For the third straight year, the Minnesota Vikings hit the bye week on a bit of a roll, having won four of the last five games to correct a slow start.
Now it’s time for some rest, some self scouting and the beginning of preparations for the final seven weeks.
The 5-3-1 record seems modest compared to expectations, but if the Vikings storm out of the bye with four straight wins as they did a year ago, they’ll be comfortably in the playoff picture.
If they limp out of the bye like in 2016, it will be a different story.
But with the next Vikings football game almost two weeks away, we’ll pause and take stock of the proverbial first half of the season in the form of our Bye Week Awards. Here we go.
Several weeks ago, the winner of this category would almost certainly have been first-round cornerback Mike Hughes, but an untimely ACL tear sidelined him in Week 6. That left the door open for a handful of candidates.
DL Jalyn Holmes and TE Tyler Conklin both have had minor impacts. Same with promising running backs Mike Boone and Roc Thomas. Holton Hill has emerged as a viable depth corner and, if he had played in more games, he might’ve claimed this award.
The winner, however, is Brian O’Neill, who has filled in admirably at right tackle, seemingly usurping Rashod Hill in Week 9 when Riley Reiff returned from a foot injury. O’Neill’s emergence has coincided with the team’s best football. He entered the game against Philadelphia when Reiff went down and has played 100 percent of snaps since without allowing a sack. The Vikings run game has also improved in the last four games, averaging 131 yards per contest.
MOST VALUABLE FREE AGENT ACQUISITION
In terms of financial cost, as well as impact, $84 million quarterback Kirk Cousins has to be the winner, even though the first nine games have had some rocky moments. Cousins’ early fumbles against the Buffalo Bills led to a precipitous first half and an embarrassing loss, and his second-half pick-six turned the tide in a pivotal meeting with the New Orleans Saints.
But on the other hand, Cousins’ late-game heroics almost certainly prevented a loss against the Green Bay Packers. He was brilliant on the road against the Eagles. His connection with Adam Thielen in the season’s first half has escalated the wide receiver into a category with the league’s elite. And he is one of just two quarterbacks — Philip Rivers being the other — with above average passing metrics to all sectors 20-plus yards downfield, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Cousins has displayed tantalizing high-end play, mixed with head-scratching moments like last Sunday’s interception against the Detroit Lions. The Vikings will need more of the former and less of the latter to reach their Super Bowl aspirations.
PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE POST-BYE
In the NFL, it’s easy to be on the contract bubble, whether you’re an impending free agent or under contract long term. The Vikings have several candidates in both categories who need strong finishes to prove their value to the team beyond this season.
Of course, Anthony Barr comes to mind. He was the one marquee defensive player who didn’t receive a contract extension before the season. Barr delivered a strong stretch of play before hurting his hamstring against the New York Jets, though it’s possible he returns to the field post-bye.
George Iloka signed a small one-year contract to play for the Vikings but hasn’t been on the field as much as some expected. Andrew Sendejo has missed a month with a groin injury, and he has no dead money remaining on his contract if the Vikings wanted to part ways in the spring.
Here’s a name that might be a curveball, however: Mike Remmers.
Yes, he signed a five-year contract before last season, but the Vikings would owe less than $2 million and save $4.55 million next season if they parted ways. Remmers is expensive and could be asked to restructure. He has allowed 30 pressures this season, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s the second most in the NFL amongst guards and three more than Remmers allowed in 13 games last season playing tackle.
With O’Neill settling in at tackle, Remmers needs to prove he can be a starting-caliber guard in the future.
Hughes’ pick-six against San Francisco and Thielen’s late touchdown against the Green Bay were strong contenders, but the best moment of the season’s first half should be clear: Linval Joseph’s touchdown rumble in Philadelphia.
This play had it all: a game-changing score, an unlikely scorer and an iconic meme.
Joseph’s scoop and score might be the play that turned the Vikings’ season around, considering they’ve won four of five since. It turned a 3-3 tie against the Eagles in the Vikings favor and helped stave off a possible 1-3-1 start that could’ve been devastating to their playoff hopes.
The Bills loss was certainly the poorest performance of the season as a whole, but in terms of singular moments, nothing took the wind out of the Vikings’ sails like Daniel Carlson’s missed overtime field goal against the Packers. In a way, the carryover from Carlson’s deflating miss might have contributed to the Bills debacle. We’ll never know. But it turned a sure win into a tie, which could bite the Vikings down the road.
Carlson was released the next day, and the Vikings wouldn’t win for three more weeks.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
There’s very little debating our final two awards, starting with the Vikings defensive player of the year. Danielle Hunter is on pace for a 20-sack season following his 3.5-sack domination against the Detroit Lions offensive line.
Hunter picked up the slack while Everson Griffen missed time to focus on a mental health issue, and now that Griffen has returned he should only become more effective. The LSU product leads the league with 11.5 sacks and nearly set the record for most sacks by a defensive lineman before his 24th birthday.
Just as pundits struggle to rank Thielen or Stefon Diggs as the team’s No. 1 receiver, they will soon be laboring over which Vikings defensive end is the most dominant. Griffen and Hunter playing together again may be the pairing that restores the Vikings defense to last year’s status and propels the team down the stretch: Griffen being the emotional leader and Hunter being the quietly dominant star.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Thielen. Thielen. Thielen. Nobody has been more consistent or more impactful on offense than the Division-II success story from Detroit Lakes. He’s going to blow past 1,000 yards and probably exceed 1,500 yards unless teams devote a safety to double team him full-time.
With the exception of some garbage yards against the Bills, Thielen’s numbers haven’t been earned cheaply. He’s made contested catches, third-down catches, touchdown catches and game-influencing catches. His route running makes him a threat, even against double teams, and his durability keeps him on the field for nearly every play.
Some may ask where Thielen would be without Cousins, but the league’s leading receiver has done the same thing with Sam Bradford and Case Keenum the previous two years. If anything, he makes quarterbacks look better than they are; not vice versa.