Minnesota Vikings 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship with backup quarterback Case Keenum, who took over as the starter week 2 after Sam Bradford got hurt. Keenum had a career QB rating of 77.8 in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he finished the 2017 season with a 98.3 QB rating and was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback. Going into the 2018 off-season, Keenum was set to become a free agent, as were Bradford and fellow injured quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, giving the Vikings a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position, but also a lot of flexibility. Bradford and Bridgewater seemed unlikely to return either way, but the Vikings could have opted to hold on to Keenum, in hopes that he was a late bloomer who could repeat his career best season.

Instead, the Vikings shot higher at the position, giving a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar contract to ex-Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Unlike Keenum, Cousins had a consistent track record, recording a 97.5 QB rating over a 3-year stretch as a starter from 2015-2017, while making all 48 starts, and seemed to be the safer option, even if he was more expensive. However, the Vikings ended up missing the playoffs at 8-7-1 in their first season with Cousins under center, leading some to question that deal. 

Cousins is probably a little overpaid as the 6th highest paid quarterback in the NFL in average annual salary, but if the alternative was re-signing Keenum, it’s hard to see how the Vikings made the wrong choice. Keenum pocketed 22 million from the Broncos for one mediocre season as their starter, proving to be a one-year wonder, and only returned the Broncos a swap of late round picks via trade with the Redskins this off-season. Bradford, meanwhile, got 15.938 million from the Cardinals and wound up making just 3 starts, while Bridgewater took a backup job with the Saints. The Vikings could have opted to take a quarterback like Lamar Jackson in the first round of last year’s draft, but that scenario comes with it’s own risk. Given their options last off-season, signing Cousins was still probably their best choice.

Cousins was not the problem last season anyway, as he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked quarterback and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. His 99.7 QB rating was right about the average of his 3 seasons in Washington, so he hardly disappointed. Cousins’ contract gives him plenty of job security and, with only former Rams 3rd round pick Sean Mannion (53 career pass attempts) behind him on the depth chart, he’s in no danger of losing his job. It’s unlikely any of the Vikings’ three 2017 quarterbacks are starters anywhere this season and it’s unclear where the Vikings could have found a better available quarterback than Cousins last off-season. 

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even with Cousins having a solid season, the Vikings finished just 23th in first down rate, leading to them missing the playoffs, in spite of a defense that ranked 6th in first down rate allowed. There were two main problems with this offense last season and the offensive line was definitely number one. They finished 29th worst in the NFL in pass block efficiency, leading to Cousins being pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks, 7th most among qualifying quarterbacks. Given that, it’s pretty impressive that he was even able to put up the numbers he did and he ranked 2nd in the NFL with a 64.0% completion percentage under pressure. 

The Vikings seemed to make upgrading their offensive line a priority this off-season, particularly the interior of their offensive line. They used their first round pick on NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, who was probably the most complete interior offensive line prospect in the draft. He has experience at both guard and center, but will play exclusively center in Minnesota, kicking incumbent Pat Elflein to left guard. 

The Vikings are hoping that adding Bradbury upgrades two positions at once. Elflein was a 3rd round pick in 2017, but has struggled in 2 seasons at center, finishing 24th out of 39 qualifiers as a rookie and dead last out of 39 qualifiers last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league at a new position, but that’s far from a guarantee. His only competition is 2017 5th round pick Danny Isadora, who hasn’t shown much in 3 career starts, so Elflein should remain a starter.

The Vikings also signed guard Josh Kline to a 3-year, 15.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at right guard. Kline struggled in 16 starts with the Titans last season, leading to him being released just 1 year and 7.25 million into a 4-year, 26 million dollar contract, but he earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in 3 seasons prior to last season (43 starts). Going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he’s not a bad addition for a team that had a significant weakness at the guard position in 2018. If he continues to struggle in 2019, it’s possible they turn to 4th round rookie Dru Samia down the stretch, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. 

