Vikings will lean on continuity to overcome key departures

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (11-7)

NEW FACES: DE Yannick Ngakoue, WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney, CB Cameron Dantzler, WR Tajaé Sharpe, WR/PR/KR K.J. Osborn, OL Ezra Cleveland, DT James Lynch.

KEY LOSSES: WR Stefon Diggs, DT Linval Joseph, DE Everson Griffen, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Trae Waynes, CB Mackensie Alexander, RG Josh Kline, DE Stephen Weatherly, S Andrew Sendejo, S Jayron Kearse, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, defensive coordinator George Edwards.

STRENGTHS: Vikings will lean on continuity of their systems under head coach Mike Zimmer and newly appointed offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was promoted from adviser role when Stefanski was hired as Cleveland's head coach. Keeping playbook same ought to benefit QB Kirk Cousins, who had career-best season in 2019 while picking up first NFL postseason victory, on road no less. Though Dalvin Cook has not received new contract he's seeking, dual-threat RB is also coming off his most complete year as pro, with Pro Bowl FB C.J. Ham in front of him in some formations, and capable backup in Alexander Mattison. Jefferson will be brought along slowly but has limitless potential, drafted in first round out of national champion LSU. DE Danielle Hunter, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Anthony Barr and SS Harrison Smith have been picked for Pro Bowl combined 12 times, and FS Anthony Harris led league in interceptions last season. Recent acquisition of Ngakoue from Jacksonville makes dominant DE tandem with Hunter.

WEAKNESSES: Interior of offensive line remains unproven, with Pat Elflein now at RG after rough 2019 at LG, where Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins have been competing for starting spot. One week after win in wild-card round at New Orleans, Cousins and offensive line were overwhelmed by eventual NFC champion San Francisco's pass rush, showing his limitations when he doesn't have time to throw. After exit of top three CBs from last year, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill have stepped into two outside spots, with rookies Gladney (first round) and Dantzler (third round) getting looks in slot. Sudden inexperience at that position is glaring, even with CB-savvy head coach in Zimmer.

PANDEMIC DEVELOPMENT: Vikings had only one of 67 players across league who opted out of season due to coronavirus, but absence of DT Michael Pierce — chronic asthma sufferer — will weigh heavily on defense, and not just because he's 340 pounds. Pierce was signed to $27 million contract in free agency after leaving Baltimore to replace stalwart Joseph, but his deal will be tabled until 2021. Instead, Shamar Stephen has been given first crack at underappreciated but not unimportant nose tackle spot, and Jaleel Johnson has been first in line during training camp to start at other DT position that Stephen previously manned, informally called 3-technique.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: TE Irv Smith Jr. Kubiak's system has long favored multiple tight end formations. While 10-year veteran Kyle Rudolph is proven red-zone target who caught TD in OT to win playoff game last season, Smith could see larger role in passing game due to his athleticism, versatility, and departure of Diggs. Smith had 36 catches for 311 yards and two TDs as rookie last year, after being drafted in second round out of Alabama.

VEGAS SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 25-1. Over/under wins: 9.

EXPECTATIONS: Contract extensions for Cousins, Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman doled out this year left no doubt about organization's belief team can compete among league's elite and finally break through to elusive Super Bowl victory. Missing playoffs would be major disappointment, and there won't be much patience for one-and-done in postseason, either. On surface, salary-cap crunch that shaped offseason moves appears to have pushed Vikings further from contention than forward. Kubiak and Zimmer are two of league's best strategists on each side of ball, though, and Vikings still have dependable if not dominant players at several positions.

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