This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Despite losing their Week 1 starting quarterback and standout rookie running back during the season, the Vikings reached the NFC championship game with the help of the league's No. 1 defense. Adding Kirk Cousins to an already deep roster has the team poised to end a Super Bowl drought.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
WILL COUSINS MESH WITH HIS NEW WEAPONS?
After cycling through four different starters over the past three seasons, the Vikings spent handsomely for the best quarterback option in free agency. Kirk Cousins brings a steady track record with an average of 4,392 yards passing and 27 touchdowns over the last three years. Moreover, he hasn't missed a game in that span. In his new home, Cousins' numbers may improve as he joins perhaps the best supporting cast of his career. His pass-catching weapons include two top receivers (Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs), a reliable tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and a potentially elite running back (Dalvin Cook). Cousins of late has been one of the better play-action passers in the league by most metrics, and his prowess in that regard could be boosted by a Minnesota rushing offense that was second in attempts and seventh in yards in 2017. He'll also be an upgrade on deep balls, as he was third in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt on passes of 15 yards or more over the past three campaigns. Despite the evident positives, Cousins has been a bit loose with the ball during that stretch, fumbling 31 times (14 lost). No matter, he's a good bet to surpass Case Keenum's production from last season – 22 touchdowns and a 98.5 QB rating in 15 games – considering the talent around him and the opportunity at hand.
CAN COOK REESTABLISH HIMSELF?
Dalvin Cook, a 2017 second-round pick, won the starting job in training camp and was an every-down force in the offense from the outset of last year, averaging 96 rushing yards at 4.7 yards per carry and 27.3 receiving yards in his first three games before suffering a torn ACL in Week 4. His speed and elusiveness made him dangerous in the open field, as evidenced by 163 of his 288 rushing yards coming after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, and he was second in the NFL with 23 missed tackles caused over that span, per SportRadar. To round out his profile, Cook also drew praise from the coaching staff for his pass protection. Because Jerick McKinnon was allowed to leave in free agency, Latavius Murray is now the only viable threat to steal reps from Cook in the Vikings backfield. In Cook's absence last season, Murray rushed for 825 yards and eight touchdowns, six of which came from two yards or less. Prior to the injury, though, Murray totaled a measly seven carries on 17 offensive snaps. Assuming Cook practices in full at some point during training camp, as team trainer Eric Sugarman has suggested this offseason, such a workload may be Murray's reality in 2018. Behind Cook and Murray, depth may be an issue with journeyman Mack Brown and undrafted rookies Roc Thomas and Mike Boone the remaining options.
DEFENSE REGROUPING AFTER POSTSEASON MELTDOWN
The Vikings defense finished 2017 first in both points and yards yielded, but that success didn't translate to the playoffs, when the unit was torched to the tune of 31 points and 407 yards per game. Coach Mike Zimmer cited a fading pass rush that ran out of steam (three sacks in two postseason outings) after averaging three per game over the first eight contests of the year. Signed as a free agent, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson should bolster the team's interior rush. He may benefit from a lack of double teams with opposing offenses needing to focus on edge rushers Everson Griffin (13 sacks in 2017) and Danielle Hunter (seven sacks) and opportunistic linebacker Anthony Barr. Richardson should fit well with nose tackle Linval Joseph, who graded as Pro Football Focus' fourth-ranked defensive tackle against the run last year. On the back end, the secondary remains one of the best in football, with Harrison Smith grading as the NFL's top defender, per PFF, and Xavier Rhodes evolving into a top cover corner. However, Smith will need to rebound from a poor performance in the NFC championship game, where he uncharacteristically missed several tackles. With an eye toward life without nickel cornerback Terence Newman, who is preparing for his last season at age 40, the front office tabbed Mike Hughes in the first round of April's draft.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Adam Thielen
Among players with at least 9.0 YPT and a 65 percent catch rate the last two seasons, Thielen ranks first in receiving yards (2,243) and fifth in touchdowns (nine), trailing the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry and Rob Gronkowski in the latter category. Thielen will seek to elevate his game further with Kirk Cousins under center.
RISING: Dalvin Cook
Cook was the NFL's second-leading rusher after three games before suffering a torn ACL in his fourth contest as a pro. If he fully recovers, the Vikings look ready to make him the focal point of their offense.
FALLING: Latavius Murray
During Cook's stint as the starter last year, Murray averaged just 2.3 carries per game, which should continue with Cook back in the fold. The 6-3, 230-pounder could carve out a goal-line role, however.
SLEEPER: Kendall Wright
The veteran's slot receiver skills could be a nice match for Kirk Cousins' superior intermediate passing game. Wright led all qualified receivers in the league in 2017 with an 80.4 percent catch rate.
KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 3 WIDE RECEIVER
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs sit comfortably atop the depth chart in Minnesota, but the No. 3 gig below them is wide open. The Vikings are probably hoping that 2016 first-rounder Laquon Treadwell will take the job and run with it but, after two years of massive disappointment, such an expectation is difficult to count on. That's why the Vikings went out and signed another first-round talent this spring in Kendall Wright, who spent the first six seasons of his career as a useful-but-underwhelming slot receiver. A slew of depth-caliber options also are in the mix, but this job battle likely will come down to Treadwell versus Wright, and it may take until the third or fourth week of the preseason for a winner to be named. Whoever ultimately takes the cake could be fantasy relevant from the get-go given quarterback Kirk Cousins' proficiency in the short-area passing game.
Kirk Cousins – QB (from Redskins)
Contract included the most guaranteed cash in NFL history at one point.
Kendall Wright – WR (from Bears)
Can provide a needed boost as the third receiver.
Trevor Siemian – QB (from Broncos)
Serves as a veteran safety net behind Cousins.
Mike Hughes – CB (Rd. 1, No. 30 – Central Florida)
Could make an immediate impact as a slot corner and returner.
Sheldon Richardson – DT (from Seahawks)
Interior rusher should complement Minnesota's sack artists.
Case Keenum – QB (to Broncos)
Replaced by the team's big-ticket free-agent signing.
THE INJURY FRONT
Dalvin Cook, RB – A torn ACL halted the meteoric start to Cook's rookie year, but the Florida State product is now over nine months removed from injury and was consistently reported as being "ahead of schedule" in his recovery this offseason. While it's possible Vikings coaches could give their star tailback regular days off during training camp, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo recently indicated that he expects Cook to work fully throughout the summer. Regardless, there's no concern whatsoever regarding the running back's availability for the regular-season opener.
Kyle Rudolph, TE – Rudolph endured a nagging ankle injury during the latter half of the 2017 season and, after undergoing corrective surgery in February, has spent the near entirety of the offseason in recovery mode. However, the tight end gradually escalated his participation in practice throughout spring workouts, ultimately joining the first-team offense for 11-on-11 drills during minicamp. Like Cook, Rudolph could be eased into the fold during the start of training camp, but it shouldn't be long until he's a full-go.
Everson Griffen, DE – Griffen wasn't able to participate in offseason workouts this spring, but not for a reason related to the torn plantar fascia that hampered him during the tail end of the 2017 campaign. Rather, the defensive end entered training camp nursing an undisclosed left knee injury, which required a brace at its outset. It won't be a surprise if Minnesota continues to baby the veteran in the coming weeks, but Griffen nonetheless seems on track to be ready for the start of the regular season.