Aug 132013
 

Introduction

The Vikings won 10 games and made the playoffs last season, after winning just 3 the year prior. However, teams that have big win improvements like that tend to regress the following season, roughly about half of the win improvement. If the Vikings were to do that, that would put them at 6 or 7 wins and there’s reason to believe the Vikings will do something like that. There are three things about Minnesota’s 2012 season that are unsustainable.

The first is that they excelled in close games, winning 5 out of 6 games decided by a touchdown or fewer. As a result, they won 10 games despite a point differential of +31 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.8 wins. Record in games decided by a touchdown or less tends to be very inconsistent and almost always evens out in the long run. For instance, they were 2-9 in such games in 2011.

There’s no reason to believe they’ll be that bad again in 2013, but at the same time there’s no reason to believe they’ll be as good as they were in 2012 again either. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 14th in the NFL last season and most importantly for their chances of making the post-season again in 2013, they ranked 9th in the loaded NFC in DVOA. I think that’s a more accurate assessment of their 2012 season: that they were the 9th best team in the NFC, but snuck into the 6th seed because of some “clutch” close wins.

I have reason to believe they won’t even be the 9th best team in the NFC this season. Keep in mind, the teams ranked 15th-17th in DVOA were also NFC teams, as were the teams ranked 19th-20th. The difference between being the 9th and the 14th best team (Tampa Bay) in the NFC last year was not very significant and if a few more things don’t go quite the Vikings’ way, they could be one of the worst teams in the NFC. One thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again is injuries. Last year, they were 2nd in the NFL in adjusted games lost, essentially losing the equivalent of over 2 important players for the entire season fewer than the average NFL team. That tends to be unsustainable so the Vikings should suffer more bad luck in terms of injury in 2013.

The other thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again this season is the MVP, Adrian Peterson. Peterson played at a non-human level in 2012, coming up 9 yards short of the single season rushing record and becoming the 2nd running back since 1982 to average 6.0 yards per carry or more and carry the ball 300 or more times. It was arguably one of the best single seasons a running back has ever had. It’s a season that no running back will probably match for a long time and unfortunately for Vikings fans, that probably includes Peterson.

No running back in NFL history has ever rushed for 2000 yards twice in a career. No running back has even rushed for 1900 yards twice in a career. Among the top-16 in single season rushing yard totals there are 15 unique names. Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and OJ Simpson have both rushed for 1800 yards more than once in their career, but only Dickerson did it in back-to-back seasons and he was 23-24 in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. Peterson is going to try to do it when he’s 27-28.

Furthermore, of the 28 other players to ever rush for 1700+ yards in a season, only 3 exceeded their rushing total the following season. In fact, the average 1700+ yard rusher rushed for 615 fewer yards the following season. Sure, some of them got seriously hurt, but it’s not like it would be impossible for Peterson to get hurt and even when you take out the 4 players who didn’t make it to 200 carries the following season, they still averaged 474 yards fewer the following season. On top of that, those players also averaged 7/10ths of a yard fewer per carry, going from 5.1 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry. Finally, only 5 players in NFL history have had 3500 rushing yards in a 2-year stretch and only 2 have had 3600.

Now, Peterson is definitely not going to have a bad year. In fact, he’s still my pick to lead the NFL in rushing, but you can lead the NFL in rushing with 1600 yards. I think there’s a decent chance that Peterson gets to 1662 rushing yards, which would give him the 2nd most rushing yards all-time in a two year span, but either way there’s a very good chance Peterson is rushing for at least 400 yards fewer this season. Plus, remember, in Peterson’s 6 year NFL career, he’s rushed for fewer than 1400 yards 4 times. Last season was the best of his career, but he didn’t suddenly become a significantly better player.

Quarterback

Now, what would a slightly more human performance from Peterson mean for this offense? Well, how Christian Ponder plays will have a lot to do with it. Ponder largely was a game manager for the Vikings last season, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, hitching his wagon to Peterson and having him drag him into the post-season.

