Minnesota Vikings 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings have had quite a quarterback carousel the past few seasons. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick at the end of the first round in 2014 and he went 17-11 in 2 seasons at the helm of a run heavy offense, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, while adding another 4 scores on the ground. Just went it looked like he was going into a 3rd year breakout season, Bridgewater suffered a brutal leg injury in training camp in August 2016 and has basically missed the past two seasons.

After Bridgewater went down, the panicked Vikings traded a 2017 first round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford, who had just been benched for Carson Wentz. It was a risky move because they were paying a steep price for a quarterback who had less than a week to get ready for week 1, but it went pretty well. Bradford was just 7-8 in 15 starts, but that was in large part due to an injury plagued supporting cast. Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Bradford entered 2017 with a better supporting cast and had one of the better games of his career week 1 against the Saints, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he injured his knee the following week during practice and threw just 11 passes the rest of the way. With both Bridgewater and Bradford hurt, the Vikings turned to veteran journeyman Case Keenum, who they signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal last off-season. Undrafted in 2012, Keenum had made 24 career starts going into last season, but he had completed just 58.4% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions in his career.

Despite that, Keenum shockingly was one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season. In 14 starts, he completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while adding 160 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries. He went 11-3 and was so good that the Vikings stuck with him as their starter down the stretch even when Bridgewater and Bradford returned from injury. Keenum benefited from a defense that allowed him to frequently play with a lead (2nd in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 29.60%) and he had a strong supporting cast on offense, but Keenum deserves a lot of the credit for their strong season. He led an offense that finished 10th in the NFL in first down rate and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback.

This off-season, Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum all hit free agency, giving the Vikings a tough choice. With among the most cap space in the NFL going into the off-season, the Vikings decided not to choose any of their quarterbacks and instead signed ex-Redskins starter Kirk Cousins to the first fully guaranteed deal in NFL history, worth 84 million over 3 seasons. The structure of the contract made headlines, but the Vikings undoubtedly saved some money on an annual basis by fully guaranteeing the deal and 3 years guaranteed is pretty standard for top quarterback contracts anyway, as quarterbacks are not as inconsistent year-to-year and don’t get injured as often as other positions. Matt Ryan was signed to an extension this off-season that guarantees him 94.5 million in the first 3 years and 117.5 million in the first 4 years, so, by comparison, the Vikings made a shrewd signing.

Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum all had upside, but Cousins is a much safer option. While Keenum was a one-year wonder and both Bradford and Bridgewater were injury risks, Cousins has been a solid starter for 3 seasons and hasn’t missed a game due to injury in those seasons. He completed 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in those 3 seasons and now gets to play on the best team he’s been on in his career. Proven starting quarterbacks with no injury history in the prime of their career rarely hit free agency, but the Redskins were unwilling to give him top quarterback money on a long-term deal and backed themselves into a corner after franchise tagging him twice. Cousins might not be an upgrade on what Keenum did last season, but he’s more reliable and should be able to keep this team in contention.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

With a strong defense leading the way, the Vikings were able to run more of a run heavy offense, which made Keenum’s life much easier. They had the 12th fewest pass attempts per game at 32.9 and the 2nd most rush attempts at 31.3. Even with Cousins coming in, the Vikings probably aren’t going to become a 35-40 pass attempt per game offense and figure to still run the ball regularly, as long as the defense continues playing at a high level.

The Vikings also get Dalvin Cook back from injury, after he missed the final 12 games of last season with a torn ACL, which is even more reason for them to want to run the ball. A 2nd round rookie, Cook burst onto the scene in 4 games as a rookie, averaging 4.78 yards per carry on 74 carries. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of run grade when he went down. The injury is obviously a setback, but he’s still a young talented back with a bright future. He could have easily gone in the first round if not for concerns about his underwhelming athletic measurements, but he plays much better than he tests.

In his absence, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon split carries, carrying the ball 216 times and 150 times respectively. Neither had an impressive average, averaging 3.90 YPC and 3.80 YPC respectively, but their offensive line deserves a lot of the blame, as both runners received positive grades for their run ability. McKinnon also added 51 catches and was PFF’s 7th ranked running back overall, while Murray was a useful goal line hammer, with 6 scores from inside 5 yards, 3rd most in the NFL.

