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Jul 30, 2021; Eagan, MN, United States; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) runs after the catch at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings were 7-9 in 2020 and finished third in the NFC North. Could they make the playoffs in 2021 or maybe end up in the top 10 of the draft? We break down five reasons the season could go either way.

5 reasons why Minnesota will be better in 2021

Strong free-agent haul

In February we’d have said yeah, right. That quickly changed. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman put on a master class in salvaging cap space by shedding some hefty contracts tied to guys past their primes. Minnesota became the aggressors in 2021 free agency and inked a collection of talented players, particularly on defense. Adding cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and safety Xavier Woods feels like a corrective step in the right direction to fix a unit that ranked 29th in points surrendered and 27th in yards allowed in 2020.

The Vikings’ newest free-agent addition, Dede Westbrook, is another accessory that could bolster Minnesota’s already strong receiving corps. Westbrook is coming off a torn ACL and a quiet start to last season with Jacksonville, but screams potential No. 3 receiver in Minnesota’s offense and could double as a return threat. He caught 66 balls in consecutive seasons (2018-19) and boasts a 9.8-yard career punt-return average.

Key D players return

This group alone could restore Minnesota’s defense to 2019 form, when it ranked sixth in team sacks, just outside the top 10 in rushing yards allowed and gave up the third-fewest touchdowns on the ground. The obvious headliners are defensive end Danielle Hunter and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Hunter’s 14.5 sacks were fourth most in the NFL in 2019 and Barr’s 79 tackles was a career best. Expanding beyond Hunter and Barr, the Vikings’ front seven -- granted it’s ability to stay healthy -- will benefit from full 17-game slates from Eric Kendricks, who missed the final five games of 2020, and former Ravens run-stuffer Michael Pierce, who opted out for safety reasons after signing with Minnesota in March of last year. Pierce started 14 games at nose tackle and helped anchor a top-5 run defense in Baltimore in 2019. Edge rushers Stephen Weatherly, rejoining Minnesota after one season in Carolina, and 2020 fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum are two other pieces that could generate pressure. Sheldon Richardson is also back in the purple after two seasons in Cleveland -- Richardson registered 4.5 sacks in his first go-around with the Vikings -- and should provide quality defensive-line depth.

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter eyes a tackling machine during NFL football training camp Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Made smart moves in NFL draft

The Vikings packaged the 14th and 143rd picks in April’s draft to gain capital that amounted to the selections of two offensive linemen that ooze starter potential -- Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis -- and a dual-threat quarterback in Kellen Mond, who presents an intriguing skill set for the long term. If the Vikings are actually better in 2021, Mond won’t have any reason to see the field. But Darrisaw and Davis could be the recipients of playing time as early as Week 1.

Minnesota wound up with lots of picks and lots of upside waiting to be tapped. Pittsburgh product Patrick Jones II adds power to the Vikings’ pass rush. A trio of fourth rounders -- Iowa State running back Kene Nwangwu, California safety Camryn Bynum and Florida State defensive end Janarius Robinson -- could make an immediate impact on special teams and spell starters, and late-round picks wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette and tight end Zach Davidson might make good on their intangibles.

Dalvin Cook, Dalvin Cook, Dalvin Cook

Mannn, just let the “The Chef” cook! Minnesota’s 25-year-old running back proved he’s a superstar in 2020. Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns in 14 games, the same number of games he played in 2019 when he accounted for 1,135 rushing yards and 13 scores toting the rock. Cook has upped his scrimmage yards each year (444, 920, 1,654, 1,918) since entering the league in 2017. He’s an absolute menace after the catch and slippery between the tackles and in the open field. The Vikings have also steadily increased his carries each season, and made him the definitive focal point of their offense. If Cook continues to deliver in 2021 -- shall he play an entire slate of games, we anticipate 350+ carries -- Minnesota will be in preeminent shape, offensively.

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Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook stretches during NFL football training camp Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

A normal atmosphere ... for the most part

The strict COVID testing protocols are still in place for unvaccinated players, and all players ought to be wary of overly crowded places in their own time to ensure their livelihoods aren’t jeopardized. But overall, football this season is going to feel a whole heckuva lot more normal. Stadiums are going to be filled and players are going to be interacting with fans. This, technically, is an advantage for all involved and likely means fewer lackadaisical first quarters, more blatant motivation and a stark rise in dramatic celebrations. In other words, it should bring out the best in everyone.

5 reasons why Minnesota will be worse in 2021

Flipping the script

The Vikings said goodbye to franchise cornerstone Kyle Rudolph and former team captain Riley Reiff -- both were released to free up a boatload of money in cap space. Rudolph was drafted 43rd overall in 2011 and spent 10 seasons as the top tight end in Minnesota. Reiff started 58 games at left tackle in his four years with the team. Both were probably just as impactful off the field, as they were on it.

Minnesota also parted ways with safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson -- Philadelphia signed the pair to one-year contracts -- two undrafted players who started their careers as Vikings, and eventually evolved into starters.

Maybe, Minnesota upgraded all four spots -- Irv Smith Jr. learned from Rudolph, and said he’s ready to do the dirty work and break out; the Vikings traded down and snatched big dawg Darrisaw with the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 draft, trusting he’ll fill the void on the left side of the offensive line; Woods started 44 games for Dallas over the last three years; Barr’s return accounts for Wilson’s exit -- but that’s a major maybe we’ll have to let work itself out.

Questions in the secondary

As it stands, Peterson is the team’s top cornerback. The 31-year-old’s resume is as impressive as they come, and everything he’s said and done since signing with Minnesota makes it seem like he’s rejuvenated and ready to lead by example. Of course, that doesn’t erase the sour taste Peterson left in fans’ mouths after consecutive sub-par seasons in Arizona. We’re hoping a change of scenery, plus Mike Zimmer’s track record of extending cornerbacks' longevity does the trick and gets Peterson back to playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Harrison Smith, who is entering the final year of the $51.25 million extension he signed in July 2016, recently declared his interest to retire as a Viking. “The Hitman” might just be forced to play out his current deal and hit the market next offseason. Looming contract situations often push a player in one of two directions: to their finest moment, or their demise. Best-case scenario if Smith doesn’t get extended before the season? He matches his 2020 interception total (5) and gets locked down after reminding everyone one more time who exactly he is -- he’s really the lone survivor of the Vikings’ one-time feared secondary.

Aside from the two vets, Minnesota’s coverage is shaky. Bashaud Breeland, playing for his fourth team in eight seasons, has the second-most experience of any Vikings cornerback. There’s certainly no shortage of youth -- 10 of the 17 defensive backs currently listed on the roster are age 24 or younger.

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Jul 30, 2021; Eagan, MN, United States; Minnesota Vikings defensive back Bashaud Breeland (21) participates in drills at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

First-time play caller

For the third time in as many seasons, someone new will direct Minnesota’s offense. Klint Kubiak follows in the footsteps of his father, Gary, and current Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski -- it’s the younger Kubiak’s first time serving as offensive coordinator, at any level. He served as the quarterback coach for the Vikings the past two seasons and helped shepherd Kirk Cousins to perhaps the best statistical year of his career in 2019. Zimmer compared Kubiak’s attention to detail and discussion habits to Stefanski in April. That said, Kubiak is a first-time play caller and will be challenged weekly to divvy up opportunities for a stellar cast of playmakers.

Bears got Justin Fields ... Rodgers is out for blood

Chicago got their guy, meaning the NFC North got tougher. The Vikings split their season series against the Bears in 2020 -- each team scored 46 combined points -- despite Chicago’s ineptness at quarterback. While the former Ohio State signal-caller first must unseat presumed starter Andy Dalton, there’s almost zero skepticism that Fields takes the field at some point during his rookie campaign. When he does, he’ll bring a big-play dynamic to Chicago’s offense that’s been absent since Jay Cutler’s final season as the team’s full-time starter in 2015. Furthermore, Fields deploys an accurate deep ball, which could test Minnesota’s largely untested secondary.

In Green Bay, the reigning MVP has tunnel vision: Aaron Rodgers isn't thinking beyond 2021, which could doom all other divisional opponents. It certainly would have helped the Vikings if Rodgers had been traded. Instead, the chip on his shoulder likely grows by the hour and the Packers are, again, the NFC North favorite.

COVID protocols

The NFL has made their stance crystal clear: 100% vaccination provides teams the greatest chance to avoid being penalized or players, for that matter, fined. Vaccinated individuals will be tested once every two weeks, compared to daily tests for those who are unvaccinated. Mask requirements no longer exist for the former, while the latter face five-figure fines for violating protocols, which range from wearing masks at team facilities to not fraternizing with family and friends, during road games. As a result of these rules, blocs of players and club personnel are getting vaccinated -- coaches and staff have to be vaccinated in order to do hands-on work with players -- it’s become an obvious on-field advantage. But it’s a stretch to think 100% of all 32 teams will abide by the recommendations.

We’ve already seen the restrictions impinge the Vikings. Former offensive line coach and run game coordinator Rick Dennison was reassigned to an advisory role after refusing the vaccine. We’re guessing he’ll still play a part in orchestrating Minnesota’s top-5 rushing attack but clearly, it won’t be the same part. Thielen and Smith told reporters on a Zoom call in June that they had not been vaccinated and praised the team's efforts to educate players ultimately before letting them make their own decisions. According to an offseason report from The Star Tribune, Cousins said he chooses to keep his medical history private. Zimmer and Spielman expressed their desire when training camp started for players to take the vaccine but declined to provide the Vikings' vaccination rate. Most recently, Minnesota was down to one quarterback -- Jake Browning -- at training camp Saturday night after Mond tested positive for the virus. Cousins and fellow quarterback Nate Stanley were deemed high-risk close contacts and thus held out of practice. Zimmer was very vocal about his displeasure of the circumstances, and he didn't stick to the situation concerning his team. In regards to football, the crux of frustration is this: the NFL announced teams may have to forfeit games if a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players leads to a cancellation during the regular season.