2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,529 (20th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 39 (17th)
Offensive Plays: 1,003 (21st)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 646 (7th)
Rush Attempts: 357 (27th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 61 (27th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 140 (12th)
Mike Zimmer had seen enough. After 13 games of averaging 40 passes and just 17 rushes, Zimmer made the desperate decision to fire OC John DeFilippo last Week 15. Zimmer’s action followed weeks of words about wanting to run the ball more. Interim OC Kevin Stefanski got the message, averaging 24 runs and 27 throws across his three weeks of play-calling. Zimmer liked what he saw, removing Stefanski’s interim tag a mere 10 days after the season ended. He quickly went further, adding zone-blocking demigod Gary Kubiak as an “offensive advisor” before signing off on center Garrett Bradbury’s selection at No. 18 overall. In case there was any doubt as to Zimmer’s intentions, he put a fine point on them in March. “We want to be great running the football,” Zimmer said. “It’s time of possession, it’s controlling the game, it’s the mentality, the physicality of all that. If you look at the teams that played really good on offense (last) year, or the final four teams or whatever you want to call them, they ran the ball.”
That the Vikings are establishing the run after giving Kirk Cousins the first fully guaranteed contract in NFL history could be considered an incongruency, though Cousins certainly fueled Zimmer’s ground-obsessed fire in 2018. Playing behind a bottom-five offensive line, Cousins posted new career highs in completion percentage (70.1) and touchdowns (30) but fell apart in the second half of the season. Cousins averaged just 222 yards across games 9-16, finishing below 250 five times. Three of those performances came before DeFilippo was fired. Cousins also got worse as games wore on, with his completion percentage declining each quarter, from 76.1 in the first to 67.3 in the fourth. 12 of Cousins’ 40 sacks came in the final period, as did four of his 10 picks. With the Vikings’ season on the line in Week 17, Cousins managed all of 132 yards against a Bears team that was basically already locked into the No. 3 seed, giving it little to play for.
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On the whole, Cousins was not bad. He was just painfully average, which should not have been the case for a quarterback with an historic contract and arguably the league’s top receiver duo in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Even as Stefanski maintains the “coordinator” title, Kubiak’s addition will be huge. Both an offensive line and quarterback “whisperer,” Kubiak has extracted big years out of lesser talents than Cousins. For his part, Cousins — who has generally excelled at play fakes — wants to run even more play action. “Play action is just effective, period,” Cousins said over the summer. “You got to call it more.” Unsurprisingly, Stefanski reportedly made it a point of emphasis in spring practice. Kubiak loves play action. Cousins won’t eclipse 600 attempts again, but increased overall offensive effectiveness should keep him in the QB16-20 range.
Beyond the coaching staff, it will be Thielen and Diggs who must power a better 2019 for Cousins. Coming off his third-straight career year — 113/1,373/9 to be exact — Thielen landed a four-year, $64 million pay day in the offseason. Like Cousins, Thielen’s performance tailed in the second half of 2018. After opening the season with a record-setting eight-consecutive 100-yard efforts, Thielen saw his yards per game plunge from 116 in the first half to 56 in the second. That slow finish combined with Zimmer’s run-first mandate would seem to portend a quieter 2019, though Thielen’s target share — 26 percent over the past two years — is unlikely to decline for an offense that did not make meaningful additions to its top-heavy receiver corps. Efficient as ever — Thielen’s 73.8 catch percentage was 10th in the league last season — he should continue to produce in the WR8-12 range.
The outlook remains sunny for Diggs, as well. Like Thielen, Diggs continues to reach new career heights with each passing year, culminating with a 102/1,021/9 campaign last season. Diggs also managed to appear in a career-best 15 games. The numbers were slightly disappointing in the context of Diggs’ 149 targets, which were tied for ninth. Despite all those looks, his raw yards were 20th, and his 10.0 yards per catch a distant 99th. Diggs was used closer to the line of scrimmage than in 2017, helping to explain his cratered YPC and depressed yardage total. Stefanski and Kubiak have talked of changing that. Still somehow only 25 years old, Diggs and his YAC threat enter the season with a WR14-18 floor. A dynamic playmaker who could see improved play design and usage from Stefanski/Kubiak, Diggs arguably maintains a higher ceiling than Thielen.
One reason Thielen and Diggs remain locked into their lofty fantasy positions is the lack of target competition behind them. Perennial disappointment Laquon Treadwell is on the 53-man roster chopping block, and “top” holdover Chad Beebe is a second-year UDFA who is already 25 years old. Beebe did earn raves from Thielen for his work in offseason practice — “he moves unlike anyone I’ve ever seen” — while his top comp on PlayerProfiler.com is Wes Welker. April signing Jordan Taylor could still win the No. 3 job by default. Behind Taylor, Beebe and Treadwell are seventh-rounders Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson, both of whom will be 2019 nonentities. A college underachiever before a breakout 2018, Mitchell does offer some dynasty league appeal.
At tight end, the lack of a legitimate No. 3 wideout keeps workmanlike veteran Kyle Rudolph and intriguing second-rounder Irv Smith in the target mix. After appearing certain to be traded or released, Rudolph is back after signing a June "extension" that cleared some cap space and provided a modest 2019 raise. $0 of Rudolph’s 2020 salary is guaranteed. Rudolph did manage to post the second-best reception (64) and yardage (634) totals of his career last year. The effects were hard to feel in fantasy thanks to an anemic four touchdowns, leaving Rudolph with a TE12 finish by average points in PPR and TE17 in standard.
The No. 50 overall pick, Smith enters the league with a play-making pedigree. He averaged 16.1 yards per catch as a 2018 junior at Alabama and generated a 157.7 passer rating when targeted, the best amongst SEC tight ends. Smith did underwhelm at the Combine, undercutting his 4.63 forty with a sluggish three-cone time (7.32). On college tape, Smith showed limited agility and post-catch shake. Extremely young — he doesn’t turn 21 until August — Smith is unlikely to make notable re-draft contributions as a rookie, though he figures to have a negative one on Rudolph, who can ill afford any lost volume. Smith is an intriguing dynasty league stash.
With Kubiak — who has also brought along his son, Klint, and longtime top assistant Rick Dennison — in tow, the emphasis will be on refining and improving the Vikings’ zone-blocking attack. It’s a task Kubiak has never failed at. His sheer presence alone upgrades the offensive line. Dalvin Cook remains in the lead after two injury-marred years. The No. 41 overall pick of the 2017 draft had a much needed hot finish last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and 104 yards from scrimmage over the final month. Cook remains unproven as a bell-cow back — he notched more than 10 carries just five times in 11 2018 appearances — but his upside under Kubiak’s tutelage is palpable. Cook is generally being drafted on the RB1/2 fringe this summer, which is the appropriate spot for a back with an uncertain floor but clear path to big workloads and yardage totals.
Backing up Cook — a vital position considering Cook’s injury history — will be No. 102 overall pick Alexander Mattison. Not an explosive, big-play back at Boise State, Mattison ran 4.67 at the Combine and didn’t stand out in the three-cone drill (7.13). Just nine of his 302 carries last season gained 15 or more yards (three percent). Mattison’s smooth passing-game skills enhance his outlook. He should slide right into Latavius Murray’s vacated “1B” role, giving him low-end standalone value in deeper leagues. In the event Mattison flops, second-year UDFA Mike Boone, an outstanding athlete, will be the next man up.
You will find the Vikings’ total hovering around nine. The over feels attainable. The Packers are breaking in a new coach, and the Bears feel bound to regress off a 12-win 2018 that was fueled by historic defense. The Lions are the Lions. By 2018 winning percentage, the schedule is tough. The Vikings have drawn the AFC West for out of conference play, including trips to Kansas City and Los Angeles (Chargers). At the end of the day, there is too much talent here — both on the field and sideline — for the Vikes not to bounce back to double digits. It’s not scientific, of course, but that has been Zimmer’s M.O. in Minnesota, posting win totals of seven, 11, eight, 13 and eight. He seems to have made the right adjustments to keep the trend going.