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Vikings Offense: Poised for a Breakout Year?

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been in this place before. New talent acquired on offense. Some promise from returning veterans. New and/or updated scheme. And yet, despite all that, the offense continues to struggle come the regular season.

So what, if anything, is different this time? Let’s take a look.

Passing Game Starting from a Better Place

Lost in the disappointment that was last season, was the improvement in the Vikings passing game. Last season, the Vikings were 18th in the league in passing yards, up from 31st in 2015. That’s the highest ranking for the Vikings passing offense since Brett Favre’s career-best season in 2009. The Vikings were able to make that improvement despite having arguably the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL.

That being the case, the reason for the improvement came from the skill positions. It helped that Sam Bradford was able to get the ball out faster than Teddy Bridgewater, and with the same league-leading accuracy Bridgewater had in 2015. That is reflected in a number of stats:

Bradford’s higher ANY/A (Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt) of 6.41 in 2016 vs. Bridgewater’s 5.70 in 2015. Part of that came from a lower sack rate (6.3% in 2016 vs. 9.0% in 2015), higher completion percentage ( 71.6% vs. 65.3% in 2015), 6 more TD passes and 4 fewer interceptions.

But also key in the improvement of the passing game was the rise of Adam Thielen as a bone-fide go-to receiver as the season progressed, alongside Stefon Diggs, who continued to do well despite struggling a fair amount of the season with a hamstring issue. Also, Kyle Rudolph had a career-best year, mainly due to a big increase in the number of targets - 132- up from 73 the previous year.

In terms of passing metrics, the Vikings were more efficient overall, as reflected by the Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) statistic, which divides total passing yards by the number of attempts, but also adjusts for sack yards lost, while giving a 20 yard bonus for TD passes, and a 45 yard penalty for interceptions.

Looking at the chart above, I tried to separate the components of the ANY/A statistic to isolate why the Vikings were a better passing team in 2016 compared to 2015. If you look at the yards per attempt stat, it is just about the same. So from that standpoint, there was no major difference. Where the difference occurred were in the adjustments- sacks, INTs, and TDs. All three of those stats showed significant improvement under Bradford in 2016 compared to Bridgewater in 2015.

I don’t think too many people would have thought the sack rate for the Vikings would have dropped last year, considering how bad the offensive line was. But it did - and substantially. That was due mainly to Bradford getting the ball out faster than Bridgewater. In addition to Bradford being able to make faster decisions than Bridgewater, as the year progressed Pat Shurmur adjusted the passing plays to shorter drop-backs in order to combat the poor pass protection from the offensive line.

In addition to getting the ball out faster and avoiding sacks, Bradford also had a significantly lower interception rate, throwing 4 fewer interceptions than Bridgewater in 2015, despite nearly 100 more passing attempts.

Bottom line, a significant part of the increase in ANY/A last year came from the avoidance of negative plays (sacks, INTs) rather than a deeper passing game.

The other significant part of the increase in ANY/A last year came from a higher completion percentage and catch rates from the top 4 receivers.

Looking at the chart above, with the exception of Kyle Rudolph, we generally see higher catch rates across the board. It should be noted that Sam Bradford’s average depth of target, or aDot, as measured by Pro Football Focus (PFF) was 6.6 yards, while Teddy Bridgewater’s was 7.5 in 2015.

The shorter aDot, one may conclude, is the reason behind the improved completion rate and catch-rates. And yet the individual receiver stats don’t back that up. For example, Adam Thielen’s average target distance was 10.8 yards last season, while Kyle Rudolph’s was 7.3 yards, yet Thielen had a much higher catch-rate. In 2015, Jarius Wright and Mike Wallace had nearly identical aDots, but dramatically different catch-rates.

Using this perspective, and the fact that Bridgewater and Bradford were the most accurate passers in the NFL according to PFF in 2015 and 2016, the better conclusion is that the quality of the top 4 receivers improved overall, with fewer drops, better route running/separation, better QB-WR chemistry/timing, and improved ability to win contested catches as well.

