New Orleans at Minnesota (-4)
Every post-season, I decide which NFC team I’m rooting for, and which AFC team I’d like to see win. The decision is always based on my idiosyncratic notions about which team has made the smartest moves, plays the most sound football, has overcome the most obstacles, conducted itself more admirably, which coaches or players I like (or hate) more… or whose fans have had to endure the most crap.
The AFC rep is usually the Steelers (never New England). The NFC team varies.
This year it was easy. I knew, more than a month ago, that I wanted to see the Vikings win it all. The Vikings are the team that proves something I keep saying: There is always enough talent available if you look carefully and you coach well.
Here is the what Pro Football Reference considers the Vikings starters for 2017. They’re the players who started the most games at each position– with a minimum of nine starts (there are only ten offensive starters because the Vikings sometimes used two backs, sometimes three receivers and sometimes two tight ends. All six of the column headings are self-explanatory– but I want you to focus on the last one, which shows (a) by which team, (b) in which round and and (c) in what year player was drafted. Pay attention to the number of players drafted by the Vikings– and the number not drafted at all:
Eight of the 23 starters didn’t get drafted by any NFL team. That’s an astonishingly high number. Of the remaining 15, four were drafted by other teams– then obtained by the Vikings,
This incarnation of the Vikings began in 2014, when GM Rick Spielman hired head coach Mike Zimmer. Spielman has been the GM since 2006, but his record between 2006-13 was 60-67-1 (a .473 winning percentage), so I am pretty comfortable crediting this team substantially to Zimmer (who has gone 39-25, or .609, since being hired).
Of the 11 players drafted by Minnesota, Zimmer inherited four. To go down the list in the order they appear:
TE Kyle Rudolph (round two, 2011). Rudolph is a good player– he made the Pro Bowl in 2012. But, based on his stats in the 39 games he played before Zimmer arrived in 2014 (109 catches, 1,153 yards and 15 TDs), I doubt anyone (except Jon Gruden, during a game) would call him a “Star.”
DE Everson Griffen. (round four, 2010). Not even Gruden– who has been known to call ballboys “one of the best ever”– would have referred to Griffen as a star, He played 59 games in the four seasons before Zimmer arrived, starting once. He had 17.5 sacks in those four years. He was a one-dimensional edge rusher– not even a good one.
CB Xavier Rhodes (pick 25 in round one, 2013). As a rookie– his only season before Zimmer arrived– Rhodes played in 13 games, starting six. His stats (no interceptions, 10 pass knockdowns, no sacks, 1 fumble forced, 41 tackles) weren’t bad. That said, Rhodes didn’t make any all-rookie teams; nobody suggested he was better than WR DeAndre Hopkins or C Andy Frederick, both of whom Minnesota passed up to take him.
SS Harrison Smith (pick 29, round one, 2012). Smith, you could have said was a rising star. He’d started all 16 games as a rookie, made five interceptions (returning two for scores), forced a fumble, gotten a sack and knocked down 14 balls. His stats would have been even better if he hadn’t missed the last eight games of the 2013 season with an injury.
To recap, that’s one guy who made a Pro Bowl trip (Rudolph), one guy who looked like he might (Smith) one player who seemed decent (Rhodea) and one guy who was hanging on by a thread (Griffen). Here’s what happened:
- Rudolph hasn’t improved much. He went to the Pro Bowl for a 53-catch season with 9 TDs; he’s had 49, 83 and 57 since. You could say he’s consolidated his ability, but that’s all.
- Griffen became a monster. He’s missed only two games in four years, started every single one, had 43.5 sacks and has made three Pro Bowls. Someone– either coordinator George Edwards, DL Coach Andre Patterson, strength coach Mark Uyeyama or the Good Lord– has done a remarkable job.
- Rhodes became the player Minnesota hoped he would be. He’s missed only two games, started them all and made the last two Pro Bowls. I’d credit DB coach Jerry Gray– a former coordinator and Pro Bowl safety
- Smith has made two Pro Bowls– and this year, All-Pro. He’s missed only three games, started the rest, and has 12 picks and 26 knockdowns. Again, I’d assume that is Gray– he does that wherever he goes.
Now let’s walk through the seven picks they made
Zimmer (who was hired, by the way, the same year the Browns hired Mike Pettine) showed up and the Vikings chose LB Anthony Barr with the ninth pick in the first round. He’s not an edge rusher (only 10.5 sacks in four years)– he’s a strongside backer who covers tight ends and backs and is a nightmare on running plays. Barr is going to this third consecutive Pro Bowl this year.
The Browns chose Justin Gilbert with the eighth pick. In fact, they wanted Gilbert so much– and had so little interest in Barr– that they traded a #5 pick to Minnesota to move up one spot to be sure they got him
Minnesota added four starters in the draft:
- CB Trae Waynes (pick 11, round 1): It took him a while to catch on (one start as a rookie, nine last year and then all 16 this year), but he has five interceptions, 26 knockdowns and 116 tackles– for a corner, that’s a lot.
- MLB Eric Kendricks (pick 12, round 2): The Browns could not have taken Waynes– they went 7-9 and their first pick was the twelfth. But they had two chances (Danny Shelton and Cam Erving) to pick Kendricks. He’s a small, quick linebacker– imagine a Chris Kirksey who can cover, doesn’t get out of position on run plays and is as good as the Cleveland media thinks Kirksey is. He hasn’t been to the Pro Bowl, but has gotten All-Pro votes.
