Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 6 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (1-4) at Minnesota Vikings (2-2-1)

I’m torn on this one. On one hand, the Cardinals are one of the worst teams in the league and should only be picked if you are getting great line value with them, while the Vikings are in a great spot with only a trip to New York to play the Jets on deck. Teams are 79-61 ATS since 2014 before being road favorites of 4+, which the Vikings are expected to be next week in New York. With no upcoming distractions, they could easily take care of business at home against a much inferior team.

On the other hand, the Vikings enter this game missing several key players, so the Cardinals could easily keep it closer than expected. Already missing defensive end Everson Griffen with injury, the Vikings will also be without left tackle Riley Reiff and talented starting safety Andrew Sendejo with injury this week. Cornerback Trae Waynes and running back Dalvin Cook are expected to return from short absences, but the Vikings are far from 100% right now, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors. It’s not enough to take them with any confidence, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Minnesota Vikings 23 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: Arizona +10.5

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2018 Week 5 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (2-1-1) at Detroit Lions (1-3)

A couple weeks ago, the Packers were 3 point favorites in Washington and I picked the Redskins to pull the upset, which they ended up doing by the final score of 31-17. The Packers are road favorites again this week in Detroit, but there are several differences in this game. Aaron Rodgers is healthier, getting in a full week of practice this week. The Packers aren’t coming off of a 70 minute tie with the Vikings like they were a couple weeks ago. The Packers are also facing a much easier opponent. While the Redskins are an underrated team that can compete for a playoff spot in the tough NFC, the Lions are just 1-3 and have not played well against playoff caliber opponents in recent years, going 1-11 against eventual playoff teams in 2016-2017 combined.

The Lions did beat the Patriots in Detroit a couple weeks ago, but the Patriots were not at 100% with defensive end Trey Flowers and safety Patrick Chung out with injury and the way the Lions have played in the rest of their games suggests that game against New England will look like an outlier on their schedule when all is said and done this season. The Lions are a pretty mediocre team overall, primarily due to a terrible defense. They’re also missing arguably their best offensive lineman, right guard TJ Lang, with a concussion, which is a big blow to this offense. Despite that, the Packers are only 1 point favorites in this game, down from 3 in the Washington game. We’re getting good line value with them this week and they’re worth a bet.

Green Bay Packers 33 Detroit Lions 27

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -1

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles: 2018 Week 5 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (1-2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-2)

This game is a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship, with the Vikings returning to Philadelphia, where they lost 38-7 last year. The common narrative is that both teams have disappointed since then and that seems to be reflected in this line, as the Eagles are just 3 point favorites at home, suggesting that these two teams are about even, but the Eagles are much better positioned coming into this game.

The Vikings rank 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.15%, while the Eagles rank 7th at +2.95%. The Vikings’ secondary has surprisingly struggled and is now without starting cornerback Trae Wayne with a concussion, while their defensive line is not nearly the same with Everson Griffen out. A defense that suffered next to no injuries last season is showing it’s cracks. On offense, their passing game has been potent, but they’ve struggled to run the ball with Dalvin Cook in and out of the lineup with injuries and an offensive line that struggles to block.

The Eagles, meanwhile, haven’t played quite as well as they did last year, but Carson Wentz looks great in his return, which is the most important thing, now going into his 3rd straight start, and they could easily be 3-1 right now, after an overtime loss in Tennessee last week. If the Eagles were 3-1 right now, I think they’d be favored by at least 4.5 points, probably 6 points in this game. Even in a loss, the Eagles played well on the road against a solid team.

The Eagles are not fully healthy with running back Darren Sproles, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, safety Rodney McLeod, and defensive end Derek Barnett out, but they weren’t fully healthy last year either. They’ve also gotten running back Jay Ajayi and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery back from injury and overall still have one of the best rosters in the NFL. The Vikings are a solid team, but I have this line calculated at Philadelphia -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Eagles this week. My one concern with the Eagles is that they have to play the Giants again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, but this is a much bigger game for them. Without another obvious choice this week, the Eagles are my Pick of the Week.

Philadelphia Eagles 31 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 3 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (1-1-1) at Los Angeles Rams (3-0)

Teams typically struggle before these Thursday night games, especially favorites, who are 48-68 ATS before Thursday Night Football since 2012. The Rams and Vikings were both favorites last week, but had opposite results. The Vikings were shockingly blown out 27-6 at home by the lowly Bills, while the Rams dominated a good Chargers team 35-23, picking up 33 first downs to the Chargers’ 16.

While the Rams win was definitely legitimate, the Vikings loss was not nearly as bad as the final score showed, as the Vikings had 21 first downs to 16 for the Bills. The Vikings lost because of a -3 turnover margin, including two early turnovers in their own territory that got them down big early and forced them to completely abandon their game plan, but turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, teams with a turnover margin of -3, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week. Just because the Vikings turned the ball over against the Bills doesn’t mean they will against the Rams. The Vikings will also be much more focused this week after getting caught looking ahead last week.

