2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,168 (12th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 44 (16th)
Offensive Plays: 1,083 (12th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 604 (11th)
Rush Attempts: 449 (15th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 113 (23rd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 7 (28th)
Mike Zimmer entered last season as the league’s seventh-longest-tenured head coach only to produce a second straight sub-.500 campaign at 8-9. Outside of a 37-10, Week 17 drubbing at the hands of the Packers with Kirk Cousins sidelined with COVID, the Vikings lost their other eight games by a combined 34 points, or 4.25 points per contest. It could have been a very different year for the Vikings if some breaks would’ve gone their direction. At the end of it, however, the Vikings cleaned house and hit the reset button in the front office and coaching rooms. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah landed the GM job and hired ex-Rams OC Kevin O’Connell as his first head coach. Both hold their respective job titles for the first time in their careers. O’Connell, of course, is a Sean McVay protege after coaching with him in Washington before linking back up in Los Angeles. O’Connell has never called plays at the NFL but has the coveted McVay ties and was a Bill Belichick draft pick as a quarterback in 2008. The 37-year-old will call his own plays in Minnesota, and he plans to cater the offense to Cousins. The two were also together in Washington. O’Connell is expected to favor the pass much more than Zimmer, and that should only benefit alpha WR1 Justin Jefferson. Dalvin Cook’s catch numbers should also rise.
Cousins' counting stats at the end of 2021 looked pretty darn strong on paper, finishing with a sterling 33:7 TD:INT mark while completing 64% of his throws for 4,221 yards (7.27 YPA) on the way to his sixth 4,000-yard passing season. His 33 passing scores were the second-most of Cousins' career, and his 1.2% interception rate was easily a career-best mark. Cousins may not be "the" problem in Minnesota, but he consistently fails to show up for big games. Despite all that, Cousins finished last season as fantasy’s overall QB12 in points per game. The Vikings fired long-time coach Mike Zimmer and hired ex-Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, who coached Cousins previously in Washington. O’Connell and new OC Wes Phillips have a history with Cousins and have committed to him as their quarterback, signing Cousins to a one-year extension through 2023. A fresh offensive scheme will certainly be welcomed by all in Minnesota. Aside from the coaching staff, the skill group in Minnesota remains largely unchanged, but Irv Smith is back from his knee injury that cost him all of 2021. Cousins is what he is, and that’s a middle-of-the-road quarterback who can take advantage of easy matchups but who isn’t going to have many ceiling games or do much with his legs. We can stream him against softer defenses, and he makes for a solid QB2, especially since his No. 1 wideout Justin Jefferson is one of the five most-talented NFL receivers.
After an incredible rookie season, Jefferson was even better as a sophomore. His target share jumped from 26% to 30%, and he posted a fantastic 108-1,616-10 receiving line, falling just 16 yards shy of Randy Moss’ franchise record. Jefferson has been incredibly efficient in each of his first two seasons, as he finished seventh among wide receivers, averaging a robust 2.59 yards per route, a stat that has indicated elite play. With the hiring of O’Connell as head coach, the Vikings are fully expected to shift from Zimmer’s old-timey coaching style and implement a pass-first, push-the-pace offense that features Jefferson in the Cooper Kupp role. Jefferson is one of the NFL's premier talents and will now be in an offense that has strongly featured its best player, leading to an all-time fantasy campaign from Kupp last year. Jefferson won't play the exact same role in the Vikings' offense as Kupp does for the Rams – Jefferson is much more of a traditional outside wide receiver than Kupp – but Jefferson played in the slot in LSU's offensive juggernaut with Joe Burrow and he is more than capable of moving around the formation. Jefferson is the premier Dynasty wideout and a locked-in first-round pick this summer. He just turned 23 in June. Jefferson had seven 100-yard games as a sophomore and posted double-digit catches 10 times. The sky's the limit here.
