Minnesota Vikings 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2021 season, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was firmly on the hot seat. He had made the post-season in 3 of his 7 seasons in Minnesota, including an NFC Championship appearance, and he overall had a winning record throughout his tenure, but head coaches usually don’t make it as long with team as Zimmer did without building a consistent winner or making a Super Bowl, so, going into his 8th season as head coach in 2021, having missed the playoffs the year prior, a second straight missed post-season would likely spell the end of Zimmer’s tenure following the 2021 season.

There were reasons to be optimistic about the Vikings going into last season though. The Vikings were a middling overall team in 2020 at 7-9, but they had an offense that ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency, with the team struggling to consistently win games as a result of their 28th ranked defense and their 31st ranked special teams, which are both less predictive year-to-year than offensive performance. The Vikings also figured to be significantly healthier and more talented on defense in 2021, as they were set to get key players back from injury after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league in 2020, and they were also adding some additional talent in free agency.

Things did not go as planned, however. The Vikings were barely healthier and barely better on defense, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and 19th in adjusted games lost to injury on defense, with many of the same key players missing time again in 2021. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ offense fell off significantly, despite very similar personnel, in large part due to a significant downgrade at the offensive coordinator position, with Klint Kubiak struggling mightily to fill in his father Gary Kubiak’s shoes following the long-time coordinator’s retirement last off-season. The Vikings again finished out of the playoffs at 8-9 and Zimmer was predictably let go, along with the rest of his coaching staff.

As teams often do after firing a head coach, the Vikings found basically Zimmer’s opposite, replacing an older, stricter, defensive minded head coach in Zimmer with a younger, more innovative, offensive coach in Kevin O’Connell, who is just 37 years old and spent the past two seasons as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams. O’Connell never called plays with the Rams, but he did in his one year as the offensive coordinator in Washington, so he has varied experience, despite his young age, and the recent track record of hires from the McVay coaching tree has been positive, with Brandon Staley, Matt LaFleur, and Zac Taylor all having success away from the Rams. 

O’Connell brings former Rams tight end coach Wes Phillips with him from Los Angeles as his offensive coordinator, but O’Connell is expected to call the plays himself for what figures to be a much different, more innovative, pass heavy, and up tempo offensive scheme in 2022. Whether that leads to better results remains to be seen, but it would be hard for the Vikings to get less out of their talent on offense than they did a year ago, when they had a mediocre efficiency rating despite some very talented players who led this team to an elite efficiency rating just the prior year.

Along with almost everyone, quarterback Kirk Cousins saw his play decline from 2020 to 2021, with his completion percentage falling from 67.6% to 66.3%, his YPA average falling from 8.27 to 7.52, and his total passing yard total falling by 4, despite the fact that he threw 45 more passes. Cousins remained an above average starter though, as he has been since his first full season as a starter in 2015, completing 67.7% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 205 touchdowns, and 72 interceptions over that stretch, while finishing average or better on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4th finishes in the top-10. 

Cousins has also never missed a game with injury over that stretch, although a late season COVID absence last year led to backup Sean Mannion starting and struggling in a key game in his absence, which had an effect on their season long efficiency. Cousins is only going into his age 34 season though and, barring another fluke absence, has a good chance to remain an above average starter and play the full season again in 2022.

The biggest problem with Cousins is his contract, which pays him like an elite quarterback even though he doesn’t regularly perform like one, which prevents the Vikings from having the financial flexibility needed to get all the talent around Cousins that he needs to be successful and potentially lead this team to a Super Bowl, with Cousins set to make 70 million over the next two seasons. At the same time, it’s hard to find a good starting quarterback and, while the Vikings tried to find a cheaper long-term replacement for Cousins when they selected Kellen Mond in the 3rd round in the 2021 NFL Draft, he reportedly struggled behind the scenes as a rookie and didn’t even get on the field over career backup Mannion when Cousins was out.

Mond still has potential, but he doesn’t look like a long-term starter at this point and could easily fail to win the #2 quarterback job for the second straight year, with Mannion still around. Mannion has attempted just 110 passes in 7 seasons in the league, on which he has just a 66.2 career QB rating, so he is a very underwhelming backup option, meaning it would be very telling if Mond couldn’t beat him out for the second straight year. The Vikings should get good quarterback play from Cousins again, but they would be in trouble if he happened to suffer a significant injury for the first time in his career as a starter.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Along with Cousins, almost all of the Vikings’ skill position players were less efficient in 2021 than in 2020. Top receiver Justin Jefferson saw his slash line jump from 88/1400/7 to 108/1616/10, but he also saw 42 more targets and ran significantly more routes on a pass-heavier offense, with his yards per target dropping from 11.2 to 9.7 and his yards per route run dropping from 2.66 to 2.59. Jefferson is still an elite receiver any way you look at it though, finishing 2nd and 3rd among wide receivers on PFF over the past two seasons, and still only going into his age 23 season. It would be an upset if he wasn’t one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come and he should be considered to be among the favorites to lead the league in receiving, serving in the Cooper Kupp role on this offense.

In addition to worse coaching with a new offensive coordinator, the Vikings also weren’t as healthy on offense in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 5th in adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020 to 21st in 2021. One key player who missed time in 2021 after staying mostly healthy the year before is wide receiver Adam Thielen, who fell from a 74/925/14 slash line in 15 games in 2020 to a 67/726/10 slash line in 13 games in 2020, with his efficiency declining as well, going from 8.6 yards per target and 1.86 yards per route run in 2020 to 7.6 and 1.63 respectively in 2021.

Thielen was one of the best wide receivers in the league in his prime, averaging a 91/1205/6 slash line per season from 2016-2018 with 2.13 yards per route run, but that has fallen to 1.77 yards per route run with no thousand yard seasons over the past three seasons, a stretch in which he has also missed 11 games with injury, after not missing any previously in his career. Now going into his age 32 season, Thielen’s best days are almost definitely behind him and he’s much more of a secondary receiver than a primary receiver at this stage in his age career, but it’s possible he could remain an above average #2 receiver for at least another couple seasons. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off completely this season, even if he does continue declining.

