Welcome to Vantage Points, a column I will be writing weekly during the NFL season as a window into every game of the week. With access limited more than ever this year and with no preseason games for us to put our own eyes on, I have the utmost respect for sportswriters covering the NFL on a daily basis, giving us a window into what these teams might look like and where their strengths and weaknesses — beyond the obvious — lie.
The purpose of this column is to highlight the work of those writers, but to also turn some of their observations into actionable fantasy advice. The goal isn’t just to highlight obvious angles, but perhaps some of the lower-end ones that could lead to fantasy advantages. I’m also taking advantage of watching press conferences and reading transcripts from coaches and players, as well as using stats to back up narratives and look for fantasy-relevant angles. I’ll also cover notable injuries.
I will publish this column twice weekly — on Wednesdays to preview the Thursday night game, and on Fridays to preview the Sunday slate.
All times are Eastern.
Minnesota at New Orleans (Christmas Day, 4:30 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
At this stage, the Vikings are almost certain to miss the playoffs — FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 2% chance to sneak in at this point. But as we transition to the 2021 season, I think it’s important to note that the offense was not to blame for Minnesota’s struggles.
Per Sharp Football Stats, no team in the NFL created explosive plays at a higher rate than Minnesota (13%). That included a 15% explosive run rate (3rd, behind Cleveland and Seattle) and a 10% explosive pass rate (8th). Only Julio Jones (24%) created an explosive play more frequently than rookie WR Justin Jefferson (21%).
One thing that Minnesota must focus on this off-season is pass protection — according to Football Outsiders, the Vikings had the NFL’s 7th-worst pass-protecting offensive line despite it’s top run-blocking line. Too often, sacks killed drives for Minnesota and QB Kirk Cousins. And as The Athletic’s Chad Graff points out, OC Gary Kubiak would occasionally commit too much to the run, even with Minnesota down multiple scores. Minnesota’s pass pro could get a big boost this week if Saint DE Trey Hendrickson (neck — questionable) can’t play.
Though Graff argues that Minnesota should now take opportunity to give RB Dalvin Cook a breather, that might be hard this week with Alexander Mattison in concussion protocol and out for this game. FB CJ Ham (quad) is questionable for this week.
The Vikings will be without TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) for the third consecutive game. In the piece linked above, Graff notes that the Vikings could save big money — $5.1 million — if they cut Rudolph prior to June 1. Rudolph might have already taken his last snap in a Viking uniform.
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
Minnesota’s defense — 15th in FootballOutsiders DVOA — has been the biggest problem for the Vikings so far, and it’s likely a good spot for QB Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense to bounce back after a rusty performance last week, in which Brees opened 0/6 with an interception and a sack taken before completing a single pass (which didn’t come until the second quarter).
Ultimately, Brees went 15/34 passing — a 44.12% completion rate. It was his first time completing fewer than 60% of his passes since Week 4 of 2018. It was his first time completing fewer than 50% of his passes since Week 6 of 2013. So yeah, he was rusty coming off a four-game absence with 11 broken ribs. It also didn’t help that he was down WR Michael Thomas, who is also out this week (he’s on IR), and Tre’Quan Smith (ankle) won’t play either, as he landed on IR too.
So Brees will likely be throwing to Emmanuel Sanders and Lil’Jordan Humphrey on the perimeter, though Marquez Callaway (knee) has been designated to return from IR and could play this week, as he was added to the active roster. That would be big for the Saints’ receivers because…
… in defense of Brees, who was likely playing through a lot of pain, The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan noted in his observations from last week’s game that his WRs struggled to gain separation all day. Nonetheless, it was an encouraging sign that Brees completed a pass that traveled 48 yards through the air to Sanders, which Duncan noted was “by far” his longest of the season.
As for Sanders, it’s worth pointing out that Viking outside CB Cam Dantzler is PFF’s highest-graded CB over the last eight weeks. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for a rookie.
The Saints will be down C Nick Easton (concussion), a blow to their run game. However, the Vikings are down two LBs — Eric Kendricks (calf) and Todd Davis (ribs).
The Saints can clinch the NFC South with a win (or a Bucs loss) in either of their final two games, by the way. They have beaten the Bucs twice, so they have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Minnesota is a narrow fantasy team. Play Cook, Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. Cousins is a viable streamer, though this is a tough matchup, and I can sign off on TE Irv Smith with Rudolph out.
For New Orleans, things look rough. They simply don’t have a lot of talent. Brees is a high-end QB2, with Sanders checking in as a WR3. Callaway is a prayer FLEX and single-game DFS option.