The Vikings kicked off their minicamp program on Tuesday, and with it came two pieces of exciting DL news: Danielle Hunter has a re-worked contract that he reported to camp with, and the team signed Sheldon Richardson, who previously played for the Vikings in 2018. Both additions should be celebrated, as they help bolster the unit that was much maligned last year, falling all the way to the depths of allowing 6 rushing TDs to Alvin Kamara on Christmas Day.
With the moves, the Vikings still have about $11 mil in cap space available, but with some possible extensions looming, it’s unlikely they make another big FA splash. With that in mind, looking at the current roster, I decided to project an early 53-man roster for the Vikings.
The position composition above is pretty typical for the Vikings. I am projecting 25 offense, 25 defense, and 3 specialists.
On offense, the team typically rosters 8-9 OL, and I have 9. The potentially controversial move is cutting Dru Samia, but I cannot justify rostering him after his play last season. They have kept 4 RBs and CJ Ham in recent years, and I expect them to do that again with special teams ace Ameer Abdullah and 4th round pick Kene Nwangu. That leaves 3 TEs and 6 WRs. I went pretty chalky with who makes the roster in the WR group, with the only new player being 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette. At TE, it’s a close call between Brandon Dillon and Zach Davidson, but Dillon has looked rosterable in camp in recent seasons, and I expect the Vikings will be able to stash the raw Davidson on the practice squad.
On defense, there are 10 DL, 5 LBs, and 10 DBs. I also listed Jeff Gladney with an asterisks, as I suspect him to be suspended or on some form of the Commissioner’s Exempt List. On the DL, I had to make some hard cuts in Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa. I also cut Jordan Brailford, who performed really well in limited snaps last year. The Vikings’ DL looks entirely different year over year, and the only two players I kept that played a snap for the team last year are Watts and Wonnum. The additions of Tomlinson and Richardson, along with the return of Hunter and debut of Pierce, make the DL outlook much better for 2021.
On the second level, I only have the team keeping 5 LBs. This is a bit light, but the initial 53 last year only included 5. In today’s NFL, playing 3 LBs is a rarity, so I think 5 is reasonable. If the Vikings want to keep six, they will probably go lighter on the DL, but there are hard cuts at the bottom of the DL depth chart with 3 rookie in Jones, Robinson, and Twyman alongside promising young players in Wonnum and Watts. Rookie Chazz Surratt and second year Troy Dye both make it, but I had a hard time cutting Cameron Smith and Ryan Connelly while keeping Dye.
In the secondary, I personally would go with one of the other corners the team has signed (Parry Nickerson, Tye Smith, or Amari Henderson) over Kris Boyd, but I think the team likes him enough to keep him. At safety, it’s pretty straightforward, with rookie Camryn Bynum and special teams ace Josh Metellus beating out Myles Dorn.
In addition to the three specialists, I kept Dan Chisena, Ameer Abdullah, Kene Nwangu, Kris Boyd, and Josh Metellus on the roster primarily because of their special teams contributions.
Initial Practice Squad Projection
While I had to cut some players that I wanted to keep, I think a number of them will be able to be stashed on the practice squad, which I have predicted below:
I could easily see players like Blake Proehl, Zach Davidson, Kyle Hinton, or Cameron Smith getting the nod over others I have on the roster above. I think Jordan Brailford is a really interesting player, but have a hard time seeing his path to the roster unless the team cuts Stephen Weatherly, or cuts a DT and keeps six edge rushers instead. I’m not a big fan of either Jake Browning or Nate Stanley personally, but the team seems to like to keep them around.
Looking at the 53-man roster above, I decided to group it into categories and color code each player.
The color coding above is based on the level of play I think it’s reasonable to expect from the player if they get thrust on the field in 2021. For some of the young players, I do not think it would end well if they get forced into a starting role due to injuries or other events and therefore have them colored red. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe they have long term potential, but I think they need development before seeing the field, or it may look something like the game against the Saints on Christmas Day. For Kris Boyd, Dakota Dozier, Dan Chisena, and Troy Dye, I don’t have a lot of hope of them ever turning into starting-caliber players.
I feel the Vikings have five blue-chip players on the roster. Eric Kendricks is a top 3 LB to me, and Dalvin Cook is a top 5 RB at least. While Harrison Smith is aging, his game was not predicated on his athleticism and I believe he can still be an elite safety. Justin Jefferson already has an All-Pro under his belt, and hopefully Hunter returns to his elite form following in 2020 neck injury.
The bright green players are ones I believe can play at a Pro Bowl level. Kirk is a fringe top 10 QB and consistently puts up the numbers to justify that ranking. Thielen, while maybe a little past his peak, still pairs with Jefferson to make a top 5 WR pairing. Barr’s presence was sorely missed last year, and he will be a huge re-addition to the defense because of the schematic impact his versatility allows for. Dalvin Tomlinson may not be a dominant pass rusher, but his versatility should help the Vikings significantly along the DL as well.
The OL will be another group to watch. With two rookies projected to start, there are a wide variety of outcomes. I think Darrisaw, Cleveland, and Bradbury all have really high ceilings, but the strength issues for both Cleveland and Bradbury make me hesitant to label them upside players.
In addition to the DL overhaul discussed above, the Vikings completely retooled their CB room as well. I think they added three starting-caliber players in Peterson, Breeland, and Alexander. Mike Zimmer has revitalized CB careers in the past, so it’s even possible Peterson can get close to his former All Pro form, but it’s not something I would rely on. In all, the Vikings are much more well-position to weather injuries at the position this year. With four startable corners, as well as the exciting Harrison Hand, I think the depth is quite good.
Looking at the above, there are really three big question marks along the roster for the Vikings. The first is LB depth. Barr and Kendricks are the clear starters and very good, but I unfortunately do not think Chazz Surratt is ready to play in the NFL due to play strength issues, so he is a player that will need development. Dye showed those exact same issues last year, which is why I kept the competent Nick Vigil on the roster. I don’t expect an FA addition to be made here, but one could be useful. Otherwise, keep an eye on players like Ryan Connelly, Cameron Smith, or Blake Lynch throughout camp to see if they can supplant one of the players I have listed.
The next big question is the second defensive end spot. The Vikings’ biggest investment outside of Hunter is $2.5 mil in Stephen Weatherly, and I don’t believe any other players on the roster are ready to start. I also find it unlikely the team cuts Wonnum (2020 4th round pick), Jones (2021 3rd), or Robinson (2021 4th). It is very rare for 4th round picks to get cut. If the team were to sign a player, the most likely cut seems to be Weatherly, who is currently slated as the starter but would also only leave a $500k dead cap. I would love the team to add a Melvin Ingram or a Justin Houston, but it seems strange to cut a guy you signed in the same offseason to do so.
If the Vikings do make a move, WR depth is where I expect it. Like at LB, the Vikings have a great one-two punch in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but the depth is lacking. Chad Beebe is ostensibly the #3 and slot receiver, but does not inspire confidence. Bisi Johnson is fine to back up the outside. I like Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s potential, and hope he can prove he can play right away, but that’s not something I would ask from a 5th round rookie. The question will become if one of the other WRs currently on the roster (I like both Proehl and Philyor) can impress and earn themselves a roster spot, or if the Vikings get desperate enough that they add outside help. However, the team loves Chad Beebe so I don’t expect a major shakeup.
In all, the Vikings made major improvements to both the DL and secondary from 2020 to 2021. Hopefully those changes will spur greater success. The OL also underwent major changes, and it will be interesting to watch how the young players perform. At this point, and with good injury luck, it looks like the Vikings will field a very strong roster with a number of potential stars.