Minnesota Vikings at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (0-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-1)

Both of these teams had disappointing opening weeks, with the Vikings losing at home to the division rival Packers and the Colts losing on the road to the Jaguars by a slim margin in a big upset. For the Vikings, all of their problems were on defense, as they allowed the Packers to pick up first downs at a 47.37% rate, the 5th highest mark of the week. The Vikings were actually one of the four teams ahead of them though, even though they ultimately lost the game.

In fact, the Vikings led the week with a ridiculous 59.18% first down rate, picking up 25 first downs and scoring 4 offensive touchdowns, on just 49 offensive plays. The Packers’ offensive display was more impressive on the scoreboard, but they went 6 of 11 on third downs, they won the turnover battle by 1, and, while the Vikings failed on their only 4th down attempt, the Packers went 1 for 2, with their one failure coming on the goal line and leading almost immediately to a safety and re-gained position.

The Vikings were still able to put up 34 points despite running 27 fewer plays because they were hyper-efficient on 1st and 2nd down, winning the yards per play battle significantly as well (7.8 to 6.9) and needing to run just 6 third down plays (3 for 6) all game, by far the fewest in the league last week (next closest was 9). Turnover margin and third/fourth down conversion rates tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so it bodes well for the Vikings’ offensive chances that they were able to be that efficient on early downs against a capable defense. The Vikings have obvious issues on defense and those should continue at least until edge defender Danielle Hunter returns from injury, but their offense looks more than capable of winning shootouts in the meantime.

On the other side, the Colts disappointed on both sides of the ball in Jacksonville, but they lost the turnover margin by -2, something that won’t happen every week, and that week 1 result is probably the one we’ll most look back on as a fluke at the end of the season. The Colts were just a middling team last year, but they get an upgrade under center (even if Rivers isn’t what he was, he should be better than Brissett), they get their top wide receiver back from injury in TY Hilton, and they add a much needed stud defensive lineman in DeForest Buckner, so they should end up being noticeably improved this season when all is said and done, even if they didn’t gel right away with a new quarterback after a short off-season.

In my roster rankings, I give the Colts a 4-point edge over the Vikings and their banged up defense, so we’re getting some line value with the Colts as just 3-point home favorites. The Vikings have the offensive firepower to keep things close and even pull off the upset, especially if the Colts are still feeling the effects of installing a new quarterback on a shortened off-season, but I think there’s enough here for the Colts to be worth a small bet in a game they should win and only need to win by 3 to at least push.

Indianapolis Colts 30 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -3

Confidence: Medium

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (0-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-0)

When these two teams met last season, the Packers won both matchups, outscoring the Vikings by 18 points and winning the first down rate battle by 10.32% between the two games. The Packers also won more games overall, winning the NFC North at 13-3, with the Vikings settling for a wild card at 10-6. However, overall, the Vikings actually outplayed the Packers on the year, with edges in first down rate differential (+3.34% vs. +1.15%), point differential (+104 vs. +63), and DVOA (+15.4% vs. +7.7%). 

There is a lot of talk about how the Packers didn’t do anything notable to improve their weaknesses this season, but the Vikings had a much worse off-season and are missing key contributors from last season. On offense, they traded away Stefon Diggs, who was their top wide receiver last season, and replaced him with a rookie first round pick. On defense, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph left in free agency. The Vikings brought in Yannick Ngakoue and Michael Pierce to replace them, but the latter opted out of the season, while the former will start the season as a replacement for other starting defensive end Danielle Hunter, one of the top edge defenders in the league, who will miss at least the first 3 weeks of the season with injury. Without him, the Vikings have a very underwhelming defensive line, with Ngakoue as their only real threat.

The Packers are missing an offensive lineman to do injury, but have arguably the deepest offensive line in the league, with 6 capable starters on the roster. Overall, I give the Packers a 3.5 point edge over the Vikings based on the current state of their rosters. This is technically a road game for the Packers, but the Vikings won’t have any fans in the stadium due to pandemic restrictions and the Packers don’t have to travel far. This line favors the Vikings by 2.5 points, but my calculated line is the opposite favoring the Packers by 2.5. I don’t love line value between -3/+3 because so few games are decided by 2 or fewer points, but the Packers are worth a small bet at +2.5 and there’s good value with the money line at +120 as well. If this line moves up to +3, I will increase this bet.

