The Vikings went 10-6 in 2012 and made a surprise run to the playoffs, after going 3-13 the year before. A team going from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs isn’t as uncommon as it sounds, as at least one team does so almost every season, but the same is true of the opposite and the Vikings seemed like the most likely team to do so going into 2013. They weren’t the only ones who did so (Houston, Atlanta, and Washington joined them in a bizarre season), but the Vikings did end up going 5-10-1.
There are a number of reasons why that regression should have been predictable. Teams that make big leaps in win totals tend to decline by an average of half the amount the following season. The Vikings also barely had any injuries in 2012 (2nd in adjusted games lost) and they went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They also had significant personnel losses like Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield last off-season. The biggest reason they declined last season though is because Adrian Peterson was, predictably, unable to repeat one of the greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history.
He dragged them into the playoffs in 2012, rushing for 2097 yards and 12 touchdowns on 348 carries (6.03 YPC). That allowed them to make the playoffs even though quarterback Christian Ponder completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of just 6.08 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. 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 6.08 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 8/100 of a yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. It was Peterson.
In 2013, Peterson was “just” very good, missing 2 games with injury and rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. Christian Ponder raised his YPA to 6.90 YPA, and completed 63.6% of his passes, but threw 9 interceptions to 7 touchdowns and got benched on several occasions, with Matt Cassel finishing the season as the starter. Ponder is now the 3rd string quarterback in Minnesota behind the veteran Cassel and promising 1st round rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Either Cassel or Bridgewater will be the starting quarterback this season (they could both see starts) and it’s unlikely that Ponder sees much meaningful action this year.
Fortunately, the Vikings offense wasn’t bad under Matt Cassel last season, as they moved the chains at a 70.97% rate, in the 7 games in which Cassel played the majority of the snaps, as opposed to 70.25% in their other 9 games. It’s not a huge difference, but it is a difference and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Peterson was either out or limited in each of the Vikings’ final 4 games (all of which Cassel started), combining to rush for 58 yards on 18 carries in those 4 games. Cassel, on the season, completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.11 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback last season out of 42 eligible, while Ponder was 35th.
Cassel is obviously not a long-term solution, going into his age 32 season, but he’s a decent placeholder for promising rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who could easily end up just winning the starting job in training camp. Bridgewater fell to 32 because of concerns about his size and arm strength, but he was a dominant collegiate player in the intermediate part of the field and he’s NFL ready after running a fairly complex offense at the University of Louisville. Cassel’s numbers last season were better than his career averages, which is concerning (59.0%, 6.66 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions), but part of that is also just that the Vikings have a surprisingly strong offensive supporting cast around the quarterback. Bridgewater, if he’s ready to start, will enjoy the benefits of that strong supporting cast as well.
The obvious part of this strong supporting cast is the running back Adrian Peterson, but I’m going to start with something less obvious, which is that the Vikings have a strong offensive line. The best player on the offensive line is center John Sullivan, who might be the best center in the NFL. He had a rough start to his career as a starter, after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008, but he’s been a top-3 center on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only center in the game who can say so. He’s developed into a fantastic interior offensive lineman and should continue to play very well this season.
Phil Loadholt is also a dominant offensive lineman. The 6-8 343 pounder is solely a right tackle, but he’s still a huge asset for them, dominating in run blocking and holding up well in pass protection. He’s been a 5-year starter for them since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, making 78 of 80 starts, and he’s graded out above average in 4 out of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s gotten better in each of the last 3 seasons, going from Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, to 21st in 2012, to 11th last season, the best season of his career. He should have another strong season in 2014.
Right guard Brandon Fusco also had a great season last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard. He doesn’t have a history of doing that kind of thing though, as the 2011 6th round pick played 26 snaps as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Fusco could easily have another strong season in his 4th year in the league in 2014, also his contract year, but he remains a one year wonder.
