Minnesota Vikings: Placing money on them is a safer bet than you think

    After a massively disappointing 2018 that saw the Minnesota Vikings miss the playoffs, the pressure is on Kirk Cousins to deliver in his second year. With their one weakness being addressed, this team could return to Super Bowl form.

    Minnesota Vikings

    Win Total: 9 (O -105/ U -115)
    2018 Pythagorean Wins: 8.11 (-0.11)
    Key Additions
    : OG Josh Kline, DT Shamar Stephen
    Key Losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, FS Andrew Sendejo, RT Mike Remmers, RB Latavius Murray
    Early Round Rookies: OL Garrett Bradbury (Rookie), TE Irv Smith (Rookie), OG Dru Samia (Rookie)
    Coaching Changes: Fired Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo (Jacksonville). Promoted Kevin Stefanski to Offensive Coordinator (quarterbacks coach)
    Mike Zimmer coaching record: Straight Up (49-34-1) Against the Spread (52-30-1)

    Offseason

    The Minnesota Vikings faced a “win and in” playoff situation in week 17, but couldn’t get the job done. With their 24-10 loss to rival Chicago Bears, the offseason began sooner than they had anticipated.

    The turnover began in-season when the team fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. The biggest reason for the subpar offense was the offensive line performance. However, for an offense that includes Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs, their 2018 offensive output was atrocious.

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    Minnesota addressed their offensive line in the draft and free agency, giving new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski a chance to revitalize the unit. Helping him will be Gary Kubiak (offensive consultant) and longtime associate Rick Dennison. However, the onus to elevate the offense and make the playoffs is going to be entirely on Cousins. Most people are already calling his massive contract an even bigger failure after missing the playoffs in his first year. The pressure is on him, and whether you think it’s fair or not, he must deliver a postseason berth this year.

    Defense

    For all the Vikings woes last season, the defensive unit continued to perform exceptionally well.

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    Whatever your opinion may be of Mike Zimmer, it is clear the man knows defense. There are, however, two aspects that offer some cause for concern. The first was the play of All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes. He wasn’t terrible, but there was a noticeable decline in his performance in 2018. It even led to some criticism from coach Zimmer, which Rhodes admitted was warranted.

    The second aspect that was a bit disturbing was the lack of turnovers. The Vikings totaled just 12 interceptions in 2018, leading to a turnover percentage of 10.5 which ranked 18th in the league. That figure should be higher given the talent of the unit and the ability of Zimmer as a defensive coach.

    They did lose two prominent players in free agency. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson left to join the Cleveland Browns while the Philadelphia Eagles signed safety Andrew Sendejo. Sendejo shouldn’t be missed too much, as Minnesota has PFF’s 3rd ranked safety Anthony Harris set to step in and start alongside All-Pro Harrison Smith.

    I expect them to miss Richardson’s interior presence as there wasn’t a legitimate attempt to replace him. They did bring in Shamar Stephen from Seattle, but he will have to compete with two 4th round picks in second-year player Jalyn Holmes and third-year player Jaleel Johnson. Whoever earns the job will have some big shoes to fill next to the ten-year veteran Linval Joseph.

    I have no concerns about the welfare of the defense. Zimmer has shown many times that he can produce an elite unit, and he has one with this group. The defensive unit faces a slightly harder schedule of pass/rush offenses than average according to Warren Sharp’s metrics. Given this is an above-average unit; I don’t expect that to be too much of an issue.

    Offense

    The offense is where a majority of the attention will be focused, and rightfully so I might add. The unit was far too talented to finish as poorly as they did in 2018.

    Offensive line

    A big reason for that was the subpar play of the offensive line. As you can see above, the Vikings brought in plenty of personnel in an attempt to remedy the beleaguered unit. The entire interior received a makeover. Rookie first-round pick Garrett Bradbury is set to start at center, moving last year’s center Pat Elflein to guard. Free-agent acquisition Josh Kline will handle the obverse guard spot.

    Third-round pick Dru Samia could play a part in this as well. His offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh praised the rookie out of Oklahoma as being extraordinarily nasty and physical. Bedenbaugh was a guest on offensive line expert Brandon Thorne’s podcast “Trench Warfare.” On it he said Samia, and for that matter, the entire Oklahoma front had to be reminded to scale back the physicality at times. You have to love to hear that from an offensive lineman. Samia has stealthy versatility as well. He began as a tackle when he came to Oklahoma and even practiced at center a few times. Thorne notes how Samia will be a smooth fit for Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme.

    The unit is in good hands with offensive line coach Rick Dennison. His resume is quite impressive, spending most of his time with the Denver Broncos during their rich history. He also has an extensive history with offensive consultant Gary Kubiak. Kubiak brought Dennison on from 2010-2013 while he was the coach of the Houston Texans. Dennison worked under Kubiak again in Denver from 2015-2016. The Vikings have given Dennison the title of “run game coordinator,” and given his and Kubiak’s successful coaching history together, Dalvin Cook figures to be in great hands.