That same core QB/receiver group will be returning this season, along with possible improvement at the third WR spot over the duo of Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson last year, if Laquon Treadwell’s off-season improvement proves to be a preview of his season to come. Moreover, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray seem likely to be a greater threat receiving out of the backfield than any other backs the Vikings have had for many years.

Looking ahead, It’s worth mentioning that Adam Thielen didn’t really get much playing time the first 5 weeks of the season last year, so his production could improve this year simply by getting more playing time. Also, Stefon Diggs was hampered a good part of the year by a hamstring injury, which may have contributed to his drop in yards per reception, particularly his YAC. If Treadwell proves ready to play outside, Diggs could also benefit from playing in the slot more, where he is better suited.

That continuity and possible improvement all bode well for the Vikings passing game at the skill positions, and could lead to another increase in production. Having a quality 3rd WR will also present a greater test to the DB depth of opposing defenses. Not many have 3 good CBs. That creates match-up advantages Bradford can exploit if given the time in the pocket.

Revamped Offensive Line

But while the improvement in the quality of the Vikings offense at the skill positions is certainly welcome, a significantly improved offense this year will be dependent on an improved offensive line.

This time last year, there were several reasons for optimism for the offensive line:

  • Alex Boone had been acquired to fill the left guard spot
  • Matt Kalil said he was healthy at left tackle
  • Phil Loadholt said he was healthy and looking to return to his right tackle spot
  • Mike Harris had shown promise from the previous season at right guard
  • Brandon Fusco was going back to compete at right guard where he had played well a couple years earlier
  • Andre Smith had been acquired to compete at right tackle and provide at least more quality depth if injuries continued to plague Loadholt
  • and Joe Berger was returning after a strong year.

But by the end of training camp last year, Loadholt and Harris were done. Kalil was struggling, and Andre Smith was worse. Fusco had yet to show a return to form, before his injury and subsequent move to left guard. Boone looked okay, as did Berger.

But after Loadholt suddenly announced his retirement, and Mike Harris was not able to play due to a mystery illness, the core of the reason for optimism was the hope that guys like Kalil, Fusco and Andre Smith could return to the performance level they had not showed for a few years.

And that proved to be a false hope. Worse yet, after a couple below average performances, both injury-prone Kalil and Smith went on season-ending IR.

This year, the hope is not that injury-prone players that haven’t played well in years will suddenly return to form. It is simply that players who have been healthy and haven’t missed many games in their careers continue to play at the same level they have done over the past few years.

That is much less of a leap of faith.

At left-tackle, Riley Reiff has been healthy nearly his entire NFL career, missing only one game due to injury back in 2014. He has been a reliably average or slightly above average left tackle over the four seasons he played the position in Detroit, taking a slight move down as right-tackle in 2016. But his overall grades of 75.2, 70.5, 75.3, 77.5, and 67.5 last year at RT are very consistently average or slightly above. The Vikings have not had that quality of play, such as it is, from their starting left-tackle for over 3 years. At this point in his career, and facing opponents in the same division, it’s not asking much for Reiff to continue to perform in the mid-70s overall as a left tackle. Matthew Coller over at espn1500 had a good piece on how that upgrade to average can impact the Vikings offense.

Pro Football Focus

Alex Boone is returning at left-guard, who’s performance was remarkably similar last season compared to his prior season with the 49ers. This could be a good example of what may happen with Reiff and Remmers - both similar in their age and career performance as Boone when he was acquired.

Pro Football Focus

Also returning is Joe Berger, who will go back to right guard after playing center last year. Berger has been the sole bright spot on the Vikings offensive line in recent years, and hopefully he can end his career on a high note consistent with his past couple years.

Pro Football Focus

Looking back on Berger’s career-to-date, apart from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, where he only started in 2 games, Berger has been both good and consistent. He has been remarkably unheralded and from a salary cap standpoint quite a bargain the past few years.

