News & Analysis

Minnesota Vikings 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Minnesota Vikings are next on the rundown, and they once again find themselves navigating the waters between playoff contention and a seemingly inevitable turning of the page on this roster.

The return of several players on the defensive side of the ball should help matters, as should another year of experience for the young cornerbacks they took in the 2020 NFL Draft. However, the Vikings still have to make a decision on Anthony Harris as well as figure out how to fill out the defensive line.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$5,077,281 (10th lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 14, 79, 91, 110, 116, 125, 141, 155, 175, 206

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Kirk Cousins 10 / 32 $31.0 million
RB Dalvin Cook 3 / 70 $5.1 million
WR Adam Thielen 6 / 127 $13.5 million
WR Justin Jefferson 2 / 127 $3.0 million
WR ?
TE Irv Smith Jr. 19 / 71 $1.6 million
LT Riley Reiff 24 / 38 $15.0 million
LG ?
C Garrett Bradbury 25 / 37 $3.5 million
RG Ezra Cleveland 17 / 40 $1.3 million
RT Brian O’Neill 11 / 38 $2.8 million

For as much offseason talk as there has been about the Vikings potentially moving on from Cousins, it seems to be just talk. This wasn’t a bad offense in 2020, and it projects to be the stronger side of the ball once again heading into next season. 

The Vikings run fewer three-plus wide receiver sets than just about any offense in the NFL, but finding an upgrade at WR3 behind Thielen and Jefferson should still be a high-priority task for Minnesota this offseason. That could have added importance following Kyle Rudolph's release, leaving the tight end position thinner heading into next season.

The offensive line will once again be an area of focus, as well. The big decision is whether the team keeps Reiff at left tackle or looks toward the future at the position, potentially moving Cleveland out to the spot he played at Boise State and opening up two vacancies at guard. At the very least, Minnesota should be looking to upgrade the left guard position, where Dakota Dozier earned just a 44.6 overall grade in 2020. 

Does the release of Kyle Rudolph mean more three-wide receiver personnel groupings in 2021?

Per Sports Illustrated’s Will Ragatz, Rudolph recently made comments on Ben Leber’s Unrestricted podcast that foreshadowed that his time in Minnesota may be coming to a close. “[A restructured deal] is not going to happen,” Rudolph said. “I feel like I have a lot of good football left. At 31, with how I feel physically, knowing what I can still do. It’s simply a lack of opportunities. In the past, I was the one getting red-zone targets. I can’t sign up for that again.”

The “that” in the last sentence of the quote above was a homage to his heavy blocking role in Minnesota’s offense, which offered little in the way of opportunity as a receiver. For the first time in his career, he recorded more run-blocking snaps (267) than routes run (258) last year.

Taking all of that into account, it doesn’t come as a big surprise to see that Minnesota opted for the $5 million-plus in savings that will come along with Rudolph’s release.

The clear follow-up question is whether Rudolph’s departure will limit the two-tight end formations that they like to run on offense. Minnesota ranked 12th in the NFL in 12 personnel rate and third in 22 personnel rate last season. If the last four games of the 2020 season, which Rudolph missed with a foot injury, are anything to go by, the answer is that they won’t dial those personnel packages back. Over those four weeks, the Vikings actually used more 12 personnel than they had earlier in the season. 

Expect to see plenty of Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin in 2021.   

What does Minnesota do with Riley Reiff at left tackle?

Like Rudolph, Reiff is another veteran who stands out as a potential source of salary cap relief. His release could save Minnesota over $11 million against the 2021 salary cap — not an insignificant chunk of change. The Vikings were in a similar situation with the left tackle last offseason before restructuring his contract to keep him in Minnesota. 

The team can either decide that it’s time for Ezra Cleveland to take over as the team’s left tackle or try to find a way to lower Reiff’s 2021 cap hit to keep him on the roster through an extension.

The Vikings' offensive line has its issues without needing to fill a vacancy at left tackle. And while Reiff isn’t an elite option, he has been at least reliable throughout his career, earning PFF grades above 70.0 in each of the last three seasons for the Vikings. An extension that lowers the 2021 cap hit might be Minnesota’s best bet. Otherwise, they’ll be in a position where they need two new starters at guard while also hoping Cleveland can make a smooth transition back to tackle. 

Can the Vikings get better pass protection from their interior offensive line?