Thielen and Jefferson both turned in top-nine fantasy seasons at wide receiver in 2020, but Thielen took more of a back seat to Jefferson last year and missed four games, as well as parts of others, to injuries as a 31-year-old. Thielen drifted back to WR16 in half-PPR points per game in 2021 but remained a fixture in the red zone with his second straight double-digit touchdowns campaign. Thielen has scored 24 times in 28 games over the last two years. O’Connell’s hiring will increase passing volume, and, entering his age-32 season, Thielen will run as many routes as he can handle. He profiles as a low-end WR2 on the wrong side of 30 years old, but the condensed nature of the Vikings' passing attack and utter lack of competition for targets makes him a viable option if he can stay healthy.
After not playing a single snap as a rookie, Osborn jumped into the WR3 role and posted a 50-655-7 line across 17 games. Thielen missing time certainly helped Osborn earn targets, but he proved capable of taking on the bigger role. Thielen will return healthy, but new coach O’Connell should bring more three-receiver sets after the Vikings finished near the bottom of the league in that category last year. That will open up more snaps and routes, but it will likely take an injury to Thielen or Jefferson for Osborn to return consistent fantasy value. The Vikings didn’t add a ton of help at wideout in the offseason, drafting sixth-rounder Nailor and dumpster-diving for injury-plagued ex-Dolphins WR Albert Wilson.
One of the popular late-round targets at tight end last summer, Irv Smith ended up tearing his meniscus just ahead of Week 1 and missed the entire season. Since Smith last played in 2020, the Vikings have waved goodbye to veterans Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Conklin, putting all their eggs in Smith’s basket with no viable pass-catching talent behind him on the depth chart. Smith entered the NFL as a receiver in a tight end’s body. He has shown that talent at times, but he has always had to split reps with another player and is now coming off a missed season. Smith will get the chance to break the mold in 2022 now that his competition for snaps has evaporated. Smith was a full participant at offseason workouts and is again a breakout candidate who should play close to 100% of the offensive snaps like Tyler Higbee.
A top-two fantasy pick last summer, Cook went over 1,000 yards on the ground for the third straight season, but he missed four games with injury and COVID protocols and also scored just six touchdowns after producing a combined 30 touchdowns the previous two years. Cook's final rushing line read 249-1,159-6 with a scoreless 34-224 receiving output. At the end of the day, it went down as a disappointing year from both a real-life and fantasy perspective, as Cook finished as the overall RB11 in half-PPR points per contest. Cook will be a three-down back in O’Connell’s Rams-inspired system, while Mattison remains his extremely valuable insurance back. Cook is a top-four RB1 always capable of finishing No. 1 overall. Word out of Minnesota is Cook has been seeing more work in bunch formations split out wide in an effort to give him fewer carries and feed him more touches away from the banging bodies up front. It could help keep him fresher while getting Cook in more space.
Mattison is the league’s most valuable insurance back not named Tony Pollard. With Cook missing four games last season, Mattison set career highs across the board with a 134-491-3 rushing line to go with 32-228-1 as a pass-catcher. In his four starts, Mattison averaged 26.25 touches and proved to be a legit fantasy RB1 in Cook’s absences. When Cook was healthy, Mattison averaged just four carries per game. Mattison is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is likely eyeing a future starting job come 2023.
The Vikings’ win total sits at 8.5 at PointsBet. They’re one of 10 teams projected to win between eight and 9.5 games. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the 2021 Vikings’ 8-9 season could have easily seen them win double-digit games and capture a playoff berth. This roster didn’t get worse, if at all, over the offseason, and they got an upgrade in the coaching department. Minnesota also plays in perhaps the weakest division with the Packers experiencing big-time turnover with the departure of Davante Adams and then the Bears and Lions in different stages of complete rebuilds. The Vikings check in at 16th in strength of schedule at Sharp Football Analysis. I like the “over” on the Vikings’ win total and for Minnesota to be in the playoff mix come January.