The Vikings were better at the tackle positions last season than they were on the interior. Rashod Hill made 8 starts and finished 70th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles, but left tackle Riley Reiff finished 23rd in 13 starts and 2018 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill overtook Hill at right tackle by season’s end and was an upgrade. Reiff has made 89 starts in the past 6 seasons and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, though his age is a concern going into his age 31 season. O’Neill, meanwhile, could stay a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, his first as a full-time starter. There are still some concerns on this offensive line, but it should be better than last year’s group.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The other issue with this offense last season was their lack of running game. Not only did they finish 25th in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.18, but they also had one of the bigger pass/run splits in the league, with 646 pass plays and 357 run plays, despite having a strong defense that can allow them to play conservatively. Starter Dalvin Cook missed 5 games with injury and backup running back Latavius Murray only averaged 4.13 yards per carry, but they really should have run a more balanced offense, especially when Cook was healthy, as he averaged 4.62 yards per carry on 133 carries. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after week 14 last season, mostly for not calling enough run plays, and new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.

Stefanski was kept this off-season, so expect them to continue running a more balanced attack. That will be a lot easier if Dalvin Cook can stay healthy and have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Cook has a career 4.68 YPC in 2 seasons since the Vikings took him in the 2nd round in 2017, but has been limited to 209 carries in 15 games by various injuries, including a torn ACL suffered as a rookie. Still only going into his age 24 season, the upside is obvious with him, especially since he added 40 catches in 11 games last season, but it’s not a guarantee he can make it through a full season.

As insurance, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Boise State’s Alexander Mattison, who will replace free agent departure Latavius Murray as the #2 back. Mattison should also see a significant role even if Cook is healthy, if they want to spell Cook frequently to keep him fresh. Mattison is not a guarantee to be an upgrade on Murray and a big part of why they struggled on the ground last season was their offensive line play, which could continue to be a problem, but Mattison definitely comes with some upside. I’d expect him to average about 6-8 carries per game while Cook is healthy. He’s solid insurance.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one thing Cousins did have going for him last season was his top two receivers Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs, who were one of three wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards, with slash lines of 113/1373/9 and 102/1021/9 respectively, joining Brandin Cooks/Robert Woods and Antonio Brown/JuJu Smith-Schuster. They could see their numbers drop a little bit in 2019 on a more balanced offense, but they’re still one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Neither is a one-year wonder either, as Theilen had a 69/967/5 slash line in 2016 and a 91/1276/4 slash line in 2017 as well, while Diggs averaged a 80/989/6 slash line per 16 games in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Still in their age 29 and age 26 seasons respectively, there’s no reason to expect a dropoff from either player. 

The Vikings do have a serious depth problems behind Theilen and Diggs though and would be in a lot of trouble if one of them ever missed significant time with injury. Laquon Treadwell has been their 3rd receiver the past 2 seasons, but he’s put up slash lines of just 20/200/0 and 35/302/1 respectively and has averaged just 0.75 yards per route run. Treadwell is a former first round pick and keeps getting chances, but he hasn’t shown anything in three seasons in the league and the Vikings seem to be growing tired of him. He’s not considered a roster lock and the Vikings could definitely turn to second year player Chad Beebe, who played just 46 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2019, as their 3rd receiver. Beebe might not be an upgrade, but the coaching staff reportedly likes him a lot and he may be the favorite for the 3rd receiver job.

With the Vikings thin at wide receiver, they could use more two tight end sets to compensate. Starting tight end Kyle Rudolph remains and they also added Alabama’s Irv Smith in the 2nd round of the draft. Going into a contract year, Rudolph was surprisingly given a 4-year, 36 million dollar extension even after the selection of Smith, but his contract is structured in a way where he still has little long-term security with the team, as he’s still not guaranteed any money beyond 2019. Originally owed 7.625 million in 2019, Rudolph will now make 9.35 million, in exchange for essentially giving the Vikings option years at a similar price for 2020-2023. 

Rudolph has averaged a 63/625/6 slash line in the past 4 seasons as a starter and is also a solid run blocker, but Smith has the potential to develop into a similar player at a cheaper cost. The Vikings have a lot of other big contracts on their books, so Rudolph could easily become superfluous at some point. For now, he and Smith will be a solid duo, but they may not be together than long. Even without a proven 3rd receiver, this is still an impressive group, especially when you include what Dalvin Cook can do as a receiver out of the backfield. 

