A Look Inside: 2021 Minnesota Vikings

SKOL!!! I’m not sure that anyone even knows what that means, but it gets Vikings fans fired up! It’s a good thing they have their chant to get excited about because the 2020 season was a major disappointment. After a 2019 playoff run, the team went 7-9 this past year. For the most part, they have their defense (or lack thereof) to blame. Usually known for having a stout defense, this Vikings defensive unit ranked near the bottom of the league in most metrics. They basically forced head coach Mike Zimmer to admit it was the “worst one I’ve ever had”.

This is a fantasy article though, so we only care about the offense. It was one of the most productive and efficient units across the NFL last season. Let’s review what we saw from some old and new faces and discuss what to expect in 2021.

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode with special guest Mike Wright from The Fantasy Footballers on Youtube below!

Quarterbacks

Minnesota will be changing offensive coordinators after Gary Kubiak’s recent retirement. This usually leads to uncertainty in team projections, but Kubiak will be replaced by his son, Klint. It’s expected that he will run the same offense, so it’s safe to say that Minnesota will continue to deploy a run-heavy approach. The Vikings have been one of the bottom six teams in pass attempts over the last two seasons. That type of volume puts a cap on Kirk Cousins’ fantasy ceiling.

There were post-draft reports that surfaced which revealed that Minnesota was interested in trading up for Ohio State QB prospect Justin Fields. That move would have made this section a bit more interesting. Instead, the only competition that Cousins will see from the draft is third-round pick, Kellen Mond, out of Texas A&M. Mond is not viewed as an NFL-ready prospect, so plan to see another season of “Captain Kirk” running the show in Minnesota.

Kirk has been a reliable fantasy option during his three years in Minnesota. He’s never finished outside of the top-20 QBs. Last season, he managed to crack the Top 12 for the first time since 2017. He did it by achieving a career-high touchdown rate of 6.8-percent (career-high before 2020: 5.2-percent), so I wouldn’t bet on him reaching QB1 status again. As mentioned before, the high-volume rushing attack of this offense does not allow for a high ceiling with Cousins. Fortunately, he’s a highly efficient QB, finishing with the second-highest yards per attempt in 2020. This keeps him in the mid to high-QB2 range for fantasy drafts.

Running Backs

You don’t need me to tell you that Dalvin Cook is a stud, but I’ll throw out a few stats anyway! Among RBs in 2020, Cook ranked:

  • 2nd in carries
  • 1st in red-zone touches
  • 11th in routes run
  • 8th in true yards per carry (removes big plays)
  • 2nd in evaded tackles
  • 6th best juke rate

These are a few of the metrics that show the rare combination of both volume and efficiency that Cook has. This is what makes him one of the most coveted fantasy assets. The only downside to Cook is his injury history. We have yet to see him play more than 14 games in a season. Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara are the only running backs that have outperformed him in points per game since 2019. He is still well worth the risk of drafting as one of the first players off the board in any format.

Cook is one of the few remaining three-down, “bell cow” running backs in the NFL today. That leaves little production to be had for the depth options behind him. Alexander Mattison has established himself as the clear number two back, filling in nicely for Cook when needed. This includes a 95-yard rushing performance in Week 17 when Cook was out due to injury. He also caught three passes for fifty yards in that game and scored two touchdowns. Mattison has very little appeal while Cook is in the lineup but holds RB1 upside if Cook were to go down with any injuries.

Wide Receivers

It’s impossible to bring up the Vikings and not discuss the sensational rookie, Justin Jefferson. The 2020 first-round pick lit the fantasy world on fire once he took over a starting role in Week 3. I remember the off-season concerns about Jefferson being behind Olabisi Johnson (remember him?!) in camp. More proof that we shouldn’t put much stock into OTA reports.

Many expected Jefferson to do his damage out of the slot, but he lined up on the outside for over 80-percent of snaps last season. He played as an excellent complement to Adam Thielen for about half of the regular season. he then proceeded to out-target the former Vikings’ “alpha” in six out of their last seven games played together. Jefferson’s 24.2% target share on the year was comfortably ahead of Thielen’s 20.9%. The most impressive part about Jefferson’s rookie campaign was his efficiency. Since 1992, AJ Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Lee Evans, and Justin Jefferson are the only rookie WRs to average above eleven yards per target. He finished as WR6 on the year but was WR4 if you start counting in Week 3 which was his first start. Jefferson is set to be a perennial top-10 wide receiver for years to come.

While Jefferson ascended in 2020, Thielen went in the other direction. Coming off an injury-filled 2019 season, his yards per reception, catch percentage, yards per target, and yards per touch were all below his career average marks. He also dropped a career-high seven passes. His only saving grace was in the touchdown department, as he scored 14 times. That was a TD rate of 12.9%, which is more than double his career average rate through 2019. Expect major regression in 2021. Thielen has the talent to remain in the WR2 conversation, but his best days are likely behind him. There is a new sheriff in town for Minnesota (Jefferson) and only room for one fantasy WR1 on this team.

Over the last two seasons, the Vikings have run the lowest percentage of three-wide sets and, borrowing a common fantasy Twitter phrase, “it’s not even close!”. They were in ‘11 personnel’ (Three WRs) just 29-percent of snaps last season. The second-lowest team ran three receivers 38-percent of the time. This doesn’t allow for a lot of production from any of the wideouts behind Jefferson and Thielen. A name to keep an eye on is Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the 2021 fifth-round pick out of Iowa. Day three rookies are always a longshot. If Thielen or Jefferson were to go down with an injury, Smith-Marsette is a dynamic athlete that could find himself in a good position to become a fantasy sleeper.

Tight Ends

Kyle Rudolph was the starting tight end for Minnesota from 2012-2020. While Rudolph had some productive seasons with the Vikings, he was never a difference-maker for fantasy. He did have a great 2016 season when he saw 132 targets and finished as the TE2. Outside of that, he’s never exceeded 700 yards in a single year. After his release in March, Minnesota will be looking for their young tight ends to step up.

A popular sleeper among fantasy analysts and the favorite to win the starting tight end spot is Irv Smith Jr. “Big Irv” was an exciting prospect out of Alabama, taken by the Vikings in the second round of the 2019 draft. He has shown flashes, especially as a red-zone threat, but has usually played second-fiddle to Rudolph. We just haven’t seen him as a consistent fantasy producer.

We saw a short glimpse of Smith as the starter when Rudolph missed the last four weeks of 2020 due to a foot injury. During that period, Smith was the TE4, but his production was heavily skewed by touchdowns. Those scores made up 35% of his total points during that stretch. With Irv turning just 23 years old this upcoming season, there is plenty of hope for him to develop into a top-10 fantasy tight end. That hope grows with Rudolph out of his way completely.

Fantasy managers that draft Smith would feel much better about his outlook if it weren’t for Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer recently hyping up Tyler Conklin. It’s never a good idea to take comments made in June too seriously, but it still puts a damper on the Smith hype train. During the last four weeks of 2020, with no Rudolph in the lineup, Conklin actually saw one more target than Smith did (21-20). Don’t expect Conklin to ever break out as one of their top receiving options. He only has 329 receiving yards in his three-year career. I do worry that he will be a nuisance for Irv Smith though, by taking away enough targets to prevent Smith from becoming a high-end starter for fantasy.