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The Vikings are the perfect case study for how regression, coupled with changing personnel, can impact an offense’s output year over year, particularly when teams are either extremely good or bad in a specific area.
In 2016, the Vikings’ offensive line graded out as the worst run-blocking unit in the league, and the team had a back go for 60 rushing yards just two times all season. After signing two new tackles and drafting center Pat Elflein, rookie Dalvin Cook hit that arbitrary benchmark in all four of his games, and the team went on to have three backs reach that threshold multiple times, impressively totaling 14 such games.
The success should not be fully attributed to improved line play, as game script played an important role. The fifth-best average differential of +3.74 gave the backs plenty of opportunity to rack up touches. The line itself wasn’t suddenly fantastic, and actually finished just 23rd in run-blocking grade. So there’s situational context, but it’s also important to recognize how much improvement can be made from worst in the league at something to the 25th percentile. Going from terrible to below average can make a lot of things possible.
The line also improved in pass-blocking, although they weren’t nearly as bad in that area in 2016 and finished just below league average in 2017. But for a variety of reasons, Case Keenum was far better than Sam Bradford in 2016. While Bradford set a league completion percentage record (since broken by Drew Brees in 2017), he did so by throwing tons of short, quick passes. He averaged just 6.7 yards of depth per pass, and per NextGen stats had the league’s fifth-quickest time to throw. In 2017, Keenum averaged the ninth-longest time to throw, and got the ball downfield more to the tune of an 8.5 average target depth. That was particularly notable because Keenum was actually one of the four quarterbacks with a quicker time to throw than Bradford in 2016 while Keenum was with the Rams.
The Vikings’ reliance on play-action was a contributing factor as Keenum’s 8.2 play-action pass attempts per game ranked No. 5 among NFL quarterbacks last season. Play-action generally produces strong efficiency, but Keenum was one of the league’s best on such plays, posting the fourth-best play-action completion percentage at 68.3%. He was also above average under pressure, threw the third-fewest interceptable passes among all quarterbacks with 300 or more attempts (12), and took just 1.5 sacks per game, substantially fewer than the 2.5 per game Bradford took in 2016, as well as the the 2.3 he took with the Rams that year.
Keenum’s receivers naturally elevated his efficiency. According to several advanced stats and metrics, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were the league’s most efficient receiver duo in 2017, Debating who is the No. 1 is fruitless as numerous superlatives support arguments for each player. Diggs missed two games, during which time Thielen excelled, but Thielen still out-targeted Diggs 8.5 per game to 6.7 in the other 14 contests. Diggs played through some injuries as well, and that has been a bit of a theme for him. He still somehow converted a league-leading 83.3% of his contested targets, one reason he finished with eight scores to Thielen’s four, despite similar red zone and end zone target shares. They posted nearly identical yards per target rates between 8.9 and 9, and finished WR8 and WR19 in PPR leagues, with Thielen leading the way.
Kyle Rudolph came off the TE2 season to finish TE8, largely due to eight touchdowns. He’s scored 15 times over the past two seasons, though his red zone target rate fell from 32.9% in 2016 to a still-impressive 26.2% in 2017. Rudolph has averaged 2.8 more targets and 2.2 more fantasy points in games Diggs missed over the past two seasons. He is the ultimate high floor, low ceiling conservative tight end choice for fantasy drafters who opt to wait on tight end.
Signature Trend: Running Back Workload
Rookie Dalvin Cook looked like a star for the first month before suffering a torn ACL as only Ezekiel Elliott averaged more rushing yards per game than his 88.5. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon split the work after Cook’s injury, and their combined usage paints an optimistic picture for 2018.
They combined to average an absurd 28.5 rush attempts and 5.9 targets in 12 games, and were heavily featured in the red zone. Despite being the main backs for only 75% of the Vikings’ season, Murray finished fifth in the NFL in red zone touches with 49, while McKinnon had 21 of his own. Murray also tied for fourth in goal-line carries with 12, with McKinnon adding three of those. Cook himself had 11 and two such touches in his four games, and the trio outpaced the league leaders in both metrics (Le’Veon Bell with 73 and Todd Gurley and Carlos Hyde with 15).
Game Script was critical, but their schedule sets up nicely. In particular, the NFC North matches up with the AFC East this season, and games against the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets should go a long way toward the Vikings replicating an offensive philosophy that was predicated in playing from ahead in a lot of games.
With McKinnon signing with San Francisco in free agency, Murray is Cook’s only competition for big touches. Though it’s unlikely the total running back volume in the offense stays so absurdly high, there should be more than enough opportunity for Cook to build an impressive workload, even if Murray is used frequently. We don’t know how the high-value red zone touches will split out, and Murray was effective in that area last year. But Murray was barely seeing the field before Cook’s injury, and the team didn’t prioritize replacing McKinnon over the offseason. It’s fair to assume Cook will command a heavy workload in 2018.
The Vikings pushed all their salary cap chips into the middle of the table signing Kirk Cousins to a huge guarantee and also bringing in defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. With some expiring contracts looming after each of the next two seasons, they are clearly pushing their chips in and trying to make a run at the Super Bowl.
A paradoxical dynamic surrounds the decision to move on from Keenum and sign Cousins. While Cousins isn’t elite, he’s probably a decent amount better than Keenum, and yet the team’s decision could be viewed as an attempt to get similar quarterback play as Keenum in 2017. What’s required for that line of thinking is buying that Keenum played over his head last year, and that retaining him would have been signing up for some probable regression. In that sense, the increase in talent to Cousins might not be expected to boost the offense as a whole too much; it’s probably more that they are in better position to repeat on a spectacularly efficient 2017, improving just to stand pat.
Cousins’ 6.2 play-action passes per game checked in above league-average in Washington last season, and his 64% completion percentage also outpaced average NFL quarterbacks. He was right at league average under pressure, and played behind an offensive line that graded similarly in pass protection to Minnesota’s. He should fit into the offense nicely, and is surrounded by the best weapons of his career, but volume could be a concern.
Thielen and Diggs will be expected to pace the pass-catchers in targets by a healthy margin, even with the addition of Kendall Wright. Wright led the Bears in targets last season, but joins a team that used Thielen out of the slot 43.1% of the time, 16th most and not far behind Wright’s own 45.7% slot rate. Wright looks like more of a depth receiver here and if he’s an upgrade on the departed Jarius Wright, it’s not by much.
Laquon Treadwell followed up an unimpressive rookie season with more playing time and similar results. At this point, he’s a long shot to be a difference-maker.
The Vikings were one of the rare NFL teams to devote more than 45-percent of team targets to the top-2 wide receivers on the depth chart in 2017, and the passing offense will likely run through Thielen and Diggs again in 2018. Though Thielen led in targets in 2017, Diggs is still just 24, maturing, and has the higher long-term ceiling. Thielen enters his age-28 season and shouldn’t be expected to decline yet, but as a late bloomer is already heading into the latter part of what should be his prime.
McKinnon was the main receiving back in 2017, so both Cook and Murray could see more involvement in the passing game. Both look like draft targets in what should be a plus offense playing a manageable schedule that gave tons of work to the backs last season. Cook is expensive but has a top-5 fantasy running back ceiling, while Murray has plenty of paths to returning great value on his late-round price tag.