(Photo Credit: Carlos Gonzalez / Star Tribune)
The Minnesota Vikings had some very special moments and performances in 2020, despite finishing only 7-9. After starting the season at 1-5, the Vikings won five out of the next 6 games to even their record at 6-6. Primed for a playoff run, the Vikings lost their next three games, before ending their season with a win in week 17 vs the Lions. The defense was the primary culprit for such an up and down season, giving up the fourth-most points (475), the sixth most yards (6292), and the ninth most first downs (366) in the league.
Lead by Kirk Cousins, the offense scored 26.9 points per game (11th most in the NFL). The Vikings ran a very conservative offense for the first eight games of the season, with Cousins having more than 27 pass attempts in only two games. During that span, Cousins passed for 15 touchdowns vs 11 interceptions. Cousins attempted at least 30 passes in each of the last eight games and averaged 38.3 pass attempts per game over that stretch. He had 20 touchdown passes vs three interceptions during those eight games and finished the season completing 349 of 516 passes (67.6 percent completion rate) for 35 TDs (6.8 percent of attempts) and 4265 yards. Cousins finished the 2020 season as the QB11 in fantasy.
In addition to Cousins, Dalvin Cook also had a sensational season. Despite missing two games (leg injury), Cook finished the season with 312 carries for 1557 yards (5 yards per carry) and had 16 touchdowns. Cook also wound up with 44 receptions (on 54 targets) for an additional 361 yards and one TD. In total, Cook scored 293.8 PPR fantasy points (third amongst RBs) and averaged 21.0 fantasy points per game (second only to Christian McCaffrey).
Alexander Mattison performed well in relief of Cook. He had 96 carries for 434 yards (4.52 yards per carry) and two TDs, while hauling in 13 receptions (on 15 targets) for 125 yards and one TD. The primary blemish to Mattison’s otherwise solid season was his poor week six spot start performance against the Falcons. Mattison let down both his fantasy owners and, most importantly, his own team by rushing ten times for 26 yards and only catching one pass for two yards.
The receiving targets were funneled through two players, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Jefferson had 88 catches (on 125 targets) for 1400 yards and seven touchdowns, while Thielen had 74 catches (on 108 targets) for 925 yards and 14 touchdowns. While Cook was the third leading receiver, TEs Irv Smith ( 30 catches for 365 yards and five TD’s) and Kyle Rudolph (28 catches for 334 yards and a TD) provided additional production. No other WR secured more than 20 passes or had more than 205 yards receiving.
Despite yielding several top-notch offensive players, the offensive line was very much maligned. The line graded out as the 28th-best-pass-blocking unit and 26th overall in the NFL, per PFF.com. The interior of the line was the primary issue, with RG Ezra Cleveland grading out as the 37th best right guard out of 40 eligible. In addition to Cleveland, C Garrett Bradbury was 34th out of 36, and LG Dakota Dozier was 36th out of 39.
Per WalterFootcall.com, the Vikings had one of the better free agency classes amongst all NFL teams. The key loss was LT Riley Reiff (Bengals), one of the few bright spots along the offensive front. Rudolph also left in free agency and was signed by the Giants. Although no significant changes were made to the offense, the Vikings signed 6 new defensive starters. These six starters are: 1) RDT Dalvin Tomlinson (Giants); 2) RDE Stephen Weatherly (Panthers); 3) LB Nick Vigil (Chargers); 4) RCB Patrick Peterson (Cardinals); 5) FS Xavier Woods (Cowboys); and 6) LCB Bashaud Breeland (Chiefs). DL Sheldon Richardson (Browns) was also added for quality depth.
After using free agency to shore up glaring defensive holes, the Vikings turned to the draft for further improvement. The team had 11 draft picks at its dispersal, and would use most of them on the offensive line and the defense. First-round selection, T Christian Darrishaw (Virginia Tech) was widely viewed as the second or third best tackle prospect in the draft. He will help ease the loss of Reiff and, according to recent reports, is currently listed second on the depth chart at left tackle behind Rashod Hill.
In addition to Darrishaw, the Vikings selected G Wyatt Davis (3rd round-Ohio State) to add depth along the offensive front. QB Kellen Mond was selected to be the long term replacement for Cousins. Mond was a four-year starter at Texas A&M and the MVP of the Senior Bowl. While Mond’s passing still needs work in being consistent, he has tremendous potential to be a successful dual run/pass QB.
The Vikings also drafted RB/Kick return specialist Kene Nwangwu (4th round Iowa State) and WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette( 5th round Iowa) for depth within their skill positions. Nwangwu showed great athleticism by running a 4.32 40 yard dash on his pro day and ranked 7th nationally in kickoff return average. If nothing else, he should improve the poor return team production that plagued the Vikings last year. Smith-Marsette brings top-notch speed, so the Vikings are hoping that he will develop into a quality vertical threat.
The rest of the draft was focused on continual improvement and depth on the defensive side of the ball. Per the most recent depth chart, none of the five defensive selections were listed as starters heading into the season.
In terms of expected overall fantasy production for 2021, Cook is currently 2nd in ADP amongst RBs, while Jefferson (8th ) and Thielen (19th) are both ranked inside the top 20 for WRs. I feel extremely confident in both Cook and Jefferson to meet these high standards, but anticipate TD regression for Thielen. Prior to last year’s 14 TD’s, Thielen’s career-high had been nine in 2018. He will need more catches (74) or yards per reception (12.5) to offset this expected reduction in touchdowns. Both Cousins (QB16) and Smith (TE13) are intriguing mid-round options to exceed their current ADP and crack the top ten of their respective positions.
Per VegasInsiders.com, the Vikings over/under win total is currently set at 8.5. The Packers, meanwhile, is set at 11. Although it would be hard to pick the Vikings to win the division based on recent history, I anticipate a much closer race than the 2.5 wins suggests. If the defense improves and based on the additions it should, the Vikings will win at least nine games and likely qualify for a wildcard.
(Cover Photo Credit: Minnesota Vikings)