It is that time of year. The time where the Vikings’ season is far enough in the rearview mirror that fans can evaluate it without those pesky impulses and emotions. And what better way to simultaneously look to the past and evaluate the future than assigning letter grades to players’ seasons?
With the last season grades piece where we evaluated coaches and general manager, there was some confusion with how the postseason came into play. As such, for the player grades we will assign both a regular season and a postseason grade.
Let us start with the defensive backfield, arguably the Vikings’ strongest position group in 2017. All numbers come from STATS.
*All coverage stats describe the quarterback’s numbers when a defensive player is targeted. For example, assigning three targeted interceptions to Trae Waynes does not mean Waynes had three interceptions. Rather, when the quarterback targeted Waynes, he threw three interceptions.
Regular Season: A
Rhodes emerged as an ace cover corner in 2016 but this past year, he took that extra leap into elite status. Some of the league’s most electrifying receivers, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and A.J. Green, to name a few, saw massive production dips when they squared off with Rhodes. In total, Rhodes allowed fewer than six yards per attempt and a rating of 68.2 when targeted. As a result, he was named First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career.
For the most part, Rhodes was solid in the postseason. He had a bit of a meltdown against Michael Thomas in the third quarter of the Vikings’ Division Round win over the Saints. But beyond that, he was reliable with a targeted rating of 78.37. He was one of the few defensive backs to perform well against Philadelphia in the Conference Championship Game.
Regular Season: B
Waynes was the Vikings’ most improved player in 2017. Through two weeks, he was the massive liability he had been his entire career. But by the halfway point of the season, he had completely turned it around. While he had the highest targeted rating and yards per attempt among Viking defensive backs (75.78, a decent number and 7.38, a mediocre number), he also tied for the lead in targeted interceptions with three. For the majority of 2017, Waynes finally flashed the star potential that his high draft pick would suggest.
And then the Vikings traveled to Philadelphia. Waynes played arguably the worst game of his career in the NFC Championship Game, allowing two touchdowns and two plays of over 40 yards. All told, he surrendered nine catches for 143 yards in two games for a rating of 131.39. Fans can only hope that the most recent vintage of Waynes was the anomaly.
Regular Season: B+
Somehow, at 39-years-old, Newman still looked fresh as a daisy. Playing primarily nickel, Newman, rarely looking his age, allowed fewer than seven yards per attempt. He also led all Vikings corners in run disruptions with six; no one else had more than one. Plus, one would assume he deserves some credit for Mackensie Alexander’s uptick in play in 2017. If Newman retires or leaves this offseason, his presence in the locker room will surely be missed.
Like most of the Vikings defensive backs, Newman’s postseason grade suffers from an abysmal NFC Championship Game performance. In particular, Newman’s allowance of Alshon Jeffery’s 53-yard touchdown did him in. He ended up with a rating of 113.69 and over 13 yards per attempt allowed in the two playoff games, though he also picked up a targeted interception.
Regular Season: B+
If I were to ask you who was the Vikings’ leader in targeted rating in 2017, you would probably guess Harrison Smith. And you would be right. But would you ever guess that Alexander finished second? The second-year corner, used mostly in nickel and dime packages, allowed a rating of just 44.4 and a completion percentage of under 50 percent. He played fewer snaps than other corners, but he faced almost the exact same number of targets as Newman, 42 and 44, respectively. He was also the only corner to register multiple quarterback pressures in 2017 with three. If Newman leaves, it seems the nickel corner spot is in good hands.
While not as catastrophic as others, Alexander also suffered a bit from a bad final game. His targeted rating of 90.97 is not terrible, but compared with his regular season totals, it is a bit of a dip.
Regular Season: F
Brock put his stamp on the season in his debut against Tampa Bay week three, committing a long pass interference penalty and allowing a touchdown just a few plays later. All told, Brock had the highest targeted passer rating on the team at 139.06.
Regular Season: A+
Bar none, Smith was the Vikings most consistent and spectacular player in 2017. Though it only earned him one vote for Defensive Player of the Year, the entire Vikings defense lived and died with Smith’s versatility. He could play in the box as well as any safety in football, finishing with 12 run disruptions (most among Vikings secondary). He could rush the passer in Mike Zimmer’s double A-gap blitz schemes as evidenced by his seven pressures. And above all, he could cover. Smith’s targeted rating of 26.98 was by far the best on the team, as was his targeted completion percentage of 42.5 percent. Whether it was in the slot, on the tight end or in center field, Smith’s coverage was impenetrable.
Which makes his performance in the Championship Game all the more baffling. The numbers bear it out; Nick Foles had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when targeting Smith. Total in the postseason, Smith allowed 96 yards on just six targets, 16 yards per attempt. But a single viewing of the game made it clear something was off with him. Smith struggled all night to hang with Zach Ertz. He was late helping Waynes on the flea flicker touchdown. He was not much help in run defense, failing to record a single run disruption in either game. These are not things Smith fails at often, but he did in the playoffs, for whatever reason.
Regular Season: A-
If Waynes wins most improved player, then Sendejo is a close second. Historically an impulsive risk-taker at safety, Sendejo shored up his game this year. As Smith’s running mate, he established himself as similarly versatile, able to play in the box, blitz, cover slots or play center field. His 4.59 yards per attempt allowed led all Vikings players while his 45.83 targeted rating was third on the team. Plus, his nine run disruptions were second only to Smith among Vikings’ defensive backs.
Bar none, Sendejo was the Vikings best defensive player in the postseason, albeit one of those games he played just three quarters of. It was not just the acrobatic interception against Drew Brees. It was also not just the fact that all of his teammates seemingly melted down at the same time against Philadelphia so he looked good by comparison. No, Sendejo simply played great. He allowed just two catches on seven targets for 26 yards and an interception. That is a lilliputian targeted rating of 2.98. That’s right, single digits. So while everyone else played a couple of their worst games of the season, Sendejo had two of his best.
Regular Season: B
Harris’ playing time was limited. He started just two games because of suspension and injury to Sendejo, but in one of those he made a game-changing impact. Against the Rams in week 11, locked in a 7-7 tie, the Vikings were on their heels a bit in the second quarter. The Rams were driving to take the lead when Jared Goff found Cooper Kupp near the end zone. With Kupp wrapped up, Harris punched the ball out and recovered it at the one-yard line. The Vikings would go on to score 17 unanswered points, winning 24-7 and cementing themselves as a defensive elite. It was just one game in the grand scheme of things. But Harris made the most of his opportunity in that one game.