Another key player who was hurt last season was tight end Irv Smith, a 2019 2nd round pick who averaged 1.30 yards per route run in 2020, while flashing potential in run blocking as a part-time player in his first two seasons in the league. Smith was set to take on a much larger role in 2021 with veteran Kyle Rudolph no longer with the team, but Smith didn’t play a snap all year due to a knee injury. Instead it was former #3 tight end Tyler Conklin who was forced into the primary tight end role, despite being a former late round pick who struggled in minimal action in his first three seasons in the league prior to last season. 

Conklin wasn’t horrible and had a decent 61/593/3 slash line, but he did that mostly on volume, as he wasn’t efficient, with 1.24 yards per route run and 6.8 yards per target, and he struggled as a run blocker as well. He’s no longer with the team after signing with the Jets this off-season, so Irv Smith will get the chance to be the starter this season that he missed last season and, still only in his age 24 season, it’s very possible he could have a mini-breakout year and be a solid starter, assuming he can stay healthy.

Depth is a big problem behind Smith though, with their reserve options being 2021 5th round pick Zach Davidson, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, 7th round rookie Nick Muse, who is very raw, Ben Ellefson, who has just 1 career catch, and, probably the most likely option to win the job, Johnny Mundt, who has spent the past five seasons with the Rams with McVay, but has never played more than 213 offensive snaps in a season and has averaged just 0.93 yards per route run. Mundt has experience in the system, but the former undrafted free agent doesn’t bring much else to the table, as a pass catcher or run blocker. It would be a big problem if Smith missed time again.

With Smith and Thielen missing time last season, the Vikings involved #3 wide receiver KJ Osborn more than they were probably expecting to, giving the 2020 5th round pick 82 targets, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Osborn wasn’t particularly effective though, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run, and, while it’s possible he could keep his job and be better in his second full season in the league in 2022, he’s also likely to face competition from 2021 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who only played 86 snaps as a rookie, but flashed potential with 1.73 yards per route run. 

Even if Smith-Marsette doesn’t win the starting job, he should be a good #4 wide receiver, with veteran Albert Wilson also around as a low end depth option, in his age 30 season with a 1.34 yards per route run average for his career. Justin Jefferson elevates this group significantly by himself, but they could be better behind him this season, with Irv Smith and Adam Thielen probably being healthier and KJ Osborn possibly being better now with another full year under his belt. This is an above average group overall. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Vikings were also not as effective on the ground in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 4th in the NFL with 4.88 YPC to 19th in the NFL with 4.30 YPC. Feature back Dalvin Cook saw his effectiveness fall off a little bit, from 4.99 YPC to 4.65 YPC, but the bigger problem was that Cook was one of the Vikings’ key players who missed time with injury in 2021, carrying the ball just 249 times in 13 games, after carrying the ball 312 times in 2020. That forced backup Alexander Mattison into significant action, in which he struggled mightily, averaging just 3.66 YPC on 134 carries and driving the team average down significantly, while finishing as PFF’s 57th ranked running back out of 64 eligible on the season in overall grade.

Cook has been the Vikings feature back for the past three seasons, totaling 4.75 YPC and 35 touchdowns on 811 carries, but durability has been a problem for him throughout his career, as he’s never surpassed 14 games played in a season and has missed 25 games total in 5 seasons in the league, and it’s unlikely to get better going forward, with Cook getting up there in age and usage for a running back, going into his age 27 season with 1200 career touches. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off suddenly this season and he should remain a true feature back, but he’ll probably miss at least a little time with injury again. 

Cook also might not have quite as many carries per game on a pass-heavier offense in 2022, but he could compensate for that with increased usage in the passing game. Cook has been pretty good in the passing game in his career, with a 1.37 yards per route run average in total, but that surprisingly fell off to 0.85 last season. He might not bounce all the way back as a pass catcher, but I would expect him to be more involved and more effective in that aspect than a year ago, in a pass-heavier system.

Mattison also didn’t do much in the passing game last season, averaging 1.16 yards per route run, in line with the 1.19 yards per route run he has averaged in three seasons in the league, since being selected by the Vikings in the 3rd round in 2019. Mattison also hasn’t been effective as a runner either in his career. His career 4.20 YPC average on 330 carries isn’t horrible, but he has finished dead last out of 45 eligible, 37th out of 47 eligible, and 43rd out of 50 eligible in carry success rate in his three seasons in the league, on rates of 38%, 47%, and 44% respectively, meaning he hasn’t consistently kept this offense on schedule when given opportunity (for comparison, Cook is at 49%, 56%, and 47% over the past three seasons).

Mattison will likely remain the #2 back and still may have untapped upside in his age 24 season, but he’s mostly in that role for lack of a better option, as 2021 4th round pick Kene Nwangwu is more of a return specialist than a running back and had just 17 rookie year touches, while 5th round rookie Ty Chandler has upside and could replace Mattison as the #2 back in 2023 and beyond, with Mattison heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but is unlikely to make a significant positive impact as a rookie. Dalvin Cook is one of the better running backs in the league, but he has durability issues and the Vikings have depth issues behind him.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Another key player who missed time on this offense last season was left tackle Christian Darrisaw, their 2021 first round pick and a replacement for long-time left tackle Riley Reiff, who was a big part of their offensive success in 2020, finishing 40th among offensive tackles on PFF in 15 starts. Darrisaw proved to be a solid replacement when on the field, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 35th ranked offensive tackle, but an off-season injury delayed the start of his career and limited him to just 10 starts total. Now healthier and going into his second season in the league, Darrisaw is an obvious candidate to take a step forward and should remain at least a solid starter even if he doesn’t improve. Just having him healthy for all or most of the season will help this offense.

Most of the rest of this group was the rest from 2020 to 2021 and will remain that way in 2022, with Ezra Cleveland remaining at left guard, Garrett Bradbury remaining at center, and Brian O’Neill remaining at right tackle. Bradbury missed 4 games with injury last season, but his return won’t be a big deal, as the 2019 1st round pick has been a mediocre player since entering the league, making 45 starts over the past three seasons, but finishing 31st out of 41 eligible centers, 28th out of 39 eligible centers, and 29th out of 36 eligible centers respectively on PFF.

