When projecting NFL team ceilings, the presumption going in is that everything plays out perfectly for each of the players. Nobody gets an injury. Everyone plays up to their potential.
Nobody holds out over a contract dispute.
It’s a utopian scenario that almost never exists in the NFL, where key players regularly get hurt or underperform. And every once in a while, the best player on the offense holds out looking for a contract extension.
In recent history, the only Vikings team that has come close to playing up to its potential collectively with players bumping up against their individual ceilings was the 1998 Vikings that finished the season 15-1.
Consider the following:
- Randall Cunningham posted a career-best 106.0 quarterback rating, threw a career-best 34 touchdown passes and was named First-Team All-Pro for the only time in his career.
- Randy Moss shocked the league with the best season ever by a rookie wide receiver, finishing with 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was also First-Team All-Pro.
- Cris Carter made the Pro Bowl with 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns.
- Robert Smith made his first Pro Bowl, rushing for 1,187 yards and six touchdowns.
- John Randle recorded 10.5 sacks and was the Vikings’ third member of the All-Pro team.
- Ed McDaniel led the team with a career-high 128 total tackles.
- Jimmy Hitchcock made the Vikings one-hit wonder team with seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns.
- Gary Anderson made all 59 of his extra-point attempts and all 35 of his field-goal attempts. He also earned All-Pro honors with his perfect regular season. And then he missed a field goal in the NFC Championship Game and… you know what, let’s stop right there.
The point is, seasons like 1998 don’t happen very often, and projecting a best-case scenario for any playoff-caliber team like the Vikings appear to be is simple: Super Bowl (the Randy Moss “homeboy” is implied).
Let’s safely assume that the Vikings’ best-case scenario as a team doesn’t occur in 2020. It’s a fairly safe assumption given how rarely it has happened in the past and that we already have the best player on offense holdout in place. It’s another article for another time. Instead, let’s look at what the ceiling of several key players looks like.
In some cases, the ceiling of one player won’t be reached without another player failing to reach their potential. Case in point: the Vikings’ running back situation. We’ll begin our speculation there.
The Cook situation leads the current news cycle. As predicted in this space (and many others) he’s holding out for a contract extension. This was bound to happen. However, the new CBA will force his hand to show up for training camp, or else he won’t accrue a season and will be an RFA rather than a UFA following the season – unless a new deal gets done. I think it will as long as he doesn’t insist on Christian McCaffrey-type of money (over $16 million per year).
The Vikings are limited by an unknown 2021 salary cap that is likely to be significantly less than in 2020. However, they won’t need to get too creative to make cap room next year and they regularly do significant contract extensions on the eve of training camp.
Having said all that, projecting Cook’s ceiling presumes a deal gets done and he stays healthy all season – which might be the bigger assumption. If he does, a career-high in yards north of 1,300, another 50-60 receptions and at least 15 total touchdowns are his ceiling.
Here’s what is meant by one player’s ceiling impacting another’s ceiling. If Cook gets his bag of cash and plays the whole season, Mattison’s ceiling looks completely different than it would if Cook holds out well into the season and/or gets injured again. By the way, the percentage of players holding out, eventually reporting, and then getting injured isn’t low — especially among running backs.
Anyway, if Cook plays, Mattison is looking at a second-fiddle role again. In 2019, that meant 100 carries for 462 yards and 10 receptions for 82 yards. Even I can figure out those averages without a calculator. Bumping up those numbers a little in the spirit of reaching his ceiling in a reserve role, probably nets him 600-700 yards from scrimmage and a few touchdowns.
On the other hand, if the Cook situation goes sideways, Mattison will get his opportunity to shine, albeit probably in a timeshare with Mike Boone. A season sans Cook would probably equate to more than 800 rushing yards and at least eight touchdowns for Mattison, assuming he gets the goal-line carries. He’s one inch and 15 pounds larger than Boone, so it’s a fair assumption he would get the call in a goal-to-go rushing situation more often than not.
