Two years ago, when the over/under on Vikings wins for the season was 7.5, and their odds of winning the NFC North were 6-1 (and the Packers were heavy 1-3 favorites), I predicted the NFC North would come down to the last game of the season against the Packers. But I predicted the Packers would win that game. Happily, I was wrong and the Vikings took home their first NFC North crown since 2009. My full prediction for the NFC North was:
The actual results were pretty close:
Last year, I didn’t have such a detailed prediction, in part perhaps because the Vikings just lost Teddy Bridgewater for the season and that kinda got things off-track, but after the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford, I wrote this in my NFC North Preview:
This year I like the Vikings to repeat as NFC North champs, but it may come down to injuries- particularly along the offensive lines where both teams are weak.
Well, like the year before, I was right in what the division crown would come down to, but still off in the final outcome. I thought the Lions would be about the same as in 2015 (not too far off) and the Bears about .500 at best (way off as the Bears went 3-13).
Past as Prelude
This season, barring any last minute injuries again, may be a little easier to predict than last year, when so much was in flux. But let’s start with last year as a baseline, and go from there.
As you know, the Vikings, despite having a terrible OL, no rushing game, and just lost their starting QB and having traded for Sam Bradford, still managed to go 5-0 to start the season. In course of that 5-0 run, the Vikings lost both starting tackles and Adrian Peterson. They still managed to score more than 21 points in 4 of those 5 games (helped by the defense and special teams at times).
But overall, there were only 5 games last season where the offense (not including defensive or special teams scoring) scored more than 21 points on its own. 3 of those games were in the last 4 games of the season, interestingly. In 2015, when the Vikings went 11-5, there were only 6 games where the Vikings offense (not including overtime) scored more than 21 points on it’s own- not including special teams or defensive scoring.
In 2015, the Vikings were basically last in the league in passing offense. In 2016. the Vikings were last in the league in rushing offense. Overall, if you just count points scored by the offense (and not include special teams or defensive scores), the Vikings offense produced about 2 fewer points per game in 2016 than in 2015- basically a 10% decrease- going from 19.7 points/game to 17.8 in 2016. Interestingly, over the last 4 games of last season, the Vikings offense-only points per game jumped to 21.75 - a 4 point increase.
Defensively, the Vikings defense gave up more than 21 points (not including overtime) in only 4 games last season. That was the case in 2015 as well. In 2015, the Vikings were 12th in passing defense and 21st in run defense (using net yards/attempt). In 2016, that improved to 2nd in pass defense, and 17th in run defense. But, despite the improvement in those metrics, the Vikings defense gave up slightly more points per game in 2016 compared to 2015 (19.2 vs. 18.9).
All this is instructive as we look to the 2017-18 season.
Predicting This Season
Looking at the roster changes from last season, very little has changed on the defensive side of the ball. Danielle Hunter will start this year, instead of being a backup, increasing his reps. The same is true of Trae Waynes, who played almost 60% of the time last year. The Vikings should have a new 3-technique- whether backup or starter. They will have a new base linebacker. And my guess right now is that there will be a new slot CB playing some of the time, but probably a backup. Overall, in terms of the amount of reps played by new players, it will be very low turnover. My guess is that the changes along the defensive line will be a modest positive, and those in the secondary a slight negative. I also expect a better year from Anthony Barr, who went from elite in 2015 to poor in 2016, in part due to injuries. Overall, I expect a very similar defensive performance from the Vikings defense compared to last year.
By contrast, there will be a lot more turnover in terms of overall reps by ‘new’ players this year on offense. Along the offensive line, basically 100% of the reps at three positions will be from new faces- and that could go higher if, say, Alex Boone is not named a starter. But among those three new faces along the offensive line, two of them have track records much better than what the Vikings got collectively from those positions last season. If you figure Easton as the starter at center, and compare him to Fusco at right guard (allowing for Berger’s move from center to right guard) there is still no loss from a track record standpoint, and every indication that Easton will be a significant improvement over what Fusco did last year. That being the case, it’s not unreasonable at all to see the performance from those positions go from very much in the poor category, to average overall. It’s worth noting that TJ Clemmings played about 90% of the time last season, and had a 31.0 overall PFF rating- one of the lowest of any tackle since they started recording back in 2006. Mike Remmers, the worst of the new faces in terms of PFF track record, had a 68.2 overall rating last year- over twice as high as Clemmings.
