A year after they reached the divisional playoffs, the Vikings in 2020 were caught between two aims: trying to make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2009 while overhauling a defense they decided was in need of a reboot.
That was a tall order, especially with the coronavirus pandemic wiping out the NFL's offseason program and preseason, but the Vikings kept at it, trading for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in late August and running Dalvin Cook more than any back in team history not named Adrian Peterson. At the end of the season, as a raft of defensive injuries took three Pro Bowlers away, coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings' 7-9 record was "maybe the best we could have done."
To set up their 2021 roster, the Vikings will likely have to work in a tight salary cap situation; lost revenue from the coronavirus pandemic could drop the salary cap as low as $175 million per team from $198.2 million in 2020. The Vikings will roll over a little more than $4.5 million in cap space from 2020, but they've got about $188 million in cap liabilities for 2021 before they make any moves.
As the Vikings try to rebound from their first losing season since 2014, here is an early prediction of which players will be back in 2021:
Kirk Cousins: In
He threw 24 touchdown passes against three interceptions in his final 10 games; his $21 million base salary for 2021 is already guaranteed, and his $35 million base in 2022 would become guaranteed in March. He played every snap in 2020.
Sean Mannion: In
Had there been a preseason for the Vikings to get a closer look at Jake Browning or Nate Stanley — or a longer offseason for them to spend more time developing the young passers — Mannion might be deemed expendable. He'll be a free agent, but could return on another one-year deal.
Dalvin Cook: In
His 356 touches in 14 games answered questions about his durability. His next challenge will be to show he can return from a workload that large and be as explosive in 2021 as he was in 2020.
Alexander Mattison: In
It was a strange year for Mattison, who got 51 of his 96 carries in games where Cook was either injured or with his family after the death of his father. This season showed there's a gap between Cook and Mattison, but he's a solid No. 2 back who'll head into his third season.
Ameer Abdullah: In
He scored two touchdowns as a receiver this year and played 72 offensive snaps (almost all of them on third downs). Abdullah will be 28 in June, but qualifies for a veteran minimum salary benefit. His contributions in passing situations, on special teams and his leadership in the Vikings' social justice efforts make it easier to see his relationship with the team continuing.
C.J. Ham: In
The Vikings use a fullback more than almost any team in the league, and Ham's versatility carries plenty of value. He'll have $1.1 million of his base salary guaranteed if he's on the roster by the third day of the league year.
Mike Boone: Out
The Vikings probably hope to bring him back, given his role on special teams and spot duty on offense, but he's a restricted free agent who could be priced out for a team that's tight on cap space.
Justin Jefferson: In
After his record-breaking rookie season, Jefferson will return as one of the NFL's brightest young stars. He's the Vikings' "X" receiver, and they'll likely look for even more ways to get him the ball in 2021.
Adam Thielen: In
He will be 31 in June, and $9.095 million of his $11.1 million base salary will be guaranteed on the third day of the league year. He scored 14 touchdowns this year; he hasn't been as dynamic after the catch the past two years and Jefferson figures to be the Vikings' top receiver going forward, but Thielen is still an incredibly popular and productive player who'll be part of the mix going forward.
Chad Beebe: In
He will be a restricted free agent in March; the Vikings would likely look to keep him after his career-high 20 catches this year, but the low tender for the undrafted free agent would mean at least a $2.2 million salary. If the Vikings wanted a draft pick should Beebe leave, it'd cost them around $3.4 million to put a second-round tender on him.
Bisi Johnson: In
The Vikings will keep the third-year receiver on the roster, but he should probably expect competition after a year when he dropped on the depth chart. He's established he can be a solid possession receiver, but it's worth wondering how much more he's capable of.
Dan Chisena: In
The former Penn State sprinter got onto the Vikings' roster because of his speed, and special teams could be what keeps him around. He remains a project, but his work as a gunner in the Jacksonville game especially showed what he can bring to a special teams unit.
K.J. Osborn: Out
He will likely get another chance in training camp, but he'll have to be markedly better after a rookie season that saw him struggle as a return man, with fumbles against Dallas and Jacksonville that got him taken out of the lineup.
