Since the Vikings’ season ended with a playoff loss on Jan. 11 against San Francisco, much of our time has been spent projecting who will and won’t be back as the team works to create salary cap space.
But in preparing for Ventline on Friday — which you can hear from 11 a.m. to noon weekdays on SKOR North — it occurred to me that we hadn’t devoted much time toward projecting which current players could have a positive impact simply either by raising their game, or having their role altered a bit.
Here’s a list of five Vikings, there certainly are more, who have room for significant growth in 2020.
IRV SMITH JR., TIGHT END
A second-round pick in 2019 out of Alabama, Smith was targeted 47 times and caught 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games last season. It was an excellent start to his career but watching Smith it’s clear there is another level. He has the skills to be the latest in a long line of tight ends who basically double as wide receivers. If growth happens? It will mean a good young player is headed toward becoming a star.
ANTHONY BARR, LINEBACKER
Maybe I’m dreaming by this point because how long have we expected Barr to start getting to opposing quarterbacks and yet, year after year, it doesn’t happen? A first-round pick in 2014, Barr has 15 career sacks in 85 games. His career high was four as a rookie and he had only 1.5 sacks last season with the one coming on the first play from scrimmage of the Vikings’ regular-season opener against Atlanta. So why is Barr suddenly going to start getting to quarterbacks? Because the Vikings have hired Dom Capers as a senior defensive consultant and one has to think his familiarity with the 3-4 defense is going to have a positive impact on Barr and how he is used as a pass rusher. If growth happens? I’ll be pleasantly surprised and think it was long overdue.
HOLTON HILL, CORNERBACK
Off the field issues, not a lack of ability, caused Hill to go undrafted in 2018 before the Vikings signed him to a three-year, $1.725 million contract. He appeared in all 16 games and had an interception and seven passes defensed as a rookie but then earned two four-game suspensions last offseason, the first for using performance-enhancing drugs and the second for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Vikings liked Hill enough that he was kept around and appeared in the final eight games of the season. Xavier Rhodes is likely to be cut and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander could leave as free agents. Hill has a great chance to step into a major role in the secondary, if he gets his act together. If growth happens? It will prove the Vikings were right for keeping the 22-year-old around.
MIKE HUGHES, CORNERBACK
Hughes has shown flashes of potential since being the Vikings’ first-round pick in 2018, but injuries have been an issue. His rookie season ended after six games because of a torn ACL and he played in 14 games last season before suffering a broken vertebrae that landed him on injured reserve before the Vikings’ playoff win over the Saints. The Vikings need Hughes to be able to step into a starting cornerback role next season and he has he talent to do it. If growth happens? The bigger issue is if it doesn’t because the Vikings can’t afford for this one not to work.
GARRETT BRADBURY, CENTER
The Vikings’ first-round pick in 2019 got off to a rough start as he was put into the difficult role of starting as a rookie. He finished ranked 32nd out of 32 centers in the NFL in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus, and was 19th in run blocking. This isn’t shocking given what Bradbury was asked to do coming out of North Carolina State but a much better player will be expected to be anchoring the center of the offensive line next season. If growth happens? Again, if it doesn’t this becomes a major problem.