- DE Danielle Hunter (pick 24, round 3): His first two seasons, he served as the designated rusher– got six sacks in 2015 and 12.5 in 2016. This year he started every game on the strong side. He still managed 7.0 sacks . That is significantly better than either Nate Orchard or Duke Johnson (whom the Browns took before him).
- WR Stefon Diggs (pick 10, round 5): He hasn’t made any Pro Bowls, but he has 200 catches for 2,472 yards and 15 TDs in three years, Not bad for someone taken after Xavier Cooper, Ibraheim Campbell and Vince Mayle (who was a receiver).
The Vikings didn’t add any current starters in the draft in 2016 but they added two in 2017– neither by choice:
- C Pat Elflein (round 3) had to step in when Nick Easton ended up on IR. He made 14 starts and handled anything the Browns tried in this season’s game
- WLB Ben Gedeon (round 4) wasn’t supposed to play, but when Chad Greenway retired and nobody else worked out, he made 9 starts. He’s more of a kicking teams start than a polished regular– but it’s year one.
Lest this sound like a finely-tuned machine where everything has gone right, let me remind you of a few things:
- Minnesota traded up to select RB Dalwin Cook in round two– he had four great games then went on IR, leaving Minnesota with Latavious Murray and Jerick McKinnon, both of whom averaged below 4.0 yards a carry.
- At tackle, Jake Long retired after last year; after the nth injury Minnesota gave up on former #1 (and Pro Bowl pick) Matt Kalil. The Vikings had to sign Riley Rieff from Detroit.
- They hoped WR Michael Floyd (if he were here, I’d call him “Chug Gordon”), but he couldn’t stop drinking
Oh, and Minnesota had some issues at quarterback. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, and he made the Pro Bowl– until injuries wiped him out.
They traded a #1 to Philly to get Sam Bradford (like RG3, more evidence that you don’t mortgage a draft for a quarterback). He had a good year in 2016– but played only two games this year.
The “Next Man Up” was Case Keenum— an undrafted free agent groomed by the brilliant offensive minds of Bill O’Brien and Jeff Fisher. He was below average with both the Rams and Texans: 9-15 as a starter, 78.4 rating, 6.7 yards per pass and a 24-20 Judgement Index.
The Browns– or any of the other 20 teams with quarterback issues– could have signed him. Minnesota got him for $2 million, with $750 K guaranteed and $250,000 in incentive bonuses, He turned into one of the best bargains in NFL history: 98.3 rating, 7.4 yards per pass and a 22-7 JI.
Keenum didn’t do as well with the rush. He was sacked 22 times for 136 yards lost and gained only 16 yards on four rushes. But if used in place of DeShone “Tire Fire” Kizer, the Browns might have gone 6-10.
Assuming, of course, that anyone in Cleveland had known what to do with him. Someone in Minnesota– Zimmer, QB coach Kevin Stefanski or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur– shined him up like a new penny. Keenum helped WR Adam Thielen— an undrafted free agent from Minnesota State– improve from 69-967-5 last year to 91-1,276-4 (and the Pro Bowl) this year. Diggs has a better year with Keenum than he did with Bradford.
It might be because those are young receivers and they matured. It might be the receivers coached they’ve had (the Vikings have had several). But they got good with Keenum throwing. And someone deserves a lot of credit,
Last but not least, both Minnesota coordinators– Shurmur and Edwards– coached in Cleveland (Edwards was her in 2004). Offensive line coach Tony Sparano was here in 2000.
And Zimmer coached 14 years in Dallas (seven as coordinator), one in Atlanta (he ran the defense in 2007 when some guy named Hue ran the offense) and then six seasons under Marvin Lewis. He was 58, hadn’t had a lot of exciting playoff wins and was rarely interviewed because he didn’t have a mystique.
He sure looks good now, doesn’t he?
Given all I have written, I would love to say that Minnesota will stomp New Orleans and proceed to the NFC Championship, beat the Eagles in the “Battle of Quarterbacks Nobody Wanted” and get to the Super Bowl.
I hesitate to do that because (a) they’re being quarterbacked by Case Keenum, (b) most of this team has little (one game two years ago) and (c) the game is in a dome. In an open-air stadium in Minnesota, I would have absolutely no doubt that the Saints would wilt in the cold weather (much as the Falcons did) and that the Vikings would be able to bite, scractch and claw enough points.
I’m not sure I can convince myself they will be able to beat the Saints on a fast track. I definitely don’t believe they will cover the spread.
On the other hand, I was mightily unimpressed by the New Orleans defense against a very ordinary Carolina team. They had to grab too often and they had trouble stopping an ordinary running game.
Bulletin: Cam Newton is now explaining that loss by saying he was playing hurt but didn’t tell anyone. Lotta class, guy.
If the Vikings had Cook, no problem. If they had more experience, sure. If Shurmur (whom I was unimpressed by in Cleveland and last year, after Norv Turner quit) weren’t guiding the offense, I’d have an easier time.
But I can’t see the Vikings winning a shootout– not unless they force a slew of turnovers. At best, what will have to happen is they crash through a battered Saints line and force Drew Brees into errors.