Pressure up the middle has been a significant problem area for this Vikings offensive line for several years now. Center Garrett Bradbury made some improvements as a run-blocker in his second season out of N.C. State, but he still earned just a 38.8 pass-blocking grade in 2020. The guard and center positions in Minnesota combined for a 34.3 pass-blocking grade that was easily the worst mark of any interior offensive line in the NFL. They also finished as a bottom-three team in the same metric in both 2018 and 2019. 

Giving Kirk Cousins cleaner pockets to step into will be a priority — again — for the Vikings this offseason.

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Amari Rodgers, Anthony Schwartz

I opted for two guys who won’t cost Minnesota a premium draft pick and could add a different skill set to the WR3 position than Thielen and Jefferson offer. 

Rodgers is likely a slot-only guy, but he provides solid after-the-catch ability and speed inside. He’s coming off a 2020 season at Clemson in which he earned an 80.0 receiving grade and broke 17 tackles after the catch. 

Meanwhile, few NFL players — let alone collegiate players — can match the kind of speed that Schwartz would bring to the Vikings' offense. That speed is about all Schwartz brings to the table at this point, but it’s still something that the Vikings could take advantage of later in the draft.

Guard: Alijah Vera-Tucker, Kendrick Green 

The run game will be an emphasis for any Vikings offensive line prospect. More specifically, those guys need to fit into new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak’s run scheme, which isn’t likely to stray too far from his father’s. Minnesota ranked in the top 10 in both outside zone and inside zone run rate in 2020. 

The Vikings would need to target Vera-Tucker with their first-round selection, but both he and Green make sense at guard for a zone-blocking scheme. Both players also have some positional versatility. Green played center and guard this past season at Illinois, while Vera-Tucker started the 2020 season at tackle after putting out strong tape at guard in 2019.

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Michael Pierce N/A $5.0 million
DI ?
EDGE Danielle Hunter N/A $17.3 million
EDGE ?
LB Eric Kendricks 3 / 83 $12.5 million
LB Anthony Barr N/A $15.0 million
LB ?
CB Cameron Dantzler 22 / 121 $1.0 million
CB Mike Hughes N/A $3.1 million
CB Jeff Gladney 102 / 121 $2.5 million
S Harrison Smith 26 / 94 $10.3 million
S ?

Opt-outs and injuries to key contributors — a list that includes Hunter, Pierce and Barr — didn’t help matters defensively for Minnesota in 2020. Even with their returns, there are still questions to be had along the Vikings’ front seven.

They could use a disruptive 3-technique and a starting edge defender opposite Hunter. Additionally, linebacker Eric Wilson is set to enter free agency, which won't be an insignificant loss for a Vikings team that played more base defense than most teams last year.

At cornerback, the Vikings will likely turn to Hughes, Gladney and Dantzler, but there is still room to add depth at the position, given how much each of those players still has left to prove. 

Safety Anthony Harris is Minnesota’s principal free agent on the defensive side of the ball. He and Smith have combined to form one of the league’s top safety duos over the last several seasons, but it’s likely that the Vikings won’t be able to meet Harris’ contract demands following a year played on the franchise tag. His departure would leave a sizable hole at the safety position heading into the 2021 season.

What does the return of Michael Pierce and Danielle Hunter mean for the Vikings' defensive line?

The Vikings' defensive line was a problem last season, and “problem” isn’t a compliment in this instance. Minnesota’s defense ranked 22nd in rushing yards allowed before contact per attempt, and they were even worse as a unit at generating pressure. The Vikings' team pressure rate of 21.6% during the 2020 regular season ranked dead last among 32 qualifying teams. 

In their defense, they did lose one of the top edge defender tandems in the NFL, with Everson Griffen leaving in free agency and Hunter’s 2020 season being lost to injury. Additionally, one of their bigger free agent signings last offseason (Pierce) opted out of the 2020 season. Decline is going to come with losses of that caliber.

Pierce’s return should certainly help the run defense, and bringing Hunter back into the fold gives a big boost across the board. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still weaknesses along the defensive line. 

Minnesota could use an upgrade at the starting edge position opposite Hunter and more of a pass-rushing threat at 3-technique next to Pierce. The highest-graded defensive linemen who played at least 100 snaps for the team last season was Yannick Ngakoue (64.4 overall grade), who was traded to the Baltimore Ravens mid-season.  

Does the cornerback trio of Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler take a step forward with another year in the system?

It may not seem like it, as Hughes has been with the team since 2018, but Gladney is actually the oldest of this trio after turning 24 years old in December. In other words, this is a very young group. And with youth comes optimism.

The biggest hurdle when it comes to getting this group together on the field next season may be Hughes staying healthy. He has played just 917 defensive snaps in the three seasons since the Vikings took him in the first round of the 2018 draft. 

