The easiest way to win consistently in the NFL is to have a good quarterback, but if you don’t, there are other options — and they succeed more than people realize. In the last decade, the Ravens, Broncos, and Giants have all won Super Bowls on the backs of their defenses with merely adequate quarterback play, and the Bears and 49ers have made Super Bowl appearances with below-average quarterbacking. Finding a good quarterback is both difficult and expensive, and while every team hopes to find one, there is now a pretty clear formula out there on how to win without one.
- Have a good defense
- Don’t throw interceptions
This may not seem that revolutionary, as you probably already knew that interceptions are bad. The league knows it too, and team tolerance for interceptions had plummeted across the board. In 2016, all quarterbacks threw only 415 total interceptions, the culmination of an enormous downward trend over the past decade. In 2007 the league threw 534 picks, but only once in the past 5 years has that total exceeded 500 (in 2013 when the league threw 502 interceptions, paced by Eli Manning’s 27 and bolstered by awful seasons from Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, and Geno Smith).
Total NFL Interceptions By Year
- 2016: 415
- 2015: 436
- 2014: 450
- 2013: 502
- 2012: 468
This is an instance of behind-the-scenes analytics making themselves known to public, as the value of possessions has resulted in many offenses taking far fewer risks. This trend has now essentially conquered the NFC North outside of Green Bay (where Aaron Rodgers is still able to make big plays in addition to taking care of the ball), and nowhere is this more apparent than in Minnesota, where Sam Bradford is coming off arguably the check-downiest season of all time. The Vikings’ defense remains a strength, and there are interesting pieces in place on offense. The conservative approach will keep the Vikings in contention in 2016, and if they can get get a bump from a revamped offensive line and the running back position, they are the most likely team to unseat the Packers.
Let’s start with Sam Bradford, who came in last year via trade when Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the foreseeable future. Bradford led the league in completion percentage and threw only 5 interceptions, which is exactly what you want from a caretaker quarterback behind an inept offensive line. However, a slow pace of play and an inept running attack meant that Minnesota only outscored four other NFC teams. The Vikings didn’t do much to beat themselves, but they were also incapable of beating any team that was careful with the ball, and they were very likely to lose any game where they had to play catch-up.
It is sometimes difficult to separate design from necessity. Bradford, in many ways, had his best season, and limiting interceptions with safe quick throws was a big part of that; however, his opportunities were limited by conservative play-calling, particularly in the second half of the season when offensive coordinator Norv Turner spontaneously resigned, and was replaced by Pat Shurmur. That philosophy was a wise one for the circumstances, given Bradford’s previous poor play and the atrocious offensive line in front of him. This year we’ll get to see if that philosophy sticks around with an upgraded line and better backs.
In the offseason the team let Matt Kalil walk (addition by subtraction if ever there was such a thing) and brought in free agent tackles Riley Reiff (from Detroit) and Mike Remmers (from Carolina). Alex Boone will return at guard, with Nick Easton (center) and Joe Berger (guard) filling out the interior and 3rd round pick Pat Elflein expected to push Easton. None of theses additions is particularly awe-inspiring, but the Vikings cannot help but improve up front. They were among the most terrible run blockers in the league last season, and to the extent their pass blocking metrics were not terrible, it can mostly be attributed to Bradford’s quick release. (Click here for an analysis of Offensive Line play from Football Outsiders.)
I happen to think captain checkdown is here to stay, and more of a philosophical principle of Mike Zimmer and Pat Shurmur, but if the Vikings do decide to air it out, they have some decent weapons at their disposal. Stefon Diggs enters his third season after taking a nice step forward in 2016. While his yards per catch fell, that was almost inevitable in the Shurmur offense, and he compensated by hauling in three quarters of his targets. Diggs could be more efficient with his touches as he was just 29th among receivers in DVOA last season, but he’s more than capable of making the stereotypical 3rd-year wideout leap if they open up the offense.
The breakout star for the Vikings was Adam Thielen, who outperformed Diggs in almost every way. Thielen was a complete package, showing off nifty underneath work, while also consistently beating corners deep. Thielen was 6th in DVOA, and 8th in DYAR where he was just barely edged out by Antonio Brown, and that DYAR number is especially impressive given that he was just third on the team in targets behind Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. If Thielen can steal some targets from Rudolph and Diggs, it would likely benefit the group, and if Laquon Treadwell can give them anything at all, this unit can be better than most think.