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Vikings were a strong defensive team last season, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, after finishing 2nd in that metric in 2017. They were especially good down the stretch, allowing a first down rate of 31.50% in the final 9 games of the season (2nd in the NFL during that stretch), coinciding with the return of defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen’s replacement Stephen Weatherly wasn’t bad in his absence, but Griffen’s return allowed Weatherly to move back into a reserve role, giving the Vikings a talented trio of edge defenders, with Griffen, Weatherly, and fellow starter Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings considering moving on from Griffen and his 11.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season and moving forward with Weatherly as the starter long-term, but they opted to bring him back at a renegotiated rate of 7.5 million. Griffen is going into his age 32 season and was not as good last season as he previously had been, so he appears to be on the decline. In his first 4 seasons as a starter from 2014-2017, he had 43.5 sacks, 51 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate, but that fell to 5.5 sacks, 7 hits, and an 8.4% pressure rate in 2018. He still played the run well though and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked edge defender as recently as 2017, so he could easily continue being a useful player for another couple seasons, likely in a reduced role. 

Weatherly would be the beneficiary of a reduced role for Griffen. He finished last season with 524 snaps played, with 264 of those snaps coming in the 5-game stretch that Griffen missed. Like Griffen, he was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, with just 3 sacks, 6 hits, and an 8.8% pressure rate on the season. The 2016 7th round pick is complete one-year wonder, playing 94 snaps total in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, so he’s pretty unproven, but he could also continue developing into a solid starter, still only in his age 25 season.

Hunter will likely lead this group in snaps again, as he did last season with 879 snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hunter has quickly developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league, with 40 sacks, 21 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his career, with 34 of those sacks and 17 of those hits coming in the past 3 seasons. Also a solid run stuffer, Hunter finished last season as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender and, still only going into his age 25 season, could easily keep getting better. WIth Griffen back, this is an impressive trio.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Vikings kept Everson Griffen this off-season, but with so many other big salaries on their books, they were unable to keep defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed in Cleveland for 37 million over 3 years, after playing last season in Minnesota on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal. Richardson was an above average starting defensive tackle last season, playing 719 snaps in 16 starts, and was their best interior pass rusher, with 4.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.8% pressure rate.

Richardson will likely be replaced on early downs by free agent acquisition Shamar Stephen, who returns to Minnesota where he spent the first 4 seasons of his career, before spending 2018 with the Seahawks. He comes back on a 3-year, 12.45 million dollar deal and should start in base packages. He’s not bad against the run, but is not a replacement for Richardson as a pass rusher, with a career 3.4% pressure rate. The Vikings will also likely give third year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson more playing time in 2019. The former 4th round pick has some upside, but hasn’t shown much on 322 career snaps.

Their other starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph is still in town and should continue to start, but his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s coming off of a disappointing season as a pass rusher. He still had a strong season against the run, but had just a 5.0% pressure rate, a big drop from the 8.0% pressure rate he had in 8 seasons in the league prior to last season. He still played 671 snaps and could still a similar snap count in 2019, but he could also be taken off the field in more sub packages. He had an 8.2% pressure rate as recently as 2017, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall, so he has some bounce back potential, but his best days could easily be behind him at this point.

Everson Griffen used to line up as an interior rusher in sub packages earlier in his career, so maybe the Vikings will put all three of their defensive ends on the field at once in obvious passing situations, to mask their lack of interior pass rush depth. Hybrid defensive end Jalyn Holmes could also carve out a role as a situational pass rusher on the interior. The 2018 4th round pick played just 58 snaps as a rookie, but could see a bigger role in his second season in the league. This group should stop the run pretty well, but interior pass rush is a significant concern with Richardson gone. 

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Vikings were unable to re-sign Sheldon Richardson this off-season, but they did bring back linebacker Anthony Barr, in a surprising move. Barr had seemingly agreed to terms with the Jets on a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar deal, but changed his mind right at the end of the legal tampering period and wound up re-signing with the Vikings on that same deal. It’s not just a surprising deal because it looked like he was gone, but also because the Jets were looking at him as an edge defender at that salary. For an off ball linebacker, which Barr has been throughout his career in Minnesota, that contract value is 2nd highest at the position on an annual basis. 

It’s possible the Vikings could play him more at edge defender in sub packages, if Griffen lines up inside more often, but there’s no indication that they want to play him at defensive end full-time. He has an impressive 18.2% pressure rate for his career and last season had 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 22.3% pressure rate, but he only rushed the passer 103 times (46 as an edge defender, 57 as a blitzer) and has never rushed the passer more than 112 times in a season. Even at his new salary, I wouldn’t expect that to change.