Then there is the newly re-acquired Mike Remmers at right tackle. His career is that of a journeyman right tackle, an average performer, but who struggles against better edge rushers, mainly due to his lack of athleticism. For most teams, he’d be a great guy to have as a backup swing tackle, who can fill in as needed without a huge drop in performance, but has managed to be a starter most of his career.

Remmers has basically been an average right-tackle the past 3 years. Last year his overall grade dropped some as he was called to play left-tackle, which he is not well suited, for most of the year and it showed.

Beyond that, however, there is reason to think Remmers will be the weak link along the Vikings offensive line, if he secures the starting job. The reason is that while his overall season rankings look both average and consistent, the reality is that Remmers at right-tackle was fairly inconsistent on a game-by-game basis. Against lesser edge rushers he did well. Against better ones he struggled - particularly in pass protection. I suspect that against better edge rushers, the Vikings may have to game plan with Remmers at right-tackle, either by having a TE stay in more to help block, or keeping a back like Latavius Murray in to help shore up that side of the line. Either way, Remmers looks to be the weakest of the starters, provided the starting center proves to be at least average.

Pro Football Focus

Lastly, there will be a new guy at center this year, in all likelihood. Rookie 3rd round draft pick Pat Elflein had been penciled-in as the starter after he was drafted, but it appears Nick Easton isn’t gonna cede the starting job without a fight, which is good for the Vikings. My view is that the competition for the starting job increases the chances that whoever wins the starting job will be at least average, and may also improve as the season progresses and he gains experience. I suspect Elflein will eventually become the starter, but needs to show command of the offensive playbook to make the blocking calls, and right now Easton has the advantage on that score.

Easton, who went undrafted out of Harvard two years ago, earned excellent PFF grades in pre-season action with the Ravens that year, but was traded to the 49ers and then to the Vikings along with a 6th round pick for Gerald Hodges. He played 414 snaps last season, and earned a 63.6 (below average) grade from PFF on his pass protection, and a 47.4 (poor) grade in his run blocking. Nevertheless, Easton could benefit from the experience and build on it this year, as it appears he’s trying to do so far this off-season.

I did a write-up on Elflein shortly after he was drafted, suggesting he was both good in college and needs to develop more to be as good as a pro, so we’ll see how much he progresses during training camp. Both Elflein and Easton are 6’3”, 300lbs guys. Easton has more upper body strength (he did 29 bench press reps at his pro day while Elflein did only 22) and has had the benefit of an NFL strength training program the past couple years, but Elflein may be more technically proficient, particularly in run blocking.

In any case, I suspect that whoever loses this competition will be a contender to replace Berger at guard next year if he retires.

But overall, the Vikings 29th ranked offensive line last year has been upgraded heading into this year by Pro Football Focus- to 14th overall- quite a jump based on the new acquisitions. The reason- which makes sense- is not an influx of top performers, but simply the elimination of the really bad performers- Kalil, Smith, Clemmings, etc. - in favor of average ones while maintaining Boone and Berger as above average and good performers respectively.

Should the Vikings offensive line go from near the bottom of the league in 2016 to average this season, that would likely pay big dividends for the offense as a whole- both passing and rushing.

Having a Running Game Again

Last season, the Vikings lost their running game, having gone from 4th in the league the previous year to dead last a season ago. Rushing yards per game, per attempt, big plays rushing, runs stuffed, you name it- they were all dead last in the league. The run blocking was bad, the backs were bad, and the scheme and play-calling for most of the year was bad. The Vikings went from 133 yards per game rushing to 75- a cliff dive.

Pro Football Focus

But the Vikings, through luck and savvy, landed perhaps the best all-around running back in the draft in Dalvin Cook- and one who seems a perfect fit for Pat Shurmur’s offense. Early indications from Cook’s off-season program performance all suggest he’s the real deal. We’ll get a better view once pre-season games start next month.