Green Bay Packers 23 Minnesota Vikings 20 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings took a big risk two off-seasons ago, signing veteran free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar deal to fill their void at the quarterback position. That’s a lot of money, but it’s in line with what some other comparable quarterbacks are making annually, the guarantees were actually less than some longer non-fully guaranteed deals, and Cousins could have gotten more money elsewhere, choosing Minnesota because they had the most competitive roster outside of the quarterback position.

In the first year, the results weren’t what the Vikings were expecting, as the Vikings finished 8-8 and ranked just 23rd in first down rate at 34.80%, but Cousins wasn’t really the problem, as he ranked 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. The problem was that, despite a defense that kept games close (6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%) and a poor pass blocking offensive line that allowed Cousins to be pressured at a 38.7% pressure rate (7th highest among qualifying quarterbacks), the Vikings still had 606 pass attempts to 357 rush attempts, the 6th fewest rush attempts in the league. That split was even more skewed before the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was in large part fired for his unwillingness to establish the run; new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.

Stefanski stayed on as offensive coordinator for 2019 and, along with new offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, they designed a completely different offense. They went from being pass heavy to having more rush attempts (476) than pass attempts (466), one of three teams in the league to do so last season (49ers and Ravens). They frequently ran two tight end and two back sets and called play action on 31.4% of Kirk Cousins’ pass attempts (6th most among eligible quarterbacks), with Cousins completing 71.8% of his passes for an average of 9.67 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions off play action, a 129.2 QB rating that ranked 4th in the NFL off play action.

All in all, Cousins completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.11 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while leading the Vikings to a 37.31% first down rate in his 15 starts (he sat in a meaningless week 17 game), which ranked 11th in the NFL over that stretch. Their defense remained strong (9th in first down rate allowed at 33.71%) and the Vikings ended up with 10 wins and a wild card berth. 

Cousins wasn’t the only reason for their offensive success, but he was a big part of a balanced attack and finished as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback on the season. Cousins has been a solid starter since 2015 (79 starts), completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 7.70 YPA, 137 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions, but last year was easily his highest graded season, as he finished between 10th and 20th at his position in every season from 2015-2018. 

Cousins may regress slightly in 2020, but he could easily continue playing at a high level, with accomplished offensive mind Gary Kubiak taking over as the full-time offensive coordinator and largely keeping the same scheme in place. Cousins has also never missed a start with injury in his career, but if he happens to miss time, the Vikings would have to turn to Sean Mannion, whose mediocre start in the Vikings’ meaningless week 17 game last season is the only start of his career. Obviously the Vikings want to avoid that.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The bigger problem than Cousins potentially regressing a little after a career best year is this team is becoming expensive to keep long-term, especially given Cousins’ salary, as he’ll make 96 million over the next three seasons after signing a 2-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season. The Vikings were able to make it to the second round of the post-season last season, but don’t seem to be in better shape to go on a deep run in 2020. With a tough financial situation this off-season, the Vikings made the decision to move on from several players, including highly paid wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was sent to the Bills for a first round pick and a swap of mid round picks.

Diggs led this team in receiving in 2019, putting up a 63/1130/6 slash line despite the Vikings being so run heavy, and ranking 2nd in the league among wide receivers in yards per route run with 2.69. He’s also consistently been an above average option since entering the league in 2015, but with the Vikings getting a first round pick for him, it’s understandable why they made the move. Given that this is a run heavy team, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for the Vikings to pay top of the market money to their quarterback and his top-two options and the Vikings already have Adam Thielen set to return after an injury-ruined 2019 season and owed 21.6 million over the next two seasons. This was also a good wide receiver draft class, which allowed the Vikings to find a much cheaper replacement in Justin Jefferson. 