It’s possible Bradbury could have some untapped upside and have his best year yet in his 4th season in the league in 2022, but he was an old rookie and is already in his age 27 season, so it looks unlikely he’ll ever develop into more than a capable starter. The Vikings understandably declined his 5th year option for 2023, which would have guaranteed him 13.202 million, so this could easily be his final season in Minnesota. He’ll remain the starter for lack of a better option, but I don’t expect much from him, even if he can stay healthier than a year ago.

Cleveland and O’Neill, meanwhile, made every start in their position last season and both had comparable seasons in 2021 as opposed to 2020. Cleveland was just a 2nd round rookie in 2020, but finished as PFF’s 29th ranked guard in 9 starts and then ranked 30th last season. Only in his age 24 season, Cleveland should remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the ability to develop into a consistently above average starting guard long-term. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in his third year in the league.

O’Neill is probably the Vikings’ best offensive lineman, having finished 34th, 24th, and 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF across 48 of a possible 49 starts over the past three seasons and still only going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick in 2018, O’Neill was extended on a 5-year, 92.5 million dollar deal last year, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league. It’s a steep price, but he’s one of the best players in the league at his position, so it’s not a bad contract.

The only new starter on this line will be at right guard, which is a good thing because that was a huge position of weakness in free agency. The Vikings signed experienced veteran Jesse Davis in free agency, who has made 72 starts in the past five seasons, seeing action at both guard and tackle, but they’re probably hoping out of their young guards can step up and take the job, as Davis hasn’t been more than a marginal starter in his career, regardless of where he plays, and now heads into his age 31 season. He would be best as a versatile reserve.

Those young guards are 2021 3rd round pick Wyatt Davis and rookie 2nd round pick Ed Ingram. Ingram looks like a future starter, but might not necessarily play well as a rookie, while Davis didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the selection of Ingram in this year’s draft is not a good sign for his long-term future. Right guard could easily remain a position of weakness, but they at least have some young players with upside and it wouldn’t be hard for whoever starts to be an upgrade on last year’s starter Oli Udoh, who was PFF’s 72nd ranked guard among 90 eligible across 16 starts. 

Whichever guards lose the right guard competition will be their primary reserves, along with Udoh, who can also play some tackle if needed, albeit probably not at a high level, with the 2019 6th round pick struggling mightily in the first extended starting action of his career in 2021. It’s a bit of a concerning depth situation, but they don’t have a bad starting five and, if they can stay relatively healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were an above average unit.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, the Vikings have had a lot of defensive injuries over the past two seasons and by far the most important player who has missed significant time for them over those two seasons is edge defender Danielle Hunter, who missed all of 2020 with a back injury and then had his 2021 season ended by a torn pectoral after 384 snaps in 7 games. That was a huge loss because, prior to 2020, Hunter had been a top-19 edge defender on PFF in 3 of the previous 4 seasons, playing the run well and adding a total of 48.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate, while playing all 64 games (49.1 snaps per game) over those 4 seasons, including a career best 2019 season, finishing 7th among edge defenders and totaling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate.

Hunter still showed some of that form in 2021 before getting hurt again, ranking 12th among edge defenders at the time of his injury and totaling 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate as a pass rusher, despite missing more than half of the season, and he’s still only in his age 28 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back if he can stay on the field in 2022. That’s far from a guarantee and he probably won’t be quite as good as his career best year in 2019, but he should be at least an above average every down option on edge as long as he’s on the field.

Opposite Hunter, the Vikings added a free agent who is also coming off of a serious injury, but who also has a high upside if he can stay healthy, ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith, who joins the Vikings on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. That could prove to be a steal, as Smith finished 41st, 2nd, and 15th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, totaling 34.5 sacks, 56 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate in 48 games, in addition to holding up against the run, but Smith also comes with a lot of risk, given that he missed all but 18 snaps last season with a back injury and now heads into his age 30 season. 

He doesn’t have much of an injury history outside of last season (6 games missed in his 6 seasons in the league prior to last season) and he’s not totally over the hill yet, so he has a good given to remain an above average player when on the field, even if he’s highly unlikely to match his career best year from 2019 and even if he has durability concerns. He and Hunter have a ton of upside as an edge defender duo, but they also come with a lot of downside because of their recent injury history.

With Hunter missing most of last season, DJ Wonnum led this position group with 951 snaps last season, but he was terrible, finishing 117th among 129 edge defenders and managing just 8 sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate, despite getting all of that action, and, with Hunter retain and Smith being added, Wonnum is expected to be the 3rd edge defender at best, barring injury ahead of him on the depth chart. An injury is certainly possible, but if Hunter and Smith stay relatively healthy, this edge defender group should be better not just because of the performance of Hunter and Smith, but because it pushes Wonnum into a smaller role, where the 2020 4th round pick could prove to be more effective. 

Wonnum also struggled with only a 8.1% pressure rate in a part-time role as a rookie and he could continue to struggle in 2022, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and, even if doesn’t take a step forward, he almost definitely won’t have to play as much as he did a year ago. He’ll compete for reserve roles with a pair of second year players Patrick Jones and Janarius Robinson, who only played 99 snaps and 0 snaps respectively as rookies, despite a need at the position, but who still have the upside to take a step forward in year two in 2022. This should be a much more talented edge defender group than a year ago, barring the absolute worst case scenario where both Hunter and Smith miss most of the season again.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Another key defensive player who didn’t play much for the Vikings over the past two seasons was interior defender Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season and then was limited to just 251 snaps in 8 games last season by injury in 2021. The Vikings cut him this off-season ahead of a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2022, even though he was still PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in his limited action last season, but they did a good job replacing him with free agent addition Harrison Phillips, who comes to Minnesota on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal, after spending his first four seasons in the league with the Bills, who drafted him in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Phillips was a solid run stuffer, but only played 389 snaps in a pure base package role and he had just a 4.5% pressure rate. Then in his second season, he tore his ACL after 77 snaps in three games and did not appear the same upon his return in 332 snaps in 12 games in 2020. Phillips looked a lot healthier a year later though, finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender, playing the run well and also posting a career high 8.6% pressure rate. 

