As the Vikings completed their winless preseason following a 28-25 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the same issue that the faced the team at the start of training camp remains top of mind as the team prepares for its first regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It is called depth, and the Vikings absorbed another blow in that area Sunday when it was revealed that starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. suffered a meniscus injury that is expected to result in a surgical procedure. That means that Smith will miss at least the first couple of weeks of the season if the procedure is minor. However, a more serious torn meniscus would mean that Smith will miss the entire season.
Backup tight end Tyler Conklin has not been able to play to this point because of injury, and long-time tight end Kyle Rudolph is in a New York Giants uniform. It seems unlikely that Brandon Dillon, Zach Davidson or Shane Zylstra are likely to become impact players at the position.
Losing a player like Smith, who appeared poised for a breakout season, could have a huge impact. A tight end who is a threat to go downfield or convert third-down plays to first downs always has a positive impact on other skill-position teammates. Without a true threat at tight end, the Bengals will be able to focus on running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen that much more.
The questions about the offensive line remain in place, and that means the Vikings are going to have to show a lot more toughness than they did a year ago if the team’s play makers are going to produce. Head coach Mike Zimmer was unhappy with the way team performed against big-name opponents last year, and making a statement in the opener should get the team on the right track.
Much of the focus is on quarterback Kirk Cousins, and the quarterback must produce this season. He has been a high-level statistical performer throughout his career, but Cousins has shown a tendency to shrink in the biggest moments. That is his legacy to this point, and if that doesn’t start to change in Year 10 of his professional career, it likely never will.
He should have a great opportunity in the season opener, as the Bengals are clearly a better opponent for him than the Green Bay Packers were a year ago. The Vikings regularly feel the heat against their archrivals, and that’s what happened in Week 1 in 2020. While Aaron Rodgers had no trouble torching the Minnesota defense, Cousins struggled early on before putting decent numbers together in the second half.
Getting off to a good start in 2021 is vital for Cousins and his teammates. The Vikings travel to Arizona for a Week 2 game against the Cardinals, and taking a 2-0 record into their home opener against the Seattle Seahawks will allow Zimmer and his players to make a major statement early in the year.
Zimmer knows the offense will have to answer the questions that have developed to this point, but he knows the team is much improved on defense – at least on paper.
The most recent move is signing long-time safety Harrison Smith to a four-year extension Sunday. Smith, 32, signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension and that is clearly a reward for his significant contributions through his first nine years. Like most great free safeties, Smith is an incredibly instinctive player and can also help position his teammates prior to each play.
The Vikings appreciate that ability to help his teammates, but they are clearly looking at Smith to perform in an All-Pro manner this year. With the return of Danielle Hunter (disc) following surgery that kept him out all of last season and veteran Everson Griffin, along with the signings of Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson, the defensive line has a chance to be a wrecking crew. If that unit is pressuring quarterbacks into key mistakes, Smith has a chance to lead the secondary in interceptions and big plays.
But once again, depth is a potential issue. If starters get injured, Zimmer does not know how his backups will perform. Great teams have depth at most key positions, and the Vikings have question marks among their second- and third-line players.
The Vikings are going to need good fortune smile on the team in the form of a relatively injury-free season.