Who are the Top 10 Vikings at this point?
By: Grant Schwieger
While a Week 7 bye is relatively early for an NFL team, it seems to have come at a good time for the 2021 Minnesota Vikings. Five of the first six games of the Vikings’ season have come down to the final play, with their Week 3 victory over the Seattle Seahawks being the lone exception.
Gabe Henderson, on-air talent for the Vikings, summarized this season’s experience thus far quite well. As one would imagine, a Sunday with no elevated heart rates and spiked blood pressure due to the Vikings was well-needed.
Vikings fans spent the first week of the bye week discussing how lucky the team was to escape their games with Detroit and Carolina victorious, truly fortunate to be even 3-3 at this juncture. Then, as time wore on, and the football world saw Cincinnati and Arizona come out of Week 7 as the top teams in each respective conference (which has already changed with Arizona’s loss to Green Bay), many Minnesotans changed their mindset. Abruptly gone was the memory of near-embarrassment against Jared Goff and Sam Darnold and replaced was the memory of should-have-been victories over those Bengals and Cardinals in the opening weeks. Pair that with the Vikings currently holding the 7th and final playoff spot, and optimism had returned in full swing. No longer was there much mention of how close the team was to being 1-5, but instead how close they were to being 5-1! While both are true statements, the reality is the Vikings are right where they should be at 3-3.
Luck has been both against Minnesota and for them early on, which is why a .500 record this early feels about as right as Baby bear’s porridge tasted to Goldilocks. While the Vikings do not own an overly impressive record, they have not had very many players that are performing as poorly as many did a season ago. What they have had, however, is a lot of players performing well. Here is my ranking of the 10 best Vikings players so far this year, and where they ranked for me before the season began.
10. Patrick Peterson (honorable mention preseason)
Let me begin this by saying at the time, I was not a fan of the Patrick Peterson signing. It appeared as if Minnesota overpaid for an aging corner when they could have gotten a younger, better CB for a lesser price. Peterson has responded by playing well as the Vikings’ CB1.
Peterson has shown he can still be a starting-caliber NFL cornerback under Mike Zimmer. The hamstring injury that landed him on IR is a big blow to a Vikings secondary that feels as if the dam could explode at any moment without him. Peterson’s PFF grades are nothing spectacular, but among CBs with 50% of snaps played, his 64.3 overall grade ranks 30th, 61.9 coverage grade ranks 32nd, and 59.4% of targets allowed to be caught ranks 25th. He has been an above-average CB, which is something Minnesota needly badly after 2020. He will be missed and can hopefully return for the end of the season.
9. Harrison Smith (4th preseason)
The initial reaction to seeing Harrison Smith this low on this list might be harsh considering how tremendous the Hitman has been his entire career, but it is more a testament to his teammates than about his own play. Smith has still been his usual, consistently dependable self so far in 2021.
With his overall PFF grade of 74.6 currently ranking sixth among safeties, he is on pace to yet again be one of the best safeties in the NFL in 2021. This should be encouraging to Vikings fans as Smith was extended this offseason, and while he will forever be a Minnesota legend, there was some pause about extending a 32-year-old safety through his age 36 season. For some reference, the oldest safeties in the NFL currently are the McCourty’s at age 34.
Zimmer has used Smith and his safety partner Xavier Woods in two-high safety looks more often this year, disguising Minnesota’s coverage pre-snap less often than usual per PFF. This is part of the reason Smith has not been heard of as much in 2021, but he is still playing at a high level. He has the lowest missed tackle percentage of his career at 2%, missing just one tackle so far and resulting in an elite 90.4 tackling grade. His coverage grade of 75.0 is fourth among safeties and has allowed the 11th fewest yards with just 74. The Hitman has yet to register an interception but expect one to come soon. He is a huge Halloween fan, so maybe Sunday Night on Halloween will be the time he makes his biggest play of the year.
8. Everson Griffen (unranked preseason)
Everson Griffen making this list is unquestionably the biggest surprise based on the outlook of Minnesota before the season began. Griffen did not join the Vikings until a few weeks before Week 1 and was expected to just be a pass-rushing specialist rotating in on obvious passing downs. After a slower start to the season, Griffen has outperformed DJ Wonnum and Stephen Weatherly, with the latter having since been traded, and played 40+ snaps and registering 5+ pressures each of his last three games.
