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Evaluating Positions

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By: Tanishka Mhaskar and Preet Shah
November 12th, 2018
photo: Bruce Kluckhohn

The Minnesota Vikings have played nine games this season and the sample size is may finally be large enough to give each position group a grade. The Vikings offense has the potential to be one of the best in the league, and the Vikings defense is slowly becoming as, if not more, dominant than they were last year.

Quarterbacks (A-)

Kirk Cousins has proved why the Vikings brought him to Minnesota instead of keeping any of the three signal callers they had last year. (For reference, Teddy Bridgewater is a backup quarterback, Sam Bradford has been benched then cut, and Case Keenum is having a below mediocre performance in Denver). Cousins has been there even when the defense hasn’t. He made an impressive comeback in Green Bay and kept the Vikes in the Rams game. The 30 year old quarterback has been just as advertised: accurate deep ball passer, able to stand in pressure, and...low awareness. Cousins has a league leading of 8 fumbles. Although all of them aren’t his fault, some have been turning points of games. Fumbles or not, Cousins is a solid player in a previously revolving quarterback room.

Running Backs (B-)

Minnesota essentially has two starting tailbacks in Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook. They couldn’t run the ball the first four weeks, but after the Vikes got a couple offensive linemen back, Dalvin Cook healthy, and the Tay Train going, there’s been plenty of improvement. The run game may not be where Minnesota wants it, but the recent signing of Ameer Abdullah from the Lions brings a special Jerick McKinnon like dynamic to the game. The balance has helped take pressure off of Kirk Cousins and chew time off the clock when needed to. I’d expect it to keep improving from here on out.

Wide Receivers (A)

The easiest grade to give since so far both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have been flat out amazing. Adam Thielen has picked up this year from where he ended last and had a total of 8 consecutive games with 100 yards receiving breaking the record for consecutive 100 yard games to start the season and tying Calvin Johnson's record for most consecutive 100 yard games. Diggs hasn't been a slouch either. This year, he often draws coverage from the opponents number one corner and yet he still has nearly 600 yards in spite of the fact that he had missed the last game with a rib injury. The only real bone to pick with this position is the lack of a true number three receiver. Former first round pick Laquon Treadwell has been on and off with a few bright spots such as his first ever NFL touchdown and some not so bright spots such as the drop that led to a HaHa Clinton-Dix interception. Treadwell also has a couple of dropped passes—most on the Vikings team. Free Agent pickup Aldrick Robinson has been good when utilized, with 7 receptions, 3 of which have been touchdowns. Another in this core includes CFL standout Brandon Zylstra, who has seen limited playing time on the offensive side of the ball with only one catch for 23 yards. Chad Beebe, a preseason standout on the team way of the practice squad, had a good debut vs the Detroit Lions with 3 receptions for 21 yards. If the Vikings want to improve in this area they need to establish a de facto number three receiver to take some of the workload off of Diggs and Thielen.

Tight Ends (C+)

Kyle Rudolph is having the best season of his career. He has 34 receptions for 349 yards and 2 TDs. While this doesn’t pop off the stats page, Rudolph has been a consistent “mattress” for Kirk Cousins to throw at—especially when in distress. The tight ends behind Rudolph haven’t had much production. David Morgan has been a key blocker for the Vikings, but he hasn’t played much as a receiving TE. Rookie Tyler Conklin hasn’t gotten playing time. In general, the tight ends haven’t impacted games as much as people thought they would in the offseason, given Cousins’ history with TEs.

Offensive Line (D-)

As usual, the Vikings offensive line has been the weakness of the team. They did essentially nothing in the offseason, but they drafted OT Brian O’Neill in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. O’Neill’s ceiling is the sky, and impressively he hasn’t given up a single sack this season. The rookie tackle was expected to be a project but was thrust into the starting lineup pretty early. Next to him is RG Mike Remmers who hasn’t played well at all. In his first season as a guard, he has given up the most pressures on the team. C Pat Elflein has not played as well as he did last year. A very small problem is his chemistry with his quarterback. The offense has had to deal with a couple of delay of game penalties lately because Elflein hasn’t been snapping the ball on no cadence snaps. He’s been pretty solid with the run ever since he returned from offseason surgery in Week 3. Next to Elflein is LG Tom Compton who has been the Vikes’ best player on the offensive line. Compton got injured vs the Jets and has missed the past two games. His determination and ability to protect his quarterback Kirk Cousins is admirable. In his place, Danny Isidora has played fairly well. He gave up two sacks to Sheldon Rankins of the New Orleans Saints, but other than that, his blocking last week opened up a few nice holes in the run game. Finally, LT Riley Reiff had a rough start this season. Poor play on Cousins’ blind side led to some strip sacks. Some were game changing and even game ending. After returning from his injury, though, Reiff played a solid game. Barring any injuries, I would expect the offensive line to start gelling together as we move through the crucial second half of the season.