The Rams will be focused too though, and they don’t need to win the turnover battle to win this game, as they have a league best +16.92% first down rate differential. That’s more than double the Ravens who are in 2nd at +8.01 (most of which comes over their week 1 blowout game over the Bills). Behind the Ravens are the Redskins at +6.67% and both the Ravens and Redskins lost the first down rate battle in week 2 losses. The Rams have won all 3 of their games by at least 12 points and have won the first down rate battle by at least 8.85% in all 3 games. It’s early and they haven’t had the toughest schedule, but they’ve been the undisputed best team in the league through 3 games and they have the talent to suggest they can continue playing at a high level all season long.

We got some line movement as a result of the Vikings’ loss, as the line moved from 4 on the early line last week to 6.5 this week, but we’re still not really getting any line value with the Vikings. The Rams have lost their top two cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib with injury, but the Vikings are at less than 100% as well, with top edge rusher Everson Griffen out for the second week in a row and feature back Dalvin Cook looking 50/50 at best on a short week, as he deals with a lingering hamstring pull. The Vikings really missed both of those players against the Bills.

The Rams are also in a good spot at home on a short week. Excluding games between familiar divisional opponents and games where the road team is favored, home teams are 31-15 ATS on Thursday Night Football. Playing on a short week is tough enough, but when you have to travel as well, it puts you at a disadvantage. There’s not enough here to take the Rams confidently and I might even switch my pick to the Vikings at 7, but Rams are my pick at 6.5.

Los Angeles Rams 30 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -6.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 3 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (0-2) at Minnesota Vikings (1-0-1)

The Vikings are in a bad spot this week. Not only are they coming off of a tough tie in one of their biggest games of the season in Green Bay against the Packers, but, after this easy home game against the Bills, the Vikings have another one of the biggest games of their season in Los Angeles against the Rams. Favorites of 10 or more are 37-54 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs of 3 or more (the Vikings are 5 point underdogs on the early line), as big favorites understandably tend to struggle with a much more talented opponent on deck.

Making things tougher, that game against the Rams is on Thursday Night Football, just 4 days after this one, so it’s very possible the Vikings are not totally focused this week.  Favorites are just 47-67 ATS before Thursday Night Football since 2012. The Vikings are also pretty banged up going into this one, holding out several players with an eye on next week. Already missing center Pat Elflein, the Vikings will also be without featured running back Dalvin Cook, top defensive end Everson Griffen, and valuable blocking tight end David Morgan.

Does all this mean I would recommend betting on the Bills this week as 16.5 point underdogs? Absolutely not. The Bills are one of the worst, if not the worst team in the league. Even with all of the players the Vikings are missing, I still have this line calculated at -14. The Bills also aren’t in a good spot, with another tough game against the Packers on deck. Teams are 26-39 ATS since 2014 as 7+ point underdogs before being 7+ point underdogs again. It’s entirely possible the Bills could keep this a 10 or 14 point game against a banged up Minnesota team in a bad spot, but they could still easily lose by 17 or 21. I don’t want to bet my money one way or the other, though the Bills are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Minnesota Vikings 28 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +16.5

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: 2018 Week 2 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (1-0) at Green Bay Packers (1-0)

This is the toughest game of the week to predict just because we don’t know what kind of shape Aaron Rodgers is going to be in. Rodgers came back in the second half last week after sustaining a knee injury and led the Packers back from down 20 to win the game, but he barely practiced at all this week and the oddsmakers are not buying that he will be at full strength and make it through the whole game, hence why the Packers have opened as 2.5 point home underdogs. That’s tied for the most points the Packers have gotten in a home regular season game with Aaron Rodgers under center since 2009, as the Packers are a ridiculous 33-6 at Lambeau since 2012 in regular season games Rodgers starts and finishes.

Of course, their opponents this week have something to do with the line too, as they face a Minnesota team that is one of the best in the NFC. Making matters even worse for Rodgers, the Vikings have a tremendous pass rush and were the team that essentially ended his season with a broken collarbone last season. They would be a tough matchup even with a healthy Rodgers, but I would have this line at Green Bay -3.5 if Rodgers was fully healthy, so we’re getting 6 points of line value to compensate for Rodgers’ uncertainty. Given that, I’m going to take the Packers this week, but I can’t take them with any confidence.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Green Bay Packers 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +2.5

Confidence: None

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.

Final Prediction: Injuries have made an already shaky offensive line situation worse, as Nick Easton is out for the year, while Pat Elflein is still working back from off-season surgery. Their offensive skill position talent is as good as anyone’s and their defense is an elite unit when healthy, but they’re unlikely to be as healthy defensively as they were in 2017 and poor offensive line play could make their offense inconsistent.

Prediction: 10-6 2nd in NFC North