While Fusco broke out last year, left tackle Matt Kalil regressed, after the 2013 4th overall pick had a strong rookie season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but he was their 51st ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013. He dealt with a knee injury throughout the season, which he blames for his struggles. He had off-season surgery on his right knee and is expected to be healthier for this season. A return to form for the talented young blindside protector would be a big boost to this already strong offensive line and would counteract any regression that Fusco might show.
The only issue the Vikings had on the offensive line last season was left guard, where Charlie Johnson was the starter. Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible, below average. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out below average in each of the last 7 seasons, struggling at both left tackle and left guard. Now going into his age 30 season, things are unlikely to get any better. He’ll be pushed for his starting guard by Jeff Baca, a 2013 6th round pick who played 4 snaps as a rookie. Baca might not be an upgrade though. It’s a position of weakness on any otherwise very strong offensive line. They were Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive line in terms of run blocking in 2013 and their 7th ranked offensive line in terms of pass blocking.
Adrian Peterson is obviously a big part of their strong offensive supporting cast. He didn’t repeat the 2000 rushing yard season he had in 2012, but he still impressed, rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 10,115 yards (already 27th all-time) and 86 touchdowns on 2033 carries, an average of 4.98 YPC. He wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, like he was in 2012, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect. In the past 4 seasons, he’s ranked 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 4th respectively in that aspect.
However, his weakness is that he struggles both as a receiver and a pass protector, grading out below average in the first aspect in 6 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league and in the second aspect in 5 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league. He’s caught 206 passes for 1697 yards and 5 touchdowns in 103 career games. The Vikings lost backup Toby Gerhart this off-season to free agency so they used a 3rd round pick on Jerick McKinnon, who will play a significant passing down role as a rookie. McKinnon has reportedly been very impressive in off-season practices, even being called their best rookie by Adrian Peterson himself.
McKinnon will also help take some of the load off of Peterson over the next few seasons as he ages. Peterson is going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. He’s one of the all-time greats and will be enshrined in Canton someday, but the average top-20 all-time rusher (in terms of yards) has their last 1000 yard season at 30-31 on average, plays another 2 seasons after that on average, and averages 567 yards and 4 touchdowns on 151 carries (3.75 YPC). Peterson should have another couple of seasons as a dominant back left in him, but it’s something to begin taking notice of.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Vikings had a thin receiving corps in 2012 and then they lost Percy Harvin, which made things even thinner, so they brought in veteran Greg Jennings through free agency and Cordarrelle Patterson as a 2013 1st round pick last off-season. Jennings was dominant in Green Bay from 2007-2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st, 24th, 17th, 16th, and 16th ranked wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in those 5 years respectively, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run over that stretch (5532 yards on 2604 routes).
However, he missed 3 games with injury in 2011 and then another 8 in 2012 and that seemed to sap his abilities. He averaged just 1.28 yards per route run in 2012 and, though he was healthier last year, he averaged just 1.62 yards per route run and was Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked wide receiver. He caught 68 passes on 101 targets (67.3%) for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The drop off in quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder/Cassel obviously had a lot to do with this, but he’s not the same player as he used to be. Now he’s going into his age 31 season so, while he could easily have a solid year again, he’s not the #1 receiver they expected him to be when they signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal with 17.8 million guaranteed after the 2012 season.
Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, ended up grading out higher than Jennings, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked wide receiver. However, much of that was because of what he did as a runner and he actually graded out below average in pass grade. The 29th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Patterson flashed his incredible athleticism, rushing for 158 yards and 3 touchdowns on 12 carries and returning 43 kickoffs for 1393 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in terms of run grade and their #1 ranked kick returner.
He also averaged 6.4 yards per catch after the catch and broke 10 tackles on 45 catches, but he showed serious issues with route running, catching just 10 passes farther than 10 yards downfield and just 3 passes farther than 20 yards downfield. He was limited primarily to short routes and screens and also dropped 5 passes. He caught 45 passes on 72 targets (62.5%) for 469 yards on 292 routes run (1.61 yards per route run). He’s expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and he has the natural ability to have a breakout year, but he’s only going into his age 23 season so there should be no surprises if he continues to be raw.