Kyle Rudolph: Out
The Vikings' longest-tenured player remains a solid red zone target, but saw his role in the offense decrease even before a foot injury ended his consecutive games streak at 98 (including playoffs). Rudolph's numbers (28 catches, 334 yards, 1 TD) were some of the lowest of his career, and he's got a non-guaranteed base salary of $7.65 million. Absent a restructured deal, the popular player and exemplary community servant could be a cap casualty.
Irv Smith: In
There remains room for Smith to improve, particularly in pass protection, but he's turning into the kind of receiving threat the Vikings envisioned when they took him in the second round in 2019. He finished with 365 yards and five touchdowns, both career highs.
Tyler Conklin: In
Cousins seemed particularly high on Conklin, who blossomed into a receiver at the end of the season and did some of his best work as a pass blocker in the games Rudolph missed. He'll be a free agent after 2021.
Brandon Dillon: In
He's impressed in training camps and shown he can be a solid receiver; he'll get a chance to be TE No. 3.
Riley Reiff: In
Many expect Reiff could be on the way out, given the fact he's 32 and will have a $13.95 million cap figure in 2021. He played well enough that he might not want to take a pay cut again, but if the Vikings can work out an extension, he might not have to. He's enjoyed being close to his South Dakota home, has fit well in the Vikings' culture and could return with a deal that provides him some new money while lowering his cap number.
Ezra Cleveland: In
If Reiff is back, Cleveland would stay at guard, but a full offseason could help him grow into a solid member of an offensive line that needs to improve against interior pressure. If Cleveland ends up at left tackle, he said his time at guard — where things happen more quickly than they do outside — could help him going forward.
Garrett Bradbury: In
His third season will be a pivotal one. He played every offensive snap in 2020 and played well in the run game, but ranked second on the team with five sacks and 29 pressures allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.
Brian O'Neill: In
He will be a free agent after 2021, and is likely the Vikings' next priority for a long-term deal. He has turned into a solid right tackle whose athletic ability fits well in the Vikings' outside zone scheme, and he might be their most consistent pass blocker.
Rashod Hill: In
The Vikings continue to value Hill as a swing tackle. He turns 29 next week, but could return on an affordable one-year deal like he did last season.
Oli Udoh: In
Year 3 will be an important one. He has the size to play tackle and the Vikings have thought about him at guard, but can he put himself in position for serious consideration at either spot?
Brett Jones: In
He will be a free agent again, but his intelligence and versatility have kept him around in Minnesota. He'll likely return as a backup who can step in at guard or center.
Kyle Hinton: In
The Vikings didn't use the seventh-round pick much in Year 1; he'll get a chance for a full offseason program (the team hopes) in 2021.
Dru Samia: Out
He is due to carry a $1.034 million cap hit in 2021. Samia struggled at right guard after Pat Elflein was injured, and then went on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
Dakota Dozier: Out
Dozier didn't miss a snap in 2020, and is eligible for a veteran minimum salary benefit, but his consistent struggles in pass protection make it hard to see him as much more than a backup. If he returns, it's because the Vikings like him better than their alternatives in such a role.
Danielle Hunter: In
The Vikings might have some work to do on their relationship with the 26-year-old end, given some frustration with his contract and how his neck injury played out. But he's too valuable for the team not to figure it out; if he's fully healthy, there might be no more important player to the Vikings' 2021 defensive prospects.
Michael Pierce: In
He said last summer he was hopeful to play in 2021 once a COVID-19 vaccine was available; assuming he plays his first snaps for the Vikings this year, he'll be counted on to shore up a run defense that broke at the worst possible times in December.
D.J. Wonnum: In
He showed flashes of being a dynamic pass rusher in Year 1, with 22 pressures on 471 snaps. He could meet a big need for pass rushing help if he can add strength and become more consistent in 2021.
Ifeadi Odenigbo: In
The 2020 season wasn't the year many predicted for Odenigbo, who struggled once teams could prepare for him playing regularly in one spot. But he had 42 pressures this year, and would only cost $850,000 as an exclusive rights free agent.
Jalyn Holmes: In
He will be a free agent after next season, and hasn't shown he can get consistent pressure on the quarterback, but the fact the Vikings have invested three years in the former fourth-round pick probably gives him one more shot.
Armon Watts: In
Seven of his 12 quarterback pressures were in the final five weeks of the season, though he's got a ways to go before providing the kind of consistent interior pressure the Vikings need.
