2021 Franchise Focus: Minnesota Vikings

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2021 Franchise Focus: Minnesota Vikings

We love the Vikings when it comes to fantasy purposes — their extremely narrow distribution of carries and targets, or, better yet, XFP, makes things easy on us in terms of projecting fantasy points. And in such a consistently efficient and productive offense, it helps make three — their key three — players stand out in a big way for fantasy.

Dalvin Cook is going to run the ball a lot. Most of Kirk Cousins’ targets will be filtered to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. The two-TE sets starring Irv Smith will still be a major factor, but with Tyler Conklin replacing the departed Kyle Rudolph, don’t expect much to change for him.

The one area the Vikings could improve is along the offensive line, where they hope rookie first-round pick Christian Darrisaw is going to make an instant impact at left tackle. If so, this fantasy-friendly machine should continue to produce like a top-12 offense — top-12 in points per drive and points per game in each of the last two seasons — and might even be a bit better this year.

Minnesota Vikings Franchise Focus Companion Podcast

The Basics

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)9 (+110/-133)
NFC North+225
Playoffs (Y/N)+120/-150
NFC Championship+2200
Super Bowl+5000

Season Prop Movement

  • Win Total: 8.5 (+123) in late March to 9 (+110)

  • Super Bowl: +4000 in early February to +5000

Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.

Key Offseason Moves

AdditionsDraftDepartures
Mason Cole (OC)Kellen Mond (QB)Riley Reiff (OT, Cin)
Dede Westbrook (WR)Christian Darrisaw (OT)Mike Boone (RB, Den)
Blake Proehl (WR)Wyatt Davis (OG)Kyle Rudolph (TE, NYG)
Whop Philyor (WR)Kene Nwangwu (RB)Shamar Stephen (DT, Den)
Dalvin Tomlinson (DT)Ihmir Smith-Marsette (WR)Ifeadi Odenigbo (DE, NYG)
Sheldon Richardson (DT)Zach Davidson (TE)Todd Davis (ILB)
Jordon Scott (DT)Patrick Jones (DE)Hardy Nickerson (ILB, Hou)
Stephen Weatherly (DE)Janarius Robinson (DE)Eric Wilson (OLB, Phi)
Tuf Borland (ILB)Chazz Surratt (ILB)Holton Hill (CB)
Nick Vigil (OLB)Camryn Bynum (S)Cordrea Tankersley (CB)
Bashaud Breeland (CB)Mark Fields (CB, SF)
Patrick Peterson (CB)Anthony Harris (S, Phi)
Mackensie Alexander (CB)
Tye Smith (CB)
Amari Henderson (CB)
Xavier Woods (S)

Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule

Quarterback: 16th-softest (+0.01)

Running Back: 16th-toughest (+0.18)

Wide Receivers: 12th-toughest (-0.43)

Tight Ends: 6th-toughest (-0.50)

Pace and Tendencies

Pace (seconds in between plays): 28.4 (T-24th)

Plays per game: 63.4 (18th)

When the game is within a score — Pass: 50.3% (30th) | Run: 49.7% (3rd)

When the team is ahead — Pass: 43.0% (28th) | Run: 57.0% (5th)

When the team is behind — Pass: 62.5% (23rd) | Run: 37.5% (10th)

While the NFL continues to trend more and more pass-heavy, it’s always refreshing to see a team take a contrarian approach and do it well. The Vikings center their offense around their workhorse Dalvin Cook, and their high-volume rushing attack allows them to set up play-action for a more efficient passing game. Not only were the Vikings top-5 in run rate when the game was within a score and when they were leading, they went a whopping 60% run-heavy inside of the red-zone. That was the second-highest rate in the league. With an improved defense in 2021, the Vikings might be able to lean even heavier on their run-first ways. After Gary Kubiak retired this offseason, the team simply promoted his son, Klint Kubiak, to fill the post. Obviously, the younger Kubiak will be heavily influenced by his dad’s legendary zone-running scheme but Klint has spent time learning from the legendary Norv Turner and Browns HC Kevin Stefanski, too. For perspective, a Gary Kubiak-led offense has ranked top-seven in rushing yards in a whopping 15 of 24 (63%) career seasons.

Key Statistics

  • Justin Jefferson just posted the fourth-most fantasy points (17.1) and second-most yards (87.5) per game by a rookie wide receiver all-time.

  • Keep in mind, Jefferson wasn’t a full-time player until Week 3. From that point on, Jefferson averaged 95 yards and 18.4 FPG.

  • From Week 3 on, Jefferson received 28% of the team’s targets and 41% of the team’s total air yards. Adam Thielen saw 23% of the targets and 31% of the air yards.

  • Among the 40 receivers to see at least 25 targets that went 15+ yards in air, Jefferson saw the highest amount of catchable targets (77%). Tee Higgins was second (76%).

  • While Jefferson clearly emerged as the WR1, Thielen was the preferred red-zone weapon. Thielen had 13 targets inside of the 10-yard line while Jefferson had two.

  • Per PFF, Thielen led the league in end-zone targets with 20.

  • Thielen just became the sixth-receiver in the last 25 years to score double-digit TDs from the red zone in a single-season. The other five were Davante Adams (2020), Carl Pickens (1995), Randy Moss (2007), and Allen Robinson (2015).

  • Kirk Cousins was pressured on 39% of his dropbacks per PFF, which was the third-highest rate in the league.

  • Cousins’ passer rating when pressured was 72.0, 12th-best.

  • Per SIS, Cousins led the league in passer rating vs. man coverage (128.2). He was second-best in YPA vs. man (8.6) behind only Patrick Mahomes (8.8).

  • On the flipside, Cousins was 22nd in passer rating vs. zone (91.0).

  • All 13 of Cousins’ interceptions came against zone.

  • Dalvin Cook had one of the most consistent seasons by a running back in recent memory by finishing as an RB2 or better (top-24 in weekly scoring) in all 14 of his starts.

  • Cook had at least 80 scrimmage yards or a touchdown in every game.

  • Cook led the league in carries per game inside of the 10-yard line (2.5).

  • Over the last two years, Cook is the RB2 in fantasy points per game (22.5)… which is still 7.1 points short of Christian McCaffrey (29.6).

Huber’s Scheme Notes

Offensive

As you can see in the chart above of the key offseason moves from 10th-year Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman, from a potential impact standpoint, the additions he made far outweigh the team’s personnel departures. While Minnesota didn’t earn a spot in the 2020 playoffs, their skill position groupings were not to blame for narrowly missing out on postseason play. As will be discussed later, the shorthanded defense played the most significant role in that failure. That said, the offense wasn’t entirely innocent of any blame. And the burden for that blame falls upon the shoulders of its creaky O-line. Since former left tackle Riley Reiff provided quality, consistent blindside pocket protection throughout his four seasons with the Vikings, it was odd to see the team release him in March. But they hit the proverbial lottery with their first round selection.

For the second season in a row, Spielman made the decision to trade back in the first round. The Jets came calling for the Vikings’ 14th-overall pick with their eyes transfixed on guard Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC. It’s true that, if they had re-signed Reiff, Minnesota’s O-line would have greatly benefited from the addition of Vera-Tucker. But they took the bait, sending their 14th- and 143rd-overall picks to New York in exchange for their 23rd-, 66th-, and 86th-overall picks. And it was a risk that resulted in Spielman looking like a genius. Due to his ongoing rehab from January core muscle surgery, Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech — widely considered as a top-10 overall pick and one of the top-three offensive tackle prospects — plummeted down the draft boards of several teams. All to the benefit of the Vikings, who swooped in with that 23rd-overall pick to anoint him as their future at LT.

As if acquiring Darrisaw weren’t enough, Spielman used the 66th-overall pick to select Kellen Mond of Texas A&M, and added, arguably, the second-best offensive guard in the class with the 86th pick acquired from the Jets: Wyatt Davis out of Ohio State. By letting go of Vera-Tucker, Spielman managed to add not one but two quality additions to his O-line with Day 1-starter potential, and a quarterback with several developing traits reminiscent of a young Dak Prescott. It’s important to understand that, despite the addition of Darrisaw and Davis, any expectations for the O-line to immediately come together would be asking a lot from a unit that features right tackle Brian O’Neill as its elder statesmen with only three years of experience, And that sentiment was mirrored by Ross Tucker in his recent O-line rankings.

Bringing us up to date, Darrisaw — who absolutely exploded for the Hokies with one of the finest ‘20 seasons of any offensive lineman in the nation — is penciled in as the starter at LT, and with O’Neill’s outstanding run blocking filling his customary RT spot. The Ohio State O-line struggled throughout the ‘20 season, Davis included. However, he provided the Buckeyes with a tremendous 2019 season that likely would have led to him being selected in the first round of the ‘20 draft, had he declared. You can be sure that new OC Klint Kubiak and recently appointed O-line coach Phil Rauscher aren’t complaining. Their sights will be focused on extracting the results of the previous season’s play. And you can bet on Davis making easy work of Dakota Dozier in training camp toward claiming the honor of starting at right guard this season.

Minnesota’s ‘20 second-rounder, Ezra Cleveland, has some work to do in pass protection, but provided the Vikings with a solid rookie season of run blocking. Cleveland at left guard, along with Davis on the right, could provide a shift toward extracting positive results, if everything comes together. While the defensive side of the ball definitely holds some question marks, they all stem from questions surrounding health. The same cannot be said for Minny’s options to start at center. It’s very likely that we’ll see ‘19 first-rounder Garrett Bradbury continue to hold down the role in 2021. Just don’t confuse that starting role with any type of favors Bradbury did for Cousins in protecting the pocket. Bradbury’s egregiously poor pass protection directly played a hand in defeats to Tennessee (Week 3), Atlanta (Week 6), Chicago (Week 15), and New Orleans (Week 16), as well as nearly reversing the results in narrow victories over Carolina (Week 12) and Detroit (Week 17). Should his play take a further step back, the Vikings would find themselves in an even deeper hole with the head-scratching trade acquisition of Mason Cole from the Cardinals.

It would be surprising to see any significant changes to Minnesota’s ground game under the direction of the recently-staffed Rauscher — who will also serve as run game coordinator. Cousins handed the ball off at the sixth-highest ‘20 rate, resulting in the fourth-best YPC average (4.88) despite their O-line deficiencies. And it’s expected that we’ll see the Vikings rely on their massively Zone-heavy blocking scheme. When Christian McCaffrey went down to injury early last year, Dalvin Cook took the reins as the most valuable back in fantasy. Cook drew at least a 10% target share in two-thirds of games played, combined with receiving the second-most carries/game. We’ve seen him with a higher target volume, better resulting efficiency in previous seasons but, as difficult as it is to believe, Cook took a massive step forward on the ground last season. Should he return to the volume, efficiency as a receiver he provided during the ‘19 season, Cook could make a compelling case to be drafted first overall in 2022 redrafts.

As is the case every season, Alexander Mattison should be considered as one of the most coveted RB2’s in every draft format. After posting otherworldly athletic testing at his Pro Day, Spielman added Kene Nwangwu out of Iowa State with the first of his three ‘21 fourth-round picks. And the team certainly did their homework considering Nwangwu did his very best work for the Cyclones with his Inside and Outside Zone carries. For all of the attention directed at Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill for their breakout seasons and Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow for their outstanding rookie seasons, the amount of consideration for the exceptional results from Cousins in each of his three seasons in Minnesota has been minimal, at best. His efforts have gone under the radar to the extent that you’ll still frequently see opinions tossed around calling for his release when his current contract expires following the ‘22 season.

Cousins’ annual salary of $33 million currently ranks as the seventh-highest among quarterbacks. But the average annual salaries for the 14 highest paid QBs is only half a million less than Cousins earns at $32.5 million. And, as they should, you can guarantee that the Vikings view Cousins as far better than a top-14 QB. If Minnesota did decide to take the blue pill, the league’s QB-needy teams would fight tooth-and-nail to throw even more money at Cousins upon his release. Yes, Kirk’s current contract for the ‘22 season will count as a significant $45 million cap hit. Be that as it may, don’t be surprised to see the two parties renegotiate a mutually beneficial contract sometime during the next year.

Nobody, myself included, thought Cousins would be able to maintain his outstanding play after Stefon Diggs departed to Buffalo. Then Spielman drafted Justin Jefferson. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid reading any one of the 50-or-so articles where I’ve detailed Cousins’ sheer dominance of Man coverage schemes, please take note of the following information. Over the last three seasons, Cousins leads all QBs with 0.59 FPs/dropback and with a 117.7 passer rating when passing into Man coverage. He also ranks third-best in dropback-to-yardage differential (+4.7%), first overall with a 20.7% increase in YPA, and third with a 12.3% increase in passer rating vs. Cover 1 (Man). As for the sexy stats, wrap your eyes around a 25-to-3 TD-INT ratio against single coverage over that time.

Cousins took a further step forward in his coverage shell recognition profile last season, at least landing above average in FPs/dropback when facing each of the five most common coverage schemes. In particular, he added Cover 3 and Cover 4 to his list of favorite coverages to face. Providing Cousins with a consistent presence over the years, Adam Thielen stands at the forefront of aiding his QB with the seventh-most FPs/route (FP/Rt) over the last three seasons against Cover 1. On 22% of routes, Thielen has collected 33% of his yardage, and 38% of his total TDs vs. Cover 1. Thielen’s also the catalyst for Cousins’ numbers against Cover 4. Then we have Jefferson. As good as Thielen has been against Cover 1 over the years, Jefferson was even better last season. He finished his rookie season with the third-most FP/Rt (0.77), first overall among all WRs with 4.39 yards gained/route run.

