It is no secret that the Vikings are in “don’t mean a thing without the ring” mode. Virtually all of their offseason moves were to upgrade slacking positions with little consideration for long-term flexibility. In the minds of most, they were one of the NFC elites without Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson. But with those moves, the general consensus is that they are one of the few truly top-notch teams in football. Sure, there are some favoring the Packers in the NFC North. But take any random projection. Chances are good the Vikings will appear at or near the top of the conference.
Advanced metric giant Pro Football Focus (PFF), however, seems a little less enthused about the Vikings season. According to their PFFELO ratings, Minnesota will actually finish this season below their over/under of 10.5. PFFELO is essentially a predictive algorithm that uses their player grades to gauge future performance, adjusted for schedule. By this metric, PFF is estimating the Vikings at 8.78 wins in 2018.
There are a few extenuating factors in this. For one, the NFC North has little variance in their PFFELO ratings. The Packers, Lions and Bears are all separated by only .6 wins, according to PFF (7.93, 7.9 and 7.33, respectively). So the Vikings are still expected to win a tightly-contested division. But PFF also only gives Minnesota just a 38 percent chance to win the division, while the Bears with the lowest chance still have 16 percent. The Vikings also have the highest chance in the division of making the postseason at 50 percent, though again, the Bears are not too far behind at 25 percent, despite having the lowest odds. PFF also gives the Vikings a five percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, and a 7.2 percent chance to win if they are to make the playoffs.
All of this shows that the NFC North should be a far more competitive division than it was last season. But even so, the malaise they appear to feel for the Vikings is a change-of-pace from most experts. What makes it more interesting is that PFF seems to strongly favor the Vikings’ roster to the other three teams. They labeled Stefon Diggs as the most valuable non-quarterback in the division the last three seasons and Harrison Smith the most valuable defensive player over the same stretch.
But at the same time, PFF is fairly blasé on the addition of Cousins. Their thoughts on Cousins:
“While he is certainly not Aaron Rodgers, if the Vikings can repeat their generationally-impressive performance in support of their quarterback from 2017, then Cousins should be a good bet to return [Case] Keenum-like numbers as a Cluster 2 quarterback. If that doesn’t happen, you could easily see him churning out a division-worst quarterback performance.”
So PFF seems to not see Cousins as much of an upgrade at all from Keenum. On the contrary, they indicate that Cousins will need another great year from his supporting cast in order to match, no exceed, Keenum’s performance last year.
On top of that, PFF placed the Vikings’ offensive line among the worst heading into 2018. That is largely due to all but one of their projected starters finishing with a grade below 50 last year. And Mike Remmers‘ 69.6 grade is still sub-par. Only four teams project to have a worse line, according to PFF.
None of this is to say that the Vikings are projecting to disappoint as far as the playoffs go. On the contrary, PFF views them as the best in the division. But these reports also display skepticism. It points to the Vikings holes potentially being too large for their other pieces to cover. That is, at least as far as 2017 metrics go.
But the Vikings’ 2018 success is going to depend considerably on improvement from past performance. It will depend on development from young linemen. It will depend on a healthy Dalvin Cook season. And most of all, it will depend on Cousins having his best season surrounded by a significantly better supporting cast. Those are the lynch pins in defying the numbers.