James Lynch: In
The Vikings didn't get much out of the fourth-round pick in his first year, but will hope his first full offseason leads him to become a more disruptive pass rusher at defensive tackle.
Hercules Mata'afa: In
Released in October, he probably bought himself another year by posting 2½ sacks after the Vikings brought him back in November.
Jordan Brailford: In
His contract pays only $780,000 in 2021, so he'll at least get a chance to battle for a roster spot in training camp.
Kenny Willekes: In
The seventh-round pick missed the season because of injury, but will get another chance to show what he can do as a defensive end.
Jaleel Johnson: Out
The 2017 fourth-round pick hits free agency in March. He played 654 snaps this year, but got overwhelmed in the run game too many times and saw his pressure numbers dip even with more playing time.
Shamar Stephen: Out
The Vikings talk up the former seventh-round pick quite a bit, but if Pierce is the nose tackle and they need more pass rushing help at the other defensive tackle spot, a $3.75 million cap savings for releasing Stephen might dictate what they do.
Eric Kendricks: In
He was on the way to another All-Pro season before his calf injury took him off the field in December; he turns 29 next month.
Anthony Barr: In
The Vikings will have a decision to make on Barr, who'll have $7.1 million of his $12.3 million base fully guaranteed in March. He missed 14 games with a torn pectoral muscle, but the Vikings still value him as a key piece of their defense. The guess here is he's back on a reworked deal.
Eric Wilson: Out
As well as Wilson played in place of Barr — notably with three interceptions — he's a free agent who might be too pricey for the Vikings to retain, especially if they're concerned about his tackling.
Troy Dye: In
He'll have a full offseason to develop after a rough go as a rookie; 2021 should provide a better indicator of how he'd fit in the base defense.
Todd Davis: In
Of the linebackers the Vikings had to plug in this year, Davis might have done the most to stick around. He's a decent run defender who could have value as a backup.
Ryan Connelly: In
The Eden Prairie native did enough on special teams that he might stick around for $850,000.
Blake Lynch: Out
If he's back, it would be to battle for a job in training camp, but the Vikings could decide to move on before then.
Hardy Nickerson: Out
Like Lynch, he struggled in the playing time he had late this season; he'll be a free agent in March who'll likely move on.
Cameron Smith: In
The Vikings' Ed Block Courage Award selection is confident he'll be able to resume his career after open heart surgery kept him out for all of 2020.
Cameron Dantzler: In
He was probably the Vikings' best cover corner in Year 1. Zimmer said this week Dantzler needs to get stronger to avoid injuries, but he figures to be a key piece of the defense in 2021.
Jeff Gladney: In
He is probably the Vikings' slot cornerback of the future than an outside player; he'd benefit from a full offseason program, should the team have one.
Mike Hughes: In
There are enough internal concerns about Hughes' neck issues that the Vikings could decide to move on, but there's not enough cornerback depth to rule out a return, particularly when he would have nearly $2 million of dead money.
Harrison Hand: In
The Vikings could add another corner in the draft, but if they don't, Hand has a chance to fight for the No. 4 corner spot, with the potential to do more if Hughes doesn't return.
Kris Boyd: In
He's likely back in training camp, but could need to fight for a spot on the roster headed into Year 3.
Harrison Smith: In
Headed into the final year of a contract he signed in 2016, Smith could be in line for an extension that lowers his $9.85 million cap hit. He'll be 32 next month, but he's not going anywhere.
Anthony Harris: Out
After a subpar year on the franchise tag, it seems like he'll wind up with a multi-year deal elsewhere. He has former DB coaches in Cleveland and Green Bay.
Josh Metellus: In
The 2020 sixth-round pick could be in line to start at safety if Harris isn't back.
Chris Jones: Out
Had the Vikings been healthier on defense, Jones likely wouldn't have played as much as he did.
Dan Bailey: In
The Vikings will have to decide if Bailey's late-season misses can be ironed out, and if it's worth keeping him when a release would net $1.7 million in cap savings, but Zimmer seems to still believe in him.
Britton Colquitt: In
With a 38.0 net yards average and two blocked punts, the 35-year-old could be at some risk when the Vikings can save $1.78 million by releasing him. They've enjoyed the stability he and Bailey have brought, though, so the guess is he stays to work with a new special teams coordinator.
Andrew DePaola: In
He's in for now, but he might face a long snapper battle on a team that's held plenty of them.