Phillips is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and it only came on a snap count of 473 total snaps, which is still a career high for the 4-year career, but he’s still in his early prime in his age 26 season and he at least has a good chance to remain an above average starting interior defender, or at least a high level rotational player. With Pierce missing a lot of last season, Phillips is more of a replacement for capable starter Sheldon Richardson (688 snaps) than anything, but he should be an upgrade on Richardson and more durable than Pierce.

Phillips figures to start opposite another recent free agent acquisition, ex-Giant Dalvin Tomlinson, who was signed to a 2-year, 21 million dollar deal last off-season and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender across 641 snaps in his first season in Minnesota, playing the run well and adding 2.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. That’s in line with how the 2017 2nd round pick played in his first four seasons in the league, when he finished 22nd, 31st, 17th, 25th among interior defenders on PFF and totaled 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate, while playing 617 snaps per season. Still only in his age 28 season, having missed just 1 game in 5 seasons in the league, I don’t see any reason to expect anything different from him this season.

Armon Watts also returns after playing a significant role last season (669 snaps) and figures to see a significant role again. A 6th round pick in 2019, Watts showed promise on snap counts of 121 and 392 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, before earning an average grade from PFF in his first significant role in 2021, struggling against the run, but earning PFF’s 31st highest pass rush grade among interior defenders on PFF, while totaling 5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate. Watts is now going into his age 26 season and, while he might not have a big upside, he has a good chance to remain at least a solid rotational player on 500-600 snaps, with Phillips and Tomlinson also to likely be around similar snap counts, as long as everyone is healthy.

James Lynch also saw a limited role at the interior defender position for the Vikings last season, but the 2020 4th round pick struggled mightily, finishing as PFF’s 114th ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 304 snaps, after also struggling on 59 snaps as a rookie. Only in his age 23 season, it’s possible he could be better in 2022, but even if he’s better, that doesn’t mean he’ll even be a passable rotational player. He probably isn’t guaranteed a role, with his top competition likely to come from Jaylen Twyman, a 2021 6th round pick who missed his rookie season with injury, but who is now healthier and still has upside. This is a solid overall position group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Every down off ball linebacker Anthony Barr also missed a lot of time over the past two seasons, limited to just 2 games and 11 games in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Barr had been a good starter for the Vikings for several seasons and was still PFF’s 32nd ranked off ball linebacker across 783 snaps in 2021, but he was going into his age 30 season in 2022 and the Vikings opted not to bring him back as a free agent, replacing him with another player in his age 30 season who the Vikings are hoping will be more durable, Jordan Hicks, signing as a free agent on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season.

Hicks had injury problems early in his career, with the 2015 3rd round pick missing 21 games across his first four seasons in the league, but he hasn’t missed a game in three years since. His age is a concern and he hasn’t been the same player in recent years as he was early in his career, when he finished 11th, 3rd, and 13th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, 2016, and 2018 respectively, but he was still PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker in 2021 across 61.9 snaps per game as a 17-game every down starter with the Cardinals and, even if he’s unlikely to ever return to his top form, he could definitely repeat that same season in his new home in Minnesota, not totally over the hill yet.

Hicks will start alongside another every down player Eric Kendricks. Kendricks hasn’t missed as much time over the past two seasons as other key Vikings defenders, but he did miss 5 games in 2020 and 2 games in 2021, which was a significant absence for this defense. Kendricks fell to 37th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2021, after finishing 1st and 4th in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and now heads into his age 30 season, but he’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could easily do so for the 7th straight season in 2022, even if his best days are also likely behind him at this point. If Kendricks and Hicks can stay relatively healthier, they have a good chance to be at least a solid every down linebacker duo, an upgrade for a group that had #3 linebacker Nick Vigil play 718 snaps and finish 80th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season, with Barr and Kendricks both missing significant time.

Vigil is gone, which should be addition by subtraction, but the Vikings don’t really have an experienced replacement for the #3 linebacker role. Blake Lynch was solid on 218 snaps last season, but he went undrafted in 2020 and struggled on 77 rookie year snaps, so he would be a projection to a larger role who could easily struggle if forced to play significant snaps. The Vikings also used a 3rd round pick on off ball linebacker Brian Asamoah, who will compete for a role, after using a 3rd round pick in 2021 on Chazz Surratt, who didn’t play as a rookie because of a neck injury, but who still could develop into a useful player. Troy Dye, a 2020 4th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s struggled in 255 career snaps in two years in the league thus far. Depth is a bit of a concern, but as long as Hicks and Kendricks are healthy, none of their other linebackers would have to play other than base packages, with Hicks and Kendricks likely to be a solid every down duo.

Grade: B

Secondary

Injuries were also a problem for the Vikings at the cornerback position last season. Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler were both solid starters when healthy, but they both missed four games each with injury, leaving Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland to play 689 snaps and 675 snaps and struggle mightily, finishing 133rd and 127th respectively on PFF among 134 eligible cornerbacks. Alexander and Breeland are both gone though, while one or both of Peterson and Dantzler could easily be much healthier this season, and another talented cornerback, Andrew Booth, was added in the second round of the draft. Booth comes with his own injury issues, missing significant time in college with multiple ailments, but he probably would have been a first round pick if not for his injury issues, so he comes with obvious upside.

Booth isn’t necessarily a guarantee to see significant snaps as a rookie, with the Vikings also adding veteran slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan in free agency and likely to start him as the #3 cornerback, at least at the beginning of the season. Sullivan has been underwhelming on snap counts of 729 and 826 respectively over the past two seasons though, including a 110th ranked finish out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF last season, and he only was signed for 1-year, 1.75 million, so he’s not a lock to be the primary slot cornerback all season. The Vikings also added another young cornerback in the draft, taking Akayleb Evans in the 4th round, but he’s unlikely to see much rookie year action.