McKinnon signed with the 49ers this off-season, but Murray remains. He’ll probably split carries with Cook early in the year as Cook works back from the injury, but if Cook returns to form he should be the clear feature back by the end of the season, leaving Murray as a change of pace back and possible goal line back. Murray has averaged just 4.11 yards per carry on 759 career carries and caught just 15 passes last season and has never earned a positive grade from PFF for his pass catching ability, but he runs with good power and has 20 scores in the last 2 seasons combined. Cook should play the majority of the passing downs as well, though he’s not a great receiver. His return makes this a better backfield, even with McKinnon gone.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

In addition to a strong defense making his life easier, Case Keenum had arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last season. They finished as Pro Football Focus 10th and 11th ranked wide receivers respectively. Theilen was the higher rated player and had the better stats, with 91 catches (8th in the NFL) for 1276 yards (5th in the NFL) and 4 touchdowns, but Diggs put up a 64/849/8 slash line in 14 games and could have had a 1000+ yard year if he stayed healthy all season, despite being the clear #2 receiver in terms of targets. Theilen received 143 targets, while Diggs received just 95.

Diggs was also more efficient on a per target basis, as he finished 7th in the NFL with a 119.1 QB rating when targeted. Theilen still had an impressive QB rating when targeted, 98.7, but not nearly as good as Diggs. Combined, Minnesota quarterbacks completed 65.1% of their passes for an average of 8.93 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when targeting Thielen and Diggs, a 106.7 QB rating. Cousins may prefer to throw to Diggs more and Theilen less, but he can’t really go wrong throwing to either if both continue playing like they did last season.

Thielen is a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level statistical receiver, as last season was his first season topping 1000 yards, but he also had a 69/967/5 slash line and finished as PFF’s 14th ranked wide receiver on 788 snaps in 2016. Diggs, meanwhile, has never had a 1000 yard season, but, in addition to his strong 2017 season, he also finished 21st among wide receivers on 693 snaps in 2016 and could have topped 1000 yards in each of the past 2 seasons if he stayed healthy. He’s never played more than 14 games in a season in 3 years in the league, which is the one major concern with him. Only in his age 25 season, Diggs could easily have his first 1000+ yard season in 2018 if he can stay healthy. Thielen, meanwhile, is in his age 28 season and also in the prime of his career. Both should continue playing at a high level.

The Vikings locked Thielen up long-term on a 4-year, 19.246 million dollar extension last off-season that now looks like a bargain. They won’t be able to get that same value with Diggs, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, but they are fully expected to try to re-sign him regardless. He could push for #1 wide receiver money, upwards of 13+ million annually. His best football is likely still ahead of him.

The Vikings also have a talented pass catching tight end in Kyle Rudolph. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s earned a positive pass catching grade from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He didn’t put up huge pass catching numbers in 2017, posting a 57/532/8 slash line, but he wasn’t needed in a big role with Thielen and Diggs as the top-2 guys. He received just 81 targets. In 2016, he had 132 targets and posted a 83/840/7 slash line.

He should be closer to his 2017 production than his 2016 production this season, still as the 3rd guy behind Diggs and Thielen, but Kirk Cousins was a pretty tight end friendly quarterback in Washington and Rudolph is always a threat around the goal line (20 touchdowns in the past 3 seasons). Rudolph will be backed up by blocking specialist David Morgan, who was PFF’s 3rd ranked run blocking tight end last season on 392 snaps. He barely plays in the passing game, but the 6-4 265 pounder is like a 6th offensive lineman and complements Rudolph well.

The Vikings didn’t get much production out of their wide receivers behind Diggs and Thielen last season, but that could change in 2018 with the addition of veteran Kendall Wright in free agency on a 1-year deal. A first round pick of the Titans back in 2012, Wright never became the player it looked like he would after he posted a 94/1079/2 slash line in 2013, but he has still been a capable rotational receiver since then, grading out about average on about half the snaps. Injuries cost him 13 games from 2014-2016, but he played in all 16 games in 2017 and led the Bears in receiving with a 59/614/1 slash line.

