The Minnesota Vikings have completed half of their 2018 regular season schedule. How has each position group performed? Drew Mahowald provides the report card in the latest installment of the Skol Scale.
The NFL is freaking bizarre. There is truth behind the phrase “every given Sunday” as it pertains to trying to predict the outcome of games each week. It’s impossible.
Take Week 3 for instance. The lowly Buffalo Bills limped into U.S. Bank Stadium having been embarrassed twice in a row so badly that one of their players literally retired at halftime the previous week. Meanwhile, Minnesota was 1-0-1 after scrambling to preserve a tie at Lambeau Field the week prior.
The Bills were starting a rookie quarterback and some skill position players that nobody outside of the Bills Mafia had ever heard of.
And they won by 21.
Two weeks later, Minnesota’s defense was coming off two horrendous performances that had helped the team fall to 1-2-1 on the season. The Vikings had to travel to Lincoln Financial Field to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
And the Vikings won, rather easily, though a garbage time score made it appear closer on the scoreboard.
The point is, analyzing games that have yet to take place is largely a waste of time. This sport is entirely too difficult to predict, and Vikings fans have seen it time and time again during the 2018 season.
But what we can do is evaluate past performances, which is what this post will aim to do.
Sean Borman ran through the Pro Football Focus midseason grades for each member of the Vikings in his latest article. If you trust PFF’s football evaluations more than mine — and I certainly would not blame you — then click on that link for your Vikings midseason review craving.
But if you want a combination of elite football analysis AND a few cringeworthy attempts at humor, keep scrolling.
THE FORMAT: Instead of the usual 1-10 Skol Scale, we’ll be using a 4.0 GPA scale to grade each position and then calculate an overall team GPA through eight games of the 2018 season.
Grade: A- (3.7)
Kirk Cousins will always be a heated topic of debate among the purple and gold faithful. At the hefty price of $84 million guaranteed American dollars, Cousins was brought into Minnesota to play the most important position in the sport for the next three seasons.
Following the Week 8 loss to the Saints, one of my coworkers (not at this website — we’re all educated football minds at this website) wondered if the Vikings would have to pay Cousins if he were hit by a bus. He added that Cousins has “fumble-itis and interception-itis” and then I stopped listening (because, I mean, why would I keep listening to that?).
You’re not watching the games clearly if you think Cousins is some sort of problem for the Vikings.
(Actually, Cousins might have the fumble-itis part. But he’s only got four interceptions this season and one of them bounced directly off the palms of Laquon Treadwell. LOL, interception-itis.)
He’s under pressure on nearly half of his attempts and he’s finding a way to nail throws all over the field. Is Adam Thielen leading the league in receptions and yards with someone besides Cousins throwing the rock? Probably not. Do the Vikings escape with a tie at Green Bay in Week 2 or a win at Philadelphia in Week 5 with Case Keenum at quarterback? Probably not.
He has his faults, as does every quarterback, but given the lack of protection and the lack of a consistent rushing attack, Cousins has performed quite well.
Grade: C+ (2.3)
Running backs are extremely difficult to evaluate because there’s generally a lack of information. The offensive line on any team has a great impact on the performance of its running backs. We can mostly agree Emmitt Smith is not the best running back in league history, but he put up the best numbers. Why? The blubber up front paving roads that Linval Joseph could run through.
Latavius Murray has been a fine No. 2 option for Minnesota while Dalvin Cook nurses a hamstring injury. Murray’s one-cut running style generates fewer big plays than that of Cook, but it also generates fewer negative plays. The rushing attack has picked up the past couple of games, but the extremely rocky start brings the grade down near 2.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Grade: B+ (3.3)
I have a Thielen many will be puzzled by this grade given Adam Thielen’s monster season thus far. Eight consecutive 100-yard games and five consecutive 100-yard, one-touchdown games is truly legendary. It’s pretty tough to make a case that any NFL receiver is having a better season than Thielen at this point.
