I provided Phil Mackey and Declan Goff with three bold Vikings predictions for the 2020 season on Wednesday’s episode of “Purple Daily.” These aren’t meant to be outlandish guesses but rather things that could occur.
Here they are:
BOLD PREDICTION I
Irv Smith Jr. had a productive rookie season after being a second-round pick in 2019, catching 36 passes on 47 targets for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Those stats ended up being comparable to veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught 39 passes on 48 targets for 367 yards and six touchdowns.
The expectation is that this season Smith and Rudolph’s stats won’t be nearly as close. In fact, Smith will finish in the top five in the NFL among tight ends in receptions. Last season, that group included Kansas City’s Travis Kelce with 97 catches; Oakland’s Darren Waller with 90; Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz with 88; San Francisco’s George Kittle with 85; and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper with 75.
Morning Judd: This Vikings player will have a breakout season. pic.twitter.com/Ev9EtrwrJq
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) June 3, 2020
The 30-year-old Rudolph, who will be entering his 10th season, should remain a target in the red zone, but Smith should be one of Kirk Cousins’ primary targets. This is in part because Smith, 6-2, 242 pounds, joins the growing list of tight ends who also posses the skills of a wide receiver.
In his second season, Smith should be able to hit the ground running once the 2020 season gets underway. He will provide the Vikings with a player who has the potential to create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
BOLD PREDICTION II
The expectation for Smith to have a big season plays into the second prediction. Last year, Adam Thielen missed six games because of a hamstring injury and finished third on the Vikings with 30 receptions. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs had 63 catches in 15 games, and running back Dalvin Cook had 53 in 14 games.
With Diggs having been traded to Buffalo this offseason, Thielen is now going to be the primary focus when it comes to the Vikings’ wide receivers. Because of this, and the fact we are about to find out how much Thielen can do without Diggs, Thielen will finish no higher than third on the Vikings in receptions and it won’t be because of time missed due to injuries.
The logic being that if Smith plays as big of a role as he should, and if Cook continues to catch passes out of the backfield (and that certainly needs to be the case), Cousins is going to have to spread the ball around. This should include first-round pick Justin Jefferson and second-year receiver Bisi Johnson also could get more involved. The Vikings’ preference to run the ball also factors into this thinking.
This doesn’t mean that Thielen will have a bad season, but we know that Cousins often isn’t comfortable forcing the ball into windows when he thinks there’s too big of downside. That was clearly one thing that frustrated Diggs. Thielen is going to get the ball and make some big plays, but it might not be as much as some expect.
BOLD PREDICTION III
The Vikings’ turnover at cornerback this offseason has been well documented. Xavier Rhodes was released and signed with Indianapolis and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander signed with Cincinnati during free agency.
So who is going to emerge at cornerback in Minnesota? Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, is going to be expected to win one of the jobs but that leaves another corner position and the nickel spot open. Jeff Gladney, the Vikings’ second pick in the first round in April, will battle with guys like Kris Boyd and Holton Hill for playing time.
Don’t be surprised if Hill emerges with one of the starting jobs and picks off three or more passes. Hill has one interception in 24 career games over two seasons with the Vikings after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. Hill slipped through the draft because of off-the-field concerns, and he was suspended for the first eight games of last season after violating the NFL’s rules on performance-enhancing substances (four games) and then on substances of abuse (four more games).
This would have led to most teams jettisoning the player, but general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer decided to keep Hill on the roster. He played in the final eight games of last season and made one start. Assuming Hill has everything together off the field, he is going to get a chance to win a job in training camp and judging from the Vikings’ decision to keep him last year, one would have to assume they think he has the talent to make an impact as a starter.