Jarius Wright, a 2012 4th round pick, could also have a bigger role this season. He’s played 636 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, including 443 routes run, and has averaged 1.68 yards per route run, catching 48 passes for 744 yards and 5 touchdowns. He could be the 3rd receiver this year. Gains in playing time by youngsters Patterson and Wright would come at the loss of veteran Jerome Simpson, who the Vikings brought back on a deal close to the veteran’s minimum this off-season. He’s had a variety of off-the-field issues and could be facing a suspension of up to 4 games to start the 2014 season after a recent DUI arrest.
He’s also a one dimensional deep threat who doesn’t catch a high percentage of his targets. Since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Simpson has caught just 54.1% of his targets for an average of 1.52 yards per route run and only graded out positive once in terms of pass catching grade. His worst season was in 2011, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 110th ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible, catching 52.1% of his targets for an average of 1.28 yards per route run in Cincinnati with Andy Dalton. The 6-2 190 pounder is a good blocker and can reel in some deep passes, but that’s about it and he can’t stay out of trouble off-the-field either.
Kyle Rudolph is the tight end and someone who could have a big breakout year. The 2011 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked tight end in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012, but that was largely because of his blocking abilities, both as a run blocker and a pass protector. He averaged just 1.11 yards per route run and ran just 30.1% of his routes from off the line. In 2013, he looked on his way to a much better receiving year, as he averaged 1.34 yards per route run, running about 40.3% of his routes from off the line. Unfortunately, he went down for the season with a foot injury after 8 games.
However, now he returns for his contract year and tight end guru Norv Turner is coming in. Rudolph has slimmed down to 6-6 260 from 275 and will be used more as a pass catcher and line up all over the formation in passing situations, much like Turner did with Antonio Gates in San Diego and Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to expect him to average 1.50 yards per route run (especially with better quarterback play) and for him to be 2nd on the team in receiving, while providing strong blocking on running plays as well.
Rhett Ellison, meanwhile, will be the #2 blocking tight end. He’s lined up all over the formation over his first 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s continued to be the strong point of attack blocker he was in college at USC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked fullback in 2012 and 8th ranked in 2013. He’ll be more of a traditional tight end this season, as he was in college, and come in for two-tight end sets and help them in the running game. He’ll likely continue to not provide much in the passing game though, but that’s not his job. The rest of the receiving corps is sneaky solid. If the Vikings can get good quarterback play, they could be a strong offense.
The Vikings’ offense was actually pretty decent last season, especially with Cassel on the field, but their defense was horrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.91% rate, 30th in the NFL. The Vikings fired head coach Leslie Frazier, who has a background in defense, and replaced him with Mike Zimmer, one of the best defensive coordinators of the decade and a guy whose shot at a head coaching job was long overdue. There are plenty of great coordinators who don’t do well as head coach, but, at the very least, Zimmer should help this defense improve in his first season with the team.
The Vikings clearly wanted to add to their defensive line this off-season and get younger and more talented. Over 30 veterans like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are gone and the Vikings added 4 players who could see snaps on the defensive line this season. Their biggest free agent acquisition, in terms of money, was defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who they gave a 5-year 31.5 million dollar deal to come over from the Giants. Linval Joseph, a 2010 2nd round pick, was a 3-year starter with the Giants from 2011-2013.
He didn’t have a great 3 years in New York and he was probably overpaid, but he got better every season, grading out 60th in 2011, 36th in 2012, and 24th in 2013. He’s still only going into his age 26 season so he could be even better this season. He could be an upgrade over Kevin Williams, who was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked defensive tackle last season. Joseph will start inside next to Sharrif Floyd. Floyd, the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, struggled as a rookie on 472 snaps, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league.
