2019 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,656 (16th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 46 (tied 8th)
Offensive Plays: 970 (27th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 494 (30th)
Rush Attempts: 476 (4th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 110 (14th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 5 (30th)
After just one full season as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski departed to lead the Cleveland Browns out of the depths of NFL incompetence. So who did Minnesota pick to replace the 38-year old Stefanski? 58-year old Gary Kubiak, who returned to the NFL last season after two years away, working as the Vikings’ assistant head coach and offensive advisor. I’d suggest a different title - run game wizard, as he helped launch the team’s rushing attack (backfield + run blocking) into one of the league’s best units. The trust is already there between head coach Mike Zimmer and Kubiak, as Zimmer credited the latter as the major reason for selecting C Garrett Bradbury in the first-round of the 2019 draft. As cocoon coordinators go, Stefanski was on the cutting edge in terms of understanding the importance of play action and recognizing that rushing success is not imperative in order for play action to be effective. The Vikings ranked 6th in the NFL last season with 31.4% of their pass attempts qualifying as play action. The Kubiak-led Broncos ranked 16th and 26th in play action percentage in 2015 and 2016. Has the old dog learned new tricks?
After completing two seasons of his three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract, Kirk Cousins signed a two-year extension with the Vikings for another $66 million and keeps him under team control through 2022. From a counting stats perspective, Cousins is coming off his best two seasons as a pro since his 2016 campaign, one that was led by coach Jay Gruden and OC Sean McVay. Stefanski and Kubiak clearly identified Cousins’ strengths and focused on those - namely the play action passing game. As previously stated, 31.4% of Cousins’ passes were thrown off of play action, the 6th highest rate in the league. His yards per attempt increased by 2.3 yards and he tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns on those throws. Not to mention that Cousins also set career high marks in QB rating, interception rate and touchdown rate. Typically this would add up to the type of quarterback we would target in fantasy drafts - but Cousins simply does not hold the volume necessary to be a ceiling play at the position. His 444 attempts last season were a five-year low, and he offers zero rushing upside to counteract it. Over the last four seasons Cousins has ranked no lower than seventh in touchdowns off deep throws. Stefon Diggs accounted for six of Cousins’ nine touchdowns off 20-plus yard throws last season, which actually led all WRs. Who is set to replace that element of this passing attack? Ultimately that resulted in Cousins finishing as the QB17 in fantasy points per game last season, and he should be viewed as a QB2 moving forward.
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Adam Thielen’s injury-filled 2019 led to a WR42 finish in fantasy points per game. That down year now makes Thielen a great value at his current WR13 ADP - in 2017 Thielen was the WR11 in fantasy points per game, and the WR6 in 2018. Both seasons included incredible volume and opportunity for Thielen, as he saw the ninth-most targets among wide receivers in 2017 (142), and the sixth most in 2018 (153). Projecting that type of season-long volume for a receiver is typically a mistake waiting to happen, but for Thielen it is practically expected. That 25-27% market share of team targets could jump to land him among the league leaders, like Michael Thomas, in the range of 30% due to the departure of Stefon Diggs. And if we consider Cousins’ 444 attempts last season, that places Thielen in a projected range of 133 targets in 2020. The floor is obvious for Thielen due to massive volume, but his ceiling likely rests on his touchdown output - an area he was extraordinary in last season, scoring seven total touchdowns on just 34 combined touches.
The Vikings received the No. 22 overall pick from the Bills in exchange for Stefon Diggs, and immediately used that selection on WR Justin Jefferson. No pressure, rookie. Jefferson was a volume vacuum in Joe Brady’s passing offense, catching a whopping 111 of the 134 targets he received in 15 games - tying for the most catches among FBS WRs, recording the second most touchdown grabs with 18 and ranking third in the nation with 1,540 receiving yards. So how was this level of production achieved, and can it immediately be copied by the Vikings? Jefferson accumulated 870 slot snaps in 2019 and just five snaps as an outside receiver. 109 of Jefferson’s 111 receptions originated out of the slot. We love slot receivers in fantasy football, as space and opportunity can be manufactured for them… but the Vikings might be different. Minnesota utilized three receiver sets on just 25% of their snaps last season, which easily placed them last in the league, more than 10% behind the next closest team (Arizona). In order for Jefferson to hit, the Vikings either need to change their approach and incorporate more 11 personnel or Jefferson contributes as an outside receiver, an area he was asked to operate in more often in 2018 but might not be his strength. Jefferson’s current ADP in the WR5 range makes this a no-lose situation, even if he does post middling production in his first year.
While the Vikings did rank last in the NFL in three receiver sets, they did utilize two tight end personnel groupings 34% of the time, the second highest rate in the league. The Eagles led the NFL at 52% and produced the TE5 (Zach Ertz) and TE12 (Dallas Goedert) in fantasy points per game because of it. The Vikings managed just the TE19 (Kyle Rudolph) and TE40 (Irv Smith Jr.). We know what Kyle Rudolph is by now, a touchdown-dependent red zone target. Irv Smith is more intriguing, as his role grew dramatically over the course of 2019. In games 1-7 Smith Jr. was on the field for 49.8% of the team’s snaps. In games 8-15, that increased to 70.1%. If Gary Kubiak keeps the same emphasis on 12 personnel, it is highly possible that Smith Jr. receives the third most targets on the team behind Thielen and Dalvin Cook. He currently sits at the end of the TE2 tier and is being drafted as the TE24.
RB: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah
OL (L-R): Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, Dakota Dozier, Brian O’Neill
The only shortcoming that has stood in the way of Dalvin Cook and complete backfield domination is durability. He has seen the field for 29 of a possible 48 games during his three year career and has never completed a full 16-game season. ACL, hamstring, and recurring shoulder ailments are to blame. But now for the positives - Cook played in a career-high 14 regular season games last season, finishing as the overall RB2 in fantasy points per game. His number of avoided tackles (42, 12th) and average yards after contact (3.06, 26th) weren’t even among the leaders at his position - they don’t need to be, as Gary Kubiak’s system is based on vision, timing and explosion - exactly where Cook shines. As a whole, Cook captured 63% of the team’s backfield carries (250) and 60% of the backfield receptions (53) last season. He should be drafted among the top five at his position and offers RB1 overall upside if he plays an entire 16-game season.
In early June, Adam Schefter reported Cook will not participate in any team activities until he receives a new contract, as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. The Vikings initially offered $10 million per year. Cook wants closer to $13 million. Due to the new CBA, Cook has no real leverage in this situation - if he wants to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season, he must participate in team activities. A holdout would result in Cook becoming a restricted free agent following his fourth season, but who knows what rules might be different for a COVID-19-era training camp. If Cook does miss time, Alexander Mattison launches directly into the top twelve RB conversation on a weekly basis. On a per carry basis, Mattison basically equaled Cook’s output - yards per carry, yards after contact, broken tackle rate, etc. Because of that, I attempt to exit every single fantasy draft with Mattison on my team. His current ADP as the RB46 makes that achievable.
Win Total 8.5
After winning 10 games last season, the Vikings win total was set at 8.5 for 2020. This team boasts superstars on both sides of the ball and despite employing two “new” coordinators to lead the offense and defense, both have strong ties to this organization and roster. Still, the Vikings ran hot last year. Perhaps their secondary improves in 2020, the cornerback play certainly can’t be worse. But the same formula without Stefon Diggs could easily produce different results in the win/loss columns. 8-8 feels right, especially with an end of season schedule that includes the Bucs, Saints and Lions on the road in three of the final four games.