Gladney played more snaps than that in 2019 alone, spending time both in the slot and out wide. He graded much more favorably on his 529 slot snaps (62.7 PFF grade) than he did on 313 snaps out wide (40.7 PFF grade). Dantzler did give reason for hope with his play out wide, though. His 69.0 coverage grade at outside cornerback fell behind only L’Jarius Sneed among rookies who saw at least 100 snaps in 2020. 

There is talent in this group. Minnesota will just need it to stay healthy next season.

What happens on the back end without Anthony Harris if he isn’t brought back?

Harris didn’t have quite as strong a season in 2020 as he did in each of the prior two seasons with the Vikings, but it’s safe to say that the team will miss his play alongside Harrison Smith if he does sign elsewhere in free agency.

Over the last three seasons, Harris’ 90.6 PFF grade ranks tied for first among all qualifying safeties in the NFL. He’s been a playmaker in his free safety role while capably coming down into the box and slot when needed in Mike Zimmer’s defense. 

The play from Harris, Smith and Eric Kendricks over the middle of the field helped to mask some of the Vikings' deficiencies at cornerback last season. It won’t be easy to replace what Harris provided, leading to an interesting decision for Minnesota at the safety position ahead of 2021. 

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Sheldon Rankins, Tommy Togiai 

Rankins may end up being outside of Minnesota’s price range, but he’s one of the free agents who I believe may end up getting undervalued this offseason. 

Per Luke Johnson of NOLA.com, Rankins recently said in a SiriusXM radio interview, “Now, I legit wake up and feel like me again. I can run around and … have that bounce in my step that I know I used to have. … Going into free agency, that’s why it’s exciting for me because I know that no matter where I end up, you can cut that 2018 tape on and say that’s the guy you’re getting.” That’s significant given that Rankins earned a career-high 78.8 PFF grade in 2018. 

Togiai also fits the “disruptive 3-technique” mold that the Vikings will be looking for. Togiai doesn’t bring much experience to the table — he played a career-high 291 defensive snaps in 2020 — but he produced in his time on the field, earning an 87.5 overall grade for the Buckeyes this past season. His strength listed in the PFF Draft Guide is his bull rush despite not being all that big.  

Edge defender: Kwity Paye, Olivier Vernon  

The Vikings will likely have their pick of freak athletes at the edge defender position with the 14th overall pick if that’s the direction they want to go. Paye is the top man on PFF’s big board after building on a strong 2019 season to record 22 pressures in just four games for Michigan in 2020. Paye’s athleticism and twitch are rare for a player of his size, and there’s a good chance that translates to the NFL level. 

Vernon would be a cheaper option that may be worth considering. He is now over 30 years old and coming off a Week 17 torn Achilles which should keep interest reasonably low around the league. Still, Vernon has shown himself to be a strong secondary pass-rusher the last few seasons in Cleveland. Vernon’s 51 quarterback pressures during the 2020 season ranked tied for 17th among all edge defenders across the league.  

Linebacker: Eric Wilson, Alex Anzalone 

The Vikings could very well lose Wilson and not add a linebacker in free agency, giving more opportunity to a player like 2020 fourth-round pick Troy Dye. The position becomes a different story if Anthony Barr isn’t back with the team in 2021 for cap reasons, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. Wilson earned a 55.3 overall grade as a starter for Barr in 2020 after solid play in a rotational role the two seasons prior. 

Anzalone is another potential low-cost option that Minnesota could look to add to the linebacker group. The former third-round pick out of Florida has dealt with several injuries to this point in his four-year career but has flashed solid play in coverage when healthy. Anzalone earned coverage grades of at least 64.0 in both years in which he played over 200 defensive snaps (2018 and 2020). 

Safety: Xavier Woods, Christian Uphoff

Earlier this offseason, I looked at some strong fits for several members of the 2021 free agent safety class, and Woods to Minnesota was one of the pairings in that piece. He has the kind of versatile skill set to play both deep and down in the slot/box that the Vikings will likely target in Harris’ potential replacement. Woods ranks 25th at the safety position in PFF WAR since 2017. 

Uphoff is a later-round target for the Vikings in the 2021 NFL Draft but has ideal size, movement skills and athleticism for the safety position. Coming out of Illinois State, he just simply hasn’t gone up against much high-level competition, and he isn’t quite as aggressive in his reads as you’d like to see from a safety. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad developmental play for Minnesota in the mid to late rounds of the draft.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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