The biggest contract the Vikings gave out this off-season was to Everson Griffen, who they re-signed to a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Griffen has potential and could blossom in a bigger role this season with the declining Jared Allen (who graded out below average last season) gone, but this was a very speculative deal because he’s still a projection to that role. I also don’t know who else would have paid him that kind of money.
Everson Griffen has one career start. It’s not quite as bad as that sounds because he’s been a talented reserve and he has upside. However, the Vikings really seem to be overestimating his upside. Sure, he has 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons despite being a reserve, but he’s actually played as much as some starters in terms of pass rush snaps with 423 pass rush snaps played in 2012 and 449 pass rush snaps played in 2013. When you consider that, he doesn’t seem as efficient as he once did.
He only ranked 29th out of 62 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and only ranked 21st out of 52 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 20th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. He’ll have a much bigger role this season (probably 700-800 snaps) and the 6-3 273 pounder will play outside in base packages and move inside in sub packages.
Anthony Barr, meanwhile, will be the defensive end in sub packages when Griffen goes inside. Barr was the 9th pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and will play a significant role even as a rookie. The Vikings want him to play in the Von Miller role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and moving down to defensive end and rushing the passer from the edge in sub packages. The 6-5 255 pounder is incredibly athletic, but he was playing running back as recently as 2011 so he’s still really raw on defense. He compares to Aaron Maybin and Jerry Hughes and, while Hughes eventually put it together, neither of them did much as a rookie so Barr might not have much of an impact, despite his high draft status. The Vikings obviously really like him though, which is worth mentioning.
Along with Barr and Joseph, the Vikings also brought in Corey Wootton and Scott Crichton this off-season to play rotational roles on the defensive line. Wootton can play both inside and outside, much like Griffen, at 6-6 270. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league though. Meanwhile, Crichton is a 3rd round rookie and might not be able to have much of an impact in his first season in the league.
Brian Robison remains as the other starter. A late bloomer, the 2007 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the past 3 seasons as a starter, grading out 26th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 18th in 2013. He’s also averaged 936 snaps a season over the past 3 seasons, not missing a single game, but he’ll probably have his snap count down to the 700-800 range this season because of the added depth the Vikings have on the defensive line. That could be good for him as he goes into his age 31 season in 2014. The Vikings overpaid Joseph and Griffen and Anthony Barr is still really raw, but this is a younger, deeper defensive line than last season. There’s talent here for the talented Mike Zimmer to play with and coach up.
Things aren’t as good in the linebacking corps. I mentioned Anthony Barr and how he’ll play a base package outside linebacker role. Chad Greenway will be the every down outside linebacker opposite him. The issue is that Greenway is going into his age 31 season and really struggles in coverage. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and the worst at his position in coverage, allowing 829 receiving yards, easily the most at his position. He also missed a league leading 21 tackles. He used to be solid, but those days are behind him and probably not coming back as he goes into his 30s. The last season in which he graded out above average was 2010.
At middle linebacker, it’ll be a position battle between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole for the starting job to replace Erin Henderson, who was let go for off-the-field reasons. Henderson graded out above average last season, though he did struggle in coverage once again. Cole might be the favorite right now. The 2012 7th round pick has only played 333 career snaps, but he played 332 of them last season and he was pretty decent, grading out right about average. Obviously he’s a projection to an every down middle linebacker role, but he has potential.
Brinkley, meanwhile, was actually their starting middle linebacker in 2012, but that didn’t go well as he graded out 50th out of 53 eligible middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus, particularly struggling in coverage. He then went to Arizona and now is back in Minnesota. He was a 5th round pick in 2009 and has played just a combined 443 snaps in the other 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 210 last season. He’s never really shown himself to be a starting caliber player, now going into his age 29 season, so they might as well try Audie Cole. Unless Cole has a breakout year, they’ll have serious issues at linebacker.
The Vikings also made a big free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Captain Munnerlyn to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal at cornerback, coming over from Carolina. The undersized Captain Munnerlyn (5-8 186) has been a late bloomer in his career, after struggling mightily early in his career after getting drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2009, when he graded out 99th out of 107 eligible cornerbacks.
