Minnesota Vikings 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Running Backs

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Conclusion

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

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC North

Team Score: 74.29 (19th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.51

Defensive Score: 75.06

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (8-6-1)

Vikings came into the season with high expectations, but now are fighting for their playoff lives against a team that had the kind of year they were expected to have, the 11-4 Bears, who have clinched the NFC North. The Vikings have been better recently though and have started resembling the team they were supposed to be. Their offensive line remains a problem, but they’ve taken a more balanced approach on offense since changing offensive coordinators, leaning on Latavius Murray and a finally healthy Dalvin Cook, which has benefitted both the offensive line and inconsistent quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Their defense has also played a lot better since getting defensive end Everson Griffen back in the middle of the season and they rank 2nd in first down rate allowed since week 9 at 30.96%, only behind their week 17 opponent. The Vikings are playing their best football at the right time and, with the Bears missing stud safety Eddie Jackson due to injury right now, these two teams are about even right now, with the Vikings actually ranking slightly higher in my roster rankings.

Unfortunately, this is one of several games I’m staying away from this week because of motivational uncertainty. This line favors the Vikings by 5 points at home, suggesting the books think the Bears are not going to bring their best effort, needing an improbable Rams loss at home to the 49ers to change their seeding, against a Vikings team they might be facing again in the first round. That may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced.

The Bears may sit injured #1 receiver Allen Robinson for cautionary reasons, but I don’t expect them to completely mail it in with a first round bye on the line (especially with key injured players who could use a week off) and I think they may also want to eliminate a division rival and face a banged up Eagles squad in the first round if they have to play next weekend. This is a no confidence pick and I may update this at some point, but the Bears should be able to keep it within the points if they treat this like a real game.

Minnesota Vikings 20 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +5

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1) at Detroit Lions (5-9)

The Lions have been pretty predictable in the Matt Stafford era, playing well against weaker opponents, but struggling in tougher games. Since Stafford’s first full season as a starter in 2011, the Lions are 20-40-2 ATS and 20-42 straight up against teams with a winning record like the Vikings. Most recently, they went 1-11 against eventual playoff teams between 2016 and 2017, as opposed to 17-4 against non-playoff teams.

The Lions have also incurred a lot of losses over the course of the season, losing right guard TJ Lang, running back Kerryon Johnson, wide receiver Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, and defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, among others. Quarterback Matt Stafford is also dealing with a back injury that seems to have limited him in recent weeks. They rank 26th in first down rate differential at -3.29% and they’re arguably even worse than that, given all of their missing personnel.

All that being said, this line is pretty high, favoring the Vikings by 6 points on the road. If the Vikings’ offense plays like it did last week in their first game under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, they should cover with ease, but that’s far from a guarantee, as inconsistent as their offense has been this season. I’m still going with the Vikings, but I would need this line to drop below 6 to consider betting money on Minnesota.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -6

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (7-6) at Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)

The Dolphins pulled off one of the craziest victories in recent memory last week, beating the New England Patriots on a last second lateral play that went 69 yards, pulling the 34-33 upset as 8-point home underdogs. Teams are typically flat the following week after big upset wins like that though, going 70-93 ATS over the past 30 years after a home win as underdogs of 6 or more, and I would expect the Dolphins especially to have difficulty matching last week’s intensity because of how crazy the ending was. The Dolphins won their Super Bowl last week in incredible fashion, but there could easily be a hangover effect this week.

This line is relatively high at Minnesota -7, but most of the Dolphins’ losses have not been close this season, as 5 of their 6 losses have come by double digits and their average margin of defeat is 15.50 points per game. Their 7 wins, on the other hand, have all come by 8 points or fewer, as the Dolphins have made a habit of squeaking out victories in close games. That’s the kind of habit that’s tough to maintain every week though and the Dolphins rank 25th in point differential at -55. That’s -55 point differential comes despite a +8 turnover margin, which is also the kind of habit that’s tough to maintain every week. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 28th at -4.81%, despite the 4th easiest schedule in terms of opponents’ DVOA.

The Dolphins have been better with Ryan Tannehill under center, but he’s not at 100%, dealing with shoulder and ankle injuries, and they are also missing top cornerback Xavien Howard, a massive loss on defense. The Vikings have disappointed this season, but they’re still a solid team and they’re healthier than they were earlier in the season. With the Vikings likely going to a much more balanced offensive attack under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, I have this line calculated at Minnesota -10.5 and I like their chances of handing a likely flat Dolphins team their 6th double digit loss of the season. Without a better option this week, this is my Pick of the Week at -7.

Minnesota Vikings 23 Miami Dolphins 10

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -7

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1) at Seattle Seahawks (7-5)

The Seahawks are now 7-5 after a 0-2 start, but this is far from a vintage Seahawks team. Their offense has been solid, ranking 13th in first down rate at 38.09% and improving as the season has gone along, but their defense is far from what we’re used to from them, as they rank 26th, allowing opponents to pick up first downs at a 39.33% rate. Their defense has played tied for the 2nd fewest snaps in the league with 71, as a result of the offense going 9 of 12 on 4th down on the season and only turning over the ball 9 times, fewest in the NFL, but 4th down percentages and turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t always be able to depend on that making life easier for their defense.