Editor’s note: Thielen also faced the easiest slate of opposing cornerbacks of any wide receiver in the past decade, according to Pro Football Focus fantasy writer Scott Barrett — perhaps a sign that his big season was a mirage.
In terms of the ground game, the withered corpse of generally awful person Adrian Peterson has walking deaded its way to New Orleans, where it will drag down the high-flying Saints’ offense whenever it sees the field. In its place, the Vikings traded up for Florida State’s Dalvin Cook in the middle of the second round of this year’s draft. I am conflicted on Cook. I detest drafting a running back early and especially trading up for one. And while Cook is outstanding on tape, he ran one of the more disappointing Combine performances in recent memory. Normally, I am more than happy to ding a player for a bad Combine (my strategy is always be willing to move players down, but never ever move players up, based on the Combine), but in this case I suspect Cook had a bad day at the wrong time, and in truth it barely matters. Adrian Peterson, when he could play last season, was a disaster while Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata were barely better. Cook offers the full package as a part of the run game and passing game, and even if he’s not spectacular, he will be a drastic improvement, especially in pass protection and receiving. If Cook should stumble, the team signed veteran Latavius Murray as a free agent (Oakland), and he should provide solid production.
If the Vikings remain conservative, Cook will make things function more efficiently by creating better 3rd down situations and contributing in the short passing game. If they open things up he’ll do what Peterson could not, and offer Bradford better protection on longer-developing plays. There is room for growth here, and while I suspect that the Vikings will keep things close to the vest there is also a good chance that they’re league average or better.
The Vikings have been good, if not great on defense for the vast majority of the Mike Zimmer era, and this may be the year they finally break through and become a truly memorable unit. To the extent they’ve had weaknesses over the last several years, they’ve been a bit light upfront which has left them vulnerable to good running teams. Along that line, some of the older players — Chad Greenway and Brian Robison in particular — have been exploitable. Greenway was especially vulnerable to opposing tight ends in his final season.
Minnesota still has its stars in Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr (when healthy), Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes. They provide one of the best and youngest foundations for any defense in the league. Robison and the aged/ageless Terrance Newman remain on the team, and should benefit greatly from reduced roles. Newman could easily find himself in a Charles Woodson-esque “playmaker” role, and will provide excellent support should Trae Waynes or Mackensie Alexander stall out in development. The Vikings are one of the few teams with the secondary to stick with the Packers’ receiving group, and with the addition of Datone Jones to complement Griffen and Robison, they have one of the fiercest pass rushes.
The Vikings may still be vulnerable to a good power rushing team, as they were just 16th against the run in DVOA last season, and it will be interesting to see how they handle the Bears. Still, this appears to be one of Zimmer’s best units, and I expect them to give the Packers and the rest of the NFC fits. Football Outsiders is oddly down on them, and their early forecast has them taking a step back on defense based on how they finished last season, some improvement within the division, and a lack of impact additions. I don’t really buy it. There are too many playmakers and too much flexibility available to a good defensive mind to tumble significantly. I don’t see any reason to expect a large regression to the mean on the defensive side, and if anything, I believe they may be on the cusp of a dominant run. Ignoring Newman for a moment, Griffen is the old man of the stars at 29, and everyone else is just entering their prime.
The Vikings also suffered through some abysmal kicking from Blair Walsh before Kai Forbath swooped in and saved the day. Kicking is nearly always high leverage, as missing a kick not only takes points off the board, but destroys your field position as well. The Vikings weren’t particularly lucky or unlucky, but in this area you can expect some improvement. In 2016 Minnesota was between an 8-8 and 9-7 team by Pythagorean record, all with a new quarterback, a mid-season offensive coordinator change, and a special teams disaster.
I suspect that poor offensive strategy will still limit their upside, but the downside for the Vikings is likely still a playoff contender. If things break right for them and they progress on offense and excel on defense, it’s not hard for me to see them winning the North or even contending for a first round bye.
The Vikings are the most consistently competent foe the Packers face, and should not be overlooked this season.