    Skill positions

    Not many teams have a trio of skill position players as talented as the Vikings. Thielen and Diggs combine for arguably one of the best wide receiver tandems in football, while Cook is set to break out being over a year removed from his ACL injury. Kyle Rudolph will turn 30 this year but is still a serviceable tight end.

    Top-heavy would be a perfect way to describe this group because the depth is severely lacking. Laquon Treadwell figures to be the 3rd receiver, but he has been a massive disappointment up to this point. Irv Smith Jr. was taken in the 2nd round, though rookie tight ends hardly ever produce. That said, given the situation outside of Thielen and Diggs, the Vikings could run a lot of “12” personnel as that might be the best way to get the most talent on the field at once. It also makes sense from the perspective that they want to be more run-heavy this year.

    Despite his lack-luster athletic profile, the Vikings thought enough of Alexander Mattison to take him in the 3rd round of April’s draft. Unless Cook suffers an injury, I don’t foresee him being anything more than a “spell back.”

    Cousins

    Whether it’s fair or not, the quarterback gets all the credit when the team wins and all the blame when they lose. It’s an adequate precedent to set given not one position impacts the game more than the QB. For all of the issues on the offensive line, Cousins himself did not hold up his end of the bargain.

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    He has to play better. The play of your teammates can only excuse so much of your shortcomings. If you are great, then you will be great regardless of your surroundings. 2019 is the year for Cousins to show he is, indeed great. In all honesty, the front office and Zimmer are probably gone if Cousins doesn’t deliver this year.

    Offensive strength of schedule

    One factor that will help the passing offense is their schedule. Warren Sharp has them with the 7th easiest schedule of passing defenses in the league. The first seven weeks project to be a soft spot. They only face two opponents (Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles) who ranked in the upper half of pass defense efficiency in 2018. I expect their week two opponent (Green Bay Packers) to improve in that area this year, but there is no telling if they will be fully functional as a unit in week 2.

    Strength of schedule

    Warren Sharp has Minnesota with a harder than average (19th “easiest”) strength of schedule ranking. Their first six games feature four difficult opponents in the Falcons (home), Packers (away), Bears (away), and Eagles (home). The offensive line will be put to the test early as Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Chicago all ranked in the upper half of PFF’s team pass-rushing grades.

    Getting off to a good start during this stretch will be crucial. Four of their final five opponents include the Seattle Seahawks (away), Los Angeles Chargers (away), Packers (home), and Bears (home).

    Suggested bets

    I would expect the mantra around the Vikings is that Cousins is not a “winner,” and therefore most will be down on the team. Their schedule is demanding, but I believe in a turnaround for them. Cousins had the lowest yards per attempt mark of his career, but some of that can be attributed to the poor offensive line play.

    Excuses aside, I believe in this team. I believe in Kirk Cousins. I know I’m on an island, but answer me this: What is the public opinion if the Vikings made the playoffs last year? They were just one game short, and you can look at week two as the reason they missed it. If their kicker does his job, they’re in the postseason.

    Bookmaker offers the best odds for the over at 9 (-115). I think that it is worth a bet. The team is mostly the same as their 2017 NFC Championship squad. The most significant change is the offensive line. I have high hopes for what Dennison can do for the unit from a coaching standpoint. Drafting a potential All-Pro center and a quietly versatile guard adds to the optimism I have for this unit. They should fit right into Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme.

    I also like their Super Bowl price of 33/1 at Bookmaker. I think they can win their division, and if you host a home game in the playoffs, anything is possible.

    While I don’t agree with Zimmer’s run-first approach, they have the personnel to pull it off this year. Zimmer himself is no slouch as a head coach. He is 63% against the spread as Viking’s head coach. That is uncanny. I have faith he will turn this squad around in 2019.

    Searching for value

    One bet I think could be worthwhile, if you are with me on Chicago regressing, is taking both Green Bay and Minnesota to win the division. Right now at Bookmaker, Minnesota is (+242) (28.99% implied probability) while Green Bay sits at (+212) (32.05% implied probability) to win the division. If we think Chicago comes back down to earth, and can safely eliminate the Detroit Lions, then this is a two-team race priced as a three-team race.

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    In this scenario, if Green Bay wins the division, you risked $20 to profit $11.20, essentially getting them at (-179) (64.16% implied probability). If Minnesota comes out on top, you risked $20 to win $14.50, essentially getting them at (-138) (57.98% implied probability) to win the division. You’re sacrificing value based on the actual prices listed. However, if we are right in our handicap of the NFC North, you’re locking in a profit, albeit a small one. For the record I am not recommending this, I just wanted to show how you can be creative with your bets if you’re confident in your handicap.

    Bet: Over 9(-115) Bookmaker
    Super Bowl Future 33/1 Bookmaker

    James Aguirre is a writer for PFN covering NFL betting and Fantasy Football. You can follow him on Twitter @PFN_James.

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