After being traded from Dallas to Detroit last year and there apparently not being much interest around the league in teams bringing him in this offseason, seeing Griffen succeed at a high level when he is nearly 34 is an incredible feel-good story.
Griffen has looked just as good as he was in his first stint in Minnesota, currently owning the 10th highest PFF pass-rush win-rate in the NFL including the 6th highest among edge defenders. His 77.9 overall grade ranks 14th and 81.1 pass-rush grade ranks 11th among edge defenders as well. This is not just a feel-good story, this is Griffen being one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL for a team that desperately needed one opposite Danielle Hunter.
Minnesota has missed Griffen’s elite spin move and it has been awesome seeing it in action in purple once again. Here’s to Griffen staying healthy both mentally and physically throughout the year.
7. Brian O’Neill (7th preseason)
It is incredibly fitting for Brian O’Neill to slot in exactly where I ranked him before the season, as he is nothing if not consistent in his performance at right tackle. He did not allow a single QB pressure until Week 4 against Cleveland, and he has only allowed two pressures outside of that game this season. While his overall PFF grade of 66.3 ranks in the 30s among NFL tackles, that is due to his run-blocking coming in lower than his previous two seasons. If he can get that on track he will continue to rise up the ranks among the NFL’s OTs.
O’Neill has gotten a lot of praise over his career for rarely allowing Kirk Cousins to get hit, and he has turned that up a notch in 2021. His six pressures allowed are the fewest among all RTs, resulting in a pass-blocking grade that ranks 13th and “True Pass Set” pass-blocking grade that ranks 12th among all tackles. O’Neill has the Minnesota RT spot locked down for years to come, and hopefully, Christian Darrisaw can do the same for the Vikings’ blindside.
6. Adam Thielen (6th preseason)
Adam Thielen casually caught 14 TDs in 2020, good for third among NFL WRs, and once again has 5 TDs in 6 games in 2021. He had a little slump in production against Cleveland and Detroit, but in his four other games, he has 32 catches on 36 targets for 307 yards and his 5 TDs. After those two down games in Week 4 and 5, Thielen responded with his best game yet against Carolina in Week 6. He is 31 years old and is still able to produce at a high level as Minnesota’s WR2.
Plays like the one above against Seattle are reasons why Thielen continues to perform well. He is a lethal weapon in the red zone with his combination of route running and contested catch ability. He has caught 82.2% of passes his way this year, the highest among all WRs with 40+ targets. It always feels that much more special when a player is playing well and is a homegrown kid. Minnesota fans will continue to hope Adam Thielen can keep that hometown magic going for years to come.
5. Dalvin Tomlinson (10th preseason)
Dalvin Tomlinson was arguably Minnesota’s biggest free-agent signing and he has lived up to the hype to this point, providing a tremendous boost to the Vikings’ interior defensive line. He was primarily known as a run-stuffing DT, but he has provided both run support and pass-rushing chops for Minnesota.
Plays such as the one above show why Tomlinson has made his name as a solid run-defender, single-handedly ruining Carolina’s rushing attempt. His PFF pass-rushing grade is actually higher than his run defense grade, will both of them ranking in the top 15 among DTs playing 50% of snaps. His overall grade ranks 11th, meaning Tomlinson has been one of the best interior defenders in the NFL for a defense that was in the need of a warm body to play after the atrocious 2020 season at the position.
A bonus point to Tomlinson: if you search his name on Twitter, most of the results are Giants fans wishing the team had not let him go. Good for Minnesota in nailing a free agent signing.
4. Justin Jefferson (5th preseason)
Justin Jefferson had such a historic rookie season that it almost felt inevitable to experience some sort of regression on his part this year. The reality is that he is only confirming that he is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Here are the metrics Jefferson ranks in the top 10 of among WRs: overall PFF grade, receiving grade, targets, catches, and yards, while just barely missing the top 10 in yards after catch and yards per route run. He trails only Davante Adams in receiving grade out of the slot as well.
There are many other things when it comes to WRs that are harder to quantify. Route running ability is one of them, and Jefferson is becoming regarded as one of the best in the league in that aspect as well. He is also seeing more safeties shading to his side of the field this year, which is to be expected after he exploded onto the scene last year. Justin Jefferson does have as many drops this year as he had all of 2020 with four, but drops are not stable year-to-year so that is not much cause for concern. Expect JJ to continue flying up all sorts of rankings and lists.