How improbable was it that the Vikings made the playoffs despite this kind of quarterback play? Well, since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.1 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 1/10 of the yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. That’s why Peterson got my support for MVP, even though it’s near impossible for a running back to truly be the most valuable player in today’s NFL. Peterson was last year.

However, without Peterson rushing for an absurd amount of yardage this season, the Vikings could be in a lot of trouble if Ponder doesn’t improve statistically. Remember, how close the Vikings were to being the 14th best team in the NFC last year? A few more injuries and a more human season from Adrian Peterson and the Vikings are right there and probably around that aforementioned 5 win mark if Ponder doesn’t improve significantly.

Ponder could be a better quarterback going into his 3rd season in the NFL, but he was a very NFL ready quarterback coming out of Florida State. He was never a quarterback who had a lot of issues with the non-physical parts of the game (touch, accuracy, decision making, reading defenses), but he’s physically limited and that’s not something that really improves as your career goes along.

Ponder showed this lack of arm strength, completing just 31 of 96 (32.3%) last season on throws outside the hash marks 10+ yards downfield or over the middle of the field 20+ yards downfield. He did most of his work on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and on over the middle throws 10-19 yards downfield, which require less arm strength than throws outside the hash marks. On top of that, only 44.2% of his yardage came on yards in the air, worst in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. The rest came after the catch, largely from Percy Harvin. He was also ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback in passing grade after ranking 6th worst as a rookie.

He’s averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt throughout his career and considering how much he struggled last season without Percy Harvin, he could be even less than that this season. Harvin went down for the year midway through the 9th game of the season and Ponder averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt in games 9-16 last season.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Of course, it’s not like the Vikings didn’t replace Harvin and I think they actually made the right move trading him away. Rather than giving him a massive extension when he’s never proven he can stay healthy, the Vikings used the money they otherwise would have spent on him to sign Greg Jennings and pay rookie Cordarelle Patterson, who they drafted in the 1st round, which was what the Vikings got from the Seahawks for Harvin (it wasn’t the exact pick, but for the purposes of evaluating the move, it was close enough). Now they have Jennings and Patterson, rather than Harvin, who is once again hurt, now with the Seahawks.

However, Jennings and Patterson still do not make this a very good receiving corps and the two combined of them won’t give them what Harvin gave Ponder in the 1st half of last season. Ponder still doesn’t have much to work with in terms of weapons, which is why I don’t expect much improvement from him this season and possibly an even worse season. Jennings once averaged 75 catches for 1223 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns per season from 2008-2010, while not missing game due to injury, but in the past 2 seasons, he’s missed 11 games with injury and was limited to 103 catches for 1315 yards and 13 touchdowns total.

Now he goes from the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers combination he spent his entire career with in Green Bay to one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in Christian Ponder. He’s going into his age 30 season and has had a lot of trouble staying healthy lately. Receivers switching teams mid-season usually disappoint. And he’s also spent a lot of time this off-season talking about Rodgers and the Packers like a scorned ex-girlfriend, to the point where Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier had to tell him to stop. I don’t know if that’s a bad sign, but it’s not a good sign. He’s unlikely to be the #1 receiver that Ponder needs even when he’s in the lineup.

Patterson, meanwhile, is incredibly raw. Most 1st round rookie receivers are. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. However, Patterson is even rawer, playing just one season of real college football. He’s currently trying to beat out marginal veteran Jerome Simpson for the starting job and he’s unlikely to make any real impact as a rookie. Simpson, meanwhile, has averaged a mediocre 1.27 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons as a starter with Minnesota and Cincinnati, while struggling with drops, off the field issues, and injuries.

Jarius Wright will remain as the slot receiver either way. He definitely flashed in the 2nd half of last season after Harvin went down as the 4th round rookie caught 22 passes for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 133 routes run in 7 games after Harvin’s injury. He could continue to be an asset in 3-wide receiver sets.

