How to Fix the Vikings
The NFL offseason is now in full swing with coaching changes, free agency and the NFL Draft reshaping the 2023 fantasy football landscape. With that in mind, the Fantasy Life squad is breaking down every NFL team to determine what went wrong in 2022 and identify paths to improvement. Next to tackle is the Vikings and Chris is here to help.
Vikings’ naysayers must have been ecstatic over how their year ended. With the season on the line, Kirk Cousins elected to throw six yards short of the sticks on fourth down. No more last-minute magic tricks to claim another win. There wasn’t another acrobatic catch from Justin Jefferson to save the team. It came down to Kirk being Kirk, and Minnesota’s season ended on a sour note. But it wasn’t all bad.
I harped on the Vikings’ “fraudulent” playoff push in January. Our ELO model ranked them sixth, but a deeper dive highlighted how slim the margins were regarding the NFC North title. Their wins in one-score games set a record. Other than the New York Giants, Minnesota was the only playoff team with a negative point differential entering the tournament. However, the critiques on the offense glossed over a simple fact.
It was better!
Cousins soared from 22nd in passing success rate during his final season with Mike Zimmer to 12th in his first year under Kevin O’Connell. The Sean McVay disciple brought all his tricks from LA. As I pointed out earlier this week, Minnesota passed more often and efficiently. And, as the win total bloomed, so did the front office’s confidence in the process. The trade for T.J. Hockenson addressed a need, but they’ve got more.
The Vikings are below league-average in spending on their defensive line and secondary. And, at 27th in total DVOA, it showed. Meanwhile, Adam Thielen’s utility is on the downslope, and the offensive line was up and down throughout the season. Their nonexistent cap space and missing second-round pick will limit their options, but I have a few ideas on how they can get right in 2023.
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Get Justin Jefferson Some Help
Of course, it’s nice to roster a guy like Jefferson since you know where most of the targets are going. Before Hockenson showed up, Cousins looked to Jefferson in every situation. J Jettas led the team in third-down looks and red-zone targets, and typically got the nod whenever Cousins was under duress.
It was a gift for fantasy managers but a curse for the Vikings.
Inconsistent play at receiver riddled Minnesota’s passing game throughout the season. Despite running a third of his routes from the slot, Adam Thielen was in the bottom-third of average yards of separation per Next Gen Stats, and Hockenson accounted for a quarter of the team’s drops. As a result, their cumulative EPA oscillated while Jefferson’s climbed. But a couple of changes might help for 2023.
Thielen has acknowledged his sizable cap hit and his uncertain future with Minnesota. If the Vikings move on from him, K.J. Osborn, the lone other bright spot on the chart, would slide into the WR2 role after a promising junior campaign. However, their depth at the position is still an issue.
Jalen Reagor can’t be trusted, and Jalen Nailor (2022 sixth-round pick) saw half of his targets during blowout losses. The latest mocks have the Vikings taking a CB in the first round. Despite not having their second-round selection, a late Day 2 swing at receiver should be on their radar. Cousins needs the supporting cast, and the offense needs an influx of young talent (i.e., rookie contracts) with an extension for Jefferson on the horizon.
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) makes a catch while defended by New York Giants cornerback Adoree' Jackson (22) during the first quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Get the Big Men in Sync
Luckily, injuries didn’t ravage the Vikings’ offensive line. They had two games with two starters down, but the line played together for most of the season. However, they couldn’t come together as a unit despite their individual talent.
Strikingly, four of the five starting offensive linemen ranked top 10 in PFF’s run-blocking grade. Pass blocking was shakier (three in the top 20) but capable with fewer dollars spent on the position group. However, it didn’t translate into cohesion.
Cousins had the ninth-highest pressure rate, and the team ranked 29th in rushing EPA. Dalvin Cook contributed to their inefficiencies during running plays, and I’ll get to him in a bit. Regardless, Minnesota’s line must improve to keep pace with the division.
Part of the fix comes with coaching. The Vikings’ current OL coach, Chris Kuper, is a first-timer after serving as an assistant for four seasons. He studied under Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, and a second season for Kuper should give the players more time to adjust to his style. Depth through the draft would also benefit the squad, with Garrett Bradbury slated to be a free agent.
Let Someone Other Than Dalvin…Cook
Dalvin Cook has been a staple of the early rounds since the Vikings drafted him. For fantasy purposes, he checks all the boxes. When healthy, he handled 80.0% of the carries and ran a route on 55.1% of Cousins’s dropbacks. And it’s easy to see why coaches have given him so much work.
If you cycle through stats like forced missed tackles or yards after contact per attempt, you’ll find Cook in the top 12. He can power through first contact one play and nimbly sprint downfield a few plays later. However, his down-to-down consistency (or lack thereof) comes at a cost.
Cook’s -0.16 rush yards over expected (RYOE) ranked eighth-worst amongst all RBs last season. Of his 279 totes, 22.9% went for a loss or no gain. But, to be fair, “over expected” isn’t necessarily predicted for RBs. Cook could rebound and outperform, assuming the team keeps him on the roster. However, a separate metric points us to the same conclusion.
Cook has ranked 33rd or worse in success rate for the past two years. Granted, he missed multiple games due to injury in 2021 but suited up all of 2022 with similar results. With Alexander Mattison likely walking in free agency, Dalvin may lead the team in touches again. However, Minnesota should look for a future option with one of their later draft picks.