Jefferson will almost definitely be a downgrade as a rookie, but he could still be a capable #2 wide receiver on a run heavy team and he has the upside to be as good as Diggs long-term. He will start opposite Thielen, who averaged a 91/1205/6 slash line in the three seasons prior to last season, ranked in the top-20 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons (including a pair of top-8 finishes in 2017 and 2018), and still averaged a solid 1.86 yards per route run on 225 routes in limited action in 2020 (28th among wide receivers). Thielen is going into his age 30 season, but isn’t totally over the hill and has never missed a game besides the injuries he had last season, so he has obvious bounce back potential, even if he’s not quite as good as he’s been in the past. His targets are capped by this being a run heavy offense, but he should still see plenty of balls his way as the clear cut #1 option.

Bisi Johnson was their 3rd receiver last year and saw 6 starts in Thielen’s absence, even though he was just a 7th round rookie, and he played about as you’d expect a 7th round rookie to play, ranking 90th out of 101 eligible wide receivers with 1.03 yards per route run. He’ll only face competition from free agent acquisition Tajae Sharpe, who has averaged just 1.19 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league as a #3/#4 receiver since going in the 5th round in 2016, so Johnson could easily remain third on the depth chart. He may be better in his second season, but it could be only by default.

Fortunately, this offense doesn’t go to three wide receivers all that given, given how often they use fullback CJ Ham (354 snaps) and their two tight ends Kyle Rudolph (791 snaps) and Irv Smith (612 snaps). Even third tight end Tyler Conklin saw 18.3 snaps per game, primarily as a blocker in obvious passing situations. All three of their tight ends and CJ Ham remain and will all have similar roles in 2020. Ham is a solid blocking fullback and also caught 17 passes last season as well, though his 5.73 yards per target average hardly makes him an efficient option (6.16 yards per target on 49 career targets). Rudolph and Smith also had decent slash lines of 39/367/6 and 36/311/2 respectively, despite receiving just 48 targets and 47 targets respectively.

Smith was a second round rookie last season and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF overall, something he could easily improve on in his second season in the league. Rudolph, meanwhile, is a 9-year veteran. He had injury problems early in his career, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 9 seasons in the league and he hasn’t missed a game due to injury over the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, he has averaged a 58/574/6 slash line, while being a solid blocker as well. 

Now going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible Rudolph will start to decline, but he didn’t really show any signs of being diminished last season, so he could easily remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons. Even if he does decline, the Vikings could compensate by giving more playing time to a developing Irv Smith. The Vikings will definitely miss Stefon Diggs, but they get Adam Thielen back healthy, they add a first round wide receiver to replace Diggs, they have good complimentary pass catching options at tight end and running back (Dalvin Cook also had a 53/519/0 slash line on 63 targets), and they’re a run heavy team that didn’t need two highly paid wide receivers. This is a solid group overall, largely depending on how close to his pre-injury form Thielen can be. 

Grade: B

Running Backs

Dalvin Cook was also a big part of this offense on the ground. In fact, him staying healthy and showing his potential over a full season is what allowed this offense to operate in the run heavy/play action way they operated in successfully last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cook showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 4.68 YPC and catching 3.4 passes per game, but he was limited to 207 carries in 15 games total due to injury, including a torn ACL that ended his rookie year. In 2019, Cook still missed two games, but he still ended up with 250 carries and turned those carries into 1,135 yards (4.54 YPC) and 13 touchdowns, in addition to what he did in the air. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked running back on the season.

Wanting to add insurance for the injury prone Cook last off-season, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Alexander Mattison and he had a role on this run heavy offense last season, rushing for 462 yards and 1 touchdown on 100 carries (4.62 YPC), while catching 10 of 12 targets for 82 yards. Mattison’s per carry average wasn’t bad, but it’s worth noting that 41.3% of his yardage came on 9 carries and he averaged just 2.98 YPC on his other 91 carries, while ranking dead last overall among qualifying running backs in carry success rate at 38%.

Mattison should have the same role in 2020 if everything goes as planned, but there are two somewhat realistic ways he could see more action. One is simply if Cook was to miss significant time, certainly a possibility for a running back who hasn’t made it through a full 16 game season yet. The other is if Cook holds out into the season in pursuit of a contract extension, ahead of the final year of his cheap rookie deal. A full season holdout is unlikely if only because those are exceedly rare, but a partial season holdout is definitely a possibility, even if the history of players who only show up for part of the season isn’t great (see Melvin Gordon 2019). 

