There’s no question that the Minnesota Vikings’ offense was the strength of their team last year. So national pundits and fans are focused on the defense right now, right? Well, not really.
The defense may have underperformed, but this defense is not last year’s. The Vikings have players returning from injuries, and they filled in the gaps with desirable free agents, so there should be little worry about the defense. The focus should be the offense and the fact that the team has (arguably) the league’s best running back, two top-10 wide receivers, a top-third quarterback, one Irv Smith Jr., and an undoubtedly vastly improved offensive line.
So why doesn’t the national media see the Vikings as a playoff team?
Let’s start with my (least) favorite take from the so-called experts: Justin Jefferson isn’t a top-10 receiver. ESPN just ranked ($) their top-10 receivers, and Jefferson is merely an honorable mention. Also, Adam Thielen isn’t on their list.
I know, I know. Jefferson is only a second-year player who benefitted from playing next to Thielen, who they don’t consider a top-10 receiver and was covered by the opposing team’s top corner. Well, maybe, but he was also constantly double-teamed with safety help over the top in addition to his cornerback. He’s just really good at getting open, catching footballs, and avoiding getting tackled:
It’s curious how EPSN ranked Jefferson behind eight receivers who had fewer yards than he had last year, not to mention eight who had fewer touchdowns than Thielen — and he didn’t even make the honorable mentions list! Can you tell that I’m salty?
While PFF isn’t the end-all-be-all, they are certainly the leaders in the pack when it comes to formal ranking, especially when it comes to starters playing many snaps. Jefferson was the second-ranked receiver, and Thielen was the seventh last season.
NBC ranked the Vikings as the 21st-best team in the NFL, citing the unpredictability of the defense as part of the reason. “Mike Zimmer’s defense has to return to respectability if they want to contend,” wrote Josh Schrock. “If the defense is below average, Kirk Cousins will need to up his game to carry the Vikes to the postseason.”
Well, NBC, no need to worry about the defense because last season was an outlier. So why are the Vikings ranked 21st? Because Cousins will need to step up his game if the defense is below average.
You mean like last season when he threw for a career-high 35 touchdowns and was ranked as a fringe top-10 quarterback? Because Cousins wasn’t the main issue last season, especially after a rough patch with interceptions early in the season. When Minnesota’s defense was ranked bottom six in the league, you can’t say it’s on Cousins to be better.
Besides, if you’re going to criticize any part of the Vikings’ offense, it should be the offensive line. It’s the biggest cause of Cousins’ issues, like fumbling and throws under pressure, even though he’s still damn good under pressure.
Good news, Minnesota invested in their o-line in this year’s draft. PFF ranked the Vikings o-line as the most improved position group in all of the NFL this offseason.
So is it really that far-fetched to think that their o-line will enable the offense to carry this team further this year? That it will no longer hamper an already potent offense.
Cousins’ errors will be alleviated with a better pass-blocking line, and the rest of the offense will be even more productive. Easily the biggest improvement I’m looking forward to is his fumbling issue. Fewer QB pressures = fewer lost fumbles (in theory).
And with an improved line, Irv Smith Jr. will have more chances to display his pass-catching ability without having to worry about protecting Cousins. Smith is one of the key components of this season. Will he be able to fill Kyle Rudolph’s role? Will he prove his flashes weren’t ephemeral? Can he build chemistry with Cousins? There are a lot of questions, but his athleticism and work ethic are not areas for concern.
“For Smith, who is still just 22 years old as his third season approaches, this was a chance to learn from a bunch of the best and most-experienced tight ends in the league. Smith has a big opportunity for a breakout season this year with Kyle Rudolph no longer around,” wrote Will Ragatz of SI’s FanNation.
I have high hopes for Smith, but there are many moving parts to the Vikings’ offense, including Smith’s backup, Tyler Conklin. He filled in for both Smith and Rudolph last year, and he was pretty good for a third-string TE. Luckily he’s now the second-stringer and will help fill the void of the third WR with Smith.
And there’s Dalvin Cook, who’s arguably the best running back in the NFL bar none. He’s undoubtedly the best all-around RB. He’s the duct tape of the offense in the sense that he makes Cousins, the o-line, or the WRs look better no matter if they’re passing or running the ball.
The only RB ranked ahead of Cook by PFF last season was Derrick Henry, and it was only by 1.9 points. That’s a small enough margin that it’s up for debate. And, yes, I know PFF is not perfect, but it is a good way to rank players with a numerical value.
Is a top-five offense too optimistic? I don’t think so because they were rated as the seventh-best offense last year. And besides the chance of a drop-off from Rudolph to Smith, I don’t see one area of the offense that hasn’t improved or at least remained consistent.