MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-5)
EXPECTATIONS: After an NFC North title in head coach Kevin O'Connell's rookie season behind an NFL-record 11 wins in one-score games, second-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah took a longer view in the offseason with moves that prioritized future salary cap flexibility over 2023 competitiveness. The Vikings dumped four players with a combined 10 Pro Bowl appearances, most notably RB Dalvin Cook after his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing year and first season without missing a game. They also declined to extend the contract for QB Kirk Cousins, putting him in another prove-it year. Still, the division is wide open for the taking. Last season's record will be awfully tough to match, but returning to the playoffs wouldn't require it. As long as WR Justin Jefferson is around, Cousins ought to have another solid year with greater comfort in O'Connell's system.
STRENGTHS: Passing game, coaching staff. Cousins has more than just Jefferson to throw to, with K.J. Osborn, Addison and TE T.J. Hockenson capable of the stretching a defense. LT Christian Darrisaw and RT Brian O'Neill form a solid bookend of blockers. O'Connell showed an ability to get the most out of his players in his first year, and hiring Flores for his second season ought to pay off. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels is a rising star in the coaching ranks, too.
WEAKNESSES: Cornerback depth, interior offensive line. While Murphy is proven and the rookie Blackmon has shown promise, fellow starting CB Akayleb Evans has only one concussion-limited season of experience. There's not much to lean on in case of injuries. The offense needs more consistent pass protection and run blocking from LG Ezra Cleveland and RG Ed Ingram to find the next level.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Addison's emergence in practice has been a welcomed sight. OLB Danielle Hunter took the field a few days late after his contract was reworked, giving Flores a vital cog for his new group even if the status of the team's best pass rusher beyond this year remains in question. Hockenson, who's in the final season of his current deal, has practiced sparingly because of first an ear infection and later back stiffness, according to O’Connell.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Alexander Mattison. Now the unchallenged featured ball carrier, Mattison ranked fifth in the NFL by converting a first down on 28.4% of his attempts last season among running backs with 250 rushing yards or more. In five career games with 20-plus carries, Mattison totaled 522 yards and two touchdowns on 114 rushes and 207 yards and two scores on 22 receptions.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 35-1. Over/under wins: 8 1/2.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL
The Associated Press