The Vikings have had a disappointing season at 6-5-1, but they’re healthier now than they were earlier in the season and they rank higher than the Seahawks both in my roster rankings and in first down rate differential, in which they rank 16th at +0.19%. This line suggests these two teams are about even, with the hometown Seahawks favored by a field goal, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors. It’s not enough for the Vikings to be worth betting, but they should be the right side.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) at New England Patriots (8-3)

The rule of thumb with the Patriots is to bet them in the second half of the season, once they’ve figured themselves out. They are 66-42 ATS in the final 8 games of the regular season with Tom Brady under center. This year, they were on one of their signature mid-to-late season runs, only to see their 6-game winning streak stopped by a Tennessee team that blew them out 34-10. That was the biggest loss that the Patriots have had that late in the season with Tom Brady under center and it made many think that the Patriots are not the same team as they normally are.

That’s why I think this line is only at -5. If the Patriots were considered a true top level team, they would be favored by at least a touchdown at home over a good, but not great Minnesota team, especially with key cornerback Xavier Rhodes and key wide receiver Stefon Diggs both barely practicing this week due to injuries sustained in last week’s game in Green Bay. Both are expected to play, but if those two players are both limited, it’ll be noticeable in this big game.

Even with their loss in Tennessee, I’m still giving the Patriots the benefit of the doubt, especially since they bounced back well off their loss (as they usually do), winning the first down rate battle by 11.15% in New York against the Jets last week. They are also much healthier now than they were in that Tennessee game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and right guard Shaq Mason did not play in that game and running back Sony Michel was not at 100% after missing time with a knee injury. All three were big parts of their win in New York last week.

The Patriots also have ugly losses in Jacksonville and Detroit from earlier in the season, but they weren’t at full strength in those losses either, without stud defensive end Trey Flowers, talented safety Patrick Chung, or wide receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. At full strength, the Patriots have been very tough this season, especially at home, where they are 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 13.8 points, despite playing playoff contenders in all 5 games, including Houston and Kansas City.

The Patriots are also in a great spot with only a trip to Miami on deck, a game in which they are 10.5 point favorites on the early line. Teams tend to take care of business before easy games like that, without any distractions, going 91-69 ATS since 2008 before being road favorites of 7 or more points. The Patriots are one of my favorite picks this week, as they should be able to win this game by at least a touchdown, if not multiple scores.

New England Patriots 27 Minnesota Vikings 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5

Confidence: High

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (4-5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (5-4-1)

The Packers haven’t lost at home this season, but they also haven’t won on the road. Now at 4-5-1, the Packers have their season on the line this week in Minnesota. If they lose this game, they’ll fall two games behind the Vikings for the final wild card spot and the Vikings will own the tiebreaker, so they’ll essentially be 3 games out of the playoffs with 5 to play. If they win this game however, they’ll own the tiebreaker with Minnesota and would be just a half game behind Washington (who is starting a backup quarterback) for the final wild card spot.

The good news for Packers fans is that home/road disparity tends to be more random than anything. This is the 19th instance of a team being winless on the road and undefeated at home in week 8 or later. The previous 18 are 9-9 in their next road game and 10-6-2 ATS. That alone isn’t a reason to take the Packers, but it shows you shouldn’t just blindly bet against the Packers just because they are away from home. Last week, I bet the Packers as 3-point underdogs in Seattle in a game they led throughout (including 14-3 in the first half), before the Seahawks eventually came back with a late drive and caused the line to push with a 3-point win.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting nearly as good as a line this week with the Packers, as they are once again 3-point underdogs, but against a much better team. While the Seahawks are a middling team, the Vikings are quietly a tough opponent. They had injury problems early in the season, but they are much healthier now, with players like defensive end Everson Griffen, running back Dalvin Cook, and linebacker Anthony Barr back from extended absences. The general public hasn’t caught on yet because they lost last week in Chicago, but the Bears are legitimately a top level team, so there isn’t much shame in that.

The Packers, meanwhile, are going the other way injury wise, losing stud defensive lineman Mike Daniels in the second half of their loss in Seattle, a big part of the reason why the Seahawks were able to mount a comeback late. Daniels doesn’t get a lot of attention, but he’s one of the better defensive linemen in the league, so his absence will certainly be felt. With that in mind, I like the Vikings a little bit this week. This line suggests these two teams are about even, but I have the Vikings slightly better in my roster rankings right now with Daniels out.

The Packers are in a better spot than the Vikings, as they have an easy game home against the Cardinals on deck, while the Vikings have another tough game in New England. Underdogs are 90-54 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. However, because this game is so big for both teams, I don’t expect the Vikings to be looking forward to that New England game much at all this week, so I’m not sure how relevant that trend is to this game. There isn’t enough here to bet them and this could easily end up another push, given how frequently games are decided by exactly a field goal (about 1 in 6), but the Vikings should be the right side.

Minnesota Vikings 27 Green Bay Packers 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3

Confidence: Low