After the release of Kyle Rudolph, it was reasonable to assume the time had come for Irv Smith Jr.’s breakout season. However, as is outlined in detail in the ‘Projected Fantasy Contributors’ section below, there seems to be a slight difference of opinion as to his future involvement. Whether or not we see a meaningful uptick in routes run, Smith is still a significant part of the future at TE for this offense. During his two seasons in the NFL, Smith has rewarded Cousins with a 125.0 passer rating when targeted — third-best among qualified TEs. The real question to be answered: should we be downgrading Smith with chatter surrounding him sharing targets with Tyler Conklin?

First-and-foremost, the Vikings are a run-first offense. As long as we keep that in mind, much of the value available for their TEs will be embedded within unpredictable TD numbers. On a positive note, it’s not as though Minnesota is at the forefront of the Air Raid revolution. The Vikings have finished last in the NFL in the rate of spread/three-wide sets in each of the last two seasons. Smith owners can take comfort in the knowledge that this offense will continue to use multiple TE sets at one of the highest rates in the league. At the end of the day, anything resembling improved play along the O-line could allow the Vikings to steal a playoff berth. Even if they fail in that regard, this offense is going to fuel a massive amount of fantasy titles. Do what you can to ensure that you don’t miss the boat.

Defensive

One of the little “tells” I like to use to determine if a DC plans to implement any changes to the base coverages played the previous season is to consider the additions at cornerback. The Vikings chose not to re-sign Holton Hill, Cordrea Tankersley, and Mark Fields who played a combined 165 snaps last season. But they added Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Tye Smith who combined to play 1,658 snaps. The snap numbers are only provided to highlight the game-ready impact of the incoming talent. What’s the common factor between those four CB additions? They come from teams that played Cover 1 at the 13th-, first-, eighth-, and ninth-highest ‘20 rates, respectively. That’s quite a substantial bit of information considering co-DCs Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson ran the sixth-lowest Cover 1 rate in their first seasons on the job. And it’s within the realm of reason that the staff addition of Karl Scott as the new defensive backs coach may have played a role in the decision.

We really don’t know how the coaching staff will decide to distribute the starting CB roles. A pair of those starting roles will be enlightened during training camp based upon the Year 2 development of ‘20 draft picks Cameron Dantzler (third round) and Jeff Gladney (first). Dantzler really came into his own in the second half of last season, emerging as the defenses best CB. Unfortunately for Gladney, his game never offered Minnesota any type of consistency. We’ll more than likely end up seeing Breeland claiming the role at right CB, Peterson on the left, and with Dantzler and Alexander working as the nickel and dime CBs. Gladney will work as the direct backup on the outside, while continuing to develop his game.

The Vikings were very likely aware in advance of the season that they would deal with issues along their D-line and in the secondary. Chances are they never dreamed the LB unit would also provide headaches. But those issues were unrelated to the on-the-field play of the starting trio, rather their health. Eric Kendricks has emerged as perhaps the top LB in coverage in the game. Kendricks paced all LBs last season with a 60.5 passer rating allowed on targets into his coverage. With Minnesota the winner of four of their last five, Kendricks suffered a calf injury that cut his season short after 12 games. Over their five remaining games, the Vikings only barely edged lowly Jacksonville and Detroit, and suffered defeats at the hands of Tampa Bay, Chicago, and New Orleans that ended their season.

Long before they lost their All-Pro MIKE, a torn pectoral muscle ended the season for SAM ‘backer Anthony Barr after Week 2. Granted, Barr has never even approached the coverage skills of Kendricks, but he did provide an above average presence in run defense, and was one of their most consistent tacklers. Since WILL Eric Wilson departed to Philadelphia, we know one role in the box is entirely up for grabs. One scenario would see the overachieving Ryan Connelly stealing the starting WILL. While it’s certainly possible early in the season, it’s not a role he projects to maintain. The next would be for ‘21 third-rounder Chazz Surratt to immediately erupt out of the gate. And it’s likely where the Vikings envision him over the long term. Finally, we could see Nick Vigil split the snaps at WILL and SAM with Barr. Chances are we’ll see all three scenarios play out until Surratt is ready to run away with the job.

Whenever you see a defense bleeding rushing production, it’s a tell-tale sign indicating issues either on the interior, or throughout the D-line. In the case of Minnesota, the latter best described their problems. When All-Pro EDGE Danielle Hunter was placed on IR with a neck injury in September, the concerned writing was on the wall for the Vikings’ defense. Without his all-world ability, Minnesota’s pass rush failed to get anything going. The good news is that Hunter is expected to be a full-go for training camp. GM Rick Spielman also scooped up Patrick Jones II out of Pittsburgh with one of his ‘21 third-rounders. He’ll need to beat out Stephen Weatherly, but Jones offers the Vikings the type of pocket threat they lacked without Hunter last season. Spielman also rebuilt the interior with free agent additions Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, and the return of Michael Pierce from his ‘20 opt-out. On paper, these are the types of changes that could address their past issues in defense of the run.

As with all defenses who give evidence in support of fielding a new single-high, base defense, we finish with the safeties. And the guy who would be tasked with supporting the CBs over the top in a newly installed Cover 1 will be free agent acquisition Xavier Woods. Of all of the teams that we’ve released in this series and that appear to be transitioning to Cover 1 base, the Vikings appear to be the most prepared. In addition to amazing depth at CB, Woods emerged to hold his coverage responsibilities to the second-lowest average yards allowed per coverage snap among 77 qualified free safeties. And we know strong safety Harrison Smith will, once again, provide the defense with outstanding results in every phase of the game.

A common issue across the NFL, Minnesota’s chances of reaching the playoffs will be determined by the question marks along its O-line. Even if the O-line struggles, expect to see plenty of fireworks from the Vikings’ elite options stationed at each skill position group. On defense, health will dictate success. Last season already proved there is simply no possible way to replace any of its superstar defenders with depth options. But, when at full health, this defense could emerge to present a slew of problems to our fantasy options. We’ll need to track the early season coverage data to determine if the plan is, in fact, to shift to a Man-heavy approach.

Projected Fantasy Contributors

Kirk Cousins (Proj: QB14 | ADP: 128 | Pos ADP: QB16)

Cousins is a very compelling fantasy quarterback in that he’s armed with two fantastic WRs (Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson), a stellar receiving back (Dalvin Cook, who ranks best in yards after the catch per reception since entering the league), and a promising young TE (Irv Smith) … but also with a coach in Mike Zimmer who would prefer to run the ball on every play if he could. Despite six games in which he threw below 30 passes, and one in which he threw only 14, Cousins finished as the overall QB11 and the QB12 in fantasy points per game in 2020, throwing a career-high 35 TD on just 516 pass attempts, an elite 6.8% TD rate, which was 5th-highest in the league. And Cousins might have been more consistent for fantasy than you might think. While his ceiling wasn’t very high (three top-5 QB weeks), he finished as a top-12 QB nine times, the same number as Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert. And Cousins certainly isn’t being drafted like that. What’s more, the Vikings hope to have upgraded their offensive line this off-season with premium picks invested in T Christian Darrisaw (first round) and G Wyatt Davis (third round). That’s big, because Cousins was pressured on 39% of his dropbacks per PFF, which was the third-highest rate in the league. (Cousins’ passer rating when pressured was 72.0, 12th-best, but obviously, and like with all quarterbacks, he’s much better when not pressured.) With an 11th-round ADP, he’s an exceptionally affordable QB2, and for best ball drafters, a quarterback with whom it’s extremely easy to stack one of his receivers. The biggest issue for Cousins is that, if drafting him as a QB2, he has the same bye week as three QBs going well ahead of him — Allen, Herbert, and Dak Prescott. Still, pairing him with Jackson, Kyler Murray, and someone like Jalen Hurts is more than viable. And for drafters going el cheapo at QB this summer, Cousins is someone you can pair with a nuclear-upside option like Trey Lance as an effective placeholder. He’s a fantastic QB2 target.

Dalvin Cook (Proj: RB2 | ADP: 2 | Pos ADP: RB2)

The consensus #2 pick in fantasy, Cook has had injury issues in his career, but played far more games in 2020 than did the #1 overall pick, Christian McCaffrey. Cook finished second in total fantasy points and fantasy points per game among RBs (24.3), behind Alvin Kamara for both. Despite playing in just 14 games (missing one with a groin injury and another after the tragic death of his father), Cook’s 312 carries, 1557 rushing yards, and 16 rushing TD ranked him second behind only Derrick Henry. His 17 total TDs were also second, behind only Kamara (21). So as you might imagine, Cook also had a massive floor for production in addition to his sky-high weekly ceiling. In fact, it was one of the most consistent seasons by a running back in recent memory by finishing as an RB2 or better (top-24 in weekly scoring) in all 14 of his starts, tied for the league lead. Ten of those 14 weeks were top-12 RB weeks (second behind Kamara), and six of the 10 top-12 weeks were top-5 RB weeks (tied with Kamara and behind only Henry). Cook had at least 80 scrimmage yards or a touchdown in every game, and he led the league in carries per game inside of the 10-yard line (2.5). He had a massive opportunity, a coach in Mike Zimmer who adores running the ball, and this year he’s running behind what the Vikings hope to be a drastically improved offensive line with the addition of rookie first-round pick Christian Darrisaw. It’s hard to make an argument for Cook to drop out of the top two overall picks, with the exception that he’s missed at least two games in every season so far. But his ceiling is still so massive that the injury risk is worth absorbing.

