Pro Football Focus 101: Four Vikings Make the List

Pro Football Focus has finished its Top 101 list—a different Top 101 list than earlier in the offseason. This one purports to identify the best players going forward instead of the ones who had the best 2015 season. This allows them in theory to take into account injury and down seasons while discounting one-year breakouts.

The first player is Harrison Smith, ranked 29th. He’s the top safety they have ranked, and that fits both the statistical work we’ve done on his impact with the team and the film work here at Cold Omaha that isolates Harrison’s many strengths. Here’s what PFF said:

Safeties have become pretty specialized in recent years. With so many teams trying to run a Seattle-esque system of cover-1/cover-3 looks, teams have split their safeties into rangy, single-high coverage specialists and powerful in-the-box run-stuffers that can man up with backs and TEs. Harrison Smith represents the other way of doing things: a versatile safety that is good at everything, without being a specialist at anything. Smith allows the Minnesota defense to run pretty much any coverage they want, knowing that they will have a safety capable of excelling in his role on the back end. This past season he graded well in every facet of play PFF measures, and he has that tough-to-define ability to be a tone setter for the defense with the plays he makes at times.

Not far behind him is Anthony Barr, ranked 34th overall. He’s the third-highest ranked linebacker on the list. What they said:

Eyebrows were raised when the Vikings selected Anthony Barr in the first round, and even more when they declared that he would be playing linebacker in their 4-3 defense. It was assumed that he would play some kind of Von Miller/Bruce Irvin hybrid role that would see him off the ball on base downs, and then rushing the passer in sub-packages, but he has fully transitioned to a conventional off-the-ball linebacker and done so incredibly smoothly, to the point that he is now one of the best in the game. Barr plays the run well, and is a natural threat on the blitz given his pass-rushing history, but he has also played very well in coverage, showing a natural feel for underneath zones and the ability to close quickly on plays in front of him. If Luke Kuechly is the best off-the-ball linebacker in football, Barr is one of a number of players with a claim to be the next best.

In previous years, we may have expected those spots to be reserved for Adrian Peterson, but in a new era of the NFL and as Peterson’s twilight years fast approaching, they bumped him all the way down to 78th overall. That makes him the second-best running back they’ve ranked, but the gap between the top running back (Le’Veon Bell, ranked 10th) and him is quite wide. They have Lamar Miller a few slots behind him at number 82. Here’s what they said about Peterson:

With the ball in his hands, Adrian Peterson can do spectacular things. This is a player that will soon start knocking off all-time greats on the all-time rushing list, but more and more his game is being defined by what it lacks. The fumbling problem from his early career came back to haunt him again in 2015, and in a league that is ever more pass-oriented, the Vikings don’t trust him to pass-block or pass-catch, and consequently often don’t even have him on the field in their most crucial game situations. If I had to hand a back the ball three times to get 10 yards, there may be nobody I’d want hand off to than Peterson, but that isn’t today’s NFL, and he is too lacking in other areas to be at the sharp end of this list.

Personally, I think Peterson is ranked too high. He was left off of their “2015 only” 101 list for the very same reasons he’s ranked at 78th here, and he’s only getting older. While I agree that Peterson is a dominant, violent and shockingly fast runner, I think his limitations have been a glaring issue for the Vikings—the sins of which include forcing the Vikings’ hands and making them predictable.

As for the final Viking on the list, I think he’s ranked too low. It’s Linval Joseph, ranked 91st overall.

If I could guarantee the player we saw in 2015 was the player we would get in 2016, Linval Joseph may well make the top 10 of this list. He was staggeringly dominant at times, and his destruction job on the Rams in Week 9 may have been the single-best game any interior defender had all year. He was pretty much unblockable in that meeting, and just laid waste to the Rams’ running attack by tossing blockers into the backfield and then diving in on top of them. Joseph has always graded well for us in the recent past, but this season, his second in Minnesota, was a completely different thing. It was such a deviation from his career baseline that I just can’t put faith in it repeating until I see it happen. If and when it does, his ascent up this list will be stratospheric.

Sam Monson is correct that this is by far Linval’s best year. But their new rating system takes into account two full years of data (instead of the previous grade system, that took into account anywhere between one game and one year’s worth of data), and he ranks third of all interior defenders.

He’s the sixth DT on the list, and it makes sense that they move away from recency bias, but before Minnesota, Linval was a great nose tackle in his final two years in New York.

In their system, he “only” ranked 33rd and 34th of all defensive tackles in 2012 and 2013, but this kind of growth seems normal and they afforded much more leeway to 77th-ranked Robert Quinn, whose last two seasons were of the same tenor as Joseph’s 2012-2013 but whose high was a little higher.

Regardless, it’s just another ranking for people to sink their teeth into as the offseason slog carries on.

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