Very similar to the way the similarly sized Tim Jennings developed, Munnerlyn has emerged as an above average cornerback in the NFL. He had a solid 2012 year, grading out just about average, and the Panthers wisely brought him back on a cheap one year deal for 2013 after the market devalued him. Munnerlyn ended up being a big part of the reason why the Panthers had such a strong defense, doing his best Antoine Winfield impression (showing in coverage on the slot and the outside, as a run stopper, and as a blitzer) grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, though “only” their 22nd ranked cornerback in terms of pure coverage grade.
Munnerlyn is now with the Vikings, Antoine Winfield’s old team, a team that missed Winfield significantly last season. Munnerlyn does his best coverage work on the slot, but he can also play outside and he’s above average as a run stopper and blitzer for a cornerback. He’ll presumably start outside and move inside to the slot in sub packages in the role in which Adam Jones thrived under Zimmer in Cincinnati. He’ll be an asset for them as an addition to this once miserable secondary.
Xavier Rhodes will be the opposite starter. He was the 25th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and flashed as a rookie on 686 snaps, grading out slightly above average. Cornerbacks tend to take a year or two to get adjusted to the NFL so his rookie year was pretty impressive. He allowed 56.6% completion on the season and was especially good in his final 4 games before missing 3 games with injury, allowing 16 of 32 (50.0%) for 202 yards (6.31 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions. He could have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the NFL, especially with Mike Zimmer coming to town, but there are obviously no guarantees.
The issue is the 3rd cornerback. Josh Robinson is expected to serve in that role, playing outside in sub packages when Munnerlyn plays on the slot. He was Pro Football Focus’ 109th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible as a 3rd round rookie in 2012, grading out 2nd worst among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He wasn’t much better in 2013, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible. In 2 seasons in the league, he’s allowed 77.9% completion for an average of 8.61 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. I don’t expect much more from him in his 3rd season in the league.
The Vikings should also be getting a boost from the return of Harrison Smith at safety 8 games with a turf toe injury last season. He struggled last season, only playing 5 games before the injury, not enough to establish himself and then being limited upon his return, grading out below average on 537 snaps. He could easily have a bounce back year this year if healthy, after playing well as a 1st round rookie in 2012. The 29th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety that season. He should be an upgrade over Andrew Sendejo, who graded out slightly below average as an injury replacement this season.
Sendejo will compete with Jamarca Sanford for the other starting safety job. Sanford was alright last season, grading out 35th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, slightly above average (Sendejo was 45th). Sanford was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety in 2012, though he graded out as the worst safety in the league in 2011, in his first year as a starter. Sendejo, meanwhile, played a combined 3 snaps from 2010-2012, after going undrafted in 2010. Sanford should win that starting job, while Sendejo settles in as a solid 3rd safety and depth player. The defense, overall, should be improved under Mike Zimmer, but they still have a lot of issues and places where they lack talent.
As I mentioned in the opening, teams that have big win increases (like the Vikings did from 3 to 10 in 2012) tend to regress by about half the amount of wins they improved the previous season. The Vikings went from 10-6 to 5-10-1. However, the opposite is also true and the Vikings could easily be an improved team this season. Christian Ponder is no longer their starting quarterback and either Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater should be an upgrade. They have a strong supporting cast on offense to help them out, which is good because one is a veteran stopgap and one is an inexperienced rookie.
Defensively, they probably won’t be very good, but they should be improved over last season. They’ve added some talent. They’re getting players back from injury. They have young players that could be improved this season. And, most importantly, they added defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer as their head coach. They still have a lot of issues on that side of the ball, because they have positions where they really lack talent and they don’t have any standout defensive stars, but they’ll be improved defensively and as a team as a whole. I think, at the very least, they’ll be a slightly improved team over last season and they have the potential to be a lot better if Teddy Bridgewater can have a strong rookie year. I’ll be conservative with their projection right now. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.
Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC North