Hot-and-cold execution on both sides of the ball stopped the Minnesota Vikings from reaching their goals in 2021. An 8-9 record and second-place finish in the NFC North sealed the fates of coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. Still, not everything was sour about the Vikes’ campaign.
Minnesota remained in the postseason hunt until it got boat raced by Green Bay in Week 17. Love him or hate him, Kirk Cousins was responsible for the second-most touchdowns (34) and third-fewest interceptions (7) of his 10-year career. (Note: Cousins’ lowest INT total (3) came in three appearances as a rookie in 2012.) We also got a glimpse of life without Cousins and, well, it made us want to gouge out our eyeballs.
To help lift the spirits of Vikings fans everywhere, we have decided to dish out some offseason hardware.
Without further ado, here are our 2021 awards:
Most Valuable Player: Justin Jefferson
The numbers don’t tell the whole story … but they tell a good chunk. Jefferson followed up his fiery first year with a sensational sophomore NFL season. He improved in virtually every receiving category, upping his receptions from 88 to 108, yards from 1,400 to 1,616 and touchdowns from seven to 10. Jefferson attracted a whopping 167 targets, the fourth most in the NFL. He finished second to Rams receiver Cooper Kupp for most receiving yards and averaged 15 yards per catch, eighth best in the NFL among players with at least 50 receptions. Jefferson often was the focal point of Minnesota’s offense. He topped 100 receiving yards on seven occasions and ended the season with 62 grabs for 984 yards and six touchdowns over his final nine games – production sparked in part by the Vikings’ recommitment to get their best player the football after a three-game stretch from Oct. 17-Nov. 7 which saw Jefferson tally 13 receptions for 170 yards. The LSU product shattered the NFL record for most receiving yards across a player’s first two seasons – his mark of 3,016 towers above Odell Beckham Jr.’s total of 2,755 – and came within 16 yards of matching Randy Moss for most receiving yards in a single season in franchise history. The sky isn’t a high enough ceiling for Jefferson in year three. Freakish doesn’t begin to describe No. 18.
Least Valuable Player: Bashaud Breeland
The 29-year-old cornerback latched on with the Vikings in free agency and lasted through Week 14 of the regular season. Breeland ultimately was waived after he was involved in an altercation with teammates at practice that got out of hand and required Spielman to intervene. He may as well have been cut for his on-field performance. Breeland started 13 games for Minnesota, made 63 tackles and added four takeaways (two forced fumbles, two interceptions). Not bad. Pro Football Focus said otherwise. At the time of his release, Breeland ranked second among all players in passing yards surrendered (795). His first game in a Vikings uniform supplied the writing on the wall. According to PFF, Breeland missed five tackles, allowed 107 yards and two touchdowns in coverage and was flagged for pass interference. Opposing quarterbacks compiled a 109 passer rating – 158.3 is considered perfect – and completed 56 of 88 throws (63.6%) in Breeland’s direction. His 2021 season concluded on Arizona’s practice squad.
Comeback Player: Anthony Barr
We started to doubt Barr would make his way back when he was inactive the first four games this season. Fortunately, he proved us, and likely all of you, wrong. Barr wound up reclaiming his spot on Minnesota’s defense 385 days after leaving the Vikings’ loss to Indianapolis on Sept. 20, 2020 with a torn pectoral muscle. An 18-game absence was retired in Week 5, which already feels like forever ago. Barr played 100% of the defensive snaps and posted four tackles in his return against Detroit. The 29-year-old linebacker, who received Pro Bowl honors four years in a row from 2015-18, registered 72 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and three interceptions across 11 starts in 2021. He saved his best for last, too, which seems like poetic justice considering there’s the chance Barr departs Minny in free agency. In Sunday’s season finale versus Chicago, the former UCLA standout made 11 stops and recorded two sacks. His longtime teammate, Eric Kendricks, shared some sentiments Jan. 10 that hit us at our core.
Most Improved Player: K.J. Osborn
Frankly, this was the easiest call. Nobody made greater personal strides this season for the Vikes than Osborn. The second-year receiver out of Miami – Osborn played his first four college seasons at Buffalo – finished third on the team with 655 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He tallied 50 receptions on 82 targets, which is borderline outrageous – in the best way possible – after not playing a single snap on offense as a rookie. Osborn owned the Vikings’ longest catch in 2021 – a 64-yard race to paydirt against Arizona in Week 2 – made the game-winning reception in overtime against Carolina in Week 6 and filled in admirably for veteran Adam Thielen during the latter portion of the season. At 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, Osborn possesses the build – and the physical tools – needed to withstand hits over the middle of the field. He’s fast enough to stretch the secondary, savvy enough with the football in his hands to gain tough yards after the catch and clearly smart enough to wait for his chance. The fifth-round pick isn’t just Minnesota’s most improved player – he made one of the biggest individual leaps in the NFL this year.
Unsung Hero: Alexander Mattison
Mattison set career highs pretty much across the board in 2021. He made four starts, carried the rock 134 times, rushed for 491 yards, caught 32 passes for 228 more and scored four touchdowns – all career-best marks for the third-year running back, and respectable figures for a player who was on the field for fewer than 400 snaps. Mattison wins our “Unsung Hero” award on the basis of producing whenever Minnesota called his number. In the four games he started in place of Dalvin Cook, he averaged 26 touches, and was good for 89 yards per game on the ground and 41 through the air. Most importantly, Mattison gave the Vikings a shot to win all four games that Cook missed – of course, they didn’t, otherwise they’d be gearing up for wild-card weekend. The bottom line is that he outplayed his backup status but won’t shake free of playing second fiddle so long as he shares the backfield with Cook.