Adam Thielen has been the best receiver in the NFL through the first eight weeks of the season. pic.twitter.com/T0Zef9YYSo
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 30, 2018
Stefon Diggs has proven that he absolutely has WR1 ability, battling opposing No. 1 cornerbacks each week and still producing at an extremely high level. Diggs and Thielen are each in the Top 5 in the NFL in receptions through Week 8, a testament to their case as the top receiving duo in the NFL.
The pass-catching production drops off dramatically after Thielen and Diggs, however. Kyle Rudolph has been a steady performer as Cousins’s safety blanket at tight end, but has fallen short of expectations as a tight end in John DeFilippo’s offense. Laquon Treadwell has struggled to firmly grasp — or rather, has dropped — the No. 3 wide receiver spot for the Vikings. The former first-round pick has been given chance after chance to seize that role and he just can’t seem to get comfortable.
Aldrick Robinson is as boom-or-bust as they come at wide receiver. He’ll continue to be a big-play threat for Cousins as the season goes on, but don’t expect him to come down with a tough, contested grab on a much-needed third down anytime soon. That’s not his game.
David Morgan isn’t receiving the opportunities he maybe deserves as a receiver, but his blocking ability continues to make a positive impact week in and week out. Heck, he might be the best pass protector the Vikings have at this point — including offensive linemen.
It wouldn’t suck if Treadwell emerged as a reliable and consistent third option for Cousins. Early on, Cousins trusted his instinct and threw to the hot read if it was open, whether that be Treadwell or Thielen or Diggs or Tyler Conklin. But Cousins seems more hesitant to fling it in Treadwell’s direction as they play more together. That trust needs to be rebuilt.
Grade: C- (1.7)
My biggest concern going into the season was Kirk Cousins’s ability to perform at an $84 million level when under pressure in the pocket.
Thankfully, Cousins has exceeded my expectations in that area and continues to throw seed after seed with defensive linemen breathing down his neck.
He shouldn’t have to work that hard, though. Minnesota’s pass protection has been flimsy at best through eight games. Injuries are surely playing a factor. Riley Reiff and Tom Compton have both missed significant action forcing rookie Brian O’Neill and second-year man Danny Isidora into starting roles.
To his credit, O’Neill is much farther along than most had predicted at this point. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as a unit, this group is allowing pressures at one of the worst rates in the NFL.
The more things change, the more they stay the same — the Vikings’ offense is being hindered by its pass protection.
On the bright side, the rushing attack appears to be picking up speed over the past month of action. The running back is no longer being forced to break a tackle in the backfield every…single…time, which is nice.
Grade: B+ (3.3)
This group has failed to meet its preseason expectations, but that’s mostly because those expectations were so high. Danielle Hunter has stayed among the league leaders in sacks all season long while Sheldon Richardson has proved to be a worthy free-agent acquisition for the Vikings defense. Linval Joseph’s dominance at nose tackle is still present and a big reason why Minnesota is currently the No. 5 rushing defense.
Stephen Weatherly performed admirably in Everson Griffen’s absence at defensive end, wreaking havoc in the backfield and sparking the most entertaining play of the season so far, Joseph’s wind-sucking, oxygen tank-needing, earthquake-causing fumble return for a touchdown against the Eagles.
Griffen’s recent return provides the potential for quick improvement in production at defensive line. But for now, it’s fair to say this unit is not quite as dominant as it was in 2017.
Grade: C+ (2.3)
Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks got off to a rocky start to begin the 2018 campaign and were responsible for many of the big plays this defense surrendered through the first four weeks of the season. Missed assignments and missed tackles were seemingly the only attention the UCLA linebacking duo received.
Barr and Kendricks have started to progress back to the mean in the past few games, however. We’re starting to see the elite coverage of running backs once again. We’re starting to see the efficient blitzing once again. All it took was four or five games to knock the rust off.
Grade: B (3.0)
There’s almost too much to unpack with the Vikings secondary — a ton of good with some really, really bad mixed in. That Rams game — I don’t really have the words for it. But it’s safe to say the defensive backs grade would be higher than a standard B without that horrendous Rams performance.
