WELCOME BACK: Vikings quarterback hype. The signing of KIRK COUSINS from Washington for a guaranteed $84 million over three years has generated the most excitement about the position since Minnesota inked Brett Favre in 2009. The Vikings know they're ready to contend and didn't want to bank on journeyman Case Keenum reprising his performance of '17, when he came off the bench and led them to the NFC championship game. Ultimately, Minnesota's return on investment will depend on how well Cousins executes when plays break down—sandlot situations in which Keenum shockingly thrived. Cousins can consistently capitalize when the play design wins; the results are more uneven when he's had to ad-lib.

Cousins's best friends in this offense are wide receivers ADAM THIELEN and STEFON DIGGS, two of the league's most dazzling route runners. They possess not just speed and quickness but also the ability to harness them, sacrificing almost no body control when accelerating or decelerating. That's the key to their gaining separation from defenders.

Minnesota's defense ranked first in both points and yards last season, and it should be even better this year. The core stars are all in their primes, including HARRISON SMITH and ANDREW SENDEJO, the NFL's best safety tandem. Smith is a five-tool player who doesn't miss open-field tackles or turnover opportunities. He's excellent as a strongside run defender and dangerous as a weakside pass defender. Coach MIKE ZIMMER employs traditional zone concepts that are not especially complex as NFL defenses go, but the flexibility of Smith and Sendejo gives coverages just enough texture and disguise to make a QB hesitate.

There's an argument against Smith's being the most important player on Minnesota's defense: It's XAVIER RHODES. Smith does his job better than anyone, but Rhodes, a physical corner who shadows No. 1 targets, has a more meaningful role. Last season he won battles against receivers ranging from Pittsburgh's quick and darting Antonio Brown to the long and limber Mike Evans of Tampa Bay.

2017 RECORD 13W 3L

SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 11W 5L

2018 SCHEDULE

SEPT.

9th 49ERS

16th @PACKERs

23rd BILLS

27TH @RAMS [Thursday]

OCT.

7th @EAGLES

14th CARDINALS

21st @JETS

28th SAINTS

NOV.

4th LIONS

11th BYE

18th @BEARS

25th PACKERS

DEC.

2nd @PATRIOTS

10th @SEAHAWKS [Monday]

16th DOLPHINS

23rd @LIONS

30th BEARS

Monday

Thursday

Position Rankings

QB

16

RB

11

WR/TE

4

O-LINE

18

FRONT 7

1

DB

1

Strength

AT END, EVERSON GRIFFEN has great technique and power, while DANIELLE HUNTER has fantastic length and quickness. At tackle, LINVAL JOSEPH is the game's strongest run plugger and SHELDON RICHARDSON is a gap-shooting ace.