As the starters outside, Dantzler and Peterson are in different stages of their career, with the 2020 3rd round pick Dantzler on the way up and Peterson on the way down, now in his age 32 season. Dantzler still has only made 17 career starts and has missed time with injury in both seasons in the league, but he’s also earned an above average grade from PFF in both seasons, ranking 28th and 21st respectively, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he stayed healthier and make his biggest impact yet in his third season in the league in 2022, even if he isn’t quite as good on a per play basis as he has been thus far.

Peterson made the Pro-Bowl in 8 straight seasons to begin his career from 2011-2018, after being the 5th overall pick, but he hasn’t made one in three seasons since and, in those three seasons, he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF. He hasn’t been bad, but he’s definitely not the same player he was in his prime. He could remain a solid starter in 2022, but it’s possible he declines further, in which case he could be a liability. He didn’t have a big market in free agency this off-season, re-joining the Vikings on a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal, after joining them on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal last off-season.

The Vikings also used a high draft pick on the safety position, taking Lewis Cine 32nd overall in the first round, as a replacement for Xavier Woods, a solid starter in 17-games last season. The Vikings could have used Camryn Bynum as a replacement for Woods, after the 2021 4th round pick flashed a ton of potential on 211 rookie year snaps, earning a grade from PFF in the 91st percentile among safeties, albeit in a very limited role, but the Vikings also are likely viewing Cine as a replacement for long-time veteran Harrison Smith, who now enters his age 33 season, and adding Cine also allows them to continue to have good depth at the position with Bynum as the primary reserve.

Smith’s age is a concern, heading into his 11th season in the league, but he hasn’t shown many signs of dropping off yet and, even if he does in 2022, he could still remain a well above safety. His 15th and 12th ranked finishes among safeties on PFF over the past two seasons are a decline from a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and four career finishes in the top-5 at his position for a season, and he could decline further from there, but that likely would still make him a very valuable player for this defense. I don’t expect them to completely drop off suddenly, even if that is a possibility. He might still be the top defensive back in what should be a better group than a year ago, with Dantzler and Peterson likely to be healthier and several depth options added to replace Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Vikings had a slightly above average special teams in 2021, ranking 13th in special teams DVOA, and they should be similar this season, with largely the same personnel. The strength of their special teams was their kick return game with rookie running back Kene Nwangwu, sparingly used on offense, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and ranking as PFF’s highest ranked return man overall. He should continue being highly effective in 2022. 

KJ Osborn will likely take over as the primary punt returner and could be a decent replacement for the middling Dede Westbrook, who is no longer with the team. Aside from Westbrook though, the rest of their key special teams return, bringing back their two top core special teamers Troy Dye and Ryan Connelly, a pair of top-50 special teamers on PFF a year ago, as well as mid-level kicker/punter duo Greg Joseph and Jordan Berry. This should be a solid group again.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Vikings have finished just 7-9 and 8-9 over the past two seasons, but missing key personnel on defense has been a big part of the problem, particularly Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, and Cameron Dantzler. Hunter and Dantzler could easily be healthier in 2022 though, while Pierce and Barr have been replaced by comparable talents and healthier players in Harrison Phillips and Jordan Hicks, with edge defender Za’Darius Smith also being added in free agency, a potentially huge addition if he too can stay healthy.

Age is a bit of a concern for this defense with five likely starters (Smith, Hicks, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Eric Hendricks) all set to be 30 years or older, with the possibility of a couple of them dropping off significantly, but they still have a solid defense on paper. Meanwhile, their offense figures to be better in 2022 with better coaching getting more out of all their talent. In a weaker NFC, the Vikings have the talent to compete for a wild card spot, even if they’re likely to remain behind the Packers again in the division. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC North

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (6-10) at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

The Vikings’ suffered their first loss of the season by more than eight points last week and it came on the road in Green Bay in a game in which backup quarterback Sean Mannion started. However, the Vikings have also only won once by more than eight points, while two of their close defeats required the Vikings to get a pick six to make the final score closer than it would have been (Arizona and Baltimore) and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle by a wide margin in both of those games, which is more predictive than the final score.

Kirk Cousins returns this week, but he doesn’t solve the problems with the Vikings’ defense, which ranks 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency on the season, dragging the Vikings down to 25th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency on the season. Having Kirk Cousins back does help, but he only missed one game and he’ll be remain without one of his top wide receivers Adam Thielen, while this defense figures to have major problems without a trio of key defensive linemen, Michael Pierce, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter, whose consistent absences in recent weeks have contributed significantly to the Vikings’ defensive struggles.

The Vikings face a Bears team that is just 6-10, but the Bears’ biggest problem has been the turnover margin, as they rank 3rd worst in the NFL at -11, which is not predictive week-to-week. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on more predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, the Bears rank 25th, 11th, 7th, and 20th on offense, defense, special teams, and in overall mixed efficiency respectively. When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Vikings won by eight, but the Bears won the yards per play and first down rate battle by 12.88% and 2.12 yards per play respectively, losing because they lost the turnover battle by two and went just 2/12 on third down and 2/5 on fourth down, which also isn’t predictive week-to-week. 

I wish Akiem Hicks was playing for the Bears this week, as his presence the last time these two teams met contributed significantly to the Vikings’ offensive struggles, but he has missed most of the season, so his absence is nothing new for the Bears, while the Bears’ offense is as healthy as it’s been at running back, on the offensive line, and in the receiving corps, most notably getting back top offensive lineman Jason Peters and starting wide receiver Allen Robinson, who both missed the last matchup, in a game in which the Vikings had Michael Pierce active. Andy Dalton will start at quarterback with Justin Fields out this week and he is an uninspiring option long-term, he’s still probably the Bears best quarterback in the short-term, given how much Justin Fields has struggled as a passer in his rookie season. 

I would probably need this line to move up to Minnesota -6 for the Bears to be worth betting (my calculated line is Minnesota -3), but that could happen tomorrow when the Vikings are expected to get left tackle Christian Darrisaw, right guard Ezra Cleveland, linebacker Eric Kendricks, and safety Camryn Bynum back from COVID protocols and, if any of those players unexpectedly can’t play in this game, that would make the Bears a possibly attractive bet even at +5.5. This is a low confidence pick for now, but could be updated before gametime.

