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Zulgad: Reason for optimism: Vikings are capable of winning now, but it's clear focus has been put on the future

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson waits for a pass during the NFL football team’s training camp Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Vikings will open the regular season on Sunday amidst a remarkable lack of fanfare. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the potential for the usual offseason hype and the lack of preseason games, not to mention the fact fans could not attend training camp, did away with the usual month-plus buildup to the opener.
It’s another strike against fan engagement that no spectators will be allowed in U.S. Bank Stadium to watch the opener against arch-rival Green Bay. Maybe that is why so many of the purple faithful seem to have kept their expectations and enthusiasm in check. Social media is usually buzzing this time of year with predictions of a 12-4 finish and, finally, a berth in the Super Bowl. But if that’s the case, I haven’t seen it.
While this is probably a wise approach for Vikings fans, the good news is that Mike Zimmer’s team appears to be in good shape for this season and in excellent condition for 2021. The Vikings had several familiar names depart after losing to San Francisco in the second round of the playoffs last season.
Standout wide receiver Stefon Diggs is now in Buffalo and the Vikings are hoping that first-round pick Justin Jefferson and 2019 seventh-round pick Bisi Johnson can help replace him. All three regular cornerbacks from last season — Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexader — are gone and will be replaced by some combination of Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. Longtime starting right end Everson Griffen became a free agent and eventually signed with Dallas.
The Vikings also must make up for the lose of nose tackle Michael Pierce, who was the team’s biggest free agent signing and was expected to replace the released Linval Joseph. Pierce opted out of the season because of health concerns related to COVID-19, meaning Shamar Stephen will slide over from the 3-technique to play the nose and expected backup Jaleel Johnson will play beside him.
Until two weeks ago, it looked certain that the Vikings defense would suffer a decline. But that changed when general manager Rick Spielman was able to make a trade with Jacksonville for right end Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue had 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in four seasons with the Jaguars, including eight sacks in 2019. The combination of Ngakoue on the right side and Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks each of the past two seasons) on the left gives the Vikings a pass-rushing duo that might be better than Griffen and Hunter and should go a long way toward relieving some of the pressure quarterbacks could have put on the young cornerbacks, if they had more time to throw.
Making up for Diggs’ big-play ability won’t be easy, but the offense does return outstanding running back Dalvin Cook, who still doesn’t have a new contract, and quarterback Kirk Cousins, who does have a new deal. Cousins is under a constant microscope in Minnesota — he deserves to be considering how much money he makes — but he’s a productive passer and will have the benefit of returning to the same scheme he played in last year. Kevin Stefanski, who left as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator after last season to become coach of the Cleveland Browns, was replaced by Gary Kubiak, who served as the Vikings’ senior offensive advisor last year.
Stefanski might have had the offensive coordinator title and plenty of input into the play-calling, but make no mistake, Cousins was running Kubiak’s offense and that won’t change with Kubiak now calling the plays. The Vikings also will be banking on Adam Theilen bouncing back from a season in which he played only 10 games because of injury. Thielen had not missed a game in his first five seasons before injuring his hamstring on Oct. 20 in Detroit.
Add in the fact that tight end Irv Smith Jr., should be even better in his second season than he was his first (36 receptions, 311 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Kyle Rudolph is still productive in the red zone, and Cousins should have plenty of options. The hope is that the protection in front of him will improve, starting with the play of the interior line. Center Garrett Bradbury had a rough rookie season after being a first-round pick, and Pat Elflein’s struggles at left guard earned him a transfer to the right side. He will be replaced by former backup Dakota Dozier.
The biggest questions are probably what type of pass protection that unit will provide for Cousins, how the interior of the defensive line will fare against the run and whether the young corners can hold-up against a schedule that includes plenty of top quarterbacks?
The Vikings aren’t alone in having more questions than usual, in part because not having a normal offseason and preseason games has made evaluation that much more difficult. This is especially true in the NFC North, which appears to be a very flawed division. Green Bay somehow won 13 games last season in Matt LaFleur’s first year as coach, but never felt like an elite team. Chicago has elected to start Mitchell Trubisky instead of Nick Foles, something that feels like a favor to the rest of the conference, and the Lions are, well, the Lions. They were 3-12-1 last season and it’s likely Matt Patricia will be looking for work after this season.
All of that could lead one to the conclusion that while the Vikings might not be world beaters in 2020 they are capable of repeating last season’s 10-6 finish, only this time that might be good enough to win the division. Do these Vikings feel like a Super Bowl team? Absolutely not. But there also aren’t that many teams in the NFC that should scare them.
The best part of this for Vikings fans is that, if all goes according to plan, what will be an odd season (we don’t even know when or if fans will be allowed in U.S. Bank Stadium), will be followed by what could be a fantastic 2021. Look at all the young players the Vikings are hoping to develop, Jefferson and first-round corner Gladney and third-round corner Dantzler, and who will be expected to hit the ground running next summer. What we are looking at is a soft rebuild by Spielman and Zimmer, with veteran talent still very much in place.
Is that too optimistic? Perhaps. But Vikings fans who are keeping their optimism in check at the moment, might have a very good reason to be predicting great things a year from now.