If the Vikings are going to win the NFC North in 2020, they are going to have to do it with a top-heavy roster of star players, because after a number of free agency departures and trades, the club most likely will not have the kind of depth it has relied on the past couple of years.
Over the past three seasons, the Vikings have sent nine players on the current roster to the Pro Bowl in Anthony Barr, Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins, C.J. Ham, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith and Adam Thielen.
In comparison, the defending division champion Packers have sent five players to the Pro Bowl since 2017: Davante Adams, David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark, Aaron Rodgers and Za’Darius Smith.
The Vikings have more Pro Bowl players than the average NFL squad, but the players they have lined up behind them don’t have much experience.
That’s why more than even the average season, the Vikings need to have great health in 2020.
Cook has one of the best backups in the NFL in Alexander Mattison, the second-year running back out of Boise State. But still the difference between the two players is large. Cook has 457 career carries for 2,104 yards and 17 scores while Mattison has 100 carries for 462 yards and one score.
Ham is one of the best fullbacks in the league, and his blocking is key for Cook and the Vikings offense. He also caught 17 passes for 149 yards, six first downs and a touchdown last year while rushing for two first downs.
The only backup fullback on the 2020 roster is rookie Jake Bargas out of North Carolina.
Thielen is the equal of any wideout in the league, but without Stefon Diggs on the roster he is going to have even more attention given to him. And after appearing in every game from 2016 to ’18, Thielen appeared in only 10 games in 2019 while dealing with injuries.
This year his backup could be Tajae Sharpe, a great free-agent find by General Manager Rick Spielman.
And Rudolph, the Vikings’ great tight end, also has a solid backup in Irv Smith Jr., and most likely those two will play together more often than apart.
Iron man Cousins
Cousins is one of the most accomplished passers in the NFL, but also important is that he is one of the most durable.
Since 2015 he has started 79 of a possible 80 games, with his lone missed game coming in Week 17 of last season when the Vikings’ playoff situation was locked in place.
The only quarterbacks to start all 80 games over that stretch were Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson, and the only other quarterback with 79 starts was Matt Ryan.
In fact, only 10 NFL quarterbacks have started 70 games or more since 2015: Rivers, Wilson, Cousins, Ryan, Derek Carr, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Rodgers and Jameis Winston.
Cousins has a career 44-42-2 record, 24,107 passing yards and 155 passing touchdowns, but No. 2 Sean Mannion, whom the Vikings really like, has made only two career starts in five pro seasons and has attempted just 74 passes in 13 appearances.
The defense lost two Pro Bowl players this offseason in Xavier Rhodes and Everson Griffen, so their remaining stalwarts are going to have to be ready.
Barr has made 85 career starts with 417 tackles, 15 sacks and five fumble recoveries. His backup might be DeMarquis Gates, who has never played an NFL regular-season snap and was most recently with the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL.
Hunter has become the best defensive end in the NFL, with 54 ½ sacks and 276 tackles in five seasons. His backup, Eddie Yarbrough, a 27-year-old free agent from Buffalo, could be another player the coaching staff can build up. He has one sack and 63 tackles in two seasons, with eight quarterback hits.
Kendricks has become the best linebacker in the league. He has the sixth-most tackles in the NFL since 2015 with 532, and he added 12 pass deflections last season.
His backup, Cameron Smith, a fifth-round pick in 2019, appeared in five games with eight tackles last season.
Lastly on defense is Harrison Smith. The great safety will somehow be asked to do even more this season after the team lost their two starting cornerbacks and nickelback.
Last year he posted 85 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a sack and two quarterback hits.
The only other players in the NFL to post at least 80 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles were Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins and Titans cornerback Logan Ryan.
Smith’s backup could be Brian Cole II, a safety out of Mississippi State who was drafted in the seventh round.
The Vikings will have as many big-name players as any club in the NFL next season, but they won’t be able to afford any of them getting hurt.
• Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said training camp at Target Field could have a lot of intrasquad games. “Pitchers are sometimes throwing four, five innings at a time against your own hitters. I would expect that to be the predominant way we will keep those pitchers active and ready.”
• Twins pitching prospect Jhoan Duran made the 59-man roster and could be a big surprise. General Manager Thad Levine said about Duran at spring training: “He was one of the pieces that we acquired when we traded Eduardo Escobar to the Arizona Diamondbacks. That was a tough trade for us due to the popularity of Escobar. Duran was really the centerpiece of that deal. A righthanded starter, 6-5, 240 pounds, throws 94-98 with a four-pitch mix.”
• Pro Football Focus ranked the Vikings’ Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris as the best safety tandem in the NFL.
• Former Cooper and UNLV standout Rashad Vaughn recently signed with KK Buducnost in Montenegro for the 2020-21 season. Vaughn, 23, last played in the NBA in 2018. Also on that club is former Gophers guard Justin Cobbs. … Former Gophers guard Nate Mason has signed to play with Avtodor Saratov out of Russia for the 2020-21 season.
• ESPN has Cretin-Derham Hall point guard Tre Holloman ranked as the No. 59 boys’ basketball recruit in the Class of 2022. The Gophers have offered Holloman a scholarship.
• Jimmy Shapiro of BetOnline out of Las Vegas notes that the Twins’ Nelson Cruz is tied for the eighth-best odds to lead Major League Baseball in home runs this year at 20-1. Miguel Sano is tied for 21st at 28-1.
• One Gophers recruit to keep an eye on in football is Justin Johnson, a running back ranked as the eighth-best player in the state of Illinois for the class of 2021.