After missing the postseason in back-to-back years, 2022 will be a big year for the Minnesota Vikings. Personal feuds between coaches, front office, and players didn’t help the team perform at a high level. The teams of the last two seasons can be titled as ‘mediocre,’ and fans rightfully want more. Those five Vikings are the most important to make the organization relevant again in 2022.
Honorable Mention: Justin Jefferson
Jefferson might be the best Viking, but he’s not one of the five most important ones in the upcoming season. Expectations for him are sky-high, but his incredible play speaks for itself.
No receiver in NFL history recorded more yards in the first two career seasons, and no one had more yards in the last two seasons. Jefferson is arguably the best in the business. His continued play at his all-time great level is important for the Vikings, therefore, the honorable mention sixth spot.
5. Harrison Smith
Once again, Harrison Smith is the babysitter for the secondary. Although Patrick Peterson provides a lot of experience, he’s no longer the prime Peterson that just shuts down a receiver without safety help. The other players in the defensive backfield are rookies Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr, 2021 rookie Camryn Bynum, and Cameron Dantzler, a third-year player. Smith´s role as a babysitter is nothing new to him, as he did the same with struggling secondaries in the past couple of years.
He is, despite turning 33 in February, still playing at his elite level. Smith was probably the best defender in the Mike Zimmer era, as he was the most consistent. He has to mentor the rookie first-rounder Cine while watching the coverage of the young and old cornerbacks left and right. A stable secondary is only possible if he can be a leader for his teammates and continue to play at a high level.
4. Dalvin Cook
Cook is responsible for a big part of the rushing game’s success in the last three years. Only Derrick Henry recorded more yards in that period. 2021 was titled as a down year for the former Florida State standout. He still rushed for 1,159 yards. His efficiency, however, wasn’t the same as in 2020. He dealt with an ankle injury all season and additionally hurt his shoulder. The Vikings need a fully healthy Cook, who can carry the team to a few victories even in a pass-first offense. He must regain his old dynamic running skills to keep the offense balanced.
3. Danielle Hunter
If the Vikings learned one thing in the last two seasons, it should be that the defense without Hunter falls apart. From 2015, the year he was drafted, to 2019, the Vikings’ defense ranked first in EPA/Play. In 2020, however, the year he missed with an injury, the team ranked 25th. Mike Zimmer’s defense lost more players. Both starting cornerbacks left in free agency, Barr was out for most of the year, and Griffen departed. However, the missing star pass rusher was too much to overcome.
The same dropoff happened in 2021 with fewer variables. Hunter played the first seven games of the season and looked like his old self. The defense ranked sixth in those games, per EPA/Play. Then he got hurt, and in the remaining ten games, Mike Zimmer’s defense ranked 23rd.
He’s healthy now, and the Vikings added another pass rusher when they signed Za’Darius Smith. The team still needs Danielle Hunter´s 2019 version to slide into contention.
2. Kirk Cousins
It’s not shocking that the quarterback is essential. During his career, the veteran QB has shown that he can record 30 touchdowns and throw for 4,000 yards per season in his sleep. Depending on who is asked, he is a borderline top-10 quarterback in the NFL every year.
But if the Vikings want to be genuine contenders, he has to play at MVP or top-5 level. In a new scheme with an offensive-minded head coach, a potential production increase is possible. Cousins could top 40 touchdowns for the first time in his career. If he can’t improve and stays somewhere between good and average, the organization will probably not be able to have a deep playoff run. A lot will depend on the quarterback’s level of play in 2022.
1. Kevin O’Connell
A new culture was desperately needed in the Minnesota Vikings organization. The old head coach had a feud with his general manager, multiple players were in his metaphoric doghouse, and Eric Kendricks even talked about not wanting to play in a “fear-based” organization.
O’Connell comes from the Super Bowl champion, the Los Angeles Rams. His positive attitude is a welcomed change for the supporters of the purple team. Players need to feel comfortable in their situations to be productive. Apparently, they haven´t in recent years, and a change in that regard can unleash the best version of the athletes. Just changing the attitude in the building can make the team better by a big margin.
O’Connell, however, isn’t just the head coach to change the culture. His job is to implement a new offensive system, a system influenced by Sean McVay — more pass-happy and more explosive on offense. A head coach is always the most critical person in a franchise, and if he’s the real deal, the Vikings will be successful in the future, and the future starts in the upcoming season.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt