This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The 2016 Vikings looked like the class of the NFC during the first quarter of last season, piling up convincing wins over the Packers, Giants, and Texans during a 5-0 start. Still, an ever-fragile offensive line, combined with a defense that faded down the stretch, caused the Vikings to lose eight of their final 11 games and miss the playoffs at 8-8. Considering the team’s decision to part with two draft picks for Sam Bradford following Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending knee injury, failing to make the playoffs was a disappointment in 2016. Serious playoff contention remains the goal this season, and the Vikings hope an extra year of experience and better luck with health will be what it takes to play into January.
Head coach Mike Zimmer, now 61 years old, spent 15 years coaching defenses in college before jumping to the NFL with the mid-1990s Cowboys. Zimmer took over as the team’s defensive backs coach in 1995 before earning the defensive coordinator position in 2000. Zimmer survived the 5-11 Dave Campo era, and in his first year under Bill Parcells he oversaw a defense that was first in yards and second in points allowed.
After Parcells left Dallas, Zimmer was hired as the DC in Atlanta, where he survived the Bobby Petrino experiment before joining the Bengals staff and coordinating the Cincinnati defense for six consecutive seasons (2008-13), overseeing a unit that finished in the top 10 in scoring four times. In 2014, Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier as the Vikings HC, taking over a team that finished fourth in the NFC North and allowed the most points the previous year.
Despite the suspension of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings improved to 7-9 during Zimmer’s first season on the strength of a defense that finished 11th in scoring. The next season Peterson returned with a vengeance, rushing for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns, and the defense finished fifth in scoring as the Vikings advanced to 11-5. In a home playoff game in the wild card, the Vikings held the Seahawks to only 10 points — but lost on a missed 27-yard field goal attempt by Blair Walsh.
In 2016, the Vikings suffered a number of setbacks that seemed to doom their season from the beginning. At the end of August quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending non-contact injury in practice, tearing his ACL and then dislocating his knee. A few days later, the team acquired Sam Bradford from the Eagles for a 2017 first-round pick and a conditional 2018 fourth-rounder. Expected to lean heavily on the running game, Bradford first started for the Vikings in Week 2 — and then running back Adrian Peterson tore the meniscus in his right knee and was placed on the injured reserve with the possibility of returning later in the season.
By the time Peterson returned in Week 15, the team had seen a 5-0 start turn into a 7-6 record, offensive coordinator Norv Turner had resigned, and Zimmer had suffered an eye injury that threatened to blind him. After playing only 12 snaps in Week 15, Peterson missed the next two games, the secondary rebelled against Zimmer’s Week 16 strategy, and the team won a meaningless game against the hapless Bears to finish 8-8. Overall, the Vikings’ seasons was highlighted by 120.6 adjusted games lost due to injuries — the third-highest mark in the league.
After Turner’s departure, tight ends coach Pat Shurmur took over as OC. Not your typical tight ends coach, Shurmur was Bradford’s first OC with the Rams in 2010 and then his OC again with the Eagles in 2015. Given their familiarity with each other, Bradford played much better under Shurmur than Turner:
- With Turner (6 games): 66.5 percent completion rate, 240.3 yards per game, 3.2 sacks per game
- With Shurmur (9): 74.5 percent, 270.6 yards, 2.0 sacks
In 2017, Shurmur is likely to throw the ball. He’s coordinated offenses that are top-12 in passing attempts in each of his three seasons with Bradford, and he should benefit from an entire offseason to work with the quarterback and the offense. Although the team moved at the league’s ninth-slowest pace in 2016, Shurmur had units play at a top-10 pace during stints with the Rams and Browns, and he coordinated the top-paced offense for his three seasons (2013-15) in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. It’s possible that the Vikings might choose to pick up the pace this year.
For the 11th straight season, Peterson will be present for the Vikings’ opening game. It just happens he’ll be playing against them. A lot has changed for this offense in a year:
- QB: Sam Bradford
- RB: Adrian Peterson/Jerick McKinnon/Matt Asiata –> Dalvin Cook/Latavius Murray/McKinnon
- WR: Stefon Diggs
- WR: Adam Thielen
- WR: Cordarrelle Patterson/Charles Johnson –> Laquon Treadwell/Michael Floyd
- TE: Kyle Rudolph
- LT: T.J. Clemmings/Jake Long/Matt Kalil –> Riley Reiff
- LG: Alex Boone
- C: Joe Berger/Nick Easton –> Pat Elflein/Easton
- RG: Brandon Fusco –> Berger
- RT: Jeremiah Sirles/Andre Smith –> Mike Remmers
Cook has worked as the three-down back during the team’s first two preseason games and appears to be well ahead of both Murray and McKinnon on the depth chart. The team hopes Treadwell can live up to his first-round price after a one-catch rookie campaign. Zimmer said Floyd looked “pretty dang good” during training camp, and he could work in the team’s three-wide sets if Treadwell fails to impress during his four-game suspension.
Last year the offensive line ranked as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-worst unit. It didn’t help that Week 1 tackles Kalil and Smith collectively played in only six games. PFF’s No. 46 tackle last season, Reiff signed a five-year deal worth $58.75 million to start at lest tackle. Third-round pick Elflein is the frontrunner to start at center over Easton, and the team hopes Berger will be an upgrade at right guard, where he’s previously played. Remmers was signed away from the Panthers and should provide some stability to a previously volatile right tackle situation.
The Vikings were one of just three teams to average less than 1.0 yard before contact per rush last season, and they were bottom-three in runs stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage, second-level yards, and open-field yards per carry. Their rushing offense was last in the league, but with the additions of Cook and Murray and three offensive linemen, they should be better at running the ball this year.
The Vikings return most of same pieces from a defense (coordinated by George Edwards) that allowed 15.8 points per game during their first eight games compared to 22.6 during the second half of the season:
- DE: Everson Griffen
- DT: Linval Joseph
- DT: Shamar Stephen –> Stephen/Tom Johnson
- DE: Brian Robison/Danielle Hunter
- OLB: Anthony Barr
- MLB: Eric Kendricks
- OLB: Chad Greenway –> Emmanuel Lamur/Ben Gedeon
- CB: Xavier Rhodes
- CB: Terrance Newman/Trae Waynes
- SCB: Captain Munnerlyn –> Mackensie Alexander
- SS: Andrew Sendejo/Anthony Harris –> Sendejo
- FS: Harrison Smith
The trio of Robison (7.5 sacks), Griffen (8.0 sacks) and Hunter (12.5 sacks) provides plenty of pressure off the edge, while Johnson will look to boost an interior defense headlined by Joseph, PFF’s No. 14 overall interior defender last season. Barr has yet to live up to his potential, and the combination of career-backup Lamur and fourth-rounder Gedeon could have a tough time replacing the Vikings’ second all-time leading tackler in Greenway.
The secondary should remain a strength, although the former second-round pick Alexander will need to prove he’s capable of replacing the departed Munnerlyn. Overall, PFF ranks the Vikings secondary as the eighth-best unit entering the 2017 season. Rhodes showed flashes of being an elite shadow corner in 2016, and the ageless Newman is expected to continue to split time with Waynes.
Overblown preseason C-Patz hype will have to wait. Your 2017 Vikings:
Sam Bradford, QB
Bradford exceeded all reasonable expectations in Minnesota last season, taking over the offense in Week 2 and proceeding to break the single-season completion percentage record (71.6 percent) while posting a 20/5 touchdown/interception ratio. That said, he was still Bradford. In all of NFL history, no quarterback has completed as many passes as Bradford’s 395 while throwing for less than his 3,877 yards and 20 touchdowns. Bradford has ranked among the bottom-four quarterbacks in average target distance in each of his past three seasons, and he averaged a league-low -1.7 average air yards to the sticks in 2016 (Next Gen Stats). Translation: No quarterback in the league consistently threw the ball farther behind the first-down marker on third down than Bradford. He doesn’t take risks, and that’s not a virtue.
Bradford’s reluctance to throw the ball downfield is maddening given the success he’s had doing so. The fourth-most accurate quarterback on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield last season, Bradford had a 121.5 quarterback rating on deep passes, trailing only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. The Vikings top-three receivers dropped only two of Bradford’s 21 catchable deep balls thrown their way, yet he joined Trevor Siemian, Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Colin Kaepernick, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, and Cody Kessler as the only quarterbacks to throw fewer than 3.5 deep ball per game last season.
The Vikings offensive line didn’t help Bradford’s cause, but he still took 67 percent of his dropbacks under no pressure last season. Bradford hasn’t consistently exhibited the desire to take chances downfield, and this meekness has historically put a relatively low ceiling on his and teammates’ fantasy potential. Last season he was the QB23 and QB24 on DraftKings and FanDuel. Bradford had an outlier season — with career-high marks in yards, adjusted yards per attempt, and completion percentage — and he was still just mediocre. He’s an uninspiring selection at his average draft position of 166.2 in DRAFT best ball leagues.
As a daily fantasy option, Bradford was unsurprisingly average with 15.86 DraftKings points per game (PPG), a +0.68 Plus/Minus, and a 46.7 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). Within division, however, Bradford was better than awful, averaging 18.30 DraftKings PPG with a +3.04 Plus/Minus on a 0.8 percent ownership rate in large-field guaranteed prize pools. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players this year will take advantage of the ownership discount Bradford offered in 2016 against divisional opponents. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Vikings against the Packers, Lions, and Bears.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB
Bridgewater is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but it’s possible he could return at some point this year. When that happens, though, he will likely be a backup. In his two years ‘leading’ the offense, the Vikings were 28th and 31st in passing yards even though Breidgewater has a 64.9 percent completion rate. It’s possible that he’s even more conservative with the ball than Bradford.
Dalvin Cook, RB
Cook balled out in each of his three seasons at Florida State. The first freshman Seminole ever to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing, he accumulated 4,188 scrimmage yards and 40 touchdowns as a sophomore and junior. In his final season he led the Football Bowl Subdivision in elusive rating (PFF). Still, he has some red flags. Cook fumbled 14 times in 763 touches and graded out as PFF’s second-worst pass-blocking back among the top 15 backs in the draft. Cook’s speed (4.49-second 40) is more than respectable, but poor agility (7.27-second three-cone) and burst (116.0-inch broad) suggest that Cook is a limited athlete with a 33rd percentile SPARQ-x score (PlayerProfiler).
Despite his athleticism, it’s hard not to be excited about what he’s capable of achieving as a rookie. The Vikings have talked up his pass-blocking and receiving ability during training camp, and Cook has been the team’s featured back during the preseason. His 49.6 DRAFT ADP is an acceptable price for a second-round rookie with his collegiate production and three-down capacity. The Vikings offensive line was terrible at run blocking last season, but Cook’s ability to create explosive plays is welcome in an offense that struggled to get anything from its running backs last season.
At +900 to win the Rookie of the Year award, Cook offers some great value in comparison to frontrunners Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and DeShaun Watson at +400.
Latavius Murray, RB
The Raiders have had a top-six PFF offensive line in each of the past two seasons, but Murray still failed to average over four yards per carry (YPC). His 12 touchdowns (nine from inside the five-yard line) certainly helped his overall production last year, but rookie backups DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard each managed at least 5.4 YPC on 80-plus attempts. Murray is a fine receiver and great pass blocker, but he’s demonstrated an inability to create missed tackles (ninth-worst elusive rating among all running backs with 150-plus carries) and explosive plays (Washington and Richard combined for 14 runs of 15-plus yards compared to eight from Murray).
Murray signed a three-year, $15-million deal with the Vikings and will have a role in the offense, likely as a goal-line vulture given his elite size (6’3″ and 223 lbs.). Still, he enters a significantly worse situation and will need to replicate his elite goal-line scoring from last season to hold much fantasy relevance. Murray has only four 100-yard rushing games over the past two seasons, and he needed at least 20 carries to cross that threshold on each occasion. Don’t expect Murray to get that kind of volume in Minnesota without an injury to Cook.
Jerick McKinnon, RB
The one-time heir to Peterson, McKinnon has never developed into a reliable NFL player. Despite his draft pedigree (96th pick, 2014) and athleticism (100th percentile SPARQ-x score, PlayerProfiler), McKinnon has rarely seen fantasy-friendly opportunities, and last year he underwhelmed as a runner (3.4 YPC) and receiver (1.01 yards per route run, YPRR). He’s averaged a middling 11.97 DraftKings PPG in his nine career games with 15-plus carries. In the last year of his rookie contract, he’s little more than a change-of-pace back as long as Cook and Murray stay healthy.
Stefon Diggs, WR
The No. 8 overall college recruit in the 2012 class, Diggs never put up gaudy raw numbers at Maryland, but he did have strong age-adjusted market share, and he displayed his explosiveness as both a runner and return man. An early entrant to the NFL, Diggs at the combine exhibited a Randall Cobb-esque profile (4.46-second 40 at 6’0″ and 195 lbs.) and was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. A strong route runner who has been slowed by injury issues ever since he entered college, Diggs was productive as a rookie with a 52-720-4 receiving line in 13 games and was on fire for the first three games of 2016 (20-325-1) before suffering in Week 4 a groin injury that slowed him down for the rest of the year. Playing primarily outside in Weeks 1-4, Diggs shifted to the slot upon returning in Week 7 and was good but much less dynamic:
- Weeks 1-4 (outside): 10.9 yards per target (YPT)
- Weeks 7-16 (slot): 6.81 YPT
Diggs is reportedly playing more outside this preseason as Thielen mans the slot. As long as Diggs stays healthy, his 2016 volume (12th in hog rate, PlayerProfiler) and efficiency (17th in fantasy points per snap) suggest that he has top-12 positional upside as Bradford’s go-to receiver. Since 2009, Shurmur’s No. 1 receiver has averaged a respectable 118.5 targets per year. He has significant upside at his 56.9 DRAFT ADP.
Adam Thielen, WR
An undrafted free agent in 2013 out of Minnesota State in Division II, Thielen was a market share stud in college, capturing 49.6 and 42.1 percent of his team’s receiving yards and touchdowns in his final season and pitching in with a punt return score. Showing a slot receiver’s athletic profile at his pro day with his size (6’0″ and 192 lbs.), speed (4.49-second 40), and agility (6.77-second three-cone), Thielen caught on with the local Vikings and served as special teams player for his first two seasons before breaking out in Week 5 last year with a 7-127-1 receiving line in the absence of Diggs. From that point on, he averaged 14.81 DraftKings PPG with a strong +6.02 Plus/Minus on only a 3.6 percent ownership rate, and for the season Thielen had an elite 75.0 percent catch rate and was top-five with 10.5 YPT and 2.13 fantasy points per target. Thielen averaged an additional 1.1 targets per game with Diggs out of the lineup last season and would likely be the primary beneficiary were Diggs to miss games. His inconsistent usage (five or fewer targets in 11 of 16 games) makes him an uncertain every-week fantasy player but he’s a tempting GPP play with his boom-or-bust production and a strong Diggs handcuff at his 111.2 DRAFT ADP.
Laquon Treadwell, WR
The nation’s consensus No. 1 wide receiver recruit in 2013, Treadwell did well as a true freshman at Mississippi (72-608-5) but missed a portion of his sophomore season to a gruesome leg injury. As a junior, though, he returned and produced a raw stat line of 82-1,153-11 in 13 games. Although his market share was unimpressive (27.3 and 32.4 percent of receiving yards and touchdowns), Treadwell forced 17 missed tackles (PFF) and showed great ability to win contested catches. At his pro day, Treadwell looked like a possession receiver with his big size (6’2″ and 217 lbs.) and slow speed (4.64-second 40), but he nevertheless was selected with the 23rd overall pick last year. Unable to beat out Patterson, Johnson, and even Jarius Wright for playing time, Treadwell was massively disappointing as a rookie, earning only three targets all year. Playing this preseason with the first-team offense as the third receiver, Treadwell has a chance to earn a large portion of Patterson and Johnson’s 107 vacated targets. His ability is in doubt, but at least this year dynasty investors should get the opportunity to see what kind of asset their holding.
Michael Floyd, WR
Floyd will miss the first four games of the year due to suspension, but the former first-rounder has the best size (6’3″ and 220 lbs.), athleticism (4.47-second 40), and single-season NFL production (65-1,041-5 in 2013) on the team. Plagued by off-the-field issues since college, Floyd is now on his third team within the last 12 months. If Treadwell disappoints — which is entirely possible — Floyd could emerge as the team’s third receiver and perhaps function as a significant red-zone target: Over the last four seasons he’s averaged 5.5 touchdowns on 94.3 targets per year. He has some Black Swan upside.
Kyle Rudolph, TE
It took six years, but Rudolph’s long-awaited breakout season finally came in 2016. With a career-high 132 targets, Rudolph was in the top five at his position in catches (83), yards (840), and touchdowns (7). His 22.6 percent target share was the second-highest mark among all tight ends, and he trailed only Jordy Nelson with his 24 red-zone targets. Rudolph has always possessed rare receiving ability for a tight end of his size (6’6″ and 259 lbs.), and he seems likely to continue to receive plenty of attention from Bradford and Shurmur. With a DRAFT ADP of 85.4, Rudolph offers as much volume and touchdown upside as one could hope for from a late-round tight end.
The Vikings 2017 win total currently sits at 8.5 wins with the over and under both at -115. They’re +160 to make the playoffs and -200 not to. With an improved offensive line, the seventh-easiest schedule of the season (Warren Sharp, Rotoworld), and a top-10 defense, the Vikings offer value on both the over and the playoffs. They’re +4000 to win the Super Bowl, +1,600 to win the NFC, and +325 to win the NFC North. The Vikings won the division in 2015 and went toe-to-toe with the Seahawks in the playoffs. They’re a sneaky pseudo-long shot to make the Super Bowl.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Vikings Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.