At first, it seems logical that a season sans Cook would be detrimental to the Vikings’ offense and, by extension, to Cousins. Half of that is probably true. Cook’s absence would absolutely have a negative impact on the overall offense even if Mattison and Boone do a fine job in his place. However, it would probably be a boon to Cousins’ passing stats. If that’s your definition of a ceiling, so be it. No Cook means more passing. That means more attempts, more completions, more yards and maybe more touchdowns for Cousins. At the same time, it means more interceptions, sacks, fumbles, and a lower passer rating.
The best of both worlds, with a happy and healthy Cook on the field, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and catching 50-plus passes, is probably where we’ll find Cousins dancing on his ceiling. A run-first offense with Cook per Mike Zimmer’s decree would prevent Cousins from reaching career-highs in passing yards (the current mark is 4,917 in 2016 with Washington) but something north of 4,000 yards with a 30-ish touchdowns and a quarterback rating in excess of 100.0 looks like his ceiling. That’s basically what he’s been doing as a Viking. Cousins has already touched his ceiling and it’s not going to get any higher.
Last season represented Thielen’s worst-case scenario, as a hamstring injury robbed him of six games and parts of a few others. His nadir followed what will turn out to be his best season, in 2018 when he caught 113 passes for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns. That was his ceiling of ceiling, folks. This is not to suggest that he can’t have a good bounce-back campaign, but attaining new career highs without a bona fide star receiver on the other side — Justin Jefferson isn’t that yet — and in his age 30 season is unlikely.
As I’ve pointed out before, wide receivers age 30 or more have caught 90-plus passes a total of 18 times in the past 10 NFL seasons. Again, easy math here – that’s fewer than two players per season. Moreover, only five different wide receivers in Vikings history have topped even 800 yards in a season at the age of 30 or more.
Thielen will need to catch close to 90 to reach 1,000 yards this season. Let’s ballpark that as his ceiling: 80-something receptions for just over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jefferson is the toughest player on this list to project. He’ll likely have at least some struggles, as most rookies do. However, we’re playing out best-case scenarios right now, so what does that look like for him?
As a starting point, let’s see what Las Vegas has to say.
According to the prop bets listed on Bovada, Jefferson’s over/under for yards and touchdowns is 725.5 and 5.5. By definition then, in order to reach his ceiling, Jefferson’s numbers will need to exceed both of those marks, right?
Jefferson’s ceiling is that he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of all the recent first-round wide receiver busts that have come before him and he delivers 800 yards and six or more touchdowns. That feels like a sudden-impact rookie season.
Rudolph’s projections are only partially tied to those of the next player on this list. In essence, he became more of a blocking tight end in 2019. If you somehow missed that little nugget, go back and listen to any random Vikings telecast from last year where the color commentator made sure to point that out, usually following a Rudolph reception. Go ahead. It happened every single game. Not that I noticed and not that it drove me just a tad crazy. God created mute buttons for a reason.
A quick check of Rudolph’s targets does reveal a pretty drastic decline, though: from a career-high 132 in 2016, to 81 and 82 in 2017 and 2018… to 48 in 2019.
If we’re really going to talk about Rudy’s statistical ceiling, the only focus should be his touchdowns. He’s a very reliable end-zone target and has reeled in 25 touchdowns over the past four seasons. He had six last year. That’s probably his ceiling in 2020. That and a lot of blocking.
Irv Smith Jr.
Smith is a really interesting case. Along with Jefferson, he holds the most potential for transforming the Vikings’ passing game. Earlier this offseason, before the draft, I banged the drum for Smith to have a breakout season in 2020. I’m standing firm.
He’ll become the Vikings’ go-to tight end target, fully supplanting Rudolph in that regard. In 2019, Smith had one fewer target and three fewer receptions than Rudolph. His trajectory will escalate quickly. I’m high on Smith, but I’m not going so far as to suggest he will finish top five in receptions among tight ends like my friend Judd Zulgad did. I respect Judd’s analysis and his willingness to be bold, but my projected ceiling for Smith is dialed back a smidge from that. Let’s call it 60 receptions, 600 yards and four scores, basically doubling his output from last season.
