While COVID-19 keeps ruining the entire world, there’s still a glimmer of hope that the football will go on as planned in the fall. And until the nightmare of a postponed or canceled season comes to fruition, I’ll be throwing around money on NFL futures. So, take your unemployment benefits or stimulus checks and follow along with me, because, for the next few weeks, I’m setting you up with some no-brainer plays. All lines come courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook and are dependent on the season playing out in full.
Let’s start with one of last year’s playoffs teams. They aren’t getting too much love from the pundits and their offseason has had its share of drama, but there’s no denying that they still got a lot of talent to work with. Question is, will it be enough for the Minnesota Vikings to post consecutive seasons of 9+ wins for the first time since 2008-09?
- Line: 8.5 Wins (-170)
- 2019 record: 10-6
- 2019 expected W-L based on point differential: 10.7-5.3
- Adjusted Games Lost to injuries: 25.6 (1st)
- Overall DVOA: 15.3% (7th)
- Offense: 4.6% (10th)
- Defense: -9.9% (7th)
- Special Teams: 0.8% (14th)
- Difficulty of 2019 schedule (based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA): 20th
- Projected difficulty of 2020 schedule (based on ESPN’s FPI): 24th
- Number of Returning Starters: 16
- Offense: 9
- Defense: 7
- Key additions: Gary Kubiak, Justin Jefferson, Jeff Gladney
- Key losses: Kevin Stefanski, Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes
You shouldn’t fix what ain’t broke, right? For the Vikings, that means it’ll be another season with a lot of 21 and 12 personnel, because as far as Head Coach Mike Zimmer is concerned, three-receiver sets are just gimmicky nonsense meant for college football. But even though Zimmer zigs when most other teams zag, the numbers speak for themselves: The Vikings’ 25.4 points per game were the eighth-most in the league last season, and they did it while having about as balanced of an attack as possible, running 466 pass plays to 476 rushes.
Dalvin Cook (who did not end up holding out for a new contract) will spearhead the ground game, and if he can put up another 81 rushing yards a game on 4.5 yards per attempt, that’ll force opponents’ front sevens to respect the run and unlock a highly effective Kirk Cousins-led passing attack. Seriously, the Vikings were pretty damn deadly through the air. Sure, they had the NFL’s third-fewest pass attempts in 2019, but Cousins’ 8.7 adjusted yards per pass attempt was seventh-best among last year’s quarterbacks—just a shade under Russell Wilson and several spots above Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers.
A lot of that efficiency traces back to the ground game because former offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski knew how to use it to set up a world-destroying play-action game. Cousins’ passer rating on play-action was better than Lamar Jackson’s play-action rating, which doesn’t even feel possible.
Of course, you might say the Vikings’ passing game will take a step back after they lost stellar vertical threat Stefon Diggs, who forced a trade to the Buffalo Bills because I guess he thinks Josh Allen will get him the ball more than Cousins did. While Diggs gets the pleasure of watching Allen’s throws sail over his head, the Vikings now have Justin Jefferson after selecting the LSU wideout with the first-round pick they got as part of the trade.
I don’t think any expects Jefferson to replicate Diggs’ production right off the bat, but that’s ok. Two-time pro-bowler Adam Theilen only made 10 appearances at wide receiver last season, and he wasn’t 100% for most of those games he did play in. With Theilen back as the number-one option, Cook being one of the best receiving running backs in the game, and second-year tight end Irv Smith a prime for a big step forward, Cousins will have all he needs if Jefferson can get him 400 or 500 yards and a few touchdowns.
Losing Stefanski to the Cleveland Brown is another tough loss, but new OC Gary Kubiak has a pretty good track record in this role—in his 12 years as an offensive coordinator, Kubiak’s teams have finished top 10 in total offense nine times and top 10 in points scored 11 times. More encouragingly, Kubiak’s run-heavy philosophy overlaps well with what Stefanski had the Vikings doing last season. The offense shouldn’t need any adjustment period from this coaching change, even with this weird offseason schedule.
Other than Diggs and right guard Josh Kline, all the key pieces from last year’s offense are back, and that sort of continuity comes with a lot of upside.
The defense, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot of continuity. The Vikings allowed a stingy 18.9 points per game in 2019, the fifth-best mark in the league, but five starters or otherwise meaningful contributors are gone from last season’s squad. And if that wasn’t alarming enough, three of those departures were the Vikings’ top three cornerbacks from last season, with Xavier Rhodes going to the Colts and Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander both signing with the Bengals.
On the one hand, all three of those guys are replaceable. Pro Football Focus didn’t grade any of them among the top 50 of qualifying cornerbacks for their pass coverage. In Rhodes’ case, he ranked 109th out of 115 qualifiers.
On the other, no corner on the roster has more than two seasons of experience, while as many as three rookies have a chance to crack the starting rotation or see significant snaps. This is just speculation, but the depth chart right now probably goes Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, then Holton Hill. It’s still too early to write-off 2018 first-rounder Hughes, who has had his share of injuries since coming up from UCF, while 2020 first-rounder Gladney comes with high expectations, and Hill had a strong 2018 season on a handful of snaps before injuries limited him in 2019. That’s to say, there’s a metric ton of upside with this group, especially since they’ll be under the tutelage of a defensive-back guru in Zimmer, but no one in this group is a proven commodity.