Given that, it’s pretty surprising that Barr was brought back over Richardson. Barr is a good blitzer and run stuffer, but the 6-5 255 pounder is built like a defensive end and struggles mightily in coverage, earning below coverage average grades from Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons. Barr is a great athlete, but now in his age 27 season it seems unlikely he’ll ever develop into a consistent player in coverage. If the Vikings continue to use him the way they’ve used him in recent years, he was a big overpay for a team with limited financial flexibility. 

Barr will continue to start outside next to Eric Kendricks, who is an every down player in the middle. Kendricks is an unspectacular player who has never finished higher than 32nd among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but the 2015 2nd round pick has started 55 of a possible 64 games and has earned an average or better grade both against the run and in coverage from PFF in 3 straight seasons. He should continue giving them solid every down play in the middle.

Third year linebacker Ben Gedeon is likely to continue starting as the third linebacker, playing outside in base packages. He played just 311 snaps last season, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but he hasn’t been bad in coverage in limited action in his career. The 2017 4th round pick could see a bigger role this season if Barr does end up playing more defensive end. He’s very unproven overall with just 556 career snaps, but he definitely has some upside. They would have been better off moving on from Barr, re-signing Richardson, and giving Gedeon a shot as an every down outside linebacker. It’s harder to find good interior pass rushers than it is to find good run stopping linebackers. This isn’t a bad group, but they overpaid to keep it together.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was probably their best unit in 2018, with safety being their biggest position of strength. Veteran safeties George Iloka and Andrew Sendejo left this off-season, which depletes their depth, but they bring back their top-2 safeties from last season, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Smith is a proven player and his 15th ranked finish among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season was actually a down year for him, as he had finished in the top-5 among safeties in 3 of the previous 4 seasons prior to last season. Smith is going into his age 30 season and it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he also has some bounce back potential and, either way, he should remain an above average starter at the very least.

Harris, meanwhile, had a breakout year out of nowhere in 2018, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 9 starts, despite only playing 580 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and going undrafted back in 2015. Already in his age 28 season, it’s possible Harris proves to be a one-year wonder, but he could also prove to be a late bloomer. At the very least, he deserves a chance to be a 16-game starter, which is what he’s getting with Iloka and Sendejo gone and little depth behind him.

The Vikings have a lot more depth at cornerback than safety. They’re getting 2018 first round pick Mike Hughes back from a torn ACL that ended what looked like a promising rookie season after just 244 snaps in 6 games. He likely won’t be any higher than third on the depth chart though, with starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes both returning as well. In fact, Hughes may have to compete with his injury replacement Mackenzie Alexander for the 3rd cornerback job, as Alexander finished as PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback on 564 snaps last season. He’s a one-year wonder and only played 391 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he was a 2nd round pick back in 2016 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the 3rd cornerback job. Even 5th cornerback Holton Hill showed promise on 378 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season. This is a very deep group.

Not only are the Vikings getting Hughes back from injury, they’re also getting a healthier Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes played 771 snaps in 14 games last season, but was not himself for most of the season because of injuries to his hamstring, knee, and ankle. After finishing 21st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and 38th in 2017, he fell to 109th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks in 2018. Only in his age 29 season, he should bounce back if healthy, which would be a boost for this defense.

Trae Waynes will continue to start opposite Rhodes. He was limited to 693 snaps in 14 games by injury last season, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 2 seasons as a starter (30 starts). Waynes was the 11th overall pick in 2015 and has developed into a solid starter. He’s one of several high draft picks in this secondary, with Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith also being first round selections as well. The Vikings have invested significant draft resources in their secondary and it’s paid off in a strong group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are reasons to be optimistic for the Vikings’ offense, with a new balanced offensive system, a healthy Dalvin Cook, and an improved offensive line, but their defense could take a little bit of a step back without Sheldon Richardson. It wouldn’t surprise me if this team ended up making the playoffs and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot until the end, but the NFC might be too loaded for them to sneak into the post-season, especially in a very tough division. Both the Lions and Packers look likely to be better in 2019, while the Bears return most of their team that went 12-4 last season. 

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC North

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