Kyle Rudolph remains at tight end. A solid blocker, Rudolph also caught 53 passes for 493 yards and 9 touchdowns last season in his 2nd year in the league. He’s a solid goal line threat, but probably needs a new quarterback before he can reach his statistical potential, as the 2011 2nd round pick goes into his 3rd year in the league. John Carlson, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, serving as a move tight end. He was signed to an absurd 5 year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season despite missing the entire previous season with injury and totaling just 137 catches in 3 seasons before that and he predictably flopped, catching just 8 passes last season. He probably won’t offer much more this season. Overall, it’s still a very weak group at wide receiver and that’s going to continue to make it hard for Ponder to move the ball through the air. They could be right around that aforementioned 6 yards per attempt mark this season.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

I’ve already gone into detail about Peterson. He’s the best running back in the NFL and a future Hall of Famer, but history suggests he won’t even come close to rushing for 2000 yards again. He’ll probably rush for 1500-1600 yards again, for the 3rd time in his career, and average about 5 yards per carry on 300 attempts, but he won’t be what he was last year simply because few rarely are. Peterson’s one weakness is that he’s only caught 177 passes in 6 seasons so he doesn’t help Ponder out much in the air. Toby Gerhart will remain as the pure backup. He’s rushed for 1022 yards and 3 touchdowns on 240 carries in 3 seasons in the NFL, but unless Peterson gets hurt he’s unlikely to see much more than the 50 carries he saw last season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Peterson does get a lot of help from his blocking, as the Vikings ranked 3rd in the NFL on ProFootballFocus in run blocking grade last season. Not only does he have two great run blocking fullbacks in Jerome Felton and Rhett Ellison (Ellison is more of an h-back, but still), who graded out 4th and 2nd respectively on ProFootballFocus among fullbacks in terms of blocking last year, but he also has a great offensive line, with strong starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle. They also hold up in pass protection, grading out 16th on ProFootballFocus in that aspect last season and ranking 7th in pass block efficiency.

Left tackle Matt Kalil played well from day 1 on the blindside as the 4th overall pick in last year’s draft, grading out 22nd among tackles on ProFootballFocus. He was tied with Loadholt was 22nd, as they had the exact same grade. Kalil and Loadholt are different types of players. Kalil graded out 12th in pass protection and only committed 6 penalties, but graded out below average as a run blocker, while Loadholt was 4th in run blocking, but not as good in pass protection and committed 11 penalties. Kalil could be even better in his 2nd year in the league, while Loadholt should remain an above average starter, as he’s been in every season so far in his career since being taken in the 2nd round in 2009, with the exception of 2010. He rightfully got a 4-year, 25 million dollar contract this off-season.

Sullivan, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ 1st ranked center last season, excelling as a run blocker. That was no fluke as he was 3rd the year before. He should continue playing at a very high level in 2013 and he might be the best center in the NFL. The talented trio of Kalil, Loadholt, and Sullivan also didn’t miss a single snap last season.

The Vikings do have weaknesses at both guard spots, however. Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco ranked 61st and 73rd respectively among 81 eligible guards last season. They don’t have much to push them either. Jeff Baca and Travis Bond are 6th and 7th round pick rookies only, while Seth Olsen was awful last year in Indianapolis. He would have graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th worst ranked guard last season if he had been eligible, but he wasn’t because he played just 289 snaps. Only Eben Britton played fewer snaps and graded out worse. Overall though, it’s a very solid offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Vikings used a 1st round pick on defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, but he’s going to serve primarily as Kevin Williams’ direct backup. He was primarily drafted to be Williams’ heir apparent and spell the veteran more often as Williams goes into his age 33 contract year and he won’t have a significant impact as a rookie. Instead, a veteran, Fred Evans, could be the one who has a breakout year on the defensive line for the Vikings, at least in his specific role.

In his age 30 season, Evans, a career backup, will battle with Letroy Guion for the base defensive tackle job , serving as a two-down run stuffer in base packages. According to Head Coach Leslie Frazier, he’ll be given every chance to win that job. If Evans shows himself in camp to be the player he was last year, he should win that job. Evans finished the regular season as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle and no one played as few snaps as him, 342, and had a higher grade. That doesn’t even take into account his best performance of the season, in the Vikings’ playoff game against the Packers, when he had 5 tackles for offensive failure (within 4 yards of the original LOS on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down). Post-season included, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated defensive tackle.