Wright probably won’t have as big of a role in Minnesota as he did in a much less crowded receiving corps in Chicago (91 targets), but he should still play a role in this offense and he should still be an upgrade over incumbent #3 receiver Laquon Treadwell, who finished 103rd out of 118 eligible wide receivers on 499 snaps last season. Treadwell caught just 20 passes for 200 yards and averaged just 0.67 yards per route run. He was the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so the Vikings will keep giving him chances, especially since he’s still only in his age 23 season, but he barely played as a rookie and struggled mightily in his 2nd season and will open his 3rd season as the 4th wide receiver on the depth chart at best. This is one of the better receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Vikings’ offensive line struggled to run block last season. They were not as bad in pass protection and they were better than they were in pass protection in 2016, but they had issues in pass protection as well. They only allowed 27 sacks on the season, but that was largely because Keenum was so good under pressure, only taking a sack on 10.7% of his pressured snaps (2nd lowest in the NFL) and completing 55.7% of his passes under pressure (2nd highest in the NFL).

Kirk Cousins has some other advantages over Keenum, but he’s not as good at avoiding the rush as Keenum was last season. He completed just 50.0% of passes under pressure and took a sack on 18.5% of his pressured dropbacks. Those are solid numbers, but Keenum was one of the best in the league under pressure last season. The Vikings also lost arguably their best offensive linemen this off-season, with veteran right guard Joe Berger retiring ahead of his age 36 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked guard last season in 15 starts, so he’ll be missed.

The Vikings made upgrading the offensive line a priority last off-season, after a horrendous 2016 season upfront, adding Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers through free agency and Pat Elflein through the draft. Remmers was the only one who panned out though, grading out about average on PFF, after signing a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal, but even he missed 5 games with injury. While he was out, he was replaced by Rashod Hill, a 2016 undrafted free agent who made the first 9 starts of his career in 2017. Hill wasn’t that good, finishing as PFF’s 54th ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible, but the Vikings liked him enough that they moved Remmers inside to guard down the stretch and kept Hill in the starting lineup at right tackle.

Remmers has made 34 starts at right tackle over the past 4 seasons (in addition to 13 at left tackle) and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons at right tackle, but, with Berger retiring, Remmers appears to be moving inside to guard permanently. He’s a projection to the new role, but it could end up being a good thing for him in the long run as interior offensive linemen tend to age a little bit better. For now, Remmers is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and should be a capable starter again in 2018, assuming he can get used to the new position. Hill, meanwhile, will compete for 2nd round rookie Brian O’Neill for the starting right tackle job. The Vikings still like Hill, so he’s probably the week 1 favorite for the job, but O’Neill could end up making starts down the stretch if Hill continues to have issues.

Left tackle Riley Reiff was not as good in his first season in Minnesota, but he’ll get another shot, for lack of a better option. After signing the ex-Detroit Lion to a 5-year, 58.75 million dollar deal last off-season, Reiff finished the 2017 season as PFF’s 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible. He’s been better in the past though, as he was about a league average starter in 5 seasons (69 starts) with the Lions. His age is becoming a small concern in his age 30 season, but he definitely has bounce back potential. Though he only missed 1 start, injuries to his back, knee, and ankle may have contributed to his disappointing season.

Rookie Pat Elflein also struggled in his first season in Minnesota, as the 3rd round pick finished as PFF’s 36th ranked center out of 38 eligible, especially struggling as a run blocker. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league and the Vikings value his intelligence at the center position, but he’s no guarantee to ever develop into a solid blocker. The same is true of left guard Nick Easton, who returns after finishing as PFF’s 65th ranked guard out of 80 eligible in 2017. Undrafted in 2015, Easton has made 17 career starts and appears locked in as the week 1 starter in 2018, with little competition on the roster, but he’s struggled mightily in his career and could easily struggle again. If the Vikings have offensive issues this season, their offensive line will likely be the culprit.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

