Pro Football Focus has been gradually releasing their positional rankings ahead of the 2021 NFL season, and with the entire offensive side of the ball completed, let's take a look at how the Minnesota Vikings' projected starters fared. Each list features PFF's top 32 players at that position.
Kirk Cousins: No. 14 Quarterback
Cousins operates very well when the conditions around him are good. The Vikings hit on replacing Stefon Diggs with Justin Jefferson in the draft, and they have a top-five rushing attack and a great offensive scheme that fits what Cousins excels at. Minnesota has to clean up its offensive line play, though. The unit ranked 29th in combined pass-blocking grade in 2020. One of these years, Cousins will fulfill the prophecy and be the most unlikely NFL MVP of all time, but last year wasn’t that year. The clock is ticking to make that happen. With the addition of Kellen Mond, the pressure rises, forcing Cousins to find a way to get the Vikings back to the playoffs.
I think Cousins should be higher than this. You could make an argument that over the past two years, he's been better than each of the QBs ranked from 9 to 13 — Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, and Derek Carr — with the exception of Tannehill. Cousins' advanced numbers have been excellent since 2019 despite having some inconsistent stretches and a poor offensive line.
Still, it's not egregious to put him at 14. The fact of the matter is that Cousins has been a disappointment during his time in Minnesota, and he'll need to at least lead the team back to the playoffs in 2021 to avoid the Kellen Mond buzz growing out of control.
Dalvin Cook: No. 2 Running Back
Cook is the closest thing to [Derrick] Henry in terms of a running back outperforming expectations in the NFL. The Vikings back has earned a PFF rushing grade of 90.9 over the last two seasons, second only to Henry, but the Vikings’ offensive line has ranked 15th league-wide in PFF run-blocking grade over that same stretch. Cook is also a big-play waiting to happen — he has ripped off carries of at least 70 yards in each of the last three seasons.
Sounds about right to me, although I was a little surprised to see Cook ranked above Christian McCaffrey. When Cook is healthy and on his game, there might not be a better all-around running back in the NFL. Henry being at No. 1 in these rankings is a no-brainer with the numbers he's put up recently, though.
Adam Thielen: No. 9 Wide Receiver
Former Vikings on the list: Stefon Diggs (No. 8)
Thielen bounced back to top-tier form after an injury-hindered 2019 season. He came away from 2020 with an 87.4 PFF grade that ranked sixth among NFL wide receivers, marking the third time in the past four years he has finished inside the top 10 in that metric. Thielen’s releases and ability to separate are as good as it gets at the position, helping him grade out as a top-five receiver against single coverage since PFF began tracking that metric in 2017.
I like that PFF has always showed respect to Thielen and his talent. You probably won't find him on any other top-ten receiver lists this offseason, but he's still an elite talent when healthy. Thielen had a strong season in 2020, dominating in the red zone with 14 touchdown catches. The targets and yardage were inconsistent and he was overshadowed by Justin Jefferson's emergence, but Thielen is still a phenomenal route-runner and contested-catch wizard. Even at age 31, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Minnesota native record the third 1,000-yard season of his career this fall.
Justin Jefferson: No. 10 Wide Receiver
Jefferson silenced everyone doubting his NFL potential in a big way as a rookie. He finished the season with an elite 90.5 receiving grade that trailed only Davante Adams for the best in the NFL, and he was just shy of the rookie record set by Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014 (91.2). The most impressive aspect of his first NFL season was his performance against single coverage. That was an area of concern when he left LSU because of his role there, but he has undoubtedly proved he can handle those situations. Jefferson maintains his No. 2 receiving grade rank against single coverage and jumps to first in yards per target (13.2) on such plays.
I can understand the logic behind wanting Jefferson to prove it again, but this feels entirely too low. The rookie phenom finished second in PFF grade and yards per route run and fourth in receiving yards. He was a top-five receiver last year and there are plenty of reasons to believe he'll remain at that level in 2021. I think he deserves to be ahead of Thielen, Allen Robinson, and perhaps A.J. Brown or Julio Jones as well.
Irv Smith Jr: No. 26 Tight End
Former Vikings on the list: Kyle Rudoph (No. 20)
Smith will have an opportunity to make a big jump up this list next offseason given that he is expected to have an increased role in 2021 following the departure of Rudolph to New York. His raw receiving numbers in 2020 were on par with his rookie production in 2019, but Smith got to those numbers more efficiently. He averaged over three yards more per reception last season and saw his receiving grade jump from 62.0 to 75.4. The Vikings will hope for another step forward in 2021.
I have no issues with this. As PFF says, Smith could make a big jump up the list next year, but he has to make it happen on the field first. He has just 676 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons. Here's the thing, though: Smith will be 23 years old this season. He's still super young, he's a great athlete, and he has a major opportunity in front of him now that Kyle Rudolph is gone. I'm excited to see what the Alabama product can do with it.
Brian O'Neill: No. 30 Offensive Tackle
O’Neill has been average at best in pass protection throughout his three-year career, but he's made major strides in the run game. He improved his run-blocking grade from 58.3 as a rookie to 70.2 in 2019 to a top-10 mark of 83.7 in 2020. O’Neill is tied for 18th in pressure rate allowed in that span but ranks just 41st in pass-blocking grade, meaning he is still losing far too many reps despite not being credited with an abundance of pressures allowed.
Some Vikings fans will see this ranking as too low, but the points are valid. O'Neill is a very good right tackle — not a great one. In order to make that leap into the elite tier, he needs to become more consistent in pass protection; his sack and pressure numbers don't tell the whole story there. If I'm the Vikings, I'd be willing to bet on O'Neill continuing to improve by signing him to an extension this offseason.
Garrett Bradbury: No. 27 Center
Bradbury has shown redeeming qualities as a run blocker over his first two NFL seasons, but it’s hard to ignore just how poor he has been in pass protection. He ranks last at the position in pressure rate allowed (5.2%) and pass-blocking grade (36.3) since 2019. He hasn’t been dominant enough as a run blocker to look past those numbers.
Bradbury absolutely deserves to be near the bottom of the list when it comes to ranking the NFL's starting centers, and he's on the verge of "bust" territory heading into a critical third season. He's simply been unable to anchor effectively against powerful defensive tackles through the first two years of his career. The hope is that Ezra Cleveland and Wyatt Davis will be the best guard pairing Bradbury has had next to him in the NFL, and those two — combined with his own improvement and added strength — will help elevate his play. We'll see.
Not ranked: LT Christian Darrisaw or any guards
Stay tuned for PFF's defensive player rankings.
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