2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Minnesota Vikings
August 17, 2015 | Chet
In their first season under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota Vikings improved two games, closing the season at 7-9. After going 6-6 in Teddy Bridgewater’s rookie starts, Minnesota has been the buzzy team to make the next jump in 2015. With the return of some old faces along with some new, is the Vikings offense something to squeeze a lot of value from?
2015 Vikings Schedule
By now you’re full aware in exercising caution using anything strength of schedule related over the summer. Looking ahead, Minnesota does have a tough draw right out of the blocks as they don’t face their first losing team from 2014 until week 8. The rushing and passing schedule slates could potentially start out uneven based on the caliber off opponents, but the back half has a lot of potential in providing fantasy nectar.
2014 also was the first season in Minnesota where the offense was under the guidance of Norv Turner. Turner has had his hand in running NFL offenses for 25 years running now and in his first season with the Vikings, the team remained a bottom half unit across the board.
All Day on All Day?
The Vikings offensive mediocrity can partially be credited through going through the motions of starting a rookie quarterback for three fourths of the season and another piece can be attributed to them losing their best offensive player for the final 15 games in Adrian Peterson.
Even including last season into the fold, since Peterson joined the league back in 2007, he’s first in rushing yards (10,190). That mark is 1,420 more than the next closest player, Frank Gore. Over that same span, Peterson has 1,495 more rushing yards than Marshawn Lynch on just 21 more carries and is first in rushing touchdowns (86) over the same timeframe, with 15 more than the next closest back in Lynch. It’s not all about volume, either, as for a per game level, Peterson’s 98.0 rushing yards per game are also first. By in large, Peterson is the best running back of this current generation by just about any measure you can come across.
No player has more narratives surrounding his 2015 season right now than Peterson has. There has been a boiling feud over Peterson’s 2015 prospects so far this summer, but for the large part, each camp in either support or detriment of his is operating in anecdotal evidence and/or grandiloquence. To be clear, for the most part we don’t know much about the impact everything surrounding him will have.
The pro Peterson crowd will point to his past excellence in conjunction with him crashing through previous rules of thumb. They’ll also paint him sitting out for a season as a positive even though we truly have limited data to even draw effective conclusions from. John Riggins sat out his entire age 31 season over a contract dispute and returned to rush for 24.5 fewer yards per game than in his previous full season played, but that was over 30 years ago.
Now, there are some real pros to the equation here. The first is outside of his talent level; Peterson’s situation was useful for fantasy last season. Minnesota ranked 10th in the league in rushing points per attempt (0.61). They also provided enough real scoring opportunities as evidence by Matt Asiata finishing tied for third in the league in rushing attempts inside the five-yard line with 15. Peterson has never had a single digit touchdown scoring season in his career and converting near the paint is something he’s been good at, ranking seventh of all active backs with 20 or more carries inside the five in conversion rate and his sample is the largest by a good amount over the majority of his peers.
As for the real negatives hovering around Peterson, the initial one is him now being well outside of the apex range for elite performances. No matter how you slice it, the rope on Peterson turning in high end output is getting shorter and the cost for his services has never changed. Even this year, he’s likely going to cost you a top five selection. The last time we seen Peterson on the field, his efficiency was trickling downward as he was supported by volume. Graham Barfield highlights the risk in investing in Peterson as a weekly option as over his past four seasons as he’s been just about a 50/50 proposition to turn in a weekly dominant performance. That mark is still near the top of the fantasy mountain, but not nearly the Gibraltar of performances he’s considered as turning in just falling out of bed.
I’m a staunch supporter in the theory that you need to invest into the running back position to increase your odds of having a weekly separator at the position and this piece from JJ Zachariason anchors those beliefs. I do believe that this current landscape is actually doing Peterson favors as nearly every first round running back has red on their ledger and you’re trying to narrow down the risk in each one. He’s also considered a villain by many and that will play into his stock as well within the first running back tier. When weighing in the factual pros and cons with Peterson versus those other backs, I still believe that Peterson has one of the highest touchdown and weekly usage ceilings of the group regardless of opponent. That alone is enough to justify his price point on the opening tier. I still prefer Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles to Peterson, but he falls right in line with Arian Foster (when on the field), C.J. Anderson, Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy for me. If I do select him, I’m more inclined to further insulate myself at the position in the following few rounds, but I have no qualms about rostering Peterson this season.