The Vikings had a really strong defense last season, the biggest reason why they did went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship. They benefited from barely having any injuries though. They had some major injuries on offense, Bradford, Cook, etc., but on defense they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. That’s unlikely to be the case again in 2018. The good news is the Vikings are bringing back almost every key player from last year’s defense. The only major change is at defensive tackle, as Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen, 673 snaps and 384 snaps respectively, left the team as free agents this off-season and Sheldon Richardson was added on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal to replace them

Johnson was a capable interior pass rusher and Stephen was a solid run stuffer, but Richardson is an upgrade over both and more capable of playing every down. He played “only” 654 snaps last season in his one season in Seattle, but that’s out of the ordinary, as he’s played 77.1% of the snaps in 73 games in 5 seasons in the league. A good run stuffer and pass rusher, Richardson has finished in the top-21 at his position all 5 seasons and has totaled 19 sacks and 42 quarterback hits. The former first round pick is also still in his prime in his age 28 season. He’s had disciplinary problems in the past, but he has plenty of reason to be at his best after just getting a one-year deal in free agency. With a strong season, he may find more favorable multi-year deals next off-season. He can also earn up to another 3 million in incentives.

Richardson will start next to Linval Joseph, who is also an every down player (663 snaps in 16 games last season). A 2nd round pick in 2010, Joseph has made 106 starts in the past 7 seasons and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons, but he’s been especially good in recent years, finishing 5th, 8th, and 8th among defensive tackles on PFF in the past 3 seasons respectively. The 6-4 329 pounder just looks like a big run stuffer, but he can get to the quarterback as well. He has 20 sacks and 43 hits in the past 7 seasons, with 8 sacks and 20 hits coming in the past 3 seasons.

Originally signed by the Vikings to a bargain 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal that he significantly outplayed, the Vikings gave him a 4-year, 50.35 million dollar extension last off-season, despite him having two years left on his contract. Originally, 2018 would have been his contract year, but he’s now under team control through 2022. Going into his age 30 season, he could start declining, but he could still easily have another strong season in 2018.

At defensive end, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter return as the starters, after playing 790 snaps in 15 games and 772 snaps in 16 games respectively last season. Both have also recently received big extensions. Like Joseph, Griffen also had 2 years left on his previous deal when he was extended last off-season, but he significantly outplayed his previous 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal and, much like with Joseph, the Vikings wanted to make a show of faith in him long-term. They gave him 58 million on a 4-year extension that takes him through 2022.

He’s finished with a positive grade in all 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-18 among 4-3 defensive ends in each of the past 5 seasons. His age is becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he’s also coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 7th among 4-3 defensive ends and putting up 13 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. In 4 seasons as a starter, he has 43.5 sacks and 53 quarterback hits in 62 games and also plays the run well. He should have another strong season in 2018.

Hunter, meanwhile, is still very young, only going into his age 24 season. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hunter’s 5-year, 72 million dollar extension is more about what they think he can do long-term than what he’s done in the past, but he’s had a strong start to his career as well, despite his youth. He’s seen increased playing time in all 3 seasons in the league, playing 42.4% of the snaps as a rookie in 2015, 58.1% of the snaps in 2016, and 77.6% of the snaps last season in 16 starts.

He was more efficient as a pure sub package player, totaling 18.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 55 hurries on 674 pass rush snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, earning positive grades in both seasons and finishing 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF in 2016. He still had a strong year as an every down player though, with 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 49 hurries on 503 pass rush snaps. He also had his best year against the run and finished as PFF’s 21st ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. His best play could still be ahead of him, so he could be one of the top defensive linemen in the league in a couple years. The Vikings were wise to lock him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Top reserve defensive end Brian Robison also returns, after playing 562 snaps last season. He was a solid player in his prime, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons and is now going into his age 35 season. He had to take a significant pay cut from 3.5 million to 1 million to stay on the roster this off-season and is expected to retire after the season. He could easily see his role scaled down in 2018.

The Vikings have arguably the best starting 4-man defensive line in the league, but their depth is suspect, with Robison at the end of the line and Shamar Stephen leaving as a free agent. Second year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson should have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, but the 4th round pick played just 41 snaps last season and is unproven. He doesn’t have much competition, so he’ll likely be their primary reserve defensive tackle unless he struggles this off-season.