Update: The Vikings got Darrisaw and Cleveland back as expected, but not Kendricks and Bynum. Kendricks’ absence in particular will be a big loss for a Vikings defense already missing a trio of talented defensive linemen, in a meaningless game a week after being eliminated from the playoff chase. The Bears, meanwhile, will be motivated to get revenge against a team they could have beaten in the first matchup if not for a couple turnovers and failed fourth down conversions, despite the fact that Minnesota was much healthier in that game and the Bears were missing key personnel who will be available in this matchup. This line has dropped to 4.5 or 4 in some places, but my calculated line is Minnesota -1, will these two teams about equal in my roster rankings and the Bears possessing a motivational edge. The Bears are worth a bet.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Chicago Bears 23

Pick against the spread: Chicago +4.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (7-8) at Green Bay Packers (12-3)

The Vikings need to win this game in Green Bay to keep their playoff hopes alive and unfortunately their slim playoff odds might have effectively already fallen to zero before this game even kicks off, with the Vikings losing quarterback Kirk Cousins to the COVID protocols and set to start backup Sean Mannion, a 7-year veteran who is starting his first real game this week, with his two career starts both coming in meaningless week 17 games where his team was resting starters.

For spread purposes though, this line has compensated by swinging to favor the Packers now by 13 points, so I still like the Vikings’ chances of covering. The Packers stand alone with the league’s best record at 12-3, but they haven’t been dominant in most of their wins. As a result, they rank just 11th in the NFL in point differential at +59 and, in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Packers rank 7th, 19th, 32nd on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 17th in overall mixed efficiency. 

They have been better at home, which has been the case throughout Aaron Rodgers’ tenure, as Rodgers’ QB rating is about 10 points higher at home in his career and the Packers are 50-23 ATS at home in games Rodgers starts and finishes in front of crowds with fans, but this line still seems a little bit too high, as the Vikings still have a talented #1 wide receiver in Justin Jefferson, a strong running game, and a defense that is at least competent. I don’t have any confidence in the Vikings, but I would take them at this number for pick ’em purposes as my calculated line is Green Bay -10.5.

Green Bay Packers 26 Minnesota Vikings 14

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +13

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (10-4) at Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

The Vikings are in the playoff mix in the NFC at 7-7 and are a trendy sleeper pick because it’s well-documented that the Vikings haven’t lost more than 8 points this season and could have easily won a few more games. That doesn’t tell the whole story though. For one, two of their losses required the Vikings to get a pick six to make the final score (Arizona and Baltimore) closer than it would have been and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle by a wide margin in both of those games, which is more predictive than the final score. 

On top of that, most of their wins have been close, with just one coming by more than 8 points, so, while they could easily have a couple more wins, they could also have a couple more losses. Their point differential of +19 is about in line with their record and schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate, shows them to be even worse than that, as they rank 16th, 26th, and 5th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency respectively and 23rd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency.

The Vikings were winning by two scores against the Bears last week before a garbage time touchdown, but that game was relatively close throughout, as the Vikings’ offense didn’t allow them to separate from a skeleton crew Bears team, even though the Bears lost the turnover battle by two, went 2/12 on third down, and went 2/5 on fourth down. The Bears won the first down rate and yards per play battle in that game by margins of 12.88% and 2.12 yards per play respectively, holding the Vikings’ offense to a pathetic 3.16 yards per play, despite legitimately being without most of their regular secondary, as well as stud edge defensive Khalil Mack.

The Vikings are likely to benefit from the return of wide receiver Adam Thielen with injury this week, but now they will be without feature back Dalvin Cook, which should cancel out Thielen’s return. The Vikings also face a much tougher challenge this week, with the Rams coming to town. The Rams will be without left tackle Andrew Whitworth due to COVID protocols, but they will return tight end Tyler Higbee, safety Jordan Fuller, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, who missed last week, while cornerback Jalen Ramsey and center Brian Allen missed the previous game, two games the Rams still won despite being short-handed.

Even without Whitworth, the Rams are relatively healthier than most teams in the league right now, including the Vikings, who are without their top two edge defenders on the defensive side of the ball, in addition to Cook’s absence and the uncertainty around Thielen’s injury. The Rams have also been one of the best teams in the league this season, ranking 7th, 6th, 17th, and 4th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, while my roster rankings show them to be even better than that, even with Whitworth missing.

Given that, the Rams should be able to beat the Vikings with relative ease and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them hand the Vikings their first multiscore loss of the season. My calculated line is Rams -5, so I don’t necessarily foresee a blowout, but we are getting some line value with the Rams at -3.5. I would need this line to go down to 3 to be at all confident in the Rams though, as right now the line value does not cross a key number. The Rams are the better side for pick ‘em purposes either way though.

Update: This line has moved to 3 in some places. As I said, I would like the Rams better at that number, so I am increasing this to a low confidence pick.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Minnesota Vikings 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-7) at Chicago Bears (4-9)

The Vikings have drawn a lot of attention for keeping all of their losses close, not losing by more than 8 points all season, but two of their losses required pick sixes to make the margin of defeat smaller than it otherwise would have and most of their wins have been close as well, with just one win by multiple scores. They could easily have a couple more wins, which tends to be well-known with this team, but they also easily could have a couple more losses, which tends to get left out of the analysis. Overall, they are a slightly below average team, despite the fact that they haven’t been blown out, ranking 15th, 28th, 6th, and 21st in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency.

The Vikings’ tendency to play close games is especially relevant considering the Vikings are 6-point road favorites in this game, with just three of their margins of victory being enough to cover this number, including just one on the road, a 7-point win in Los Angeles against the Chargers. That being said, it’s hard to be confident in the Bears too, as they are a well below average team that is dealing with a significant amount of absent players. On the season, the Bears rank 27th, 20th, 3rd, and 25th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, which is only about a couple points behind the Vikings, but the Bears are in much worse shape than that right now. 