I’m still a fan in the blend of talent, athleticism and continued progression of learning the position from Jerick McKinnon. After playing in a triple option system in college and converting from quarterback to tailback, McKinnon adjusted nicely in his first season taking carries as a traditional back as he showed the ability to consistently avoid negative runs while showcasing above average explosion.
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The rub with McKinnon is that he failed to score on any of his 140 touches. While you can point to positive progression in the regard in helping his cause, he also had just eight total touches in the red zone to Asiata’s 36, with just three of those coming inside the 10-yard line.
Peterson’s return already all but kills McKinnon’s 2015 relevancy. The way for McKinnon to make some headway and I believe he will, is in the passing game. Minnesota targeted their running backs 23.5 percent of the time last season, sixth most in the league. I believe McKinnon will be used as a change of pace only option while Peterson is healthy and if he were to go down, I still believe we’d see similar usage of the backups in a fashion that we did last season, with Asiata stealing all of the fantasy fluff touches.
Teddy Bridging the Gap to Starting Fantasy Option
Many considered Teddy Bridgewater a gift for the Vikings to close the first round of the 2014 draft and his rookie season provided a lot of promise for the franchise going forward. Like most rookies, Bridgewater took time to gather his bearings, but his final six starts compared to his opening six showed that he can in fact be a usable fantasy option already at this stage in his career.
Bridgewater found his stride over those final six starts, improving his accuracy, yards per attempt, and touchdown rate all to significant degrees. Dialing down his average depth of target was a contributing factor, but considering all of the strengths of his entering the league, intermediate efficiency was something we anticipated from Bridgewater. Over those six starts, he finished as the QB10, QB17, QB15, QB10, QB10 and QB17. He notched the fourth best rookie completion percentage ever as he completed 60 percent of his passes in 10 games, just one behind the rookie record, and that was in just 12 starts. That all was done with limited resources on offense as well.
The overall resources around him as well as his own maturation process kept Minnesota from generating tons of scoring opportunities as a whole, but when the Vikings got near the red zone, Bridgewater was also at his best when the field tightened up. Again, the sample is small, but he finished second in touchdown rate and first in completion percentage inside the red zone last season.
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C.D. Carter ran Bridgewater through his Equity Scores and while his ceiling potential was a fringe QB1, his median performance appears rough. Anytime you have efficient, low volume options, you’ll see a gap like that as a large part of Bridgewater’s ceiling will inevitably come from what kind of touchdown production he can provide. Peterson can help increase the Vikings ability to extend and sustain drives at a higher frequency than Minnesota was able to do last season and the Vikings will be getting a healthy Kyle Rudolph back to go along with free agent Mike Wallace and the potential continued blossoming of Charles Johnson. When it’s said and done, I see Bridgewater having a better back half of the season again. As someone who builds for that early quarterback stable based on early season outlook, I’ve yet to find myself take Bridgewater, but overall his QB17 cost is fair for those who believe he keeps ascending as it removes some of the risk of the Vikings miserable early passing slate for the first half of the season while leaving some potential if he in fact does make himself a safe floor option versus any opponent. In the end, I believe we’re still a year away from a big passing breakout, but the porridge is just about right on his 2015 cost.
Maxing Out the Minny Passing Game
The big acquisition the Vikings made this summer as far as skill players go was trading for 29-year old Mike Wallace. The trade was a peculiar one considering Wallace has been a declining asset for three years running in terms of efficiency and hasn’t recorded a 1,000-yard campaign since 2011.
After a voluminous 141 target 2013 season, Wallace once again fell into the 115 target range and seen a continued drop in yards per catch. After producing vertically to start his career, Wallace has just 22 receptions of 25 or more yards over his past three seasons as opposed to the 40 he had during his first three seasons. That drop off as a splash play performer has been placed on the feet of his attachment to Ryan Tannehill, but Wallace also shares some of the blame himself as he was dipping in terms of vertical efficiency on his way out of Pittsburgh as well since he had just five such receptions his final season there. There’s a recurring trend here that stems beyond Tannehill’s limitations vertically.