His biggest strength was playing the run, which will be important as he attempts to win that right defensive tackle job. Only 2 players had a higher rating against the run on ProFootballFocus than him, with post-season included, as he had 20 tackles for offensive failure on the season, also known as a stop. With 17 of these coming on 166 running plays, he had a run stop percentage of 10.2%, good for 5th in the NFL among eligible defensive tackles. He wasn’t too shabby as a pass rusher as well, as he graded out just about average with 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 4 hurries on 188 pass rush snaps.

Guion, meanwhile, had just 18 stops all season, despite playing 539 snaps. With 14 of these coming on 235 run snaps, his run stop percentage was just 6.0%, closer to the bottom of the league, 53th out of 85 eligible. He graded out dead last among 85 eligible defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus in the regular season, 76th out of 79 eligible with post-season included. His biggest weakness was the run, which is not a good thing when you’re trying to win a starting nose tackle job against someone who was one of the best in the league in that regard last season. I expect Evans to win this starting job and have a great year as a starter in the base packages. Guion, meanwhile, is not a lock for a roster spot, owed a non-guaranteed 2.45 million.

Kevin Williams has been a top-9 defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 5 seasons, the only defensive tackle in the NFL to maintain kind of consistent success, but he could drop out this season. He’s going into his age 33 season and, with Floyd coming in, Frazier says the plan is to limit Williams’ snaps to 30-40 per game, rather than the 52.2 per game he averaged last season. He could still be effective in a more limited role, but he’s unlikely to be the big time difference maker he normally is. He’s unlikely to be back in 2014. We’ll see if Floyd can flash in a limited role this season and make up for Williams’ slack, but it’s tough to count on a rookie to perform like that.

The Vikings have a trio of talented defensive ends in Jared Allen, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen and frequently play them at the same time on passing downs, along with the under tackle (this year either Williams or Floyd). It’s a big part of the reason why they had 44 sacks last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked team rushing the passer. Allen is the biggest name, but he also had the worst grade of the bunch last season. He rushed the passer well, grading out 11th at his position in that aspect and producing 11 sacks, 17 hits, and 47 hurries on 678 pass rush snaps, an 11.1% pass rush rate, but he also committed 9 penalties and struggled against the run. He’s had better years, grading out 5th in 2011, 7th in 2009, and 8th in 2008, but going into his age 31 season, his best days could be behind him. He’ll still be at least an above average starter either way and could be even more.

Robison had the best grade of the bunch, grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus, excelling as a pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and 40 hurries on 551 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% pass rush rate and, unlike Allen, he played the run well  and committed just 4 penalties. He’s graded out above average in both seasons as a starter. Griffin, meanwhile, is the 3rd end and frequently would line up as a defensive tackle on passing downs. He was overall just an average player, rushing the passer and stopping the run alright, but committed 8 penalties. He had 8 sacks, 12 hits, and 23 hurries on 423 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% pass rush rate. This trio should continue rushing the passer well this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The front four is very solid, but the back 7 has plenty of questions. Chad Greenway is the mainstay at linebacker, playing every down outside, but once an above average starter, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Erin Henderson moves to the inside and will be an every down linebacker this season, but it’s a poor positional fit for him. He was great as a two-down run stuffing outside linebacker and could easily continue stopping the run well at inside linebacker, but he’s very poor in coverage, coming off the field regularly throughout his career for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Last season, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage. He shouldn’t be an every down player. They tried this experiment briefly last year before giving up.

Desmond Bishop takes over Henderson’s old two down role outside. Bishop was an above average every down starting middle linebacker with the Packers in both 2010 and 2011, topping out at 5th overall in 2010, but he missed all of last season with a torn hamstring. He’s only going into his age 29 season, but it’s concerning that the Packers cut him, that he had to take a minimum deal on the open market, and that the Vikings are moving him to the outside and making him a part-time player, even with coverage liability Henderson in the middle. Perhaps his injury is having noticeable lingering effects.

