Four Areas Where the Vikings May Be Primed For Regression in 2020
The Vikings had a fantastic season in 2019, bouncing back from a disappointing 2018 by going 10-6 and pulling off an upset in the first round of the playoffs. It continued an odd trend; the Vikings have alternated missing the postseason and making it in each of Mike Zimmer's six years as head coach.
In 2020, the Vikings will look to make consecutive trips to the playoffs – and make it there in an even-numbered year – for the first time under Zimmer. However, a look at the numbers suggests there are a few reasons why the rollercoaster trend may continue this season.
Here are three areas in which the Vikings may be primed for regression.
Every NFL team deals with injuries in a given season, it's just a question of how many players are affected and how significant their ailments are. And for the most part, research has shown that injuries are fairly random. There might be players whose style of play makes them more injury-prone than others, and a good athletic training staff can make a minor difference, but it tends to be difficult to predict injuries on a year-to-year basis. That's why the term "injury luck" exists.
The 2019 Vikings had incredible injury luck, which could suggest that regression in that department is coming in 2020. Football Outsiders keeps track of a statistic called Adjusted Games Lost, which tracks data from weekly injury reports and adjusts for the importance of each player to their team. By that metric, the Vikings were the least injured team in the NFL last year – by far.
The Vikings had 25.6 AGL in 2019, well below the league average of 75.8. (The Jets were the most injured, with 160.1 AGL). The next healthiest team was the Buccaneers at 39.5. In 2018, the Vikings were at 70.1, which was right around league average. That type of luck is unlikely to carry over from season to season. The Vikings' only position groups with above 5 AGL were wide receiver (Adam Thielen) and defensive back (Mike Hughes, Mackensie Alexander). Running back Dalvin Cook had the healthiest season of his career, and all of the Vikings' other starters avoided major injuries.
Another aspect of the game that research has shown to be fairly unpredictable is turnovers. Although some defenses can be consistently good at forcing turnovers and starting quarterbacks have a big role in preventing them (Aaron Rodgers is much better than Jameis Winston at not throwing picks), there's a very high year-to-year variability when it comes to turnovers.
The most random type of turnovers are fumbles, which are almost completely luck-based in terms of who recovers them. Last year, the Vikings were fifth in the league in turnover margin at plus-11 (31 takeaways, 20 giveaways). A big part of that was their fumble recovery rates on both offense and defense. Defensively, the Vikings recovered 14 of their opponents' 22 fumbles for a rate of 63.6 percent, which was third-highest in the NFL. On offense, the Vikings recovered 17 of their 29 fumbles for a rate of 58.6 percent (10th-highest). Regression could be coming in the fumble department this year.
Personnel changes also support the idea that the Vikings could face regression in their turnover differential. Not having Stefon Diggs will hurt Kirk Cousins on offense, and the losses of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and three cornerbacks could lead to fewer takeaways on defense.
3. Kirk Cousins
A big reason for the Vikings' success last year was Cousins putting together the best season of his career. In his fifth year as a full-time starter, Cousins was finally put in a system tailored to his strengths and responded by changing some of the narratives surrounding his career. He finished fourth in the league in passer rating and sixth in PFF grade, among other statistical achievements.
The fact that he had a career year, in itself, is a potential signal of regression, as is the departure of Diggs. But there are also a few specific statistical areas which suggest that he could have a difficult time replicating his 2019 performance. Cousins relied somewhat heavily on having success after lengthy dropbacks; you may recall some of his deep bombs to Diggs after rolling out to the left. PFF's Timo Riske found that Cousins had 34 percent of his passes fall below the 25th time-to-throw percentile and was highly successful on those attempts. "Successful targets that late aren’t something a team should rely on, and if teams have been able to rely on them, they might be due for regression," Riske wrote.
PFF's Eric Eager also notes that Cousins' success under pressure might not be sustainable. "Cousins’ career season — and his efficiency in noisy situations like play action and under pressure (sixth in the NFL in passer rating under duress) — all scream 'regression' when staring down the barrel of a weakened receiving corps, defense and a more difficult schedule."
Lastly, Cousins was incredibly efficient on third down, which he may have a hard time sustaining without Diggs.
Another thing pointed out by PFF's Eager is how lucky the Vikings got in terms of some of the quarterbacks they faced last year. They only faced Matthew Stafford once, avoided Patrick Mahomes, and faced a bunch of inexperienced or backup-caliber signal-callers. Chase Daniel, Daniel Jones, Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Matt Moore, Brandon Allen, and David Blough all played significant snaps against the Vikings' defense in 2019. When the Vikings did face top-tier QBs, they struggled.
While their defense did finish in the top 10 in terms of yards per play allowed and top five in points allowed, they were dragged up and down the field when forced to play Matthew Stafford (433 yards allowed), Dak Prescott (443 yards) and Russell Wilson (444 yards), and they had no answer for the ground game of the eventual NFC champion 49ers in Santa Clara in January.
In 2020, the Vikings' list of probable starting quarterbacks faced includes Stafford (twice), Aaron Rodgers (twice), Wilson, Prescott, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and 2019 NFL passing leader Ryan Tannehill.
While the Vikings could actually be better at cornerback by replacing Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes with young players, the likes of Mike Hughes and Jeff Gladney are going to face a lot of potent arms and offenses this year. That could be bad news.
This article isn't meant to be overly pessimistic. The Vikings absolutely have the roster and coaching staff to get back to the playoffs in 2020. But if regression comes in several of these four areas, that task could become more difficult than some people may expect. That could mean another even-numbered year with the Vikings sitting at home in January.
Join the conversation at InsideTheVikings by clicking the follow button in the upper right-hand corner of this page (mobile users, tap the bell icon – you may have to click ‘News’ first), and follow @WillRagatz on Twitter.