Defensive Line (A- )

The defensive line has been incredible this year. No two ways about it. Even when they had lost their leader Everson Griffen, they didn’t regress to the level which most other teams would have. In fact, Stephen Weatherly who replaced Griffen played incredibly well. On the other side, Danielle Hunter has put most of the league on notice with a league leading 11.5 sacks with 3.5 of them and a fumble recovery touchdown coming vs the Lions. The two big men up front in Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson have also been amazing so far this season. Although most of their contributions are beyond the box score, they force the opposing QBs into the lap of Hunter and Griffen. Tom Johnson was a steal that the Vikings signed when Seattle cut him. In 7 games this season, Johnson has 2.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries, according to Pro Football Reference. Younger players like Jalyn Holmes and Jaleel Johnson are on the bench, helping keep the starting four fresh. When thrust into the lineup, they like the others manage to make an impact. Holmes and Johnson combined for 1.5 sacks this season. Also, everyone's preseason favorite Ifeadi Odenigbo is back in town and on the practice squad. The only reason this group doesn’t receive an A is because they weren’t able to get pressure vs the two biggest NFC powerhouse in the LA Rams and New Orleans Saints.Likewise, this defensive line rotation is what Mike Zimmer envisioned in the offseason—something similar to the 2017 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Cornerbacks (B)

The Vikings cornerback room is envious. They have three first round picks, and although Mike Hughes is on IR, he had some game changing plays the first six weeks for the season. Trae Waynes has played outstanding football after returning from his concussion, and Xavier Rhodes is slowly starting to look like the Xavier Rhodes we all know and love. Mackensie Alexander, who fought for the starting nickel job in training camp has been on and off. Some incredibly shut down plays give me hope, but other times Alexander just loses his receiver. A newfound pass rushing ability in Alexander has been key for the Vikings. Alexander had a sack of Aaron Rodgers in overtime which forced the Packers to punt. He also sacked Matthew Stafford in the Vikings franchise record setting afternoon on November 4th. Alexander has three sacks on the season. The undrafted rookie Holton Hill has been a stud for the Vikings. A mid-round talent that fell due to his off field issues has really stepped up in the absence of Xavier Rhodes and Mike Hughes. Speaking of Hughes, the rookie first rounder had a pick 6 in his first NFL game. Hughes also had a forced fumble vs the Rams. Hopefully he comes back even stronger next season. 

Safeties (B)

I think that it is safe to say that the Vikings have 5 starting caliber safeties on the roster. Harrison Smith is by far the best of the bunch and probably the best safety in the NFL right now (but since nobody other than Vikings fans know who he is he probably won’t be voted into the Pro Bowl but will make first team All-Pro). The only thing that is somewhat concerning about his play thus far is the occasional long pass he gives up in coverage. Andrew Sendejo is listed as safety number two, but so far he has been dealing with a groin injury that has sidelined him the last four weeks. In his place has been George Iloka, who was picked up in the middle of the preseason due to the Bengals cutting him. Iloka, who has worked with Mike Zimmer before has been exceptional filling in. Jayron Kearse has found new life in this team playing as a “big nickel” corner covering opposing tight ends and wide receivers. He has truly been one of the most improved players this year. Anthony Harris has seen the field sporadically so far this year, but he has been great when we see him on the turf. The only thing holding this unit back from getting an A are games like the Rams when they had gotten picked on. That was mostly a schematic problem, which Zimmer has fixed.

Linebackers (C)

The Vikings linebackers have been disappointing thus far. Minnesota payed Eric Kendricks big money in the offseason and he’s still a tackling machine, but I don’t believe his is earning his contract. A couple of miscues on running backs (especially the WHEEL ROUTE) and not being in position has given up some explosive plays that didn’t happen last year. Meanwhile, Anthony Barr hasn’t been playing like he wants a contract next year. I still don’t understand why the Vikes would draft a 3-4 LB in a 4-3 system, but it definitely isn’t paying off. Other than Barr’s injury, and his rough start due to defensive scheme issues, he has played lights out. I wish Barr would be note utilized in rushing the passer, but I do like how Zimmer is using the 4th year LB. Eric Wilson, who has stepped in for Barr has done just alright. Notably, he wasn’t able to stop Kamara or Ingram at all, but thing could have been worse. I hope to see better play from this group as the season goes forward.

Kickers (D)

This year got off to a bad start with Blair Walsh 2.0 … sorry, I mean Daniel Carlson missing 2 field goals from 30 yards out which cost the Vikings the win over the Packers. After that horrendous showing, the fifth round pick was cut and the Vikings signed the second most accurate kicker in NFL history: Dan Bailey. So far, Bailey has been a bit confusing. Against Philadelphia, he missed two chip shots but later drilled a 50+ yard field goal to clinch the win. He seems to be very hot and cold with his kicking and hopefully he can heat up and regain his form that he had on the Cowboys.

Punter (B+)

Matt Wile is a nice upgrade over Ryan Quigley. Other than the blocked punt mishap at Lambeau Field, Wile has been punting and pinning opponents down well. This has been especially impressive in the sharp winds at MetLife Stadium, and Wile will have to continue this in the Windy City next week and in Foxborough against the Patriots.

The Vikings enter the important stretch of November and December games starting with the Windy City where they will fight for the division title. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this team plays through a tough schedule for a home playoff game.