Alexander Mattison (Proj: RB50 | ADP: 131 | Pos ADP: RB48)

It’s pretty simple — if Dalvin Cook doesn’t play, Mattison is a week-winner. If Cook misses significant time, “The Federalist” is likely a league-winner. In 2020, Cook missed two games. In the first, Mattison posted 20/112 rushing and 3/24 receiving. In the second, he managed 21/95/1 rushing and 3/50/1 receiving, good enough for 29.5 FP and the overall RB4 for the week. The problem is that, in the 24 regular-season games the two backs have played together, Mattison averages just 5.2 FPG. At an 11th-round ADP, he’s an intriguing best ball pick because those spike weeks automatically enter your lineup. In redraft, there’s been no indication he’s anything other than a low-floor, high-ceiling handcuff, and it’s possible he ends up on the waiver wire in leagues where bench spots are at a premium. Mattison is a fun, violent back to watch when he has opportunity, but when Cook is active, this is Cook’s backfield without any argument.

Justin Jefferson (Proj: WR6 | ADP: 24 | Pos ADP: WR7)

It’s not that Jefferson is being undervalued — he is rarely on the board 30 or so picks into a draft — but it does feel kind of weird that someone coming off the best rookie season of all time at the WR position in terms of yardage (1400) isn’t getting a little more buzz. In addition to setting the rookie yardage record, Jefferson just posted the fourth-most fantasy points (17.1) and second-most yards (87.5) per game by a rookie wide receiver all-time. Keep in mind, Jefferson wasn’t a full-time player until Week 3. From that point on, Jefferson averaged 95 yards and 18.4 FPG. From Week 3 on, Jefferson got 28% of the targets and 41% of the air yards. Adam Thielen saw 23% of the targets and 31% of the air yards. Among the 40 receivers to see at least 25 targets that went 15+ yards in air, Jefferson saw the highest ratio of catchable targets (77%). Tee Higgins was second (76%). Still, Jefferson did “only” rank as a top-24 WR in half of his games, behind 10 WRs, and he finished as a top-12 weekly WR just five times. What’s the reason, despite the huge season? Touchdowns. While Jefferson clearly emerged as the WR1, Thielen was the preferred red-zone weapon. Thielen had 13 targets inside of the 10-yard line while Jefferson had two. Per PFF, Thielen led the league in end-zone targets with 20. In all, Jefferson had 7 touchdowns on his 88 catches, while Thielen had 14 on his 74 catches. So believe it or not, despite Thielen having 475 fewer receiving yards than JJ, he had more finishes as a top-12 (7) and top-5 (4) WR. That’s by no means a “bad” season for Jefferson, but it just shows how the location of his targets hurt him in the long run for fantasy. TDs are fickle beasts, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jefferson and Thielen begin to meet in the middle as Jefferson’s career progresses, but Thielen has that trust from Kirk Cousins, which goes a hell of a long way. Nonetheless, Jefferson was so impressive in Year 1 that it’s impossible to consider his ADP of 24 overall unfair. It’s also completely reasonable to expect he can put up WR1 numbers.

Adam Thielen (Proj: WR15 | ADP: 53 | Pos ADP: WR22)

The flashy star of Minnesota’s 2020 campaign was record-breaking rookie WR Justin Jefferson, but the more consistent option was Thielen, who caught 14 TD passes on 74 receptions, an absurd 18.9% rate, en route to a finish as the overall WR10 and WR11 in FPG (16.9), missing one game on the COVID-19 list. While Jefferson did outscore Kirk Cousins’ favorite red-zone target (17.1 FPG), Thielen was often the better receiver to have on a roster. Despite Thielen having 475 fewer receiving yards than JJ, and playing in one fewer game, he had more finishes as a top-12 (7 to 5) and top-5 (4 to 3) WR. Thielen’s market — he’s routinely a fifth-round pick — suggests the obvious, that fantasy drafters believe heavy TD regression is coming. That’s fair, and it’s also worth pointing out that he’s 31-years-old to Jefferson’s 22. But we’d be remiss to not say that Thielen’s 18.9% TD reception rate was actually a decline from 2019, when he caught TDs at a 20% rate, albeit on a small sample of 30 catches. Why is he scoring so many TDs? Well, per PFF, it’s because Cousins simply trusts him most where it matters most. In 2020, Thielen’s 20 end-zone targets (18.5% of his total targets) led the NFL. In 2019, his 17% end-zone target rate ranked second, behind only DK Metcalf. He’s just really good at getting open in the red zone, and Cousins expects him to be. While Jefferson is justifiably going ahead of Thielen in fantasy drafts, we’re not sure Thielen should be dropped as far as he has. In the late-4th or early-5th round (at his current ADP), he’s a screaming value and will be on a metric ton of our teams.

Irv Smith (Proj: TE13 | ADP: 129 | Pos ADP: TE13)

If you’re drafting Irv, the biggest question here is “whom do you believe?” According to new OC Klint Kubiak, Smith’s role is going to grow following the departure of Kyle Rudolph (now with the Giants). According to head coach Mike Zimmer, it isn’t. In fact, Zimmer flat-out shut down the notion, calling Tyler Conklin instead the guy whose role will increase. In his career, Smith has played five games without Rudolph in the lineup, nearly doubling his fantasy production (10.7 FPG) without Rudolph than with him (5.9 FPG). Indeed, over the last four games of 2020, games Rudolph missed, Smith averaged 12.8 fantasy points per game, which made him the TE8 in Weeks 14-17. Promisingly, Smith also ranked 9th among TEs in routes run per game in this stretch. However, he actually saw fewer targets than Conklin over that span — 21 for Conklin to 20 for Smith, and Conklin’s 102 routes run were only 11 behind Smith. Both players caught 15 passes, with Smith’s 3 TDs to Conklin’s 1 being the big difference in fantasy production. The two players also split snaps nearly evenly — 71% for Smith to 70% for Conklin over that span. That was a significant increase for Conklin, but only slightly so for Smith, so maybe Zimmer is right in that Conklin’s role will get bigger but Smith’s will remain (relatively) the same. There was no team in the NFL that ran “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at a lower rate than Minnesota’s 29% last year. So there is room for two TEs to have significant roles here. But the question is if the gap in projections or ADP should be much narrower. That’s a valid question.

Tyler Conklin (Proj: TE58 | ADP: 397 | Pos ADP: TE59)

With Kyle Rudolph moving on to the Giants, Irv Smith has moved into near-TE1 status in fantasy drafts, with an ADP of TE13. But are we underestimating Conklin’s potential role? The stats down the stretch last year — and comments from coach Mike Zimmer this off-season — suggest we are. Over the final four games of 2020, games Rudolph missed, Smith averaged 12.8 fantasy points per game, which made him the TE8 in Weeks 14-17. Smith also ranked 9th among TEs in routes run per game in this stretch. However, he actually saw fewer targets than Conklin over that span — 21 for Conklin to 20 for Smith, and Conklin’s 102 routes run were only 11 behind Smith. Both players caught 15 passes, with Smith’s 3 TDs to Conklin’s 1 being what separated them for fantasy. And indeed, while Smith’s 71% snap share in those four games was only a modest increase from his games with Rudolph active, Conklin’s 70.1% share was about a twofold increase. Meanwhile, Conklin has a strong argument for being a better athlete than Smith — while Smith ran a 4.63 40 to Conklin’s 4.8, Conklin is a bigger man (6’3”/254 to Smith’s 6’2”/242), and beat Smith easily in every explosion and agility drill at the NFL Combine. We’ve long been high on Smith, and we’re projecting him to do well in this offense, but given the stretch run last year and Zimmer’s comments, we really need to evaluate where we stand on Conklin this summer. Two TEs can produce here: no team in the NFL that ran “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at a lower rate than Minnesota’s 29% last year, and Minnesota led the league with 248 dropbacks from 2-TE sets (SIS). But, all this being said, you shouldn’t be targeting Conklin in any format outside of very deep best ball leagues.

Hansen’s Final Points

While volume will continue to be a potential issue for Kirk Cousins, it’s hard to argue with his efficiency, especially in 2020, with a career-high 35 TD on just 516 pass attempts. We should see some TD regression, since the defense will be better, meaning they probably won’t throw it as much as they were in the second half of the season last season (38 attempts per game his last eight games). However, if new LT and Round 1 pick Christian Darrisaw can solidify the left side of their OL and give Cousins more time and more confidence to throw it, Kirkie’s in a good spot. He can work off their great running game with a pair of excellent wideouts, which should enable him to keep shredding NFL defenses. He probably won’t hit 35 TD passes again, but with a good schedule and an upgraded OL, he’s still a very nice QB2 target 125-130 picks into a draft. As mentioned above, Cousins is also a nice option if you want to give an all-or-nothing rookie option like Trey Lance a try as your QB2.

Considering I once drafted him in a staff dynasty league rookie draft as the #1 overall pick, ahead of Christian McCaffrey, I can’t say I’m surprised that Dalvin Cook has been a fantasy stud the last two seasons. It really wasn’t an ideal pick considering how great CMC has been, but four years later, Cook’s locked in as the consensus RB2 off the board, so I was on the right track. Injuries will be a concern for Cook indefinitely, but he did come out of 2020 clean in terms of physical ailments, and that might be the first time that’s been the case in Minnesota. Dalvin also has a solid backup in Alexander Mattison, who can mitigate some of Cook’s risk. Otherwise, you have to love the massive role he’s guaranteed to get, the upgraded OL, and Cook’s diverse skill set, which makes him both a high-volume grinder but still a big-play threat - and there’s still room to grow with more work in the passing game. I’m a little concerned about the uncertain status and possible demotion of OL coach and run game coordinator Rick Dennnison, but Dennison will still be very involved, and the talent level on the Viking OL is better than it’s been in a long time. In fact, you could easily argue that they will have a top-10 OL in terms of blocking for the run. I’d still take CMC at #1 overall, but with some questions surrounding guys like Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry, I’m taking Cook at 2 overall if he’s on the board 100 times out of 100.

With two seasons in the books, it’s pretty safe to say that Alexander Mattison is not worth the investment if you don’t also own Dalvin Cook, and that’s reflected in his ADP, which is down 30-40 spots from a year ago. Mattison is still one of the five best RB handcuffs, of course, and, at 130 overall, he’s not a bad best ball flyer.

Without a normal off-season and preseason to evaluate him, it was hard to feel great about Justin Jefferson’s prospects as a rookie, but it didn’t take long for me to proclaim Minnesota’s first round selection of Jefferson as a big win (10/6). Given his track record and pedigree, and the supporting cast, I’d be stunned if Jefferson didn’t continue to ball out and produce WR1 numbers, even in this run-heavy offense. Again, what’s key here is the addition of LT and Round 1 pick Christian Darrisaw, who should stabilize the left side of their line and help Kirk Cousins pick defenses apart.Jefferson may also be in line for some positive TD regression, since Adam Thielen had 13 end zone targets to Jefferson’s 2. Jefferson is the WR8 off the board around 25 overall, and I’m slightly higher on him than that (he’s my WR6), so I’m obviously fine with him around the 2nd/3rd round turn.

I thought he was a really good value heading into 2020, and Adam Thielen clearly was a value, catching an impressive 14 TD passes. Thanks to those TDs, Thielen actually had more top-12 finishes than Jefferson, which begs the question: why did Thielen’s ADP actually drop this year compared to 2020? He’s another year older and he will be 31 in August, but his game really isn’t based on speed, so he should be fine in the exact same offense that boosted his TD totals a year ago. I get it with Jefferson in that he’s a young star who deserves mad love, but people are undervaluing the veteran, who has the trust of his QB and some of the best hands in the business. With improved protection and sublime route-running skills, Thielen will continue to do his thing and he should once again go down as a good-to-great value in fantasy drafts.

I really do believe in Irv Smith’s talent, and guys who fit his profile (high-end talent, 2nd round pedigree) usually see a significant spike in production when a player's departure (in this case, Kyle Rudolph) clears a path to a larger role for them. But we can’t assume that will be the case with HC Mike Zimmer still calling the shots (or at least complaining about and firing offensive coaches who don’t call games like it’s the 1950s). Sure, the Vikings will continue to be a heavy “12 Personnel”-team, so Irv’s snaps will be high, but they will also increase backup Tyler Conkin’s role, and he’s pretty solid with some athleticism to work with. Now, new OC Klint Kubiak has said that Smith’s role is going to grow, so there is some upside if the TDs continue to come. Smith has also almost doubled his production when playing without veteran Kyle Rudolph, which is also encouraging. Smith is at least appropriately priced as the TE13 off the board (same as our ranking) around 130 overall. But unless he gets lucky with 7-8 TDs, he may be a tad frustrating as Conkin’s snaps and target numbers are closer to Irv’s than most expected.

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