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Zulgad: The five players the Vikings can least afford to lose this season

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Minnesota Vikings’ Eric Kendricks (54) and Danielle Hunter (99) celebrate after a missed field goal by Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater, center, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

The most unwelcome sight during the Vikings’ training camp practice on Friday at TCO Performance Center wasn’t a drop by a receiver, a missed assignment by a cornerback or an errant throw by a quarterback.

Rather, it was seeing Danielle Hunter playing the role of spectator for the sixth consecutive practice. That number reached eight by Monday. Because teams are under no obligation to reveal injury information this time of year, coach Mike Zimmer has only told reporters that Hunter is dealing with a “little tweak.”

Where that tweak is exactly isn’t known and Hunter wasn’t wearing a brace or wrap that could be seen. The Vikings don’t play their first regular-season game for almost three weeks, so odds seem good Hunter will be ready to go on Sept. 13 when the Green Bay Packers come to U.S. Bank Stadium. But Hunter’s absence from practices got me to thinking about the players the Vikings can least afford to lose in 2020.

This doesn’t always mean the best players. Dalvin Cook, for instance, is a fantastic running back but if he goes down Alexander Mattison could carry the load. If left tackle Riley Reiff got hurt, second-round pick Ezra Cleveland or veteran backup Rashod Hill would be expected to serve as a capable replacement.

This isn’t true at every position. Thus, here are the five Vikings who would be most difficult to replace.

KIRK COUSINS, QUARTERBACK

I know this one is boring and obvious but we have to start here.

Say what you want about Cousins’ contract, his record in Monday night games or anything else, but if the Vikings lose Cousins for any amount of time they are sunk. Backup Sean Mannion has made two career starts in five seasons with the Rams and Vikings — his latest start came in Minnesota’s meaningless regular-season finale last year — and has yet to throw a touchdown pass, he does have three interceptions, in 13 games.

I know what you’re saying. Hey, Case Keenum turned into a one-season wonder and led the Vikings to the NFC title game after Sam Bradford got hurt in 2017. That is true. But Keenum started nine game the season before he arrived in Minnesota and had made 24 career stats when he signed with the Vikings.

Mannion is the definition of a career backup. He’s the type of guy who can provide guidance to his fellow quarterbacks and might get into coaching one day. Behind Mannion on the depth chart are 2020 seventh-round pick Nate Stanley and Jake Browning, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Washington in 2019. The Vikings might keep one as their third quarterback, but if Stanley or Browning had to play, something would have gone very, very wrong.

DANIELLE HUNTER, DEFENSIVE END

The man whose absence from practice was responsible for this idea.

Hunter has become one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, recording 14.5 sacks in each of the past two years. He has reached double-digit sack totals in three of five seasons since being taken in the third round of the 2015 draft.

Hunter and Everson Griffen formed one of the best one-two duos at left and right end, respectively, but Griffen is now gone to Dallas and that makes Hunter even more important. With Hunter out, Jalyn Holmes has been getting reps at left end after being moved to defensive tackle by the Vikings in 2018.

Holmes had been an edge rusher for much of his time at Ohio State and the Vikings might have done him a favor by moving him back to that spot. But with Ifeadi Odenigbo set to take over for Griffen, Hunter is now the clear-cut superstar of this defensive line. His absence for any amount of time on a line that already will be missing nose tackle Michael Pierce would be a huge blow to the Vikings.

HARRISON SMITH, SAFETY

As I went through this list on the Mackey & Judd show on Monday, this one got some immediate push back from Phil and producer Declan Goff. I understood why that would be the case — it’s why paying both Smith and Anthony Harris big salaries to play safety is probably a mistake — but that means you aren’t taking into account what Smith means to Mike Zimmer’s defense.

Entering his ninth season with the Vikings, Smith is essentially a coach on the field and can be used in multiple ways to confuse opposing offenses. Harris has turned himself into a very good safety, but Smith is the straw that stirs the drink for this entire defense.

The Vikings have yet to release a depth chart during training camp, but ESPN’s updated depth chart has seventh-round pick Brian Cole II as Smith’s backup. The Vikings have spent recent weeks searching for veteran depth at safety in part because of the inexperience behind Smith and Harris.

Throw in the fact the Vikings cornerbacks are all young and imagine Minnesota’s defensive backfield with no Smith to lend his guidance. Opposing quarterbacks would stand to put up some significant passing stats, if that were the case.

ERIC KENDRICKS, MIDDLE LINEBACKER

Coming off an outstanding season in which he established himself as a Pro Bowl player, Kendricks’ presence might be even more important in 2020. His job also is going to be tougher. That’s because with Pierce sitting out due to concerns about the coronavirus, the interior of the Vikings’ defensive line is going to start the season with some big question marks.

Shamar Stephen is taking over at nose tackle and Jaleel Johnson at the 3-technique. Pierce was signed as a free agent to replace Linval Joseph at nose tackle because Joseph’s performance was starting to dip and that position is one of the most important in Zimmer’s defense.

Kendricks, an every down linebacker, is able to make more plays if the big guys in front of him are doing their job. How will Stephen and Johnson handle this pressure? That’s a fair question and, if they struggle, it’s going to be on Kendricks to help cover for some of those struggles.

So let’s say Kendricks is removed from the lineup at middle linebacker. Can Zimmer come up with a scheme that enables Anthony Barr or Eric Wilson to replace Kendricks? Much like with the safety spot, the depth chart at middle linebacker doesn’t have many familiar faces. Troy Dye, a fourth-round pick last April out of Oregon, is listed as Kendricks’ primary backup and Jordan Fehr, signed as an undrafted free agent from Appalachian State last April, was used in Kendricks’ place on Sunday when he missed practice.

ADAM THIELEN, WIDE RECEIVER

The Vikings missed their outstanding wide receiver when he was limited to 10 games last season because of a hamstring injury, but his absence in 2020 would be an even bigger deal with Stefon Diggs now in Buffalo.

Justin Jefferson and Bisi Johnson could turn into very good wide receivers and the hope is that free agent pickup Tajae Sharpe will contribute. But Jefferson, the Vikings’ first round pick, will be beginning his rookie season with very limited reps and no preseason games. Johnson is a great route runner and has impressed in training camp but he’s still developing and was a seventh-round pick in 2019.

Theilen will get the chance to be the Vikings’ clear-cut top receiver this season, and Cousins will be looking his way often in a variety of situations. This doesn’t mean Thielen will be Cousins’ only target, but he will be one of the most important ones and a guy that opposing defenses will have to frequently focus on when he’s on the field.

Thielen’s absence would push Jefferson and Johnson up the depth chart and into spots where they would need to carry more of the load than offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak would probably like.