Pro Football Focus released their preseason rankings for offensive lines this year, and the Vikings placed 14th — a mediocre ranking compared to the rest of the league but a massive upgrade compared to how the Vikings offensive line has played over the last several years.
Truthfully, I’m surprised myself at the Vikings’ ranking here. Realistically, they shored their line up enough to where there aren’t any glaring weaknesses, but at the same time there’s little in the way of high level play either. They finished 29th in our end-of-year 2016 rankings so this would be quite the bump up.
They finished 29th last year, ahead of the stunningly bad lines of the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks.
Their preseason rankings are built on the individual grades of the linemen they expect to start, including some projection from rookies. That projection can be tricky; the Vikings ranked 15th in their preseason rankings last year and that certainly didn’t bear out.
In part that has to do with the fact that the Vikings went through a gauntlet of injuries on the offensive line, and the fact that some players didn’t perform as expected. Joe Berger was once again an excellent player in the middle, but he didn’t play to the standard he did in the prior year. Alex Boone improved play at left guard significantly, but he also didn’t match his 2015 season in terms of overall performance.
But overall, PFF has done a fine job predicting performance across teams. That’s fairly impressive given that they don’t know how rookies will grade out, how free agents will be impacted by a change of environment or how injury luck is distributed.
The correlation between the 2016 preseason and 2016 postseason offensive line rankings is 0.61, a relatively strong correlation as far as predicting football goes.
The teams ranked 11th through 17th (average: 14th) in the preseason of 2016 ranked 13.7 on average after the season was over.
This is significant; the Vikings had a historically poor running game largely driven by their offensive line. The pressure problems in pass protection also encouraged shorter passing and the development of the Sam Bradford Index.
If the Vikings can create enough room in the running game to generate average efficiency and also given more time to a passing attack that needs to be more aggressive, the offense can grow from about 26th in efficiency to something far more palatable.
The relationship between preseason offensive line ranking by PFF and Football Outsiders’ DVOA is strong, with a correlation of .61 — the same as the correlation between preseason PFF line rankings and postseason PFF line rankings.
That bodes well and implies that the offensive line relationship alone could improve the offense by five or six ranks (for rigorous, stat-minded readers, no this isn’t remotely rigorous). Add to that offensive investments like Dalvin Cook and it’s possible that the Vikings offense might possibly crack average.
With an ever-improving defense (ranking 27th, then 23rd, then 14th, then ninth in defensive DVOA over the last four years), this could make the Vikings playoff-worthy. Seven of the 12 playoff teams last year ranked top ten in one category (offense or defense) and top 20 in the other.
Right now, Pro Football Focus seems to project Nick Easton as the starter at center, so the offensive line may end up performing even better than their projection if Pat Elflein can win the starting job. There’s some uncertainty about how free agents at right and left tackle will fit in but for now, the prospects are good.