The Vikings also have this year’s 4th round pick Jalyn Holmes. The 6-5 283 pounder is raw, but he has the size to line up both inside and outside, which could help him earn a rookie year role on a thin defensive line. He was just a rotational player on a good defensive line in college at Ohio State, but he has the athleticism to be a better professional player than college player. He’ll likely take a couple years to develop though. Even with their lack of depth, this is still a dominant overall unit.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Vikings also bring back their starters in the linebacking corps, including every down linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, who played 97.2% and 92.8% of the snaps respectively while making all 16 starts in 2017. Originally both were going into their contract years in 2018, but the Vikings locked up Kendricks on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal this off-season.

Kendricks has played 89.5% of the snaps in 45 games in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015, but this extension will make him the 4th highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL in terms of average annual salary and he’s only been about league average thus far in his career. Three down linebackers don’t grow on trees and he could still get better, only going into his age 26 season, but if he doesn’t, this contract will likely prove to be an overpay.

Barr, meanwhile, remains unsigned going into the final year of his rookie deal. Kirk Cousins, Riley Reiff, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes have all gotten big contracts in the past calendar year or so, while both Stefon Diggs and Sheldon Richardson are set to hit free agency next off-season along with Barr, so it’s possible that Barr ends up being the odd man out as the Vikings try to fit all their talent under the cap long-term.

The 9th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Barr has finished in the top-6 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, but he struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 29th out of 31 eligible at his position, and he’s a lot better against the run and as a blitzer than in coverage. His contract negotiations are also complicated by the fact that he’s set to make 12.306 million in 2018 in the 5th year of his rookie deal and probably won’t want to take a big pay cut on a long-term deal. He’s a solid linebacker who is still going into his age 26 season, so there are reasons why the Vikings would want to keep him, but I doubt they’re going to be willing to give him a massive multi-year contract.

The Vikings also have 2017 4th round pick Ben Gedeon as a potential internal replacement. Gedeon was the other starting outside linebacker in base packages last season and he played well when on the field, but he was limited to 244 snaps because the Vikings spent so much of last season in sub packages with 5+ defensive backs and just 2 linebackers. He’s unlikely to have a big role this season either, but he could be ready for an every down role in his 3rd season in the league in 2019 if Barr signs elsewhere next off-season. For now, this is a solid linebacking trio.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The reason the Vikings spent so much time in sub packages last season is because they’re very deep at cornerback. This season, they are even deeper, after using their first round pick (30th overall) on Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes. It was a surprise pick because cornerback was not a need, but the Vikings like taking defensive backs high, using first round picks in 2013 and 2015 on Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. It’s worked out so far, as Rhodes and Waynes are currently the starters, but it’s tough to see where Hughes fits in long-term. Waynes has two years left on his rookie deal and Rhodes just signed a 5-year, 70.1 million dollar extension last off-season that makes him the 4th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary and keeps under team control through 2022.

Rhodes shows flashes of being a top level cornerback deserving of that kind of money and he allowed just 54.8% completion last season, but he’s been inconsistent and penalty prone. He’s committed 44 penalties in 62 starts in the past 4 seasons as a starter and gets a lot of help from his pass rush. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback, actually the highest he’s finished for a season in his career. He’s earned positive grades in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and should have at least another solid season in 2018, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever clean up the penalties, now going into his age 28 season.

Waynes is also coming off the highest rated season of his career, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked cornerback in his 3rd season in the league. Last season was his first season as a starter (16 starts), but the former 11th overall pick played well in limited action in his first 2 seasons in the league as well (777 snaps combined). Only in his age 26 season, Waynes could continue getting better with more experience. Waynes’ salary will jump to 9.069 million in 2019 in the final year of his rookie deal and, with Hughes coming in and this team getting more expensive, it’s unclear what they plan to do with him long-term. They may try to extend him next off-season in order to keep him long-term and get his 2019 cap number down, but he won’t be cheap to keep long-term if he continues playing like he did last season.

For now, Hughes can only compete for the #3 cornerback job and he’ll face plenty of competition from Terence Newman and Mackenzie Alexander. Alexander was drafted in the 2nd round in 2016, another high pick used on a defensive back, but he’s been limited to 389 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have a clear path to a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league unless he can beat out Hughes and Newman. Hughes was a first round pick and Newman played well as the 3rd cornerback last season, so Alexander will have to have a strong off-season to beat them out.

