How the Vikings Players to Watch vs. Bears Fared

Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For the last time this season, it is time to look at how my Vikings players to watch fared.

After a depressing first half, the Vikings kicked into gear in the second half and ran out comfortable winners. More importantly, some of the young guys I wanted to watch had a good outing. However, I am kicking myself for forgetting about Kenny Willekes, who, after losing his first season in the league to injury, has shown some nice flashes this year. Willekes finished with two sacks yesterday was a great way to end the season.

Kellen Mond and Wyatt Davis were both inactive, so there’s nothing to report there, while Chazz Surratt only saw the field on special teams, and there’s nothing of note to report on Patrick Jones. Kene Nwangwu had one rushing attempt that went for four yards, plus two kickoff returns that went for 38 yards. It does get better, though.

Here’s how the rest of my Vikings players to watch fared in this one.

There is no other place to start than Ihmir Smith-Marsette. After getting his first carer touchdown at Soldier Field, he had a true breakout game against the Bears on Sunday — three catches from three targets for 103 yards at 33.34 yards a catch, including a 44-yard touchdown catch. I was so pleased to see Smith-Marsette get his chance to shine and prove he is yet another exciting weapon on this offense. I was a big fan going into the draft — here’s me crossing my fingers for him on draft day!

It was a quiet day for KJ Osborn, who only caught one of his four targets. However, that one catch was a diving 21-yard touchdown catch. So, it was worth the wait — even if it may well be forever known as the catch that could have gone to Justin Jefferson to break the Vikings receiving yard record held by Randy Moss.

Switching to the other side of the ball, it was another career start for Armon Watts. There were no splash plays from Watts. He made a few tackles and had a QB hit. He did enough to confirm he is a solid rotational piece going into next season. The same can be said for James Lynch, who has shown steady progress this year, but there wasn’t much to see in this game other than a couple of tackles.

We finish my final how the Vikings players to watch fared on a positive, with Blake Lynch. With the futures of Anthony Barr and Nick Vigil uncertain and the possibility of the linebacker room looking threadbare going into next season. The Vikings needed a linebacker to break through and prove a capable playmaker. Lynch has been that guy.

He snagged his first career interception in the final game to add to his season tally of two sacks, two pass deflections, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one tackle for loss, and one QB hit. The key with those stats is he has made a play in all areas of the game. He made a big step up from his rookie season. Here’s hoping he can do that again and go even better in 2022.

The Minnesota Vikings are not partaking in the postseason this year – they were eliminated by the rival Packers a couple of weeks ago – but silver linings exist.

An era of change is underway, evidenced by the terminations of the team’s key leadership figures, general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer.

The next regime – the search is underway – will inherit two First-Team All-Pro football players, too. And the tally arguably could have been three men.

The NFL announced First-Team All-Pro rosters on Wednesday, plopping two Vikings on the squad with running back Kene Nwangwu and linebacker Eric Kendricks.

Kendricks, a player theorized to return with the Vikings in 2022, actually had a down year by his lofty standards. Per Pro Football Focus, Kendricks graded a 58.8, ranking 32nd of 88 qualifying linebackers. In 2020, Kendricks’ PFF score was 82.6. So, his grade dipped 29% in a single season.

Eric Kendricks
Nov 8, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) celebrates with teammates after making an interception against the Detroit Lions during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

However, Kendricks did tackle folks like a madman. He accrued 143 tackles, the ninth-most in the business. Kendricks and the Vikings certainly won’t complain about the All-Pro designation, but the award might’ve been afforded to him in large part due to reputation. See: Xavier Rhodes as a Pro Bowler in 2019 despite a terrible 46.4 grade from PFF.

Kendricks’ teammate, Kene Nwangwu, was spectacular in his rookie season. His All-Pro trophy was assuredly warranted. Nwangwu became healthy in November and promptly scored two kick return touchdowns upon his arrival —Β  a feat rare for the Vikings after the exodus of Cordarrelle Patterson from the franchise in 2017.

All told, Nwangwu returned 18 kicks for 32.2 yards per return – tops in the NFL. And that’s why the man is now an All-Pro.

On a downer note for Minnesota, Justin Jefferson did not receive the All-Pro accolade. He was nudged by Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, and ex-teammate at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase. Jefferson took notice, evidently peeved by the perceived snub.

Jefferson notched more yards than Chase in 2021, but Chase grabbed three more touchdowns. For voters, the extra touchdowns made the difference. Too, Adams and Kupp absolutely deserved the recognition. The decision came down to Chase or Jefferson, leaving the Vikings wide receiver on the outside looking in.

In the Spielman-Zimmer era, from 2014 to 2021, the Vikings drafted three First-Team All-Pro players: Kendricks, Nwangwu, and Stefon Diggs.

Jefferson is a lock for Second-Team All-Pro honors. He earned the same title last year during his first season.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).