Cook wants to be paid as a top running back, but the Vikings don’t have a lot of long-term financial flexibility and may not want to commit top dollar to a running back with a history of injury problems, especially when they have another back in Mattison who was a relatively high pick that the organization is still high on. This is a situation to monitor into the season as Mattison would be a significant drop off from Cook if he had to see every down work. Their depth is also limited with only Mike Boone, who has just 60 career carries since going undrafted in 2018 and Ameer Abdullah, a return man with a career 3.90 YPC average, behind Cook and Mattison.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line has been an issue for years and those issues continued into 2019. Cousins wasn’t pressured quite as much in 2018 as he was in 2019, but he was still pressured on 36.4% of his dropbacks, 10th in the NFL. This group did take a big step forward as run blockers though, as the Vikings went from 27th in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018 to 11th in 2019, a big part of why they were able to be so effective on the ground. The Vikings return 4 of 5 starters from last year’s offensive line, only losing right guard Josh Kline, who was released ahead of a 4.75 million dollar salary, following a middling 2019 season. Depending on how they go about replacing Kline, however, this line could look pretty different this season.

The easiest thing the Vikings could do would be to replace Kline with Dru Samia, a 2019 4th round pick who could take a step forward in his 2nd season after playing 31 snaps as Kline’s backup last season. The Vikings used the 58th overall pick on Boise State left tackle Ezra Cleveland though, which gives the Vikings the option to either try him at right guard or to keep him at left tackle and move Riley Reiff inside to guard, a position he has some experience at and where he could be a better fit as he ages (age 32 season in 2020). 

Reiff had a solid season in 2019, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, his 7th above average grade from PFF in 8 seasons in the league, and the Vikings kept him this off-season despite the fact that they could have saved a much needed 8.8 million in cap space by releasing him this off-season, but he will likely begin to decline over the next few years, something that could be slowed down if he moves inside. 

At the very least, Cleveland’s selection suggests the left tackle job isn’t Reiff’s for much longer. Where the Vikings want to play Cleveland will determine what they do with Reiff and Dru Samia, as Cleveland could either be a starting left tackle, a starting right guard, or a reserve left tackle. It’s also possible Cleveland or Reiff could play left guard and move incumbent left guard Pat Elflein to right guard. 

Regardless of where he plays, Elflein figures to be a starter in 2020. Elflein struggled earlier in his career as a center, finishing 23rd out of 39 eligible centers on PFF in 14 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2017 and dead last out of 39 eligible centers in 13 starts in 2018, but he was actually slightly above average in his new spot at left guard in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder, but could easily remain a solid starter going forward, only in his age 26 season, now at a position where he seems to be a much better fit.

Elflein was moved because the Vikings used their first round pick in 2019 on Garrett Bradbury, who made all 16 starts at center as a rookie. Bradbury had some growing pains as a rookie though, finishing 29th out of 35 eligible centers on PFF. He could obviously be better in his second season, however, and still projects as at least a solid starter long-term. Right tackle Brian O’Neill bookends this line and the 2018 2nd round pick took a noticeable step forward in his second season in 2019, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF after being a middling starter as a rookie. He could easily continue being an above average starter long-term. This line lacks a standout player, but they’re not a bad group overall, especially if they can figure out the right guard and left tackle spots.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Along with Stefon Diggs, the Vikings also moved on from edge defender Everson Griffen this off-season, releasing him ahead of 13.5 million dollars non-guaranteed owed in 2020. Griffen was still Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked edge defender, while playing 56.6 snaps per game, but he was heading into his age 33 season in 2020, so the Vikings didn’t bring him back at his scheduled salary. Griffen is still available on the open market and there’s talk that the Vikings could still bring Griffen back at a cheaper rate, which they have the cap space available to do, but as of right now, they haven’t done anything to replace him and have a big hole at the position as a result.

If Griffen isn’t brought back before the start of the season, they’ll likely start Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 2017 7th round pick, who flashed on 368 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season but is an obvious projection to a potentially every down starting role. Stephen Weatherly struggled on 422 snaps last season as the 3rd defensive end, but with him signing in Carolina this off-season, their best alternatives to Odenigbo would be bottom of the roster caliber veterans like Anthony Zettel or Eddie Yarborough, who were added this off-season, or 4th round rookie DJ Wonnum, who is very raw. 