That will have a significant impact on offensive production. But the offensive line is not the only group where there will significant turnover in the number of reps.
Among the receiver group, last year Charles Johnson had 50% the receiving reps as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Cordarrelle Patterson had about 75%. But Johnson had about 25% of the production, and Patterson 50%. We haven’t seen much in games yet from Laquon Treadwell, as a potential 3rd WR for the Vikings, but he’s also looked a lot better this year than either Johnson or Patterson ever did in practice and training camp. Michael Floyd also looks to be an improvement. Overall, I expect as many as 50% of the total wide receiver reps to be filled by higher quality receivers than last year. That also has implications for offensive production.
But it is among the running backs where the most change will occur of any position group on offense. Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon split duty there last season. This year, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray will probably combine for 80% of the reps there. In both cases, these look to be significant upgrades. Cook over McKinnon, and Murray over Asiata. And not just in run ability, but also receiving and pass protection.
In 2015, the Vikings were 4th in rushing yards per attempt- with Matt Kalil and TJ Clemmings their starting two tackles. Fusco, Berger, and Mike Harris filled out the interior line. Adrian Peterson averaged 4.5 yards per attempt, and 4.7 overall. Last year the Vikings averaged 3.2 yards per attempt- a 1.5 yard per attempt decline- roughly 30%. I expect most of that decline to be reversed this year. I also expect that Dalvin Cook will have over 1,500 combined yards from scrimmage this season.
A more effective running game will help the offense in several ways. First, it will make third-down conversions easier. Second, more than with Adrian Peterson, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in the backfield will help improve red zone conversion. Third, being able to run the ball effectively will help the Vikings close out games where they are ahead in the 4th quarter.
I also expect the Vikings passing game to improve. It will improve in part by avoiding negative plays- particularly sacks. Last season Vikings QBs were sacked 38 times, or 6.1% of the time. That ranked 23rd in the league. It would have been much worse but for Sam Bradford’s ability to get the ball out quickly- he was 5th fastest in the league last year at 2.3 seconds. I still expect a fair amount of pressures, but fewer sacks- and turnovers stemming from sacks. In both cases, they are often drive killers, so a reduction in sacks should help more drives become scoring drives. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Vikings sack rate go from 6.1% to 5.1% this year- which would be a big improvement- and more in-line with Bradford’s two prior seasons.
I also expect Bradford will have a little more time to throw than last year, which will translate into more passing production. Last year, it wasn’t just that Bradford faced pressure so often- I believe he was under-pressure more than any other QB- but he also faced that pressure sooner than any other QB. In other words, it wasn’t just that an offensive linemen didn’t hold up against their guy, it was also that they went right through them without hardly slowing down. That’s the aspect of pass protection that I expect will improve the most for the Vikings this year, which will give Bradford perhaps another second or so more to get rid of the ball.
But that’s not the only aspect of the passing game that will improve. There is also the improvement of the receiver group. From Adam Thielen starting all games instead of just 10, a healthy Stefon Diggs, and a higher quality 3 WR- most likely Laquon Treadwell- than either Charles Johnson or Cordarrelle Patterson last year. That means the Vikings will have at least one more good receiver on the field on any given play, which means one more viable target for Sam Bradford, and which will put much more pressure on the depth and breadth of opposing defense’s secondaries. Especially when you also include the fact that both Dalvin Cook and Latavious Murray are also better receivers out of the backfield than last year as well.
All of this - better offensive line, better running backs, better receiver group- translates into more offensive production. But it also translates into more big plays on offense. Last year, the Vikings were dead last in the league in ‘big’ plays (10+ yard run, or a 25+ yard pass) generated on offense, with only 5.07% of offensive plays being ‘big’ plays. League average was 7.13%, or roughly 40% higher rate than the Vikings last year. It’s no secret that big plays translate into scoring drives- another metric where the Vikings languished last year, scoring on only 32.4% of their drives. Better offensive line, along with better weapons and play-makers, will result in more big plays and more scoring drives- and ultimately more points per game.
The Vikings were around league average generally last year when it came to sustaining drives- about league average in 3rd down conversion %, 10-play drives, average plays per drive, 3-and-outs- stuff like that- and generally they had better than league average field position to begin their drives. But they were near the bottom of the league (29th) in scoring TDs in the red zone. And the Vikings have been getting gradually worse in this area over the past several years- not just one or two.
Given that even in the Ponder years red zone production was better, I’m thinking this may have been more of a Norv Turner scheme issue. Offensive-only points per game took a dip after Norv Turner too. But whatever the case, having a balanced offense with many weapons and an experienced QB to deliver the ball accurately should result in improvement here too- perhaps even significant improvement. Last year the Vikings converted TDs on only 46% of their red zone opportunities. League average is 55%. That’s a big difference. Interestingly, like most offensive metrics last season, they improved over the last 3-4 games- to 50%.
All of this long-winded discussion of the Vikings offense is in support of the idea that the Vikings offense should be noticeably better this year. Both the offensive line and skill positions have improved, and there is at least some evidence that moving to Shurmur’s West Coast-based offensive scheme may help improve scoring as well. Even last season, after Pat Shurmur took over and had a month to make some small scale changes to the offense, things began to improve- even with a still horrible offensive line, and no improvement at skill positions.
Now that he’s had an off-season to install his new system, the offensive line has improved, as have skill positions, I expect the changes to be more noticeable, and push the offense to above league average in scoring- averaging about 22 points per game. I expect special teams and defensive scoring will add maybe 3 points per game to that total- similar to recent years.
At the same time, I expect the points per game allowed by the Vikings defense to remain basically unchanged- somewhere near 19 points per game.
Overall, those incremental improvements in offensive metrics translate into a lot more wins for the Vikings this year. I’m going on record predicting a 12-4 regular season record for the Vikings this season. Yep, that’s right - 12 wins, 4 losses.
I also think that will be good enough to win the NFC North, and probably good enough to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
That seems like a huge jump, but remember also in the fiasco that was last season, had the Vikings been able to beat the Lions twice instead of losing narrowly twice, beat the Bears the first game, converted the 2-point conversion at the end of the Cowboys game, and won in overtime- they would have been 12-4 last year- and first-seed in the playoffs. Those were all games where 21 points or less would have won. Last year’s team also went 5-0 with a bad offensive line and not as talented an offense overall as this year- before injuries took their toll.
The only caveat to my 12-4 prediction is, as always, injuries. I think the offensive line is actually in better shape to handle an injured player or two. The most vulnerable group for the Vikings this year may be the defensive secondary- particularly cornerback- so hopefully no big injuries there- or anywhere for that matter.
Part of that 12-4 prediction is also that the Vikings will go 5-1 against NFC North opponents, sweeping both Chicago and Detroit. I think Detroit will be worse than last year, and the Bears not much better. Green Bay should finish near the 10-6 mark- but not higher. The Packers have a tough slate the first half of the year, and only 2 home games after Thanksgiving, when weather can benefit them.
That leaves the Vikings going 7-3 in the remaining 10 games- a pretty tall order given the slate of opponents- but a tough defense keeps you in games. Of these 10 non-division games, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, at Cleveland (London), LA Rams, at Carolina, Cincinnati, and at Washington all look like favorable match-ups for the Vikings. The remaining 3 - New Orleans, at Pittsburgh, and at Atlanta look the toughest. They’re all winnable. Or lose-able. It’s the NFL.
But I like this Vikings team to surprise on the upside this year. This is a better team on both sides of the ball than the one that went 8-8 last year, and 11-5 in 2015. This year’s schedule is a little tougher too, but the Vikings have not only better players offensively, but also a scheme that suits them better. Defensively, they look as strong as the past two years, and with better play from Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, 3-technique and base linebacker- they could be even better. They’ll need Trae Waynes to continue his better performance as the year progressed last year, and Terence Newman to man the slot corner position- and/or have someone else step-up, but given that Waynes played about 60% of the time last year, and is better overall now than this time last year, the overall performance of the secondary may not be noticeably different, particularly if the pass rush improves with Hunter starting this year.
It’s a bold prediction.
We’ll see how it turns out.
What will the Vikings regular season record be this year?
This poll is closed
13-3 or better
6-10 or worse