Personnel shortcomings by General Manager Rick Spielman's front office contributed to the Vikings' second consecutive losing season — the second such stretch in Spielman's 10 years as the general manager — including a failure over years to stock the cupboard at cornerback and offensive line despite spending top draft picks.
But a handful of players have emerged as real contributors, with staying power after 2021. This list includes only young players — first- or second-year contributors — not pending veteran free agents who played well, such as Sheldon Richardson, Patrick Peterson or Nick Vigil.
1. Receiver K.J. Osborn. His annual January selfie will be a better memory this time around (here's the story on that). Osborn didn't have a catch as a rookie. But his offseason work formed trust with the coaching staff and led to chances in games. Osborn played 684 snaps [66.4%] ahead of the season finale; is third on the team with 634 receiving yards and six touchdowns; was flagged four times, including twice for illegal blocks above the waist. Dropped just two of 78 targets but tipped one into a Rams interception in the red zone.
He helped the offense pivot to three receivers after tight end Irv Smith Jr.'s injury, developing into a versatile target. Began in the slot before eventually starting four games for Adam Thielen, jumping into the veteran's diverse role. Four of his six scoring grabs came after Thielen's high-ankle sprain.
Osborn's speed — he was among the faster prospects in a talented 2020 receiver class with a 4.48-second 40-yard dash — allowed for separation on crossing and over routes. He showed he has the toughness to make catches over the middle, including a late slant to set up a field goal in Arizona. Caught the game-winning score off a corner route in Carolina. He had a sensational one-handed grab for 30 yards through interference in the otherwise forgettable loss at Lambeau Field.
He can outrun solo coverage. The Steelers disrupted the Vikings offense in the second half of the Dec. 9 win, including a third down on which Pittsburgh's safety robbed Justin Jefferson (#18) on the deep over. The Vikings came back with this play.
With the safety (#34) sitting shallow on Jefferson, Osborn (#17) won a foot race with the corner on this 62-yard touchdown.
2. Left guard Ezra Cleveland. He hasn't been consistent, but the 23-year-old Cleveland got better as the season progressed after struggling against the Bengals, Browns and Cowboys. He played stronger in Year 2; that's an attitude thing that sometimes needs a jolt with him. Coaches have long implored offensive linemen to drive defenders off the ball, and coach Mike Zimmer made that an emphasis after the Dec. 5 loss in Detroit. There are still too many down moments for this offensive line. But the second half of Cleveland's season, particularly against the 49ers and Bears, was promising.
Doesn't leave the field; he was one of two offensive players, with right tackle Brian O'Neill, to play all 1,030 snaps ahead of the season finale. Flagged three times, tied for fewest among O-line starters. Fared better in the running game while showing improvement in pass protection. Tabbed with 33 quarterback pressures allowed, second most on the team behind guard Oli Udoh, although they became fewer in the past two months. Watch Cleveland drive Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman backward on this 7-yard run below.
3. Safety Camryn Bynum. The fourth-round pick only recently converted from cornerback and showed this season why coaches thought he had the intelligence to move to safety. Made a surprise first NFL start in Baltimore, where safety Harrison Smith tested positive for COVID-19, after playing just seven defensive snaps before kickoff. Intercepted Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, reading his eyes on a seam route to tight end Mark Andrews, which Bynum said he'd recalled seeing out of that formation from film study and practice. Started the following week against the Chargers, sacking Justin Herbert while benefitting from a pre-snap blitz disguise.
Played 201 defensive snaps [19%] ahead of the season finale. Flagged once for defensive holding in Baltimore, negating a fourth-quarter sack. Showed so much that coaches developed a three-safety package to get him onto the field while putting Smith — the All-Pro defender — in the slot against horizontal offenses like those of Green Bay and Los Angeles. Credited with 28 combined tackles, missing just one, two pass deflections and the interception.
4. Running back/returner Kene Nwangwu. Has top-end track speed that could give the Vikings another premier returning threat for years to come and potentially another strong running back. Overcame a hyperextended knee in the Aug. 21 exhibition against Indianapolis. His parents were in the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium to see his NFL debut on Oct. 31 against the Cowboys, the Frisco, Texas, native's hometown team. But he didn't get a chance to return a kickoff until the following week in Baltimore, beginning the second half with a 98-yard return for a touchdown. Nwangwu became the first NFL rookie since the Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013 to return two kickoffs for scores later that month in San Francisco.
He's played 78 snaps (62 on special teams) ahead of the season finale. Has not been penalized. His elusiveness carries over on offense. He's forced five missed tackles on 16 touches, according to Pro Football Focus. But coaches have limited chances as he grows into the nuances of the position. Season-high seven touches on 12 snaps came in a tough matchup against the Rams defense with Dalvin Cook on the COVID list. He hesitated on a pitch, settling for a 1-yard gain. Showed the vision combined with speed in and out of cuts against the Bears, breaking arm tackles on gains for 11 and 19 yards.
5. Kicker Greg Joseph. Won a summer competition against undrafted rookie Riley Patterson and should've done enough to earn the job next year. Made 32 of 37 field goals [86.5%] and 32 of 36 extra points [88.9%] ahead of the season finale. He's no Justin Tucker, but Joseph took his first full-season NFL job and ran with it. He's made 16 straight kicks since missing his first two tries, including a 53-yard attempt, vs. Pittsburgh. Showed he can rebound from bad misses, like the 37-yard whiff that lost the game in Arizona. He made five of the next six kicks to tie or take the lead in the closing minutes of regulation the rest of the season, including game-winners vs. the Lions and Packers. Former NFL punter Pat McAfee called Joseph's 51-yard field goal in frigid temperatures at Lambeau Field "one of the most impressive kicks I've seen in a long time." Joseph has made seven from beyond 50 yards so far, the franchise's most since 2012.