EAGAN, Minn. -- As they prepare to open full camp next Friday (July 27 when veterans report), no other NFL team is under as much pressure as the Minnesota Vikings.
They are presumed to have everything lined up perfectly for that first Super Bowl appearance since Jan. 9, 1977.
Last season, the Vikings went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game with Case Keenum, a journeyman quarterback making $2 million, playing all but six quarters in relief of Sam Bradford. Then they lost Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater -- three quarterbacks with a combined 146 NFL starts -- to free agency.
No problem. Six months after missing out on playing the Super Bowl in their own stadium, the Vikings and their fans are banking on a Super Bowl trip to Atlanta in February. Their top-ranked defense appears to be even stronger, phenom running back Dalvin Cook is healthy again and, oh yeah, they threw a record $84 million guaranteed at the premier free agent that every quarterback-starved team in the league coveted.
"We'd be here a long time if I were to read off the grocery list of reasons why this (team) is the right fit," said new quarterback Kirk Cousins, the former Redskin who turned down the Jets' offer of $90 million guaranteed. "For the sake of time, I'll just say winning. It's the best chance to win."
But it won't be easy. At least not as easy as many fans seem to believe as rookies and veterans get set to report to training camp July 24 and 27, respectively. After 52 summers of training in Mankato, the Vikings will hold camp at their new Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan.
"This place has everything we possibly could need or want when it comes to preparing ourselves to win," said All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. "But we still have to put in the work. We didn't make the Super Bowl last year, so obviously we need to work even harder than we did last year."
Offensively, the Vikings need Cousins and new coordinator John DeFilippo to get up to speed immediately and develop the kind of chemistry that Keenum struck with Pat Shurmur, who left the Vikings to become the Giants' head coach. DeFilippo hasn't overhauled Shurmur's offense, but he is tailoring it to Cousins' strengths, which includes a stronger deep ball than Keenum was able to muster.
The offensive line holds the unheralded key and must not fade late in the season like it did last year. The right side of the line is the place to watch. Mike Remmers moves from tackle to guard, where steady veteran Joe Berger retired. If Rashod Hill can handle being the full-time starter at tackle, Remmers will stay at guard, where he seems more comfortable. If Hill falters, Remmers will move back to tackle while Tom Compton, Danny Isidora and Josh Andrews would headline a wide-open battle at guard.
Defensively, head coach Mike Zimmer's star-studded unit returns 10 of 11 starters from the group that led the league in yards and points allowed. And the only new face is former first-round draft pick and Pro Bowl tackle Sheldon Richardson, who will be an upgrade over Tom Johnson if he stays motivated. Johnson was a steady overachiever who was better suited as a backup situational pass rusher. The younger Richardson has more upside and talent, but needs to mimic Johnson's professionalism and work ethic. His one-year, prove-it deal should serve as a motivator.
Speaking of motivation, Zimmer has spent the offseason harping on and prodding his defenders with how they played their final six quarters in the playoffs. In the second half of the win over New Orleans and the 38-7 NFC title game beatdown at Philadelphia, the Vikings gave up 62 points. And if not for the "Minneapolis Miracle" -- a walk-off touchdown heave from Keenum to Stefon Diggs -- the Vikings would have been one-and-done.
"If you're only as good as your last game," said Zimmer, "we have some work to do."
And injuries to avoid. Last year, the Vikings had only two starting defenders miss a total of three starts because of injury.
The Vikings have only one playoff win since the 2009 season. And for all his flashy statistics, Cousins is 0-2 in the playoffs.
But Cousins and the Vikings are expected to hold off Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the division and then sidestep a conference that's gotten stronger with the Rams stockpiling talent, the South division looking strong as ever and Carson Wentz returning to the Super Bowl champion Eagles.
Talk about pressure.