Fortunately, the Vikings do still have Danielle Hunter, who was even better than Griffen last year, ranking 7th among edge defenders on PFF and especially excelling as a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate. Last year was the best season of Hunter’s career, but he’s not really a one-year wonder, ranking between 19th and 32nd among edge defenders on PFF in every season from 2016-2018, while totalling 34 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate over those three seasons combined. The 2015 3rd round pick is also still very young, not even turning 26 until December, so he could easily remain a high level edge defender for at least a few more seasons. He significantly elevates a position group that would be in big trouble if Hunter missed any time.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Vikings also released interior defender Linval Joseph this off-season, saving 11.75 million ahead of his age 32 season. Like Griffen, Joseph was still a useful player last season (38th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus), but unlike Griffen he was actually replaced, with the Vikings signing ex-Raven Michael Pierce to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal to replace him. Pierce is a similar player to Joseph, primarily a run stuffer who can also get to the quarterback on occasion, but he’s younger (age 28 season) and comes with much higher upside. 

Even in a down year due to injuries in 2019, Pierce still earned an above average grade as a run stopper and prior to last season he finished in the top-14 among interior defenders in run stopping grade in three straight seasons, including a career best 4th ranked finish in 2018. He’s not much of a pass rusher and he’s never topped 594 snaps in a season as primarily a base package player throughout his career, but his 6.9% pressure rate is better than you’d expect from a 340 pounder and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020. He’ll likely play around the 42.5 snaps per game that Joseph played in 2019.

Along with Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen (580 snaps) and Jaleel Scott (408 snaps) also saw significant action on the interior last season. Both struggled though, finishing 91st and 115th respectively out of 125 eligible interior defenders, especially struggling as pass rushers, with a combined 3.0% pressure rate. Stephen has been middling at best on an average of 413 snaps per season in 6 seasons in the league, while Johnson has struggled on 710 career snaps since being taken in the 4th round in 2017, so I wouldn’t expect much from either one this season, but both will likely have to see significant roles again in 2020, for lack of better options. 

The Vikings also won’t have the luxury of using three defensive ends together in sub packages and lining one up on the interior, which they often did last season, given their lack of depth on the edge. The Vikings did use a 4th round pick on James Lynch, who could see action as a situational pass rusher as a rookie, and they could also give more playing time to Hercules Mata’afa, a 2018 undrafted free agent who showed very little on the first 100 snaps of his career last season as primarily a situational pass rusher. The Vikings probably upgraded adding Michael Pierce for Linval Joseph, but the rest of this group is very questionable.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Vikings do return all of their key off ball linebackers this season, most importantly Eric Kendricks, who plays every down in the middle of this 4-3 defense. Largely a solid, but unspectacular every down off ball linebacker in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, Kendricks broke out with Pro Football Focus highest grade among off ball linebackers on the season. Kendricks had never finished above 30th before last season, so there’s obviously a good chance he regresses at least somewhat, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he has been consistently solid throughout 70 starts in 5 seasons in the league. I would expect him to be at least an above average starter, even if he doesn’t play nearly as well as last season.

Anthony Barr also returns as an every down player on the outside. Like Kendricks, Barr once had a dominant season, but it was way back in his second season in the league in 2015 when he ranked 5th among off ball linebackers on PFF and, in his other 5 seasons, he’s never finished higher than 23rd at his position. He’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, while averaging 62.3 snaps per game, though one of the two exceptions was last season, when he was a middling player across 930 snaps. Still only in his age 28 season, Barr has some bounce back potential, but I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his outlier year in 2015. 

The Vikings also have good depth in their linebacking corps, with both Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon returning to compete for the 3rd linebacker job in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. Wilson played 380 snaps in that role last season and wasn’t bad and the 2017 undrafted free agent wasn’t bad on the first 336 snaps of his career in 2018 either. Gedeon, meanwhile, is a 2017 4th round pick who has flashed potential on 658 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, primarily as a situational run stuffer. Either one would be a solid option in base packages and they give the Vikings better depth than most linebacking corps as well. Even if Eric Kendricks isn’t likely to repeat last year’s career best year, this is still a solid group.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Vikings’ safeties were definitely the strength of their defense last season, as Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were both among the best safeties in the league, and, even though Harris was a free agent this off-season, the Vikings were able to bring him back on the franchise tag to maintain arguably the best safety duo in the NFL. Harris’ ascension to being among the top safeties in the league kind of came out of nowhere, as prior to week 8 of last season, the 2015 undrafted free agent played just 621 career snaps (8 starts), but he took over as the full-time starter in week 8 of 2018, made the final 9 starts of the season, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety over that stretch. 