It would definitely be in the Vikings’ best interest if he could prove himself capable of the every down middle linebacker job and move Henderson back to where he’s best, but it remains to be seen if he can do so. Leslie Frazier has already said he’s not a lock for a roster spot. Marvin Mitchell would play outside in that scenario. He’s a career backup, but he’s been working as the 1st team outside linebacker as Bishop works himself back in Training Camp.

Grade: B-

 

 

Secondary

One other reason the Vikings will be worse this season is the loss of cornerback Antoine Winfield. Winfield graded out #1 among cornerback on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 2 seasons he was healthy, 2010 and 2012. Of course, he’s missed 17 games in the last 4 seasons, and he was going into his age 37 season, and much of that was run grade, but they’ll still miss what he provided for them last season. He was 19th at his position in coverage grade, playing inside in sub packages and outside in base packages, allowing 60 catches on 90 attempts for 575 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties and, of course, his work in the run game is unparalleled.

Without him, the Vikings will go forward with the trio of Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes, and Josh Robinson at cornerback. Cook is a decent player when in the lineup, but has somehow played in just 22 of 48 possible games in his first 3 years in the league since the Vikings took him in the 2nd round in 2010. Perhaps he can put it all together and stay healthy in his contract year this year, but it’s doubtful. AJ Jefferson is insurance and while he’s more reliable than most #4 cornerbacks, he’s graded out slightly below average in the last 2 seasons as a starter, after barely playing as an undrafted rookie in 2010.

Xavier Rhodes will start opposite Cook, but it’s very tough to count on rookie defensive backs, even if he was a 1st rounder. Josh Robinson, meanwhile, will take over Winfield’s old slot spot and will be a significant downgrade to say the least. As a 3rd round rookie last year, he graded out 108th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus, allowing 53 catches on 73 attempts for 489 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting just 1 pass and committing 3 penalties. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he’ll be playing in an unfamiliar spot on the slot. He played just 8 snaps there as a rookie.

Harrison Smith is the bright spot in this secondary. He was ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked safety last year as a 1st round rookie and while he struggled against the run, he was 6th at his position in coverage. He could be even better in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll once again start next to Jamarca Sanford. Sanford actually graded out above average last season, but he was awful in his first year as a starter in 2011, grading out dead last at his position. We’ll see which player shows up in 2013. Their other option at the position is Mistral Raymond, who was horrible in limited action last season, grading out 83rd out of 88 eligible safeties despite playing just 389 snaps.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Leslie Frazier got his option for 2014 picked up this off-season after a 16-22 start to his Vikings career, highlighted by last year’s playoff appearance. A larger extension could be in the works, but if the Vikings struggle this season those plans may be put on hold. Either way, I would be very surprised if he weren’t the Head Coach of the Vikings in 2014, as fickle as front offices can be with Head Coaches nowadays. Last year’s surprise season buys him a good amount of job security.

Grade: B

Introduction

The Vikings should have a more even record in close games and lose more players to injury in 2013 than they did in 2012. That will go a long way towards this team regressing in terms of win total, as will the loss of Winfield, but a more human season by Adrian Peterson could be the killer as the Vikings figure to struggle mightily to move the ball through the air once again. The NFC is a loaded conference this year and someone has to lose all those games. I think there’s a good chance it’s the Vikings.

They play a brutal schedule in arguably the toughest division in football and games against the NFC East and AFC North won’t be picnics either. They weren’t far off from being the 14th best team in the NFC last year, in least in terms of DVOA (which is significantly more consistent on a year to year basis than win total). Every year, one team goes from the playoffs to 5 or fewer wins. I think the Vikings are by far the most likely to do so this season.

I think they’re the worst team in their division and they’ll struggle to win more than 2 wins and 1 win is also a strong possibility. They also host Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Washington, and Philadelphia. Cleveland and Philadelphia will be easier games and Pittsburgh isn’t a good road team, so I’ll give them 2 wins in this 5 and 2 wins in the division. However, their road schedule takes them to the Giants, Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. They’ll be lucky to win more than one of those games. With only 2 truly easy games on the schedule, they could easily be this year’s surprise team, but in the wrong direction.

Projection: 5-11 4th in NFC North

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