Rookie of the Year: Camryn Bynum
File away Kene Nwangwu as a close second in this department. Bynum narrowly trumps the kick-return expert because his contributions on defense, particularly in two of his starts, outweigh Nwangwu’s workload – however unique – on special teams. Bynum stepped in for Harrison Smith and stepped up against the Ravens and Chargers in back-to-back games on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14. The fourth-round pick (125th overall) made 12 tackles and intercepted Lamar Jackson in the first extensive action of his career. He delivered an encore performance in front of family and friends the next week, tallying six more tackles and dropping Justin Herbert for his first career sack. The California product played like a mini “Hitman Harry” … or perhaps “Killer Cam” is more suitable. Nwangwu, for what it’s worth, looks like an elite talent. The former Iowa State tailback was rarely used on offense – he played 29 snaps – but averaged 32.2 yards on 18 kick returns and was the lone player in the league to house more than one kickoff for a touchdown this season. We should note that Bynum didn’t crack even 20% of the defensive snaps – he played 211 of 1,208 (17.5%) – which, if anything, tells you we weren’t thrilled by Minnesota’s rookie class. The Vikings’ first overall choice, Christian Darrisaw, performed well in 10 starts but his contributions paled in comparison – partly because he was slowed in training camp by core muscle surgery – to other offensive linemen taken within the first two rounds. Detroit’s Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater of the Chargers, Alijah Vera-Tucker of the Jets, Las Vegas’ Alex Leatherwood, Philadelphia’s Landon Dickerson, Miami’s Liam Eichenberg and Kansas City’s Creed Humphrey all started more games.
High Moment: 34-31 win over Green Bay on Nov. 21
You could reasonably make the case that Minnesota’s upset of the NFC’s No. 1 seed in Week 11 capped the Vikings’ best two-game stretch of 2021. On Nov. 14, Zimmer’s bunch survived in a back-and-forth affair against the Chargers. Seven days later, they jumped out to a 23-10 lead over the Packers and used a 29-yard boot by Greg Joseph as time expired to send Green Bay packing for just the third time all season. Nearly everything clicked for Minnesota, at least offensively, four days before Thanksgiving. Cousins completed 69% of his passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Cook topped 100 yards from scrimmage and Jefferson paced all receivers in the game with 169 yards on eight receptions. The win didn’t mean much – if anything – in the grand scheme, but it did prove that the Vikes could hang with their big brother, if you will, and definitely created some excellent “on this day in history” content.
Best Transaction: Bringing in kicker Greg Joseph
If you recall, we named Dan Bailey the team’s least valuable player last season, which means a better-than-average Joseph qualifies his signing as a success. Bailey notched career lows in field-goal percentage (68.2%) — making just 15 of 22 attempts — and extra-point percentage (86%) in 2020. His replacement, Joseph, connected on 33 of 38 tries, including seven of nine from 50+ yards and sailed 36 of 40 extra points (90%) through the uprights. Yes, Joseph missed a chip shot in Week 2 that would have upended the Arizona Cardinals, and perhaps altered the trajectory of Minnesota’s season. But, overall, he was consistent and consistently clutch. Joseph nailed two game-winners – against Detroit in Week 5 and versus Green Bay in Week 11 – and restored some pride to the Vikings’ historically bad kicking game.
Xavier Woods was the only player on Minnesota’s defense not to miss a snap this season. That in itself is impressive. Woods, who signed a one-year deal in March worth up to $2.25 million with incentives, set career highs in tackles (108), interceptions (3), sacks (1) and passes defended (10). The ex-Cowboys safety, who flashed terrific instincts in the run game and tied for the team lead in picks, might have performed his way to a second contract in Minnesota.
Linebacker Nick Vigil, who signed from the Chargers in free agency, also deserves a nod in this category. In his first season with the Vikes, Vigil opened the year as a starter – and operated as one until Barr made his comeback – and paired well with Eric Kendricks whenever his number was called. The former third-round pick started 12 games, made 85 stops and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Worst transaction: Trading for tight end Chris Herndon
On Aug. 31, Minnesota sent a 2022 fourth-round draft pick to the Big Apple in exchange for Herndon and a 2022 sixth-round selection. The Vikings acted quickly – but not wisely – to deepen their tight end room after starter Irv Smith Jr. went under the knife to repair a meniscus injury. Herndon, who was taken in the fourth round in 2018, played just 17% of the Vikings’ offensive snaps and collected four of seven targets for 40 yards and one touchdown. The once-promising Miami product – Herndon’s career trajectory has plummeted since serving a four-game suspension for substance abuse and suffering a season-ending injury after catching 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie – made five starts but never handled a prominent role in Minnesota’s offense. The trade has amounted to a swap of picks.
Favorite Performance: Dalvin Cook rushing for 205 yards in 36-28 win over Pittsburgh
Cook had a down year in terms of finding the end zone. He scored just six times after totaling 30 touchdowns from 2019-20. The 26-year-old running back finished his fifth season top five in the NFL in rushing yards (1,159), averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry. A good chunk of that yardage can be attributed to his monster Thursday night performance versus the Steelers on Dec. 9 – a game that almost didn’t feature the “Chef.” Just 11 days after he was carted off the field with a shoulder injury against San Francisco, Cook landed one yard short of matching his career high on the ground. Wearing a harness for protection, Cook ripped through running lanes, accelerated to green grass and dusted the Pittsburgh defense for a franchise-record 153 first-half yards. He ended the evening with a 7.6-yard average on 27 carries. Afterwards, teammates and Zimmer applauded his “warrior” mindset.