There were definitely legitimate questions about whether or not Harris could repeat that strong 9-game stretch over a full season, but he answered those questions by actually improving to 2nd among safeties in 14 starts in 2019. He’s still relatively unproven for his age (age 29 season), which may be why the Vikings franchise tagged him this off-season, rather than giving him a big long-term extension, but even if he isn’t quite as good in 2020 as he’s been over the past 23 starts, he should still be a high end safety.

Smith, meanwhile, has been one of the best safeties in the league since he entered as a first rounder eight years ago in 2012. With the exception of an injury ruined year early in his career, Smith has finished in the top-26 among safeties on PFF in every season in the league, including 6 finishes in the top-13 and 4 finishes in the top-5. His age is becoming a concern now in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any decline with a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and, even if he does decline a little in 2020, he should still be one of the top safeties in the league and should still form a dominant duo with Anthony Harris.

Cornerback, on the other hand, was a big weakness for this team in 2019. With three pending free agents at the position in Xavier Rhodes (795 snaps), Trae Waynes (769 snaps), and Mackenzie Alexander (534 snaps), the Vikings opted to start fresh at the position this off-season. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have better cornerback play though, as they’re going to be relying on a very young group. First round pick Jeff Gladney, third round pick Cameron Dantzler, and fifth round pick Harrison Hand were all added through the draft and Gladney and Dantzler at least figure to have significant roles.

Gladney could even be their nominal #1 cornerback as a rookie, with his top competition being Mike Hughes, a former first round pick in his own right, but one who has had a tough two seasons in the league, tearing his ACL after 244 snaps as a rookie and then finishing 92nd out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF on 500 snaps in 2019. He still has upside and, another year removed from the injury, could easily take a step forward, but it’s definitely a problem that he’s their top returning cornerback. Holton Hill, a 2018 undrafted free agent who has flashed on 527 career snaps, also returns and figures to be in the mix for a job in three cornerback sets, but he’s hardly a proven option. The Vikings’ safeties will mask their cornerback problems somewhat, but they’ll need at least one or two young cornerbacks to step up for this to be an above average secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Vikings were one of the most well-rounded teams in the league last season, with a 11th ranked offense in first down rate and a 9th ranked defense in first down rate allowed, but they lost key players on both sides of the ball this off-season, including wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Everson Griffen, while other players like Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Eric Kendricks may struggle to repeat the best year of their career. They also are unlikely to have the fewest adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league again like they did last season. The Packers weren’t as good as their 13-3 record suggested last season and aren’t noticeably improved this season, so the NFC North should still be winnable for the Vikings, but I wouldn’t consider the Vikings true Super Bowl contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Vikings lost defensive tackle Michael Pierce to an opt out, but they traded for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue of the Jaguars to give them a boost on the edge. I still have the Vikings behind the Packers in the NFC North and a tough schedule outside of the division will make their route to a wild card tougher, but they should be able to make it into the post-season.

Projection: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North)

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

The 49ers got a bye in the first round of the playoffs and it came at a perfect time, as the 49ers had several key players dealing with injuries at the end of the season. They’re not at full strength, but no one is at this point in the season and a trio of key 49ers are expected to return this week, defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and safety Jacquiski Tartt. Alexander has been out since week 8, Ford has played just 4 snaps since week 11, and Tartt has missed the past 4 games, so the 49ers are healthier now than they were at any point in the second half of the season, even with players like Ronald Blair and Weston Richburg out for the season. 