Newman is an ageless wonder, now going into his age 40 season, making him the oldest defensive player in the NFL. Despite his age, he’s finished above average on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons and played 554 snaps last season, with 417 of them coming on the slot, where he allowed 0.91 yards per route run. His age makes him a major question mark going into 2018, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he had another solid season. He’ll probably have a smaller role in a deep cornerback group though and could even see some more snaps at safety.

There won’t be much room for him to play at safety though, as starters Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo return and are locked into their starting roles. Smith is arguably the best player on this entire defense and is probably the top safety in the entire league. He’s finished in the top-2 among safeties on PFF in 3 of the last 4 seasons, with the one exception coming in 2016, when he ranked 7th at his position through week 13, before being hobbled down the stretch by an ankle injury that required surgery last off-season. Injuries have been a problem for him in his career, as the 6-year veteran has missed 13 games, but he made all 16 starts last season and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, he should continue playing at an elite level in 2018.

Sendejo is also coming off the best season of his career, finishing 17th among safeties, but he’s not nearly the player Smith is and he’s unlikely to be as good again in 2018. Sendejo has 53 starts in the past 5 seasons, but he earned a negative grade from PFF in 3 of the previous 4 seasons prior to last season, with his one other positive season grade coming in a 149 snap 2014 season. His worst season came in 2015, when he finished 77th among 87 eligible safeties. Now going into his age 31 season, he’s highly unlikely to match what was easily the best season of his career last season. He could be pushed by Newman if he struggles, as this is a very deep secondary once again.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Kirk Cousins was the best quarterback option they could get this off-season, as he’s healthy, proven, and in the prime of his career, but it’s unclear if he’ll actually be an upgrade over how Case Keenum played last season. He could actually be worse than Keenum if the offensive line is going to be as bad as it looks like it’s going to be, as he doesn’t have Keenum’s elusiveness to avoid sacks. Their offensive skill position talent is even better than it was last season with Dalvin Cook returning from injury and Kendall Wright coming in as a free agent, but their offensive line issues could make them inconsistent on offense this season.

On defense, they’re still one of the best defenses in the league, but they’re highly unlikely to stay as healthy as they did last season, when they had almost no injuries. They still one of the top teams in the league, but they play in the much tougher NFC and will have to deal with Aaron Rodgers returning from injury in the division, after beating the Packers twice without him last season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 NFC Championship Pick

Minnesota Vikings (14-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)

I am kicking myself for not betting on the Eagles as 3-point home underdogs last week. I knew the Eagles had a great chance to cover and even win straight up if the Falcons played like they had all season, but was hesitant to bet on the Eagles because of the possibility that the Falcons would start to click and play like they did last season, when they made the Super Bowl with essentially the same core of the team. The Falcons never really found their Super Bowl form all season and thus were eliminated in Philadelphia by the final score of 15-10.

The Eagles will try to follow the same formula this week, hiding Nick Foles with their defense and running game. Even without Carson Wentz, the Eagles still have a lot of talent on this roster. Because of their supporting cast, I picked the Eagles to get a first round bye before the season started and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time. Given that, I wouldn’t be shocked if they were able to advance to the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, especially since they are at home, where their top level defense has allowed just 13.00 points per game this season. The Eagles get a tougher opponent this week, as the Vikings are a step up in class from the Falcons, so I’m not that excited to take the Eagles as 3-point underdogs, but I do think we are getting some line value with Philadelphia.

Outside of the quarterback position, I have these two teams about even and, while the Vikings have the edge under center, I don’t think Keenum has enough of an advantage over Foles to justify the Vikings being favored by a field goal on the road. Keenum has been impressive this season, but he hasn’t had to play in a lot of tough situations and could struggle on the road against a tough Philadelphia defense. He’s also coming off of a relatively weak performance in the wild card round and was really saved by that miraculous play at the end. I’m not that confident in the Eagles unless you can still get +3.5, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Minnesota Vikings 17 Philadelphia Eagles 16

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

These two teams met way back in week 1, with Minnesota winning 29-19 at home, but so much has changed since then. At the time, that game was seen as a breakout game for both Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford (346 passing yards, 3 TDs) and Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook (137 yards from scrimmage) and yet another example of the Saints struggling defensively, as they had for years. Bradford and Cook combined to play just 4 games the rest of the way due to knee injuries, while the Saints’ defense finished in the middle of the pack statistically this season thanks to breakout performances by rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who both got better as the season went on.

