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Total Offense: 6,292 (4th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 55 (t-7th)
Offensive Plays: 1,023 (19th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 516 (27th)
Rush Attempts: 468 (8th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 39 (28th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 11 (30th)
The eternally grumpy Mike Zimmer enters his eighth year as Minnesota’s head coach with two postseason victories in four playoff appearances. One of those playoff wins, you may recall, was one of the most miraculous moments in league history. Zimmer, for now, has job security. The Wilfs, owners of the Vikings, have said how much they value stability. Perhaps that keeps Zimmer employed even if the Vikings get off to another rough start in 2021. Perhaps. He is, after all, the fifth most likely NFL head coach to get the axe in 2021, per Vegas odds.
Only a Mike Zimmer team could go 7-9 and rank eighth in rushing attempts. Zimmer is as committed to establishing the run as any head coach in the NFL, even after the team took a loan from the International Monetary Fund to pay Kirk Cousins. Improvements on defense -- a flurry of offseason secondary signings and the much-anticipated return of defensive end Danielle Hunter -- could be just the thing to vault Zimmer’s Vikings into the top-three in rushes this year, generating the neutral and positive game script required to establish as hard as possible. Bettering last year’s Vikings Defense -- 29th in points allowed and 27th in yardage allowed -- won’t be a tough task.
One of the premiere defensive coaches of a generation, the chances are good Zimmer can figure out what ails Minnesota’s defense a year after he called it the worst defense he’d ever coached.
Thirty-three-year-old Klint Kubiak inherited the team’s offensive coordinator gig from dear old dad this offseason, ensuring the Vikings’ 2021 offense will look an awful lot like their 2020 offense. That’s not a bad thing: Only seven offenses had a better DVOA than the Vikings last season despite some wildly pass-heavy games in which the team’s defense was massacred. Klint Kubiak, who spent two seasons as the Vikings' quarterbacks coach after three seasons as Denver's QBs coach, will keep his dad’s language and concepts in place this season. Nothing will fundamentally change, one might say.
QB: Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond
WR: Justin Jefferson, OlaBisi Johnson
WR: Adam Thielen, Chad Beebe, Blake Proehl
TE: Irv Smith, Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon
Out-of-control negative game script generated by Minnesota’s flailing defense helped Kirk Cousins deliver a QB11 season in 2020. He averaged 32.25 pass attempts per game -- an increase of about four throws per contest over his 2019 numbers. Cousins’ career highs in touchdown throws (35) and TD rate (6.8 percent) didn’t hurt. It’s those career marks -- and the prospect of regression -- that might make fantasy managers wary of drafting Cousins as a late-round option. Cousins’ best case scenario for 2021 is serving as a safe, reliable QB2 in superflex formats.
The Athletic’s Arif Hasan, who covers the Vikings, said the team’s ideal offense would be one in which Cousins runs a conservative unit without turnovers and with the occasional play action deep shot. It’s a hyper-fragile offensive philosophy, and it’s the one Zimmer prefers.
“The team always wants Cousins to do less,” Arif said of the quarterback who’s owed $76 million over the next two years. “They're a running team dependent on boots and play action. They led the league in running back carries over the last two years. Do they want him to do even less? Probably, but only as a function of leading late in games.”
Justin Jefferson’s record setting rookie campaign somehow did not include an unsustainable touchdown rate. The dominant wideout has TD upside in 2021 -- a frightening prospect as you pass on Jefferson for a receiver in a more pass-heavy offense. Jefferson in 2020 earned Pro Football Focus’ second highest receiving grade and was fourth among wideouts in fantasy points over expectation. Nothing in Jefferson’s breakout rookie season was unrepeatable.
The team’s incredibly narrow target tree -- Jefferson and Thielen accounted for a combined 50 percent of the Vikings’ targets last season -- means both receivers’ opportunity is locked in. We know where the ball will go: Jefferson on the outside or Thielen in the slot. An 18.9 percent touchdown rate last year -- about 10 percent higher than his career rate -- makes Thielen a slam dunk TD regression candidate. Maintaining something close to the red zone role he saw in 2020 could soften the regression blow a bit, but Thielen’s WR10 finish last year was his best case scenario barring a Jefferson injury.
Thielen had 23 red zone targets last season, trailing only Davante Adams and Calvin Ridley. Thielen’s 13 targets within ten yards of the end zone were third among receivers. He had just six red zone looks in 2019 (when he missed seven games) but 20 in both the 2018 and 2017 seasons. Cousins has eyes for his slot guy when he smells the end zone.
Hasan from The Athletic pushed back on the assumption Thielen will see a marked TD dropoff this year. “Thielen has been consistently targeted in the red zone year over year and he's been productive in those opportunities,” Hasan told me. “Given the one place where Jefferson was less productive was the red zone and the fact that Kyle Rudolph isn't on the team any longer, I'd imagine red zone opportunities for Thielen are more likely to increase than decrease.”
