The first half of the 2020 season for the Minnesota Vikings was an interesting one, to say the least.
Attempting to reload much of their roster after an exodus of veteran talent this offseason was going to be difficult enough, but the Vikings were forced to do it during a global pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak limited their preparation time, removed the preseason for a young team that could've benefited from it, caused their top free agent to opt out of the season, and took away their famed home field advantage in Minneapolis. If that wasn't enough, the Vikings also lost key defensive players in Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Mike Hughes for the season due to injury.
A team with playoff expectations got off to a highly disappointing 1-5 start, including a pair of heartbreaking one-point losses to great teams. However, they've rallied with two straight divisional wins after the bye week, restoring some hope that they'll be able to continue a turnaround in the second half and sneak into an expanded postseason.
Let's hand out some midseason awards for the 3-5 Vikings.
MVP: RB Dalvin Cook
Over the past two weeks, Cook has almost singlehandedly saved the Vikings' season. He dominated the Packers and Lions to the tune of 239 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns *per game*, and currently leads the NFL in virtually every imaginable rushing stat. For much more on Cook's incredible run, check out my story on his emergence as the league's top running back and a dark horse league MVP candidate.
With Kirk Cousins throwing ten interceptions early on, Cook is the obvious choice for team MVP. Gary Kubiak and the Vikings have leaned on him more than any other team leans on their RB; Minnesota's winning formula is riding him and limiting what Cousins has to do. They're a different team when Cook is out there and dominating, and would've beaten the Seahawks (and perhaps even the Falcons) had he been healthy.
Defensive MVP: LB Eric Kendricks
Harrison Smith deserves some consideration here, but I think the answer is pretty clearly Kendricks. He has been the Vikings' rock in a front seven that lost Michael Pierce, Hunter, and Barr and then traded away Yannick Ngakoue. Kendricks is third in the league in tackles, one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, and is crucial to what Mike Zimmer does with the entire defense. He has also stepped up and played his best two games of the year in the team's two-game winning streak.
Special Teams MVP: RB Mike Boone
With Dan Bailey and Britton Colquitt having fairly average seasons in the kicking game and no returners standing out, this honor goes to Boone. Only Dan Chisena and Ameer Abdullah have played more special teams snaps than the third-year running back, who made that unit's biggest play of the year with a forced fumble in Week 4 that earned him NFL Special Teams Player of the Week. Boone has five special teams tackles and is solid on every coverage and return unit.
Rookie of the Year: WR Justin Jefferson
There's no other answer here. Jefferson has burst onto the scene as a rookie, outperforming every other receiver in his class, including the four drafted in front of him. In fact, despite having minimal production over the past two weeks as the Vikings have leaned on Cook, Jefferson still trails only Davante Adams in PFF grade and yards per route run among all NFL wideouts. He and Adams are the only players with multiple games of at least 150 receiving yards this season. Jefferson looks like an emerging superstar who will be a big part of the Vikings' offense in the second half and for many years to come.
Most Improved Player: C Garrett Bradbury
This was a tough one. You can make the case for a number of players, including Eric Wilson and Shamar Stephen on defense and over half of the offensive line. While tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill deserve serious consideration, I think the most improved player on the Vikings has been Bradbury, their second-year center. The 2019 first-round pick has shown a very encouraging upwards progression, boosting his PFF grade by 11 points and generally coming into his own as one of the better centers in the NFL. He has all of the tools to be an elite run-blocker and has improved in pass protection, even though he's had a couple games he would like back in that area. Bradbury should only continue to grow and improve down the stretch in 2020.
Best Victory: Vikings 28, Packers 22
Wins over the Texans and Lions were impressive in various areas, but the Vikings' best victory was clearly their unexpected upset of the 5-1 Packers at Lambeau Field two Sundays ago. They went to Green Bay and received outstanding performances from Cook and the offensive line, and managed to hold Aaron Rodgers to one score on five second-half possessions. If the Vikings rally to make the playoffs, it'll all have started on that windy afternoon at Lambeau.
Best Offensive Play: Kyle Rudolph's one-handed catch against Tennessee
There are a bunch of Cook and Jefferson highlights that could take this top spot, plus a few spectacular catches by Adam Thielen. Cook and Jefferson each have a touchdown of roughly 70 yards and another of roughly 50 yards, and all four of those plays were amazing. But I'm going with a sleeper pick here and showing some love to Rudolph, the Vikings' longest-tenured player. He seems to make at least one absurd one-handed touchdown catch per year, and this one against the Titans takes the top spot for me:
Cousins chucked it up while under pressure, Rudolph went full extension with his left arm, and the most impressive part is that he managed to get both feet down inbounds for the score.
Best Defensive Play: D.J. Wonnum's game-ending strip sack of Aaron Rodgers
The Vikings are one of 15 out of 32 teams without a defensive touchdown so far, and are towards the bottom in total takeaways. To me, one defensive play stands out above the rest, mostly because of the opponent and situation. With Rodgers loading up for a potential game-winning Hail Mary, the rookie Wonnum stayed in hot pursuit and absolutely crushed him from behind.
It was arguably the biggest moment of the season so far, and also gave us this gem of a photograph:
The second half of the season begins on Monday night in Chicago.
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