The Vikings’ offense obviously managed pretty well without Bradford and Cook, but they too finished middle of the pack, despite looking like potentially a top offense back in week 1. The Vikings would go on to win 13 games with Case Keenum under center and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray as their backs, but their defense was the primary reason they were winning games, as they finished 2nd in first down rate allowed, only behind the Jaguars.

On top of that, the Saints’ leading rusher week 1 was Adrian Peterson with 18 rushing yards and he is no longer on the team, getting traded to the Cardinals back in week 6, which cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (who combined for just 35 rushing yards on 13 carries back in week 1) to become the first running back duo ever to both compile 1,500 yards from scrimmage. After losing their first 2 games of the season to teams that would finish 13-3 (Minnesota and New England), the Saints ripped off 8 straight wins and finished as 11-5 champions of the NFC South, despite having the toughest schedule in the league by opponents’ record.

After all that’s changed with these teams, these two teams are the best in the NFC and very evenly matched on paper. The Vikings have a dominant defense and a capable offense, while the Saints have a dominant offense and a capable defense. It’s a shame that these two teams had to meet before the NFC Championship and I think the winner of this game will be playing in the Super Bowl in 3 weeks. I said last week that I think the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC and I stand by that, but the Vikings are very close.

I give the edge to the Saints because of experience. Case Keenum is starting his first ever playoff game and quarterbacks do not have a good track record in their first playoff start, while the Saints are easily the most experienced team in the NFC, with the duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton together for 11 playoff games since they united in 2006. The Vikings obviously have homefield advantage, which could end up being the deciding factor in this game, but the Saints have a good chance to cover this 4-point spread even if they can’t quite pull the upset, as about 30% of games are decided by 4 points. The money line is also worth a bet because this game is close to a toss up.

New Orleans Saints 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: High

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (5-10) at Minnesota Vikings (12-3)

I’ve bet the Bears frequently this season because I’ve thought they were underrated for most of the season. However, I won’t be doing so this week because they are way too banged up. They’ve had injury issues all season, but just in the last few weeks they’ve lost three starters on the offensive line (left guard Josh Sitton, right guard Kyle Long, and right tackle Bobby Massie) and a pair of valuable contributors in their front 7 (outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and defensive end Mitch Unrein). With that in mind, I’m actually taking the Vikings this week, though only for a no confidence pick. I have this line calculated at Minnesota -12.5, so we aren’t getting any line value with them at -12, even as banged up as the Bears are.

Minnesota Vikings 23 Chicago Bears 10

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -12

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (11-3) at Green Bay Packers (7-7)

The Packers squeaked out overtime victories over a pair of bad teams, the Buccaneers and Browns, to stay alive in the playoff race with Aaron Rodgers returning to action week 15. Unfortunately for the Packers, the schedule got tougher and Rodgers was not 100% in his return, as the Packers fell to the Panthers 31-24, ending their playoff hopes. Now with the season essentially over, the Packers have shut down Rodgers for the season and will turn back to backup Brett Hundley for the final 2 games of the season.

Rodgers isn’t the only one that is going to be missing from action in this one, as wide receiver Davante Adams is out with a concussion, while outside linebackers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews and right guard Jahri Evans are likely out after missing practice all week. The Vikings, meanwhile, have no notable injuries and have their offensive line back together healthy for the first time since week 8, with left tackle Riley Reiff, right tackle Mike Remmers, and center Pat Elflein all healthy after missing time in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, this line has swung 12 points since Minnesota was 3-point underdogs on the early line last week, so we’ve lost all line value with the Vikings. Even with all of the injuries, I have this line calculated at Minnesota -6.5. It’s a shame because I love the spot the Vikings are in. The Packers’ season is over and they have another tough divisional game next week in Detroit. The Vikings, meanwhile, need every win they can get as they compete for the #1 seed in the NFC and have another easy divisional game on deck, with the Bears coming to town.