What works against the 49ers, however, is the lack of post-season experience from quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, who is making his first career playoff start this week. The track record of quarterbacks making their first career post-season start against a more playoff experienced quarterback isn’t good, as they are 15-34-1 ATS since 2002, including 5-16 ATS and just 8-13 straight up as home favorites. Last week, first time starting quarterbacks went 1-2 ATS, with the only win being Ryan Tannehill, who barely had to do anything because of a run heavy game plan. The 49ers are a good running team, but will need a balanced attack to cover this 7-point spread against a solid Vikings team. In fact, even with the 49ers being healthier than they’ve been in months, I have this line calculated at just San Francisco -5.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Vikings as well.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Vikings. The common narrative is that Kirk Cousins destroyed the old common narrative that he couldn’t win against tough opponents by getting his first career post-season victory last week, but I think the old common narrative is still closer to the truth. It was never that Cousins couldn’t win against tough opponents, as last week’s win was his 8th victory over a team that entered with a winning record since 2015, but that’s compared to 21 losses, including a 4-10 record (4-9-1 ATS) since joining the Vikings before last season. 

One win shouldn’t change the narrative much when you look at years of data, especially since Cousins overall had a pretty average game last week and the Vikings offense was not the primary reason why they won, picking up first downs at a below average 33.78% rate. In fact, if the Saints had won the coin toss in overtime, the Vikings easily could have lost, in which case we’d still be hearing about how Cousins can’t win big games. The Vikings could definitely keep this game close, but it would surprise me if they were able to pull the upset for the second straight week.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Minnesota Vikings 19

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Buffalo/NY Jets is the other). With the Vikings getting eliminated from division contention after their Monday night loss to the Packers, they are now locked into the 6th seed in the NFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Bears may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Vikings’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner. 

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Minnesota -9 under normal circumstances, so this line at Minnesota -1 is a pretty big difference. The Vikings won’t be able to rest everyone and the Bears might not care about this game at all, so I’m taking the Vikings for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game. I am going to lock in one line I do like early (CIN +3) before the line shifts. I will consider that for Pick of the Week and will have a full write-up this weekend as usual. 

Update: For some reason, even though it was assumed all week that the Vikings would rest starters in this game, this line swung all the way to Chicago -3 when the Vikings announced they would be resting starters. Again, the Vikings can’t rest everyone and the Bears likely won’t put in much effort for a meaningless game against the Vikings’ backups, so I still like the Vikings for pick ’em purposes, but I have no desire to bet on this meaningless game.

Chicago Bears 17 Minnesota Vikings 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (11-3) at Minnesota Vikings (10-4)

The Packers have a one game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North and they won the previous matchup between these two teams back in week 2, but the Vikings have been the more impressive team on the season. While 7 of the Packers’ 11 wins have come by one score or fewer, the Vikings have just 2 wins by one score or less. As a result, the Vikings have a significant edge in point differential at +119 to +47 and in first down rate differential at +4.78% to +0.70%. The Packers are closer to full strength injury wise, with the Vikings missing feature back Dalvin Cook with injury, but I still have the Vikings a couple points better than the Packers in my roster rankings. Given that, the Vikings have a great shot to win the re-match, after falling just short in Green Bay (21-16), where the Packers are close to unbeatable with Aaron Rodgers under center (43-22 ATS since 2011).

Unfortunately, we’re not getting any line value with the Vikings, as the odds makers seem to recognize that the Packers haven’t played quite as well as their record suggests and, as a result, have made them 4.5 point underdogs in Minnesota. My calculated line is actually Minnesota -4, so we’re getting the slightest bit of line value with the visitors, but not nearly enough to take either side with confidence. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Green Bay Packers 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +4.5

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-8)

The Chargers’ victory in Jacksonville last week was highly impressive. The Jaguars have been an awful team in recent weeks, but the Chargers still gave them their biggest loss of the season by score of 45-10 and they won the first down rate battle by a ridiculous 31.50%, the highest single game margin of the season, eclipsing New England’s week 2 victory in Miami (29.66%). The Chargers are still just 5-8 after going 12-4 last season, but don’t let the record fool you. The core of last year’s 12-4 team is still there and is more or less healthy right now.

Earlier in the season, tight end Hunter Henry (4 games), left tackle Russell Okung (8 games), defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games), running back Melvin Gordon (4 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), and safety Derwin James (11 games) all missed significant time, but they’re all active now. They have a pair of expected starters on injured reserve, center Mike Pouncey and wide receiver Travis Benjamin, but neither was playing well before going down, so that’s not a big deal.

