. Having top ten units on both sides of the ball is a potent combination when it comes to win/loss records.
Last season, the only teams with top ten units on both sides of the ball were New Orleans, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. The Bills, Packers, Steelers, Dolphins, and Seahawks were close. Those ten teams averaged 11.9 wins in a 16 game season, and all but Miami made the playoffs. All but the Colts and Steelers made it to at least the Divisional round, and they represented all four teams in the Conference championships, and both Super Bowl teams.
2021 Strength of Schedule
The Vikings have an average strength of schedule, when you look at projected 2021-22 season win totals, rather than last season’s results- which is more accurate as it reflects current rosters and situations, rather than last season’s.
If you look at the lower graphic, the Vikings play a total of 8 teams that are forecast to have a losing record. I’ll count those as wins, as the Vikings typically do a good job of beating
those teams most of the time, particularly when they post a winning season. The remaining 9 games I’ll predict a 50/50 split, leaving the Vikings with 12.5 wins. But five of those games are also home games, so I’ll give the advantage to the Vikings in coming to a whole number, which results in a 13-4 record over the 17 game season.
A Couple Other Schedule Notes
The Vikings have an easier schedule this season when it comes to the quarterbacks they face. Last season they faced Aaron Rodgers twice, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill- all top veteran QBs. This season they have Rodgers twice, Lamar Jackson, and Wilson, but beyond that it’s more of the mid-tier variety, and likely a lot of young and relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, beginning with Joe Burrow week one. A strong defense, including a strong pass rush, could lead to some mistakes from some of those younger QBs under pressure.
In terms of the NFC North, I have the Vikings sweeping the Lions and Bears, and splitting with the Packers, although sweeping the division or going 4-2 isn’t out of the question either. But if the Vikings go 13-4, I expect that will be good enough for the division crown.
The Vikings split with the Packers last season, surprisingly, and I don’t see the Packers as having a better team this year compared to last. They have a tougher schedule compared with the Vikings with an away game in Kansas City, and at the Saints in Jacksonville week one. By contrast, the Vikings are at Carolina and LA Chargers, facing the 3rd ranked rather than 1st ranked teams in those divisions from last season. The Packers have two tough matchups (@ Chiefs, Seahawks, and @ Ravens, Browns) against playoff-caliber teams prior to each of their Vikings games, so they could be worn down for those games, even though they have a bye-week in-between.
The Lions look like they’ll be picking no later than 3rd in next year’s draft, barring a trade.
The Bears will be interesting to watch, and I expect the Vikings will be facing Justin Fields by the time they play the Bears in December, but their defense looks weaker, with key players in Mack and Hicks now over 30, and Hicks disgruntled wanting a contract extension at age 32 and not getting one. Wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t playing by December either, given his injury history. The Bears offensive line is also weak at a lot of positions, and I’m doubtful nearly 40 year-old LT Jason Peters will still be healthy late in December. I suspect the Bears will be out of the playoff picture by the time the Vikings play them the first time just before Christmas, so that may impact things as well.
Looking at the early part of the Vikings schedule, the Vikings could emerge undefeated at their bye-week. It would take some doing to beat the Seahawks and Browns, but they’re both home games and the Vikings look to matchup well, with the exception of Miles Garrett going against either Rashod Hill or Christian Darrisaw. Wouldn’t be surprised with a lot of TE formations to that side, or CJ Ham coming in to chip block in passing situations. Defensively, it could be the clash of the titans in the trenches as the Vikings defensive line takes on what could be the best offensive line in the league at home against Cleveland. But the first real game to circle on the calendar will be the home opener against the Seahawks. Zimmer has never beaten Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, but this may be his best chance to do so. Winning that first home game against Seattle would be a real confidence booster, and could be the first good measure of what kind of team the Vikings have this season.
The toughest stretch of the Vikings schedule comes after their bye-week, with a slate of five potential playoff teams in Dallas, @ Baltimore, @ LA Chargers, Green Bay, and @ San Francisco. Coming out of that 5-game stretch 3-2 would be a big accomplishment. Even 2-3 wouldn’t be terrible.
Things ease up a bit in December, but the Vikings will need to play well to contend for the division crown and build momentum for the playoffs, if things go reasonably well for them until Thanksgiving.
It’s worth noting as well that home field advantage returns in 2021, with full stadiums. The absence of fans and noise, perhaps along with the lack of a preseason, favored offenses last season as offensive point production had a significant jump over the previous seasons. I expect that point production will return to pre-Covid levels this season, as the (likely) conditions that caused the increase are no longer there.
Overall, this season has the feel of 2017 just before it started. Not much was expected from the Vikings, having come off a poor season in 2016 at 8-8, with Sam Bradford at quarterback. Pre-season odds for the Vikings were 40-1 to win the Super Bowl, and the over/under win total was 8.5. This year the Vikings are once again 40-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, and the over/under win total is set at 9 for a 17 game season- basically the same as 2017. The Packers were the favorite to win the division.
The difference heading into 2017 was that the Vikings had a top ten defense the year before, but the offense was near the bottom, and nobody expected much of an improvement. This year the Vikings head into the season with a top ten offense, but a defense ranked near the bottom last season, and not many expecting a lot of improvement.
The Vikings had the AFC North in 2017 as well, but this year have the NFC West, rather than the NFC South. They also had a tough stretch after their bye week in 2017, with the Rams, who went 11-5 that year, followed by three road games, two against playoff teams in Atlanta and Carolina. As it turned out, based on actual win/loss records, the Vikings had the 18th toughest schedule in 2017, which is the same as 2021, based on projected win totals.
How many wins will the Vikings have in this 17-game regular season?
This poll is closed
5 or less