Favorites of 6+ are 72-43 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 6+ again, while underdogs of 6+ are 39-60 ATS over that same time period before being underdogs of 6+ again. Combining the two, favorites of 6+ are 23-7 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 6+ again, when their opponent will next be underdogs of 6+ again. Superior teams tend to take care of business with another easy game on deck, especially if their inferior opponent has another tough game on deck to potentially be a distraction. I wish we were getting a better line, but the Vikings should be the right choice for pick ‘em pool purposes.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Green Bay Packers 13

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -9

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) at Minnesota Vikings (10-3)

The Vikings lost last week as 3-point favorites in Carolina, but this line still moved from Minnesota -9 over Cincinnati on the early line last week to -11 this week, as a result of the Bengals’ 33-7 home loss to the Chicago Bears. I haven’t soured on the Bengals quite as much as the general public seems to have. The Bears have been an underrated team for most of the season and the Bengals were also in a terrible spot, missing a couple key players with injury, coming off of a close loss at home to the division rival Steelers, with this tough game in Minnesota on deck.

Even with the big loss last week, the Bengals still rank 20th in first down rate differential at -0.86%. They aren’t the same team without stud linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who remains out with a concussion for the 2nd straight game, but they could get running back Joe Mixon back from a one-game absence with his concussion after he returned to practice on Thursday and Friday. They also are fortunate enough to be playing a Minnesota team that is having their own injury issues. Right tackle Mike Remmers and center Pat Elflein are set to return from injuries, but left tackle Riley Reiff and tight end Kyle Rudolph will miss this game.

Minnesota is also in a terrible spot this week, much like the Bengals were last week. They are coming off of a tough loss to the Panthers and have to turn around and go to Green Bay next week to face Aaron Rodgers and company. Double digit favorites typically don’t cover before being underdogs, which is what the Vikings will be in Green Bay next week. Teams are 58-78 ATS in that spot since 2002. The Bengals, meanwhile, should be completely focused with only a home game against the Lions on deck, especially given how they got embarrassed last week.

Much like the Bears caught the Bengals off guard last week, the Bengals could easily catch the Vikings off guard this week. They’re probably not going to win easily like the Bears did last week, as the Vikings are still a lot better coached and more talented than the Vikings, but they could easily keep this close against a Minnesota team that has just 4 wins by more than 10 points this season (Buccaneers, Packers, Rams, Browns). The Bengals are worth a bet as long as this line is 10 or higher.

Minnesota Vikings 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +11

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-2) at Carolina Panthers (8-4)

One of my favorites things to do as a bettor is go against significant week-to-week line movement, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. That’s definitely the case in this game, as this line has shifted from Carolina -2.5 last week on the early line to Minnesota -3 this week. The Vikings won in Atlanta last week, but Atlanta was missing their top cornerback Desmond Trufant and had another game in 4 days, so that win wasn’t a huge surprise.

The Panthers lost to an undermanned Saints team (Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, Terron Armstead) that also had another game in 4 days, but that game was closer than the final score, as the Panthers botched a punt in their own territory and then extended a New Orleans drive with a personal foul penalty 3 plays later. Had that not happened, the Panthers might have been able to kick a field goal early in the 4th quarter, rather than going for it on 4th and 6 down 14. The Saints only ended up winning the first down rate battle by +0.09%, despite the 10 point win.

The Panthers were also without center Ryan Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen last week, both of whom figure to be back this week. That should be a big boost to this offense. I still have this line at Carolina -1.5, so getting a full field goal with the Panthers at home is a great value. The Vikings are also in a tough spot in their 3rd straight road game. Teams are 77-95 ATS in that spot since 1989. I like the Panthers a lot this week. As long as you can get the full field goal, this is a high confidence pick. I also like the money line at +125.

Carolina Panthers 17 Minnesota Vikings 16 Upset Pick +125

Pick against the spread: Carolina +3

Confidence: High