3. Eric Kendricks (1st preseason)
Eric Kendricks falling from 1st to 3rd on this list has nothing to do with him. He has continued adding to his argument as the best linebacker in football, making impactful play after impactful play. None better than his one-handed interception of Jared Goff.
The PFF grades back up Kendricks’ solid play, with the 5th highest overall grade and comfortably the best coverage grade among LBs. The way that NFL offenses operate, they are designed to put stress on LBs, and Eric Kendricks is one of the best in the business in combatting NFL offenses. He can excel in multiple ways, whether it be against RBs out of the backfield, TEs, or even WRs in the slot at times. He owns the 3rd best coverage grade in man coverage among LBs and the highest grade in zone coverage, proving that he can do whatever is asked of him by Mike Zimmer.
While Kendricks has never been the best run-defending LB, he is still capable of making big plays in the run game, too. The play in the tweet above shows Kendricks’ quick diagnosis of the play and closing speed to not let the ball carrier get to the corner. Having him back healthy this season is one of the big reasons the Vikings’ defense has bounced back from the humiliation it was to end 2020.
2. Danielle Hunter (3rd preseason)
Had it been known Danielle Hunter would be back 100% healthy with no issues, he likely would have been #1 on this list entering the season. He is a special type of player that defensive coordinators and defensive line coaches dream about having on their squads. After a slower start to the season in Week 1, he bounced back against Arizona and has been lights out ever since.
While his game against Kyler Murray and company was impressive, he has yet to slow down, registering 29 of his 31 pressures since Week 2. He is the Vikings’ highest-graded defender thus far and ranks 11th among NFL edge defenders. His 31 pressures rank 8th, with every other defender higher than him having played more games.
The combination of Hunter’s pass-rushing repertoire and Griffen’s bounce-back has been impeccable for this Minnesota defense. They are part of the reason Minnesota owns the 5th highest team pass-rushing grade in the league. He just turned 27 on Friday and had the fourth-most sacks among players in NFL history before they turned 27. Hunter is back to adding to his historic career and should find himself being paid handsomely come next offseason.
1. Kirk Cousins (8th preseason)
Kirk Cousins is an incredibly polarizing player, but no one can question how well he has played to start 2021. He has put together the best 6 game stretch of his career and has put to rest the narrative of him not being clutch, leading the team on potential game-winning drives time and time again. He has the fourth-best PFF passing grade along with the second-best overall grade among QBs. He has always been incredibly accurate, and his league-leading 83.5% adjusted completion percentage backs that up, too.
It seems as if Kirk Cousins’ career has been a constantly swinging pendulum, where he plays well, is deemed underrated, and then he falls back down to earth, plays poorly, and is called out as a waste of money and overrated. Just like the 2021 Vikings, Cousins overall falls somewhere in the middle. As of right now, though, Cousins has simply played like one of the best QBs in the NFL, barely missing any throws while rarely putting the ball in harm’s way.
Plays like the one above are perfect examples of what Cousins has brought to the table in 2021 that we have not seen previously. In years past, Cousins gets sacked there, or even worse, fumbles. Instead, he avoids Brian Burns and scrambles for 16 yards and a first down on what should have been a game-winning drive.
Cousins is also getting rid of the ball on average in 2.46 seconds, good for third-best in the NFL. This leads to him taking fewer sacks and fewer negative plays. He is responsible for only 3.3% of the pressures he has faced because of that, one of the top marks in the league.
Pairing all of that with dimes that he regularly drops such as the play above, and we are left with what has been the Minnesota Vikings’ best player so far this year. Quarterbacks are the most important player on the field, and it is vital for Minnesota’s success for Cousins to keep this going. The problem is, when will that pendulum swing back? When will Vikings fans be left saying “what was that?!” like they have in years past? Hopefully not any time soon.
While you can debate the order of the Vikings’ 10 best players so far this year, the top group as a whole seems pretty clear. However, there are a few players who receive honorable mention status and were at least considered, the first being Dalvin Cook.
Cook was ranked 2nd on my list preseason but obviously slipped a bit. Part of that is he has only played in 4 games, and in those games he owns career-low overall and rushing grades. He also owns the second-lowest yards after contact per attempt of his career. Once Cook gets back healthy, which it sounds like he is, he will find himself again on this list.
The others receiving honorable mention are Xavier Woods and KJ Osborn. Woods has been solid on the back end next to Harrison Smith, and Osborn has emerged as the best WR3 the Vikings have had in Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota. Shoutout to these two guys!