It’s easy to compile a list of the Vikings’ most important players for the upcoming 2017 season. Sam Bradford. Dalvin Cook. Harrison Smith. Linval Joseph. The list goes on and on. But sometimes, a player without a substantial role in the game plan makes all the difference on Sunday (or Monday … or Thursday). With that in mind, FOX Sports North lists five behind-the-scenes players that could have a large impact on the Vikings’ success in 2017.
LG Nick Easton
The Vikings’ offensive line took a major shake-up when the team released starting left guard Alex Boone over the weekend. Boone, acquired before the 2016 season as a free agent, talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk last year and was underwhelming at best when he was healthy in the 2017 preseason. In fact, the Vikings offensive line looked promising (something that hasn’t been uttered in what feels like years) in preseason Week 2 when Boone was out … which we documented here. Was Easton’s play in the first half of that game at left guard a mirage or an outlook of how the unit will look in the trenches this season? The Vikings certainly are hoping for the latter.
USA Today Sports
P Ryan Quigley
No one really knows what to expect from the Vikings offense this year. It could be explosive with new weapons like Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray and Michael Floyd … or it could be horrendous as well. We’ve seen both. If it’s the latter, Minnesota will rely on its defense and field position. Which is where new punter Quigley comes into play. Quigley won the starting punter battle in training camp over Taylor Symmank, a job that opened up after Jeff Locke (who has since been released from the Colts) departed in free agency. In a career spanning four years and 51 games, Quigley has placed 84 punts inside the 20-yard line and owns an average of 44.6 yards per attempt, although that number has fallen over the years (41.6 average in 2016). With the intimidating front seven on the Vikings defense, pinning opponents inside the 20 -- or better yet, the 10 -- can change the outcome of a game.
CB Tramaine Brock
Although Mackensie Alexander is still ahead of Brock on the depth chart, it remains to be seen if the second-year player from Clemson can be relied on as the starter at nickel corner. After Alexander’s disappointing performance in the preseason, the Vikings swapped a seventh-round pick with the Seahawks to bring in Brock, a former Golden Gopher. Brock brings experience at nickel corner to Minnesota. He played there with the 49ers in 2015, although most of his time in the NFL has been spent on the outside. If Alexander can’t get the job done, Minnesota has a reliable and experienced defensive back behind him in Brock that can fill the void. That being said, head coach Mike Zimmer -- coined the cornerback whisperer by some -- continues to speak highly of Alexander heading into the season.
USA TODAY SportsTimothy T. Ludwig
DT Jaleel Johnson
The Vikings’ deepest unit by far in 2016 was the defensive line. And it got even better in the offseason. Minnesota selected Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson in the fourth round (109th overall) in April’s draft, and the 316-pound lineman did nothing but impress throughout training camp and preseason. In four preseason games, Johnson’s 12 tackles led all defensive linemen. He also recorded a sack in Week 1 of the preseason against the Bills. Johnson is slotted at defensive tackle behind 33-year-old Tom Johnson -- where he will likely remain -- but nonetheless see significant playing time in a dominant rotation.
KR Jerick McKinnon
It took rookie receiver Rodney Adams six kick returns in the preseason to reach 118 yards. It took Jerick McKinnon just two. The Jet ran away (pun intended) with the kickoff returner role after his 108-yard return for a touchdown in preseason Week 3. Buried on the depth chart at running back behind rookie Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, McKinnon may have found his niche in the Vikings game plan. With an offense that has a tendency to sputter, field position (see a theme here?) can make all the difference. And McKinnon will get the first crack at improving field position as the kickoff returner.