Even with the injuries they’ve had, the Chargers still rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.72%, as they’ve managed a +38 point differential despite a -10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. Given that all 8 of their losses have come by a touchdown or less, in several cases swinging on a turnover or two, there’s a good argument to be made that the Chargers would be competing for the AFC West title right now if they had their key players healthy all season.

Unfortunately, we’re starting to lose some line value with them, as the Chargers are only 1.5 point home underdogs this week against the Vikings, after being 3 point underdogs on the early line last week. I don’t like to bet the Chargers at home anyway, as they have no fans in Los Angeles. Since moving in 2017, they are 7-12-1 ATS at home and 15-8-2 ATS on the road. Especially with the Chargers out of the playoff race, I would expect this crowd to be mostly Vikings fans. I only use a 1 point for homefield in Chargers games (instead of the traditional 2.5 or 3) and I have these two teams about even, so my calculated line is Chargers -1. The Vikings are in a potential trap game spot with a big divisional matchup against the Packers on deck, but there isn’t enough line value with the Chargers for them to be worth betting at +1.5. The money line isn’t a bad bet at +105 though, as this game is slightly better than a toss up for the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Minnesota Vikings 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low

Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (3-8-1) at Minnesota Vikings (8-4)

The Lions’ season has gone off the rails since losing quarterback Matt Stafford to an injury. They had a record of 3-4-1 when Stafford went down and have lost 4 straight without him to fall out of post-season contention entirely. The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate through 8 games at 36.75%, but they have just a 32.59% first down rate in 4 games without Stafford, which is most equivalent to the 25th ranked Dolphins on the season. With a defense that ranks 28th in first down rate allowed on the season at 38.22%, the Lions don’t have much going for them on either side of the ball right now.

The Lions are on to their third quarterback of the season, undrafted rookie David Blough, with backup Jeff Driskel going on injured reserve, but that might not be a bad thing. Driskel was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season and it wouldn’t be hard for Blough to be a little bit of an upgrade. It’s tough to tell from his up and down debut if that’s the case, however, and he doesn’t have an overly talented roster around him, so it’s not an easy situation for the inexperienced rookie.

The Lions are big underdogs in Minnesota this week, with the Vikings favored by 13 points. That’s about right, as the Lions are one of the worst teams in the league and the Vikings rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.77% and 9th in my roster rankings. We’re not getting enough line value to take the Vikings confidently, but they seem like the right side as long as left tackle Riley Reiff is able to get cleared from his concussion. If he can’t, I’ll probably switch this pick to Detroit. This is a no confidence pick either way.

Final Update: Reiff is playing, so the Vikings should be the right side.

Minnesota Vikings 27 Detroit Lions 13

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -13

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (8-3) at Seattle Seahawks (9-2)

Prior to last week’s bye week, the Vikings barely escaped as double digit home favorites over a Broncos team that was quarterbacked by third string Brandon Allen. That’s not as concerning as that sounds though. Not only were the Vikings missing key players like wide receiver Adam Thielen, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, safety Anthony Harris, and right guard Josh Kline, but the Vikings actually won the first down rate battle in that game by 10.32%, winning the game despite losing the turnover battle and despite allowing 4 conversions on 4th down. The Vikings had one more combined touchdown and first down in that game, even though the Broncos were able to run 17 more snaps, so I’m not worried about the underwhelming final score in that game.

Now the Vikings are healthy coming out of their bye and that comes at a perfect time, as they have a matchup with the 9-2 Seahawks this week. The Seahawks have obviously played well this season, but it’s definitely worth noting how many of their wins have been close, as teams with more blowout victories tend to do better moving forward than teams with more close victories. Of the Seahawks nine victories, just one came by more than a touchdown. 

If not for missed makeable field goals by the Rams and 49ers, the Seahawks would be just 7-4 right now and in a battle to even make the post-season. They rank 9th in point differential at +29 and just 13th in first down rate differential at +1.19%. The Vikings are significantly better in both metrics at +84 and +5.08% respectively and, entering this game relatively healthy, they have a noticeable edge in my roster rankings as well. My calculated line for this game is even, so I like the Vikings getting a full field goal.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Seattle Seahawks 23 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: Medium