What are fair expectations for the Vikings this year?

The NFL changes so much year over year. Players retire. Players are traded. Players sign with different teams. Players are drafted. Coaches sign elsewhere. Coaches are promoted. Injuries are healed.

It’s not rocket science to figure out why team success in the NFL can be so volatile. The New England Patriots’ run of dominance for nearly two decades is nearly unfathomable. It feels like the Kansas City Chiefs are the closest comparison in today’s NFL, yet they’ve only been at that level for a mere three seasons.

The Minnesota Vikings are a perfect example. Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, Minnesota has had three seasons with double-digit wins and a playoff berth. The other four seasons? An overall record of 30-33-1 and zero playoff appearances.

The Vikings may have the most moving parts of any team in the NFL, which seems nearly impossible because the starting quarterback, the head coach, and the general manager all remain the same. However, their lackluster 2020 season sparked key personnel decisions by the front office with the goal of competing for a Super Bowl. Is it fair to expect Minnesota to contend this season?

To place fair expectations on the Vikings, it’s important to take a look at the full body of work. Last season, the Vikings finished 7-9 despite boasting the No. 4 offense in the NFL in total yards. How? Well, the defense finished 27th in total yards.

A quick look at the history of Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota suggests the Vikings’ defense will bounce back this year. The Vikings have routinely been one of the top-10 defenses in the NFL under Zimmer, both against the run and against the pass. Even last season, despite all the injuries and missed games the Vikings had to endure, Zimmer’s defense finished 10th in the NFL on third-down defense, showing he can still scheme up a defensive game plan with the best of them.

Danielle HunterMichael Pierce, and Eric Kendricks are all back at full strength. The cornerback position, which was inexperienced a year ago, has been bolstered by the additions of Patrick PetersonBashaud Breeland, and Mackensie AlexanderDalvin TomlinsonEverson GriffenSheldon Richardson, and Xavier Woods have also been added to provide key depth and fill important roles with Zimmer’s defense. Suddenly, based on past production, this looks like a pretty freaking good defense. Is it a top-10 defense? Perhaps. But it’s fair to expect a rebound performance that lifts the Vikings out of the gutter from the 2020 season.

Meanwhile, the Vikings’ offense is coming off an impressive season. Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins had one of the most efficient seasons of his career as a starter, recording a career-high 8.3 yards per attempt. He also set a new personal best with 35 passing touchdowns and recorded his second-best passer rating as a starter (105.0).

As a unit, the Vikings ranked sixth in the NFL in net yards per attempt passing (which is yards per attempt with sacks factored in) and ranked fourth in yards per rush attempt, thanks largely to a massive season by Dalvin Cook. In the prior two seasons of the Cousins era in Minnesota, the Vikings ranked fifth (2019) and 18th (2018) in net yards per attempt and 12th (2019) and 25th (2018) in yards per rush attempt.

Is it likely the Vikings will recapture the offensive efficiency they achieved in 2020? Probably not. When players have career years, especially established veterans who have played as long as Cousins, it’s more common that they regress to the mean than they remain on the upward trend. Cousins’ expectation for 2021 should be lower than his production in 2020. The same goes for Cook, who had by far his best season as a pro last year.

This brings us to the overall expectations for the Vikings in 2021. Based on historical trends and roster changes, it’s fair to expect the Vikings’ defense to improve upon last year while the offense regresses. Could the offense maintain its efficiency from 2020 as the sixth-best passing offense and fourth-best rushing offense? Sure. But that took career seasons from both Cousins and Cook at the same time. Odds suggest lightning won’t strike twice.

The Vikings were a 7-9 team in 2020 and they’ll likely fall right around .500 once again in 2021. If Minnesota’s stars on both sides of the ball can stay healthy, they might be able to reach that double-digit win accomplishment and earn a playoff berth in another odd calendar year. Any expectation beyond that, based on what we know from the past, is unfair.