We have fewer predictable stats to work with on defense — individual interceptions, for example, are historically unpredictable. However, we can still project some ceilings and provide context around the potential of the Vikings’ key defensive players.
Hunter is looking more and more like a generational type of player. The fact that he’s still only 19 years old is amazing… wait a minute, I’ve been told by my producer he’s actually 25. Oh yeah, he set that NFL record last season for youngest player to reach 50 career sacks — just a month and change after turning 25. That rings a bell now.
The point is, he’s still young and ascending, and he’s already one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. As I’ve detailed previously, he faces new challenges in 2020 without Everson Griffen on the opposite side of the line and in a defense that will have several new starters and perhaps some dramatic scheme shifts.
The real explosion in sack numbers might be a year away once things settle in defensively for the Vikings. For 2020, we’re probably only looking at 16.0 sacks or thereabouts. The keyword being “only” because that’s still elite and he’ll be threatening 20 in a year or two.
How much higher can Kendricks’ ceiling be raised? What can he possibly do for an encore after being named All-Pro following one of the best seasons by a linebacker in Vikings history in 2019? How about he does it again?
Kendricks just turned 28 at the end of February so he’s smack dab in the middle of his prime. Mark him down for triple digits in tackles, and since we’re talking ceiling give the man a couple of interceptions as he had in 2018. He’s the best cover linebacker in the business so that only stands to reason.
Throw in a top-three ranking by PFF and a second consecutive All-Pro honor.
Some would argue that Barr is no longer an integral player on the Vikings’ defense, but I wanted to get to 12 players for the sake of the headline because it sounded better than 11. How’s that for transparency?
Also, I think Barr can be a key player. He really needs to be. He’ll need to reverse a few seasons of what feels like a regression in order to do so, but we’re talking about player ceilings here so that’s the point of this exercise. He’s only 28 years old so it’s not like he’s over-the-hill in linebacker years. Besides, maybe the new-look Vikings defense this season with possibly more 3-4 sets results in beefier stats for Barr. He has 15.0 career sacks, one career interception and has finished with 70-something combined tackles in four of his six seasons. Thus, anything more than 80 tackles, a career-high in sacks (at least 4.5) and an invitation to the Pro Bowl based on something other than reputation is his absolute ceiling.
Smith is 31 now, and he’s bound to slow down one of these years, but this doesn’t figure to be one of those years. A lot of what Smith does won’t show up in a box score, as he covers up Vikings’ defensive blemishes on the fly. Even so, his numbers are starting to look Hall-of-Fame worthy. The Vikings’ secondary is going to be tested repeatedly by opposing offensive coordinators, which will give him plenty of opportunities to pad his impressive stat line.
His sixth straight Pro Bowl season will feature three more interceptions and a few more fumble recoveries as he makes plays from the secondary to opponents’ backfields. For a true ceiling, let’s project a fifth career touchdown just for old-time’s sake.
The other half of the best safety duo in the league has a high bar to clear to reach his ceiling as a player in 2020. Last season, was his first as a full-time starter so his ceiling this season should look at least as impressive. He’s become a darling of advanced stats community such as the crew at PFF.com while racking up nine interceptions the past two seasons.
Putting numbers on what his best season could look like should focus first and foremost on his interception total, which as I noted previously is always tricky to project. However, Harris is a prototypical ballhawk and quarterbacks will be peppering the Vikings’ young corners until they prove worthy. That gives Ant a lot of chances to continue picking off passes. His ceiling is six or more picks for the second year in a row.
Maybe this is the season he gets some Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition. The timing would be fortunate for him since he’s playing on a franchise tag and is in line for a big payday starting next season.
Once again, the above isn’t outright predictions. They are ceilings – best-case scenarios. In the unlikely event all of the above players reach these ceilings this season, the Vikings will be making some noise in January.