Those loss of splash plays have sapped his ceiling as he topped 70 receiving yards just three times last season and even more astonishing, Wallace has reached 100 receiving yards in just eight of his past 60 games played. Now he’s trading Tannehill for Bridgewater, another quarterback who wasn’t letting it fly last season. Per Pro Football Focus, just 10.2 percent of Bridgewater’s attempts were 20 or more yards downfield, which ranked 33rd in the league. I believe Bridgewater has better anticipation for the long ball, but is still a quarterback who thrives in areas of the field Wallace is questionable in. In the end, I don’t see a massive shift in vertical viability here in his change of scenery.
On the positive end for Wallace, he’s shown to be a steady touchdown producer over his career, scoring eight or more times in four his six seasons. That touchdown production saved him last season, but also may not have much roll over. Wallace scored six times from the 10-yard line and in last season after scoring just four times from inside the 10 over his first five seasons. Scheme, usage and quarterback play were all factors as Wallace is far from a clasher, but his red zone performance was a big outlier compared to his career thus far.
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Charles Johnson will also be returning and has had a full offseason with the Vikings under his belt coming in. After being released by the Browns during the preseason, Johnson found a home with Minnesota and climbed into relevancy over the back third of the season. Over the final six weeks of the season, Johnson played 94.9 percent of the offensive snaps. He led the team in targets (40) and receiving yardage (328) and was second in scores (three). He had just one red zone target and he wasn’t wildly efficient with his target volume as he secured just 48 percent of them while every other Vikings player secured 60 percent or more of their targets, but that’s not entirely damning either. Over that span, Johnson had three weeks as a WR16-WR22 with another WR30 week peppered in.
Johnson has been an athletic profile heartthrob and if the anticipated talent level he possesses comes to fruition, you’re going to want to invest in the attachment to target volume over efficiency in that regard. He’s also going to be playing the X position in this offense and Wallace still draws enough defensive attention that he will open up things for Johnson as well. Although a favorite of many, it is still fair to question Johnson’s true talent level because all we’ve gotten thus far is a small sample of highly inefficient volume, but that is why his price tag is still holding reasonably near the WR33 mark.
I can’t see a scenario in which I’ll be pursuing Wallace over Johnson at all and C.D. Carter covered both Vikings receivers here as both are going neck and neck in drafts so far this summer. With Wallace, not only are you taking a player whose ceiling and median outlook aren’t as high, but you’re still taking a declining asset whose recent efficiency has largely been flat over a player who possibly is still in ascension with an ascending quarterback. I definitely like Johnson more than some receivers around him such as Nelson Agholor and Victor Cruz, and when looking at his overall outlook (a small sample of inefficiency attached to an athletic wonder) isn’t too dissimilar to that of Allen Robinson who has been elevated all summer long. Landing Johnson potentially as your third or fourth wide receiver with a ceiling to be more is the play I’m making when taking a Minnesota receiver.
Jacob Myers wishes Wright got more credit for continuously being a viable target per attempt no matter who has been throwing the ball in Minnesota, and Wright had the two biggest yardage games from this team a season ago. Wright, Stefon Diggs and Cordarrelle Patterson will all be vying for intermediate targets this season and it’s hard to get overly excited for anyone else in this offense to see the requisite volume outside of Johnson and Wallace to be consistently fantasy relevant. Patterson has still yet to get a truly positive endorsement from this staff and channeling the end of 2013 seems like a distant memory at this point.
Kyle Rudolph is also returning to this passing game after losing a majority of the past two seasons. Rudolph missed six weeks with a groin injury and was on the injury report for all but three games. All of that contributed in Rudolph having his least efficient season since his rookie year.
Rudolph was targeted on just 13 percent of his routes and seen more than five targets just two times all season. Many expecting a breakout under Norv Turner are still hanging onto that again this season, but Rudolph isn’t the type of athletic tight end that has typically thrived under Turner offenses. Instead Rudolph is more the Vikings version of Dwayne Allen, a player that generates his fantasy appeal for the work he does near the end zone. For his career, Rudolph has converted 15 of 31 red zone targets (48.4 percent) but has topped 10 yards per reception just once through four seasons. It’s hard to really be down on his TE15 cost since he does have touchdown upside and the rest of the Vikings passing viability in that area is still a question mark. For those streaming the position and going with a stable of options, Rudolph is a target for those pursuing a touchdown anchor.