Already without their top defensive player for the year, with stud edge defender Khalil Mack injured, the Bears will also be without one of their most important offensive players, talented left tackle Jason Peters, while starting wide receiver Allen Robinson headlines a group of 11 players added to the COVID list this week, a list that could keep growing. My calculated line right now has the Vikings as 4.5-point favorites, so we’re getting some line value with the Bears at +6, but I can’t take them with any confidence right now. If they can avoid more COVID cases, I may increase the confidence on this pick, but that’s a big if at this point.

Minnesota Vikings 22 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (5-7)

A week ago on the early line, the Vikings were favored by 4.5 points in this matchup, but this line has since fallen all the way down to 3, a significant shift, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by a field goal exactly. I like to go against significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week’s result. In this case, the Steelers beat the previously 8-3 Ravens last week, while the Vikings lost to the previously winless Lions, but I don’t think either result was that surprising or should have triggered this shift.

Both games came down to the final play and both the Ravens and Lions have played a lot of close games this year, despite their significantly different records, so the fact that the former finally lost one and the latter finally won one is not a surprise. As bad as the Vikings’ loss to the Lions was last week, the Steelers nearly lost to the Lions at home earlier this season, a game that ended in a tie, and, overall, the Steelers have been a much worse team than the Vikings this season, despite having a slightly better record.

Including last week’s close win over the Ravens, the Steelers have won their six games by a combined 26 points, with none by more than one score, while their five losses have come by a combined 68 points, with their only one-score loss coming in Los Angeles, in a game in which the Steelers lost despite winning the turnover battle and blocking a punt, which led to the Steelers cutting into what was a 14-point 4th quarter lead, despite losing the first down rate battle by 12.24% and the yards per play battle by 3.1 yards per play. 

The Steelers other four losses all came by multiple scores, while the Vikings have not lost by more than one score all season and possess a significant edge in point differential (+3 vs. -42). In terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the Steelers rank 26th, while the Vikings rank 18th. The Vikings are also a lot healthier this week than they were a week ago and the significant amount of missing personnel they had last week in Detroit is a big part of the reason why they lost. 

They will still be without their top two edge defenders Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen and their starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw, while #2 wide receiver Adam Thielen will miss his first game of the season, but they will get back their top cornerback Patrick Peterson and their top two linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr and could also get back feature back Dalvin Cook and key reserve defensive back Camryn Bynum, all of whom missed last week’s game. This comes a couple weeks after the Vikings got their starting defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce back. 

The Vikings are still not as healthy as they were earlier in the season, but last week was their low point of the season from an injury standpoint and they should play a lot better now that they are healthier. They have a significant talent edge over the Steelers, who remain without top cornerback Joe Haden and are now down to their third string left guard. Overall, I have the Vikings 5.5 points better in my roster rankings right now, with Bynum and Cook factored in as legitimately questionable, so we are getting a ton of line value with the Vikings as only 3-point home favorites, a line that suggests the Vikings are only barely better than the Steelers.

This is also a very tough spot for the Steelers, who have to come on the road and face an unfamiliar non-divisional and non-conference opponent on a short week, as underdogs. All-time, non-divisional road underdogs cover at just a 34.5% rate on Thursday Night Football when both teams are on short rest. Making matters worse for the Steelers, they are coming off of an emotional win over the Ravens. 

Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go for two not only led to the Steelers’ victory, but also spared the Steelers from being in a near-impossible spot this week, as they would have had to play on a short week after an overtime game, a 16% all-time cover spot, but the Steelers’ defense was still on the field for 69 plays in a game that went down to the wire and, even if the game didn’t go to overtime, they figure to be the more tired of these two teams. 

On top of that, teams cover at just a 43.3% rate all-time after a win as home underdogs of four points or more, as teams tend to find it tough to bring that same level of intensity two weeks in a row. I like the Vikings enough as a field goal favorites in this game that it would probably be my Pick of the Week if it was a weekend game, but I don’t like to make my Pick of the Week on Thursdays because these games can be weird sometimes and it’s possible I like a game this weekend more and, even if this isn’t my Pick of the Week, this is still a big play.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3

Confidence: High

Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (5-6) at Detroit Lions (0-10-1)

The Lions are famously winless, heading into week 13 at 0-10-1, but winless teams actually tend to be a good bet against the spread this late in the season, as they tend to be undervalued by oddsmakers and the public, they tend to get overlooked by their opponents, and they tend to bring their best effort every week, in desperate pursuit of their first win. In all, winless teams cover at a 63.0% rate in week 9 or later.

The Lions also aren’t getting blown out every week either. They have been outscored by an average of 10.5 points per game, which gives them a point differential of -115, which is actually ahead of a couple teams (Texans and Jets), but even that suggests they are getting blown out more often than they are, with just three of their eleven games resulting in losses by more than 10 points, including a game against the Packers in which they led at halftime in Green Bay. 

The Vikings have not had any blowout losses, with their 8-point loss to the 49ers last week being their biggest margin of defeat of the season, but that seems to be a well known fact by the public, as many consider them a couple wins better than their record. However, that ignores that most of their wins have been close as well, including a few that could have gone the other way and just one win by multiple scores, relevant considering this is a 7.5-point line. Their point differential is +5 and their efficiency ratings don’t make them look any better, as they rank 14th, 30th, 5th, and 21st in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, suggesting this has been no better than an average team this season.

Making matters worse for the Vikings, they are dealing with some tough health situations that make them more of a below average team, at least slightly. Their defensive line figures to be healthier this week, with both starting interior defenders Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce likely to return from short-term absences, but they’re still without their two best edge defenders Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, while their secondary is likely to be without top cornerback Patrick Peterson and their linebacking corps is expected to be without top linebacker Eric Kendricks. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings will be without feature back Dalvin Cook and talented starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw, which are both big absences. 

