The Vikings’ 53-man roster is more or less set, pending a tweak or two before Sunday’s opener. But not every spot on the roster is of equal importance, so let’s take a stab at identifying the 10 most important players on the roster.
This is not a list of the Vikings’ 10 best players, though there would be a lot of overlap between the two lists. There aren’t any linebackers or defensive ends on this list, for instance, because the Vikings seem to have good depth there – and certainly not because the Vikings lack talent in the starting lineup at those spots. Rather, these are the 10 players the Vikings most can’t afford to have either 1) injured or 2) underperform.
1) Kirk Cousins, QB: This one is obvious. Pretty much any contending team with an above-average quarterback would be in a degree of trouble if that quarterback went down. For the Vikings, the drop-off from Cousins to backup Sean Mannion would be significant and expectations would immediately be altered if Cousins was out for any significant length of time.
2) Harrison Smith, S: The last time the Vikings had to play without their durable star safety was late in 2016, when they were trounced 34-6 at home by Indianapolis while trying to hang onto a playoff spot. Smith feels like the quarterback of the defense and virtually as irreplaceable as Cousins.
3) Adam Thielen, WR: Likewise, the Vikings haven’t had to life without Thielen, who has amassed 204 catches and more than 2,600 yards over the past two season while not missing a start. The proven talent drop-off at receiver from Thielen and Stefon Diggs (who you’ll find later on this list) to the rest of the Vikings’ group is stark.
4) Brian O’Neill, OT: You could easily put fellow tackle Riley Reiff on this list, but at this point there’s an expectation about Reiff’s performance level. With O’Neill, though, we’re still learning – but what we saw last season, when he didn’t allow a sack as a rookie in 11 starts, was very encouraging. If he can be fully healthy after being dinged up in the preseason, he could anchor the line. If not, things could get dicey.
5) Dan Bailey, K: It’s not like the Vikings couldn’t find another kicker midseason if Bailey struggles. They proved that in 2016 (Kai Forbath) and last season (Bailey). But projecting stability at placekicker would be a new and settling concept after all the changes in recent years.
6) Xavier Rhodes, CB: After being an All-Pro in 2017, Rhodes’ play declined some in 2018. Was that a blip on the radar or a trend for the seventh-year corner? Regardless, the Vikings need him on the field. Their corner depth will be tested, and despite Rhodes’ occasional on-field theatrics he’s only missed four starts in the last five years.
7) Dalvin Cook, RB: The construction of the Vikings’ offense and revamped philosophy seems to point to Cook having a huge role and breakout season. But he’s missed 17 games his first two years, and the Vikings don’t have the luxury of trusted/tested depth behind him that they had in 2017 (Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray) and 2018 (Murray).
8) Stefon Diggs, WR: Maybe the Vikings would be better equipped to adapt to life without Diggs this season than in past years, given the emphasis on the running game, but they’d rather not find out.
9) Linval Joseph, DT: The Vikings’ nose tackle is more than a decade younger than me and could crush me like an aluminum can, so I’m not going to suggest the soon-to-be-31-year-old is getting up there. I’ll just say the Vikings very much need him to keep playing young and staying healthy.
10) Garrett Bradbury, C: Pressure up the middle makes quarterbacks very uncomfortable. Bradbury, the Vikings’ first-round pick at center, could make life better for a lot of people – including Kirk Cousins – if he plays at a high level right away.