But one thing Cook has shown repeatedly and consistently over three years at FSU is that he is a play-maker with the ball in his hands. Last year at Florida St., Cook rushed for nearly 800 yards- just counting his rushes over 15 yards. Asiata and McKinnon combined totalled 941 yards on all rushes last year. He averaged over 2 yards more per rush after contact than any Vikings RB last year. And he forced 91 missed tackles on 288 rushing attempts. Collectively, the Vikings forced only 36 missed tackles on 342 attempts last season. Oh, and he also averaged 14.8 yards per catch- more than any Vikings receiver- on 33 receptions last season at FSU.

Granted these are comparing college to NFL stats, which is very much apples and oranges, but comparing Cook’s college stats to Ezekiel Elliott’s- who rushed for over 1,600 yards and 15 TDs last season for the Cowboys- as I did earlier this year in my profile of Dalvin Cook, his 3-year production at FSU is very similar to Elliott’s 3-year career at OSU. 6.5 vs. 6.7 yards per carry. Both had 1.26 TDs per game. Cook had more total yards per game (141 vs. 126) and higher yards per reception (11.8 vs. 7.7) and more yards after contact (4.19 vs. 3.6) than Elliott as well. We’ll see how he compares to Elliott at the NFL-level beginning this season.

If Cook proves comparable to Elliott in the NFL, the Vikings big play rushes could go from last to near the top - which would be a huge improvement for the offense.

And don’t forget Latavius Murray as a bigger, more powerful back between the tackles- and great pass blocker- and even Jerick McKinnon, who’s beefed up this off-season to help improve his game.

Of all the positions the Vikings have tried to improve this off-season, I’d say running back is where they have been most successful. Getting Cook was a big deal.

And Then There is Scheme Fit

Whether the Vikings offense gets better or worse this year, one thing is for sure. It will have an entirely different focus than it had this time last year, and every year since Favre retired- running with Adrian Peterson.

Norv Turner’s version of Air Coryell focused on Adrian Peterson had been showing it’s age for some time before last year, and how difficult it was to make it work, but after the offensive line and Adrian Peterson went down last year, there really was no place for it. I suspect that, in one way or another, led to Norv Turner’s resignation mid-season. Pat Shurmur began shifting away from Norv’s system as the year progressed, but trying to change an offensive scheme to fit personnel mid-season is not something that can be done, at least not at the NFL level. The best that can be done is to continue to make adjustments each week in spoonfuls, to hopefully improve incrementally. That didn’t really happen though as the Vikings offensive linemen were dropping left and right.

But the off-season provided a fresh opportunity to install a new system, which should be interesting to watch unfold.

Pat Shurmur has plenty of experience in Andy Reid’s west coast offense, and also some with Chip Kelly’s spread offense. Sam Bradford does too. I suspect Shurmur will incorporate aspects of both systems into his scheme, which will likely feature more zone running, and spread formations than we’ve seen in the past.

And this is where the improvements in the skill positions may pay off.

One of the intents behind a spread offense is to isolate match-ups in space, allowing offenses to better exploit more favorable match-ups. Sometimes that may be a WR-CB match-up. Other times a RB-LB match-up in coverage, and still other times spreading the defense wide to give a RB better running lanes and/or fewer defenders in the box.

The Vikings personnel are a very good fit to run this scheme successfully. Theilen and Diggs are both good route runners, and Treadwell may get there too. Cook is the elusive, versatile 3-down back you want in this scheme, and Sam Bradford is the accurate, quick read passer you need to deliver the ball.

Another reason that spread offensive concepts have become more utilized is because it is harder to find offensive linemen that can truly dominate the line-of-scrimmage physically. D-linemen are 300 pounds of muscle these days, so finding guys that are 330 lbs, long, strong, and still have some athleticism is next to impossible. So, rather than try to blow defenders away at the point of attack, spread offenses often combine a spread formation to spread defensive personnel horizontally across the field, while using zone-blocking concepts to create seams for RBs to exploit.

A quick survey of the Vikings offensive line personnel suggests they are much better suited to zone-style run blocking rather than the physically over-powering power-blocking style the Vikings have utilized most in recent years when 6’8”, 340 lbs. Phil Loadholt often led the charge at right-tackle, followed by a 250 pound fullback lead blocker, and then Adrian Peterson. Those days are over.

I’ll do another write-up about what Shurmur’s scheme may look like this year, now that he’s had an off-season to design and install it. The only worry I have is that it turns into a short yardage scheme where 90% of the plays are handoffs or short passes, leading to the anemic offense Bill Musgrave ran some years ago. Given the differences in personnel, particularly at the skill positions, I’m not that worried, but this is the biggest dig against this sort of offensive scheme.

Another False Hope?

Overall, an improved offense this year is much less of a leap of faith than in previous years. For 80% of the starters on offense, all we’re looking for is continuity in performance level from last year. From QB to WRs to offensive line, if players perform at similar levels to last year, the Vikings offense will improve.

Where we are hoping for as yet unproven performance, at least at the NFL-level, is at RB in the form of Dalvin Cook, whom PFF declared was not only the best RB in the draft, but the best offensive player in the draft. And he did everything Ezekiel Elliott did in terms of college production. And every indication from his off-season to-date has not diminished expectations.

The other unproven player we hope steps up this year is Laquon Treadwell- another guy who did it all in college and against top competition. The reason for hope here comes from every corner of the Vikings organization this off-season. From the first day of OTAs to mini-camp, Treadwell has impressed. The guy playing opposite him during most of those practices was Xavier Rhodes, who predicted Treadwell was going to have a very good season. That sentiment seemed to echo from other players, coaches and the practice highlights as well. So, although Treadwell’s injuries last year screwed up his rookie year, he has proven his ability in the SEC, and was seen as one of the more NFL-ready receivers in last year’s draft based on his route running ability.

Lastly, if Pat Elflein wins the starting center job, that would also be an as-yet unproven starter, as a rookie. Winning that job will most likely come down to proving himself in pre-season competition, or having Nick Easton prove himself the better player.

Overall, I’m pretty comfortable at this point with the unproven players the Vikings are counting on to improve their offense. The ever-present wildcard is injuries, but that aside it’s hard to see how the Vikings offense does not improve over last year.

There are other wildcards that could present some upside too. What if a guy like Bucky Hodges turns out to be a big contributor as a rookie? Or if Cook actually produces at the higher-end of expectations? Or Bradford, given a little more time in the pocket, and a solid running game, silences a few more critics with his performance?

All things considered, the odds favor improvement, but just how much remains to be seen. I’d consider a ‘breakout’ year for the offense to be a move from 23rd in points and 28th in yards to at or near the top 10 in both metrics. That means averaging another 4.5 points a game, and roughly 50 more yards a game on offense.

That can happen by going from 29th in the league in red zone TD % (46% last year) to 60%, and from 17th in the league in 3rd down conversion % (38%) to around 42%, and/or simply generating more big plays.

Getting back to league average in rushing yards per game, without losing any passing yards, would get the Vikings offense to at or near the top 10 in yards per game- which seems very doable.

The jump in red-zone production is the bigger hurdle, and the more important one. That’s where guys like Cook and Treadwell - and maybe Hodges and Murray- could really add value. Last year the Vikings were just below average in the number of red-zone attempts per game (3.1), so improving that some would also help when it comes to adding another 4.5 points a game. Improving that to 3.5 red-zone attempts per game (6 more over 16 games) and improving the red-zone TD conversion % to 60% would get the Vikings there, assuming field goals remain the same. But with more red zone attempts you would expect more points via field goals too.

We’ll see what happens. But it’s not pie in the sky.


Where will the Vikings offense rank in points per game this season?

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Where will the Vikings offense rank in yards per game this season?

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