My calculated line has the Vikings as just 5-point favorites in Detroit, so we’re getting good line value with the Lions at +7.5. The Vikings are also in a bad spot, having to play again in four days against the Steelers, as favorites have covered at just a 41.2% rate all-time before a Thursday game. With another game around the corner, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see the Vikings overlook the winless Lions, which could lead to the Lions at least keeping it close, as they have many times this season, including a near win in Minnesota earlier this season, back when the Vikings were healthier. I like the Lions a lot at +7.5.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +7.5

Confidence: High

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (5-5) at San Francisco 49ers (5-5)

The 49ers are just 5-5, but they have a point differential that is better than their record at +24, despite dealing with a significant amount of injury absences, many of whom have since returned, and despite a -5 turnover margin, 5th worst in the NFL. Turnover margin is highly non-predictive on a week-to-week basis and the 49ers rank 7th, 6th, 7th, and 4th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, when adjusted for schedule, which are based on more predictive metrics like first down rate and yards per play, showing them to statistically be one of the best and most well-balanced teams in the league, despite all of the players who missed time earlier this season.

The 49ers have covered by a wide margin in back-to-back games and have overall covered three of their last four games, but they still remain underrated, favored by just 3 points at home against the Vikings. Part of that may be the Vikings being overrated, as the general public sees they have been competitive in all their games and could easily have a few more wins if a few things went their way. They also remember them handing the Packers their second loss of the season with Aaron Rodgers last week.

That analysis leaves out a lot of things though. For one, the Vikings could also just as easily have a few more losses, as just one of their wins has come by more than one score. The Vikings also needed pick sixes in two of their losses to make those games closer than they otherwise would have been and, if not for those, they could easily have a couple multiscore losses. On top of that, their win over the Packers isn’t as impressive as it seems, as the Packers are an overrated team with a lot of injury issues, and the Vikings will be more short-handed than they were a week ago, particularly on the defensive line. 

Already without interior defender Michael Pierce and edge defender Danielle Hunter for an extended period of time, the Vikings will add fellow interior defender Dalvin Tomlinson and fellow edge defender Everson Griffen to their list of absences this week, leaving them without their two best players at both positions, which is a big liability for a defense that already ranks just 24th in schedule adjusted efficiency. Their offense and special teams are better, but not good enough to make up for their issues on defense, with their offense ranking 15th in efficiency and their special teams ranking 13th. They should be underdogs of a lot more than three points in San Francisco against a still underrated 49ers team. My calculated line favors the 49ers by 8, so the 49ers are an obvious choice against the spread and my top pick this week.

San Francisco 49ers 31 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (8-2) at Minnesota Vikings (4-5)

The Packers are 8-2, a year after going 13-3, but they aren’t the same team as a year ago, primarily due to injuries. Already without left tackle David Bakhtiari, edge defender Za’Darius Smith, and cornerback Jaire Alexander, three of the top players in the league at their respective positions, who have missed most or all of the season, the Packers are now without talented lead back Aaron Jones with a knee injury he suffered in last week’s game. Green Bay’s record is obviously impressive, but they rank just 10th in point differential at +36 and, even if you exclude their two losses, one a somewhat fluky week one game and the other a game in which they lost by one score to the Chiefs without Aaron Rodgers, they would still rank just 5th in point differential at 77, so they are definitely not dominating teams.

That is despite the fact that the Packers have the 4th best turnover margin in the league at +7, which is not a predictive stat that they can rely on going forward. More predictive stats like yards per play and first down rate show this Packers team isn’t as performing at the same level as a year ago, ranking 14th, 13th, and 30th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency. The Vikings are just 4-5, but they have been competitive in every single one of their games, losing at most by 7 points, just once by more than four points, and totalling a +10 point differential on the season. 

I have not picked the Vikings lately because of all of their defensive absences, but, while they are still without stud edge defender Danielle Hunter, they will get stud safety Harrison Smith, top cornerback Patrick Peterson, and talented linebacker Anthony Barr all back from multi-game absences this week, which is a significant amount of talent that is being re-added to this lineup. 

My calculated line has the Vikings as the slight favorite to win this game, favoring them by 1.5 points and that is not even taking into account that the Packers typically drop off more on the road than the average team, in large part due to Aaron Rodgers having a well above average 10-point quarterback rating drop off between home games and road games in his career. 

Unfortunately, we are not getting much line value with the Vikings, who are underdogs of just 1 point. When this opened at 2.5, I was hoping we would get a full field goal at some point, but the line has moved the other direction, with sharp bettors recognizing that the Vikings are significantly healthier on defense than they have been in recent weeks. The money line is still worth a play, but there isn’t enough line value with the spread for that to be worth betting.

Update: This is a late bet, but Rashan Gary will be out for the Packers, despite practicing in limited fashion all week. He has been a big part of their defensive success without Za’Darius Smith, so having both him and Smith out will really limit this defense, in contrast to Minnesota being much healthier on defense. Despite that, this line has moved up to +1.5. I like both the spread and the money line in this game, as my calculated line has the Vikings favored by a field goal.

Minnesota Vikings 31 Green Bay Packers 27 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (3-5) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-3)

Typically the rule of thumb with the Chargers is to bet them on the road and bet against them at home. The Chargers hardly have any fans in Los Angeles and usually play in front of mostly road crowds, which means they don’t have a typical homefield advantage, but it also means they tend to be underrated away from home. Overall, the Chargers are 21-13 ATS on the road and 13-20 ATS at home since moving to Los Angeles.

However, we’re not getting any line value with the Vikings because they are a little overrated. Going into the season, I thought the Vikings were underrated but, now, even though they are better than their 3-5 record, I think the opposite is true. The common narrative with them is they haven’t lost by more than one score all season, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, as they needed pick sixes against the Cardinals and Ravens to keep those games close and they also have only won by more than one score once all season. 

Efficiency metrics don’t show they have excelled in any one aspect, ranking 21st, 21st, and 19th respectively on offense, defense, and special teams and their defense is even worse than that suggests right now, with three of their top players, Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, and Anthony Barr out with injury. A healthier defense was the main reason I liked the Vikings coming into the season, but their offense hasn’t been nearly as good as a year ago and their defense figures to revert to struggling with so many key players absent. We’re not getting any line value with the Chargers either and I definitely don’t want to bet them laying a field goal at home against still a decent opponent, but they are the better side for pick ‘em purposes, even if a push might be the most likely result.

Los Angeles Chargers 27 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -3

Confidence: None