When Vikings fans enter the team's practice facility on Wednesday afternoon, to watch the first practice of training camp, they'll see 70% of the roster in person for the first time.
Just 27 of the 90 players on the Vikings' training camp roster have played or practiced in front of fans in Minnesota, a quirk owing plenty to the coronavirus pandemic that closed the Vikings' 2020 camp to the public.
After the team spent a busy offseason adding veterans to ease concerns its 2020 youth movement didn't solve, though, there's plenty about the 2021 Vikings that would be new to fans even under normal circumstances.
The Vikings begin their 61st training camp with a sizable list of questions, many of them on a defense that coach Mike Zimmer called the worst he'd ever had at the end of the 2020 season. When the eighth-year coach takes his 2021 team to Cincinnati for the regular-season opener on Sept. 12, it's possible Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks will be his only defensive starters that played more than two games for the 2020 Vikings.
It sets up a camp where the team has plenty to solve, before a season that could determine the future of many of its key figures. Here is a look at the top questions facing the Vikings as they begin training camp:
1. What will the starting secondary look like?
The guaranteed money the Vikings gave Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland suggests the veteran corners will get every chance to start. Mackensie Alexander, back for his second stint with the Vikings, could reclaim his nickel corner spot, as 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney awaits a Dallas County grand jury decision about whether to indict him on domestic assault charges from April. At safety, free agent Xavier Woods replaces Anthony Harris, while Smith begins his 10th season and plays on the final year of the contract he signed back in 2016. Cameron Dantzler and Gladney played more snaps in 2020 than any rookie corner had under Zimmer in Minnesota; the 2021 Vikings might start a secondary where the youngest player is in his fifth season. It's indicative of how much the Vikings felt needed to change, and it likely reinstates a culture where young players will have to earn their playing time.
2. Will the Vikings have enough pass rush?
For all of their defensive additions this offseason, the Vikings are counting on Danielle Hunter to return to form in 2021, after missing all of 2020 with a herniated disc in his neck and skipping the first part of the Vikings' offseason program until the team agreed to advance part of his 2021 salary and add a $18 million roster bonus to his 2022 contract. The Vikings are also counting on some contributions at right end, assuming Hunter stays on the left side where he's played most of his career; third-round pick Patrick Jones turned some heads during the offseason program, and the Vikings hope rookie Janarius Robinson can be a disruptive force. They brought back Stephen Weatherly and Sheldon Richardson for second tours in Minnesota, and could get more from D.J. Wonnum in Year 2. The biggest key to improving last year's anemic pass rush, though, will likely be Hunter.
3. How will the latest offensive line makeover turn out?
There's been no shortage of effort to improve the Vikings' line, and this year, they landed the player they hope will be their solution at left tackle in first-round pick Christian Darrisaw. But the Virginia Tech product needs to show he can handle the job, and third-rounder Wyatt Davis will have to win the right guard spot after the Vikings moved Ezra Cleveland back to the left side. It's also a pivotal year for third-year center Garrett Bradbury, who's particularly struggled against skilled interior rushers. And the Vikings could be switching offensive line coaches in training camp for the second time in four years: Rick Dennison has not been vaccinated against COVID-19, and would be unable to coach on the field if he chooses not to get the vaccine. It'd be another test for a young group that Dennison helped assemble. And if the group isn't improved in 2021, it's tough to expect a notable change from Kirk Cousins at this point in his career. Speaking of which ...
4. What will Cousins do in 2021, and how will Kellen Mond look behind him?
The Vikings have Cousins signed for two more years, but his 2022 contract — which includes a $35 million fully-guaranteed base salary — is slated to take up more than 20% of the Vikings' cap space without an adjustment next year. The Vikings took Mond in the third round, which is higher than they've drafted any quarterback under Rick Spielman other than when they've been looking for an immediate starter. Mond's presence doesn't signal the kind of change that Justin Fields would have (if the Vikings had made a strong enough offer to successfully trade up for Fields in the first round), but he has enough fans in the building that it'd be naive to assume he won't get chances to show what he can do. The Vikings' three preseason games will be big for Mond, who started 44 games in college and showed he can make some tough throws (either into tight windows or while under pressure) at Texas A&M.
5. Is the Vikings' kicking situation settled?
It's tough to assume that's ever the case, and it'd be unwise to think it is now, after the Vikings cut Dan Bailey in a cap-saving move and added Greg Joseph this offseason. Joseph and undrafted free agent Riley Patterson are the only kickers on the roster, but Patterson missed much of the Vikings' offseason program for undisclosed reasons, and Joseph last played in the NFL in 2019, when he was with the Titans for two games. New special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken has been in Minnesota for a long time, and has lived through all the Vikings' ups and downs at kicker during the Zimmer era. If Joseph and Patterson struggle during camp and the preseason, the Vikings could be looking for another option; their two kickers have a combined $55,000 in guaranteed money, meaning a change wouldn't cost them much.