That puts a lot of pressure on the safeties and linebackers to make up for any shortcomings with these corners. So, it’s a good thing Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are the best safety duo in the league, while Eric Kendricks is probably the best coverage linebacker in a post-Luke Kuechly NFL. None of these corners need to be stars. As last year’s group showed, they just need to hold their own and the pass defense can still be formidable.
Moreover, ESPN’s Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin made a “bold training camp prediction” that the Vikings would sign veteran corner Logan Ryan to play nickel. If that ends up happening, Ryan would add some experience and playmaking ability, which are never bad things to have in the secondary.
The bigger question with the defense is along the line, which will be without Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen. Nose tackle Michael Pierce signed a with the Vikings this offseason to replace Joseph, but he decided to opt-out of this season, which is a big blow to what could have been a stout run defense.
Replacing Griffen on the edge will be even more difficult. The 4-time pro bowler was cut back in February, and while he’s still a free agent and Zimmer has expressed interest in bringing him back, that feels like a long-shot. Assuming Griffen is gone for good, that’s eight sacks, 24 QB hits, and 11 tackles for loss missing from last season.
The Vikings are counting on Ifeadi Odenigbo to pick up the slack, and he does seem poised for a breakout in his third season after recording seven sacks, 13 hits, 13 TFLs on just 368 snaps in 2019. Now that he’s penciled in as a starter across from all-pro Danielle Hunter, he might become a big problem for opposing offenses. Still, teams want a capable rotational option along the edge, and the Vikings don’t currently have that. What I’m hoping happens is Mike Zimmer finally gets Anthony Barr on the line instead of keeping him as an off-ball linebacker and only occasional blitzer. Maybe Barr wouldn’t set the world on fire in a role change, but at the very least, doing so takes him out of pass coverage, and that would be a win on its own.
Alternatively, Minnesota has a bit under $8 million in cap space, which is basically chump change, but it might be enough to take a flyer or two on some vets to plug some of these holes.
Why the Over Will Hit
This is still a complete team, even with a few losses on the roster and coaching staff. Between the key contributors they have from last year’s squad and the high-pedigree additions, there are no excuses for not being able to make another postseason run.
The Vikings were one of just three teams to post top-10 DVOA marks on both offense and defense last season, along with the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. So, even if you do expect them to take a slight step back on both sides of the ball, that’ll still be enough to get to nine wins. For reference, the Philadelphia Eagles were 14th offensive and 12th in defensive DVOA last season and were able to hit nine wins, which was in line with their expected W-L record.
Even though they didn’t play a particularly tough schedule last season, with Football Outsiders ranking their slate as the 13th easiest, ESPN’s Football Power Index estimates that the Vikings will have the ninth easiest schedule this season.
Why the Under Will Hit
The big concern with expecting another winning season is that the Vikings were incredibly healthy last season. When I say that, I mean the Vikings were the healthiest team in the league in 2019 according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric. This stat measures how much injuries impacted a team’s ability to get their best players on the field while also accounting for each position’s importance (an injured quarterback means a lot more than an injured third-string tight end) and whether a player was fully healthy even if they did play.
As anyone who has ever destroyed an ankle tripping over an uneven sidewalk will tell you, most injuries are just purely unlucky. The same holds true for the best athletes in the world—an NFL team’s health typically isn’t consistent from year-to-year, with the Patriots the third-hardest-hit team by injuries last season according to AGL after they were the league’s healthiest team in 2018.
I’m particularly worried about running back Dalvin Cook. He played 14 games last season after managing just 15 appearances across his first two pro seasons. Losing him for any significant period of time would be a huge loss for an offense that leans heavily on the run game. Minnesota does have a decent Plan B in second-year back Alex Mattison, but even in a full-time role, he probably couldn’t replicate the 118 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown Cook averaged per game in 2019.
All that said, a good streak of health is possible. Of the top-10 healthiest teams last season based on AGL, five of them were in the top 10 in 2018, too.
The Vikings defense nabbed 31 turnovers last season, the fourth-most in the league, which translated to 17% of defensive drives resulting in a takeaway, the third-best mark in the league. Turnovers are crucial for good defense in an offense-driven league, but they’re usually not sustainable from year-to-year. Zimmer always has good defenses, but just how good can they be if they regress toward the mean with their takeaways?
Lastly, there are still weak points in the defense. While I said above that I think there are capable replacements for the departures, a run-stuffing interior lineman and a veteran presence among the cornerbacks are still must-adds. Problem is, money is tight and there are only a handful of worthwhile names left in the free-agent pool that. How are the Vikings going to address those needs?
I dug really deep on this one, because I fell in love with this over the moment I saw it, and I had to figure I was missing something. Sure, the AGL number was really scary stuff, and complete re-do of the cornerback group is never a good thing, but this was also a really good team last season! Matter of fact, I’m saying the NFC North is theirs to lose. The Packers were the fakest 13-3 team I’ve ever seen, and they refuse to help Aaron Rodgers win football games. It also goes without saying that the Lions are still the Detroit Lions and it wouldn’t take much to convince me that Tyler Bray is the best QB on the Chicago Bears. The Vikings are the only team in that division with a positive outlook. So, why did I ever stress about them winning nine games?
Getting -170 on this payout isn’t great but don’t let that discourage you from a really opportune play. In fact, get five units on this one quickly, because if Minnesota does use up the rest of its cap space on a big-name free agent, this total could go up to nine wins really soon.