Here’s the thing about evaluating defensive backs — they will get beat. A lot. It’s the nature of the position. Do you know how hard it is to run step-for-step with the best athletes in the universe when you don’t know where they’re going? It’s truly impossible to do it on each snap. The idea is to make the throwing window as small as possible for the quarterback. In reality, there’s no defense for a perfect throw, and sometimes defensive backs can perform excellently on a play and still get beat.
Trae Waynes has been Minnesota’s best cornerback in 2018. Now, this is mostly against No. 2 wide receivers, but still — he has clearly improved from a stellar third season in 2017. This isn’t to say Xavier Rhodes has been bad — or that the Rhodes have been open — but the throwing windows in his coverage have been generally larger than they were in 2017. Quarterbacks don’t seem to fear him the way they did a year ago.
Mike Hughes was off to a fantastic start in the slot before his season-ending injury. Mackensie Alexander has been excellent the past few games replacing Hughes while undrafted rookie Holton Hill might be another diamond in the rough find for the Vikings.
Harrison Smith is still Harrison Smith at safety, there’s no doubt about that. Mike Zimmer’s usage of his other safeties has been fun to watch while Andrew Sendejo nurses an injury. Jayron Kearse is seeing some time in the slot, which is truly a revolutionary move. There’s like 12 defensive backs that have ever been listed at 6-foot-5 in the first place, and you’re telling me he can defend the slot?
Health is clearly a large factor in the performance of Mike Zimmer’s defensive backs this season. Rhodes, Waynes and Sendejo have all missed time with injuries and obviously Hughes is gone for the season.
Once Rhodes and Sendejo are healthy after the bye week, this group should regain its 2017 form — which should be fun with Mitch Trubisky on the schedule Week 11.
Grade: C (2.0)
So, I’m not really sure how to go about grading the specialists here because Daniel Carlson is no longer a Viking.
Dan Bailey is 11-for-14 (78.6%) on field goals and 13-for-14 (92.9%) on extra points, both of which are far lower than his career numbers. It’s still a small sample size, but I don’t have the reassured trust in the kicker position I thought I would when the Vikings signed Bailey before Week 3.
Matt Wile has really impressed me over the past few weeks, flipping the field multiple times against the Jets and a few times against the Eagles.
Long snapper Kevin McDermott played a game while part of his pinkie was laying on the L.A. Coloseum Field somewhere and that type of grit had to be taken into account for this grade.
Overall, we’re hoping to see more from Bailey in the second half of the season.
Overall GPA and Week 9 Prediction
My calculator tells me that this brings the team GPA to 2.7, which is about a B- grade and reflects the Vikings’ 4-3-1 record pretty well. Turns out, I’m good at this grading thing. I should have been a teacher.
Minnesota’s next three games will essentially determine its fate, as far as the NFC North is concerned. The Vikings play each NFC North opponent in their next three games with the bye week sandwiched in between. If the Vikings win all three, their push for a home playoff game and a division title would be very strong.
The first step, of course, is defeating the Golden Tate-less Detroit Lions this Sunday, who somehow have a winning record against Mike Zimmer. That should probably change.
I’m curious to see how Matthew Stafford performs with Tate as a safety blanket. Does he trust Marvin Jones and Kenny Golloday to win against Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes? If the Vikings defense can shut down Kerryon Johnson and make Stafford fling it, the former first overall pick will make a mistake or two that will swing the game.
Offensively, the Vikings shouldn’t have much of a problem moving the ball through the air, especially if Darius Slay is a no-go for the Lions. If John DeFilippo is insistent on running the ball early, I would advise him not to do so in the area of Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Detroit’s new nose tackle acquired via trade with the New York Giants. Honestly, I wouldn’t even bother establishing the run. Just let Cousins launch the ball all over the field to whichever receiver between Diggs and Thielen is not being guarded by Slay.
The Minnesota Vikings are the superior team and they’re playing at home, so I’ll pick the purple and gold to improve to 5-3-1 going into a much-needed bye week.
Prediction: Vikings 30, Lions 16