How much can the offensive and defensive lines be restocked? Will all the injured defensive stars come back healthy? Are the cornerbacks going to keep progressing? Who will start opposite Harrison Smith at safety? There are a lot of questions about the future of a Vikings roster locked into the franchise's first losing season since 2014.
There have also been a handful of players flashing long-term potential, including at key positions like corner, offensive line, tight end and the struggling special teams.
For the sake of brevity, we'll keep this to non-first round players as receiver Justin Jefferson and cornerback Jeff Gladney have made strong impressions in their own ways. The good news for General Manager Rick Spielman is three of these players still come from the 2020 draft, which at first blush has a chance to be the Vikings' best class since 2015.
1. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler's (#27) rookie season won't necessarily be remembered for having Smith, his All-Pro teammate, telling him to cover his guy, in so many words, after D.K. Metcalf's game-winning touchdown in Seattle. That's a credit to how Dantzler, the third-round pick, has improved in coverage. He's remained aggressive in run contain on the perimeter despite rib and neck injuries forcing him to miss time. He's played 601 defensive snaps [59.1%] with three tackles for a loss, two interceptions, two deflections and a fumble recovery in 11 games. But these corners are missing tackles like none under coach Mike Zimmer. Gladney soared past the previous high (Trae Waynes' nine misses in 2019) with 15 whiffs and a game to play. Dantzler has eight missed tackles, per Pro Football Focus. He's also crossed wires in coverage, misaligned before the snap based on poor awareness and made other rookie mistakes. But Dantzler has used his long arms to make plays and displayed an unfazed confidence that Zimmer tends to like.
Dantzler has made a strong push to the finish, being credited with an interception or pass deflection in four straight games before the loss in New Orleans, including during this second-and-8 play in Tampa Bay.
Dantzler begins in off coverage and handles the switch release between Buccaneers tight end Antony Auclair (#82) and receiver Chris Godwin (#14). Because Auclair is not a speed threat and Dantzler has deep help in safety Harrison Smith over the top, he controls his own pace with the Bucs tight end before jumping the in-breaking route.
Tom Brady's pass appears to come out a beat late, and Dantzler avoids early contact while playing the ball. He's going to have much tougher assignments, but this basic understanding of where his help is defensively, jumping the route and avoiding illegal NFL contact is a good sign of consistency.
2. Defensive end D.J. Wonnum (#98) is a quick study, coaches have found, while giving him more and more to handle in a role that started to grow before Yannick Ngakoue was traded to Baltimore. His role was solidified once Ngakoue was gone, as Wonnum has played 420 defensive snaps [41.9%], the fifth most on a young D-line and the most by a rookie lineman since Danielle Hunter in 2015. That's the lofty comparison coaches have made to Wonnum, due to a similar 6-foot-5-inch frame and a work ethic visible when watching him play. But like every Vikings defender, he had a rough one in his first NFL start in New Orleans, where he missed a handful of tackles and illustrated how far he has yet to go.
Most of Wonnum's impact plays — five tackles for losses and three sacks — have been the product of relentless effort, and not necessarily superior technique, which is to be expected for the rookie. This includes his four stops against Chicago in the Week 15 loss.
On this first-and-goal play, Wonnum makes the incredibly quick read on a zone run to corral Bears running back David Montgomery (#32) for a 2-yard gain. It starts with the proper angle, following behind the left tackle's back shoulder, and ends with acceleration and closing speed that bode well for his NFL future.
Bears receiver Darnell Mooney (#11) has little interest in laying out for this backside block on Wonnum, who is past the line of scrimmage before anybody touches him.
3. Tight ends Irv Smith Jr. (#84) and Tyler Conklin (#83) have emerged in a way that casts a shadow over veteran Kyle Rudolph's spot as a highly-paid starter. Smith, in Year 2, and Conklin, in Year 3, have added spring to the step of the downfield passing attack from heavy personnel groupings favored by coordinator Gary Kubiak. Those bigger formations have continued even with Rudolph sidelined since a Dec. 6 foot injury. Smith has played 482 snaps [48.1%] and Conklin is at 391 snaps [39%] this season. Both have been heavily involved as defenses key on receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
The Vikings have been waiting on Smith, the 2019 second-round pick out of Alabama, to start playing up to his potential, and they saw improvements in his run blocking earlier this season. But injuries to his groin and back derailed a midseason ascension. He's returned and continued to ascend as a pass catcher, outrunning linebackers and running over safeties from all areas of the field. He's been particularly effective as a red-zone weapon, with two games — Nov. 8 vs. Lions and Friday in New Orleans — with two touchdown catches after fake handoffs near the goal line.
