Clearly, the 2021 Minnesota Vikings were not good enough, as they fell short of the postseason, leading to a coaching and front office teardown. They’ve since made a few additions to the roster over the offseason, but even with the newest contributors joining the team, they’ll need internal growth to take the next step as a whole.
But it’s not like this is an old and aging roster with few opportunities for a breakout season. While the Vikings do have several veterans who aren’t likely to post career-best seasons, there are also a few young players who have yet to reach their full potential. Here are three Vikings who I believe could be in for a breakout year in 2022.
Kene Nwangwu’s speed becomes impossible to ignore
For those who paid close attention to the Vikings last year, chances are, you’re already at least mildly familiar with Kene Nwangwu. The 2021 fourth-round pick was buried on the running back depth chart, behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. That won’t change in 2022 either.
But we could see Nwangwu used more frequently on offense in a variety of roles, including lining up out wide as a receiver. Now that Kevin O’Connell is implementing his own offense, expected to look similar to Sean McVay’s schemes, the Vikings’ group of tailbacks is likely looking at more pass-catching opportunities.
But that’s not the only area Nwangwu can see the field. This is a kid who was unofficially clocked at 4.29 in the 40-yard dash at his Iowa State Pro Day. Even with Cook being among the very best running backs in football, it’s hard not to think up ways they can get Nwangwu involved as a ball carrier. Like on tosses and sweeps that allow Nwangwu to get a full head of steam going as he blazes past the second line of defenders, hoping to streak into the defensive backfield.
At the very least, Nwangwu is expected to reprise his role as the lead kick returner after leading the NFL with two kick return touchdowns last season. His effort earned him first-team recognition from the Pro Football Writers Association as a kick returner, but we could see Nwangwu become a valued contributor all over the gridiron in 2022. His speed is just too valuable to keep off the field.
Irv Smith Jr. finally shows his potential
Now back to 100%, Irv Smith Jr. is ready to show he’s more than just another draft pick with potential. He’s ready to make a name for himself, just as he once did at Alabama, becoming one of the top tight ends in the nation.
Last year the Vikings let Kyle Rudolph go with the knowledge that they still had Smith ready to show his worth. Unfortunately, Smith tore his meniscus during the preseason, and his boat could never hit the water, sitting out all season.
But Irv’s about to turn 24, and his athletic profile, combined with the glimpses of talent shown, have led to the idea that he could quickly become one of the top pass-catching tight ends in football. We’re not likely looking at the Travis Kelce or Darren Waller production levels where he puts up 1,000 yards, but matching Rudolph’s production at the height of his career shouldn’t be a problem.
Despite his previous career highs topping out at 365 yards and five touchdowns, there’s no reason why Smith Jr. can’t double those numbers in 2022. Anything fewer than 600 yards and seven touchdowns would be considered a disappointment, but that’s just how good No. 84 can be.
Cameron Dantzler gets back on track
When you’re a young cornerback, confidence plays a big part in your success. It’s not uncommon for some of the best corners to have massive egos, even as rookies. Look at Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, it might be the way to play, with a huge chip on your shoulder. For whatever reason, Cameron Dantzler had that confidence as a rookie, but he lost it to begin his second season, perhaps after being torched early on in the year.
Despite his early struggles, where Dantzler allowed 40 or more yards in coverage from Weeks 6-9, he did close out on a high note, holding each of his opponents under 39 yards in each contest the rest of the way. His coverage grade ranked lower than it did as a rookie, at 67.6, compared to 69.8 per Pro Football Focus. But the biger takeaway is, Dantzler showed the ability to play at an elite level, he just needs to find that consistency, which is a common area of refinement for younger players adapting to the highest level of play.
As PFF noted, Dantzler is one of the best corners in press coverage, where he held opposing quarterbacks to the third-worst completion percentage (32.3%) when pressing receivers in 2021.
With the hard-nosed Mike Zimmer no longer in town, maybe Ed Donatell’s fresh approach can help turn ‘The Needle’s career around for good. At 6-foot-2, with the ability to also run a 4.38 40-yard dash, Dantzler has all the intangibles one would dream of out of a cornerback, he just needs to figure out how to show up every day. Hopefully that growth takes place throughout the course of the 2022 football season.