Thielen’s positional ADP of WR25 is likely below his 2021 floor, making him a solid if unexciting fifth round pick in 12-team leagues. Probably he fits better as a WR3 or WR4 in a Zero RB roster build.
A month after Zimmer sent best ball drafters reeling by saying Irv Smith’s role would not expand in 2021, Klint Kubiak soothed our worried little heads by assuring Smith would have “more opportunities” in his third season. Using my secret Mike Zimmer decoder I got at the bottom of a box of Frosted Flakes, I believe he meant Smith would retain his role as the team’s primary pass catching back. Tyler Conklin, who saw just about as much playing time as Smith when Kyle Rudolph was sidelined last year, will mostly be used as a blocker. In a Vikings offense that ran the most plays with two tight ends on the field in 2020, Conklin has sneaky appeal in any format that artificially inflates the fantasy value of tight ends.
Hasan told me fantasy managers shouldn’t expect Smith’s 2021 targets “to be one-for-one replacements for Rudolph.” That would certainly put a damper on the tight end’s best-case prospects.
Smith in four games without Rudolph in Minnesota’s lineup last year averaged five targets, 3.75 receptions, 45.75 yards, and .75 touchdowns. I’m obliged to tell you Smith’s pace as the team’s starter would give him 60 catches, 732 yards, and 12 touchdowns. That would have made him the TE2 in fantasy this year. Will a tight end who’s third in the pass catching pecking order in a run-heavy offense post a top-3 season? No. Smith’s positional ADP of TE13 in best ball formats is perfectly reasonable though.
RB: Dalvin Cook Alexander Mattison, Ameer Abdullah
OL (L-R): Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Dakota Dozier, Brian O’Neill
The story of Dalvin Cook’s tremendous yearly fantasy floor is his high-value opportunities (combined with one of the biggest non-Derrick Henry workloads in the league). Last season, Cook was tied for the lead with 35 rushing attempts inside the ten yard line, and no one had more carries inside the five. He converted that massive opportunity into 16 rushing touchdowns. Cook in 2019 was third in inside-the-five carries despite missing two games and parts of another, scoring 13 times on the ground in 14 games. No team in 2020 had more red zone rushing success than the Vikings, and it wasn't close.
That Cook won’t be among the league’s high-volume pass catching backs doesn’t mean he’s uninvolved in the Vikings’ pass game. Cook over the past two seasons has a respectable 14 percent target share, ranking ninth in running back receptions since the start of the 2019 season. No Viking has benefited more from Zimmer’s determination to operate a conservative, run-heavy offense: Cook has played 68 percent of the team’s offensive snaps over the past two years and handled 66 percent of their rushing attempts. That sort of usage makes him a no-brainer top-three pick in redraft.
Cook’s success over the past two years has come behind a middling offensive line. Pro Football Focus graded Minnesota’s line 18th in run blocking last year. The team’s o-line should get a boost from first-round pick T Christian Darrisaw, who in 2020 posted the second-best PFF grade ever for a tackle (behind Penei Sewell’s 2019 season), finishing second in the nation in both run-block and pass-protection grades.
The founding father Alexander Mattison, the apple of Zero RB drafters’ eye, might be a perfectly good and effective NFL running back. It won’t matter, however, unless Cook misses time in 2021. His only real 2020 usage came when Cook was dinged up or when the Vikings were comfortably ahead in the second half. Mattison’s appeal is (and will be limited) by his two-down banger role in Minnesota’s offense. He hasn’t functioned as a three-down back, no matter how much we wish for it.
“I imagine it would be a committee -- with Mattison taking on a good chunk of work and [Ameer] Abdullah (and/or [Kene] Nwangwu) taking on a scatback role,” Hassan said of a Cook-less Minnesota backfield. “I would say it's likely that Mattison takes on a bigger role than normal committees but a lot less than being a one-for-one replacement [for Cook].”
Mattison’s, whose almost total lack of weekly involvement makes me an iffy best ball selection, makes sense as a late-round redraft selection for fantasy managers gobbling up backup RBs who might pop amid the predictable chaos of the NFL season.
The Vikings in 2020 managed seven wins amid a host of bad breaks and one of the NFL’s most porous defenses. Fixes and upgrades to the defense -- and Zimmer’s record of righting the defensive ship -- should allow Kirk Cousins and the offense to operate in the hyper-conservative fashion they prefer. Does that make the Vikings one of the league’s most fragile teams? It does. Things could go sideways in a hurry if Zimmer's best laid plans don't break just right. But the solid defense-great running game formula can work in spurts, and the Vikings have the perfect personnel to pull it off.
Their Vegas win total sits at nine. The NFL’s extra game this season offers me just enough leeway to take the over. Zimmer, I think, will survive the 2021 season, grumpiness intact.