Conklin, the 2018 fifth-round pick from Central Michigan, has enjoyed the biggest breakout this side of Justin Jefferson. Much of his receiving production — 12 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown — have come in the past three weeks with Rudolph sidelined.
Conklin is making grabs in key moments. He's recently moved the chains three times on third or fourth downs against the Bucs and Saints, including this third-and-8 play in New Orleans. Notice Conklin (#83) is not the center of the Saints' defensive attention, with top cornerback Marshon Lattimore (#23) shadowing Jefferson (#18) and four defenders hovering over a trips formation, including Smith (#84), to the left.
Conklin wasn't the defense's focus, but he's where quarterback Kirk Cousins goes upon facing quick pressure up the middle. A sharp cut on an in-breaking route helps him get free of Saints linebacker Kwon Alexander (#58), and strong hands finish the 9-yard catch.
4. Offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland's (#72) whirlwind rookie season started buried on the depth chart at guard, a position the ex-Boise St. tackle said he hadn't played in a game since high school. The former second-round pick started by Week 6 and has since taken every snap at right guard outside of a two-game absence to an ankle injury. He's played 541 snaps [54%], coming on as a pleasant surprise to a coaching staff that waited through four rough starts by guard Dru Samia before an injury led to the switch. Cleveland has been inconsistent, struggling with power and the speed of D-line twists (he was overpowered during Cam Jordan's strip sack last week). And December hasn't been a good month for this interior offensive line against the Bucs, Bears and Saints. But he's also flashed some of the reasons why the Vikings compared him to right tackle Brian O'Neill.
Sticking to and finishing blocks seem to be among Cleveland's areas to improve. He too often bounces off defenders, who are then free to pursue and affect the play. Then you see plays like this 20-yard run by Dalvin Cook in the Week 15 loss to Chicago.
It's an inside zone run on second-and-5. The Bears keep the box light, preparing for a shot play. But Kubiak often runs in these situations, perhaps because Cook can break off runs like this. With the numbers advantage up front (six defenders to the right, seven blockers), Cleveland heads immediately to the linebacker level and the Bears' Danny Trevathan (#59).
There are a few things to watch here, but starting with Cleveland, notice in the video below that his pads stay north and his feet keep moving upon contact.
Cook sets up the nose tackle by starting his run left before cutting right, where Cleveland has walled off Trevathan and O'Neill (#75) does a great job burying his shoulder into Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks' attempted swim move. Hicks (#96) reacts by swinging at O'Neill; officials miss the foul.
5. Special teamer Dan Chisena (#85) has rebounded since the catastrophic special teams performances in Chicago included the rookie trying to down a punt while standing on the goal line. Coaches made him a healthy scratch the following week against the Cowboys. He's since played a consistent role in five straight games — 237 special teams snaps on the season [57.2%] — while coordinator Marwan Maalouf rotated gunners between Chisena, running back Ameer Abdullah and cornerbacks Harrison Hand and Kris Boyd, prior to Boyd's season-ending shoulder injury.
Chisena is the former track athlete at Penn State who only played a handful of football games before the Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent. They saw a potentially premiere special teams player, and Chisena began to realize some of that potential this season between growing pains.
His burner speed, said to have been clocked in the 4.3's during the pre-draft process, was on display in New Orleans, where it was easy to overlook Chisena breezing past a Saints blocker to force a fair catch at the 4-yard line on a 51-yard punt. It's hard to outkick your coverage when coverage can run that fast.
Chisena is also starting to improve off the line, splitting a double team earlier this month in Tampa Bay on a 4-yard punt return. He releases inside to create a crease between two Bucs blockers, then turns on the jets between them.
Speed control is a work in progress. In the video below, Chisena overruns the returner while Hand (#38) properly slows down, maintains position and makes the tackle. Hand, the fifth-round pick who made a couple plays as a defensive back in New Orleans, has also stood out on special teams in the final month.