Defense Reigns Supreme

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

“You are what your record says you are…”

…Bill Parcells said back in 1994 during his four-year tenure at the helm of the New England Patriots. The two-time Super Bowl champion coach may have been responding candidly with a simple knee-jerk reaction to deflect a difficult question posed by the media, but his eight-word phrase has since been immortalized, as it is still commonly said today by players, coaches and front-office personnel from each level of every sport.

In fact, Buffalo Bills general manager — or so he is titled — Doug Whaley recently verbalized his best Parcells impression on multiple occasions during a rather peculiar season-ending press conference:

Simply put, this quote, “You are what your record says you are,” which has since been attributed to Parcells despite reportedly first appearing in an issue of the San Diego Union back in 1978, has not only become a popular response to media questions revolving around team performance, the statement’s premise also lends credibility to the simple evaluative method of utilizing win-loss record to make a final determination on the quality of a given team.

Mike Zimmer, who has noted his close relationship with Parcells on several occasions throughout his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, has never invoked the one-liner coined by his mentor on the record, but it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t, at some level, believe in its mystique.

His team finished 8-8 in 2016, which, as Parcells’ quote would argue, reflects an “average” football team. As a result, the 2016 Vikings represent the perfect example of why record merely reflects wins and losses, not the overall quality of a team. If the four previous rankings lists have failed to sell this point — potentially because they are a reflection of moments or games as opposed to 2016 in its entirety — the following “Top-5 Individual Seasons in 2016” rankings should fulfill the role of “closing argument” well enough.

The near-certainty that many will claim 2-3 separate “inexcusable” exemptions from the following list, as well as a handful of other players that also warrant a spot somewhere in the ranks says it all: Minnesota’s 2016 roster was absolutely loaded with talent despite multiple notable positional deficiencies, which would seem to make it pretty difficult to argue that the Vikings were just an average team.

Also Be Sure Check Out our previous ranking lists, and keep an eye out for the remaining articles in our series reviewing the Vikings’ best moments, games and overall performances from the 2016 season:

EVALUATIVE TOOLS USED TO DETERMINE RANKINGS

  • Film Review — Every. Single. Snap. Again.
  • Pro Football Focus Grades
  • Relevant Basic Statistics
  • Advanced Statistics
  • Comparative Positional Analysis
  • Critical Moments — Ride or Die?
  • Situational Efficiency
  • Season-Long Consistency
  • General Effectiveness
  • Importance to Team Success
  • Health

PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS GRADING BREAKDOWN

  • Elite: 90-99.9
  • High Quality: 85-89.9
  • Above Average: 80-84.9
  • Average: 70-79.9
  • Below Average: 60-69.9
  • Poor: 0-59.9

STATISTICAL ABBREVIATIONS KEY

  • USAGE
  • G – Games
  • S% – Snap Percentage (Relative to Offense/Defense)
  • OFFENSE
  • TD – Touchdowns
  • INT – Interceptions Thrown
  • PR – Quarterback Passer Rating
  • 3DPR – 3rd Down Quarterback Passer Rating
  • RZPR – Red Zone Quarterback Passer Rating
  • Comp% – Completion Percentage
  • Yds – Yards
  • Y/A – Average Yards Per Attempt
  • Y/T – Average Yards Per Target
  • Rec – Receptions
  • Targ – Targeted
  • C% – Catch Percentage
  • DEFENSE
  • T – Tackles
  • TFL – Tackles for Loss
  • RS – Run Stuffs
  • QBHu – Quarterback Hurries
  • QBHi – Quarterback Hits
  • Sacks – Quarterback Sacks
  • QBS% – Quarterback Sack Percentage (Pass-Rushing Snaps)
  • P% – Total Pressure Percentage (Pass-Rushing Snaps)
  • 2P – Safeties
  • PBU – Pass Breakups
  • INT – Interceptions Recorded
  • CA – Catches Allowed
  • DT – Targeted in Coverage
  • DYA – Yards Allowed
  • TDA – Touchdowns Allowed
  • PRA – Quarterback Passer Rating Allowed
  • FF – Forced Fumbles
  • FR – Fumble Recoveries
  • DTD – Defensive Touchdowns
  • FGB – Field Goals Blocked
  • ADVANCED
  • DYAR – Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement
  • DVOA – Defensive Value Over Replacement
  • YAR – Yards Above Replacement

HM. NT LINVAL JOSEPH

Key Stats: 16 G | 69.7 S% | 77 T | 6 TFL | 2 RS | 7 QBHu | 16 QBHi | 4 Sacks | 1.4 QBS% | 7.1 P% | 3 FF | FGB

PFF Grade: Interior Defender No. 15 | 83.3

No matter how many different variations of this list I create, the fact of the matter is this specific Top-5 installment cannot possibly satisfy every Vikings Territory reader’s opinion. With that said, I found it particularly difficult to leave one of the most dominant interior linemen in the National Football League, Linval Joseph, off the list entirely.

Joseph, who was recently named to his first Pro Bowl, was already a Super Bowl champion when he joined the Vikings back in 2014 as one of the most impactful free-agent signings in recent team history. He was an impressive defensive player worthy of the five-year contract he signed in Minnesota, but he has become arguably the best nose tackle in the NFL and an absolute wrecking ball with front line of Zimmer’s defense.

He constantly takes on — and fights through — double teams, creating opportunities for his teammates while doing damage by himself as well, impacting the game in ways that few other in the league are able, which has resulted in truly outstanding celebrations (shown above).

Joseph’s immense production may not always show up in the box score, but his ability to make an impact both as a run defender (six tackles for loss, two stuffs) and as a pass-rusher (27 quarterback pressures) is both invaluable to what the Vikings aim to do defensively and understated league-wide.

5. WR ADAM THIELEN

Key Stats: 16 G | 74.8 S% | 69 Rec | 92 Targ | 75.0 C% | 967 Yds | 5 TD | 270 DYAR | 298 YAR | 26.2% DVOA

PFF Grade: Wide Receiver No. 18 | 81.6

The Vikings were lucky enough to receive a strong output from a number of different pass-catching weapons this season. However, Adam Thielen, the fourth-year wide receiver out of Minnesota State-Mankato, had arguably the greatest impact of them all. He beats out fellow wide receiver Stefon Diggs — who was completely unstoppable at times throughout the year — for a nomination on this list due to playing a full 16-game schedule and providing greater statistical totals all while being every bit as versatile and dynamic as the player tabbed as Minnesota’s No. 1 wide receiver.

After years of paying his dues and showing flashes of potential greatness in 2015, Thielen finally broke out in a big way for the Vikings in 2016. He provided a number of ridiculous, highlight-reel catches throughout the year, effectively filled the No. 1 target void left by Diggs when his fellow pass-catcher was injured, became the fifth player in team history to record a 200-yard receiving game and came 33 yards short of ending Minnesota’s (now) eight-year drought without a 1,000-yard wide receiver (Sidney Rice, 2009).

Thielen enters restricted free agency this offseason as one of the team’s primary concerns, as he proved throughout a consistently spectacular campaign that he is a definitive No. 2 wide receiver in the NFL with the potential to develop into even more.

4. S HARRISON SMITH

Key Stats14 G | 86.3 S% | 91 T | 4 TFL | 2 RS | 6 QBHu | 3 QBHi | 2 Sacks | 4.4 QBS% | 24.0 P% | 2 PBU | FR

PFF Grade: Safety No. 11 | 85.4

Harrison Smith, like Joseph, is the type of player who brings immeasurable value to the Vikings. Not only is he arguably the best safety in professional football, Smith is also one of the NFL’s most versatile defensive weapons. He moves all around Zimmer’s defense, variating between being a play-making zone cover man to a lethal in-the-box run defender to an unstoppable pass-rushing force.

Despite missing two games and finishing a year without an interception for the first time in his career — he picked off Marcus Mariota during Week 1, but the interception was called back due to an untimely Everson Griffen penalty — Smith provided tremendous value to arguably the best Vikings defense in two decades. His pass-rushing efficiency numbers (4.4 sack percentage; 24 pressure percentage) and impact in run defense (91 tackles; four tackles for loss; two stuffs) were still on display consistently, even if he failed to record the home-run turnover fans are used to seeing from him (partially as a result of Andrew Sendejo’s improvement in deep zone coverage).

While Smith may not have produced the same ridiculous level of production that he did in 2015, he was still arguably the most important part of the Zimmer’s defense, and his absence was distinctly visible in both of the games he missed due to injury.

3. QB SAM BRADFORD

Key Stats: 15 G | 71.6 C% | 3,877 Yds | 20 TD | 5 INT | 7.0 Y/A | 99.3 PR | 67.0 3DC% | 88.0 3DPR | 111.0 RZPR

PFF Grade: Quarterback No. 12 | 82.9

There is a reason why social media is already buzzing with debates about who the Vikings quarterback of the future should be, and his name is Sam Bradford. Statistics aside, Bradford was thrust into a ridiculously difficult situation from the moment he stepped foot in Minnesota.Not only was he being asked to replicate the production of Teddy Bridgewater despite not spending a single day of the offseason with the Vikings, Bradford was forced to fuel an offense that was stunted by offensive line injuries, switched offensive coordinators midseason and, above all else, was predicated on playmakers that he had never played alongside — let alone heard of (Thielen) prior to his arrival at Winter Park.

Not only was he being asked to replicate the production of Teddy Bridgewater despite not spending a single day of the offseason with the Vikings, Bradford was forced to fuel an offense that was stunted by offensive line injuries, switched offensive coordinators midseason and, above all else, was predicated on playmakers that he had never played alongside — let alone heard of (Thielen) prior to his arrival at Winter Park.

Instead of complaining about the countless hits he took as a result of a generationally awful offensive line, Bradford stood in the pocket and delivered the best statistical passing season Vikings fans have witnessed since Brett Favre’s ridiculous 2009 campaign. In 15 starts, the former No. 1 overall pick recorded 20 passing touchdowns to only five interceptions, broke Drew Brees’ single-season record for completion percentage (71.6%), recorded nearly 4,000 passing yards and assisted the career receiving seasons of Diggs, Thielen, Rudolph and (arguably) Cordarrelle Patterson.

Above all, Bradford — whose injury history is well-documented — managed to remain healthy despite constantly being knocked to the ground by opposing pass-rushers. His Vikings debut against the Green Bay Packers (ew) in which he led his team to a win in the first regular season matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium — all things considered — should be remembered as one of the greatest individual performances in franchise history.

2. DE DANIELLE HUNTER

Key Stats: 16 G | 57.8 S% | RS | 13 TFL |  | 18 QBHu | 20 QBHi | 12.5 Sacks | 3.2 QBS% | 12.7 P% | FF | 2P | DTD

PFF Grade: Edge Defender No. 30 | 80.6

There is not much debate about it anymore following his tremendous sophomore season — Danielle Hunter is quickly becoming one of the league’s most dangerous pass-rushers. Despite not starting a single game and only playing 57.8 percent of Minnesota’s defensive snaps, Hunter finished tied for third in the NFL in sacks (12.5), accounted for the most yards lost as a result of a sack (103) in the league, recorded 51 quarterback pressures and was sixth on the team in combined tackles (56).

In addition to pressuring opposing quarterbacks at an absolutely ridiculous 12.7-percent rate, Hunter also made his presence felt in run defense (13 tackles for loss; one stuff), showed off his scoop-and-score ability with his first career touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during Week 1 and potentially altered the outcome of the Vikings’ Week 3 matchup against the Carolina Panthers by taking down quarterback Cam Newton in the end zone for a safety on an incredible individual effort.

The scariest part: Hunter is barely 22 years old and is likely only scraping the surface of his potential.

1. CB XAVIER RHODES

Key Stats: 14 G | 75.9 S% | 4 TFL | 2 RS | FF | 33 CA | 79 DT | 384 YA | 2 TDA | 39.2 PRA | 5 INT | 11 PBU | DTD

PFF Grade: Cornerback No. 31 | 79.7

Following a breakout 2016 season, there is little doubt that cornerback Xavier Rhodes is worthy of a spot somewhere in these rankings — the question is more regarding how high he should rank. On this particular list, however, Rhodes (likely controversially) comes in at No. 1 for a host of different reasons.

First and foremost, he was consistently dominant after returning from an injury that caused him to miss the opening two weeks of the season. He returned in Week 3 against the Panthers and began one of the most prolific cornerbacking seasons in franchise history and undeniably the most dominant season-long effort since Antoine Winfield’s reign in Vikings Territory.

Rhodes promptly silenced Kelvin Benjamin against Carolina, completely extinguished Odell Beckham’s dynamic play-making ability with the New York Giants in town and held Houston Texans star DeAndre Hopkins in check to help the Vikings to a 5-0 start. He then went bird hunting against the Philadelphia Eagles, shut down Chicago Bears stud receiver Alshon Jeffery (twice) — his Week 7 touchdown came with Rhodes on the sideline and Trae Waynes in coverage — made the Detroit Lions look foolish for signing Marvin Jones to a massive contract, changed the complexion of the game against the Arizona Cardinals with a pair of interceptions, almost held Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant without impact, made second-year Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson look human and held his own while many of his teammates struggled against the Indianapolis Colts.

While he was not without fault (missed tackle on Golden Tate’s game-winning overtime touchdown during Week 9; Jordy Nelson’s first-half dominance in Week 16 against Green Bay [ew]; five total coverage penalties), Rhodes was the NFL’s best in catches allowed (33) and passer rating allowed (39.2), ranked tied for third in interceptions (five) and also finished among the best in the league in yards allowed (382), touchdowns allowed (two) and pass breakups (11). He also continued to show an adept tackling ability (52 tackles; four tackles for loss; two stuffs) in run defense, became a definitive playmaker along the back end of the defense and showed versatility in coverage through success both along the boundary and in the slot.

Beyond his statistical achievements, Rhodes’ ability to lock up opposing wide receivers in man coverage also played a significant role in Minnesota’s 41-sack season (5th in NFL), extending his impact beyond the Vikings secondary. He may not be as schematically important as Smith, as visibly dominant as Hunter or play as critically important of a position as Bradford, but it could be argued that Rhodes produced the finest 2016 season of any cornerback in the NFL, and he consistently shined when the Vikings needed him most.

Strongly Considered: WR Stefon Diggs; CB Terence Newman; TE Kyle Rudolph; OL Joe Berger

Others Considered: DE Everson Griffen; LB Eric Kendricks; DE Brian Robison; RB Jerick McKinnon; PR Marcus Sherels; K Kai Forbath

Vote for the individual performance that impressed you the most from the 2016 year. And make sure to comment below if your choice isn’t listed in the poll as well as your own Top-5 season-long rankings!

 

NFL Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game PassGrades courtesy of Pro Football FocusStatistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, Sporting Charts, Fantasy Data, NFL Penalties and Football Outsiders.