On the offensive side of the ball, the Minnesota Vikings came out of free agency with one proven lineman in guard Josh Kline and extra weapon for Kirk Cousins — former Denver Bronco Jordan Taylor, who has 29 career receptions.
Neither of those players is likely to have a large impact on an offense that scored the 19th most points, produced the 22nd best passing game in Expected Points Added and was ranked by Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic as 18th best in the NFL.
By electing to bring back Anthony Barr and restructure Everson Griffen, the Vikings did not create extra cap space to chase receivers like Golden Tate, Adam Humphries or Tyrell Williams. The crop of free agent tight ends was thin with Jared Cook being the only downfield threat. He signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.
They reportedly had interest in tackle Ja’Wuan James and wanted to bring back guard Nick Easton but both received higher bids to go elsewhere.
That left the Vikings with one option for improving the talent around their $84 million quarterback: The NFL Draft.
On Thursday night, they went with center Garrett Bradbury, who impressed at the NFL Combine by running a 4.92 40-yard dash and benching 34 reps — both scores were above the 90th percentile of O-linemen.
“Not only positionally and schematically but also the character, the passion for the game, the smarts, everything that we look for as we build this offensive line,” GM Rick Spielman said.
You don’t immediately think of center as a position that could have a serious impact on the Vikings’ point differential but the potential is there for a domino effect if Bradbury quickly adapts to the NFL.
Last year center Pat Elflein scored a 41.9 rating from Pro Football Focus, the worst of any center that played at least 50 percent of snaps. He gave up four sacks, five QB hits and 24 hurries, totaling the third most pressures despite missing the first two games of the season.
How difficult will it be for Bradbury to step in and be a big upgrade? Here’s a look at past first-year rookie starting centers who played at least 50 percent of snaps and were drafted in the first three rounds:
2018, Mason Cole (third): 50.9
2017, Pat Elflein (third): 66.1
2016, Cody Whitehair (second): 87.5
2016, Ryan Kelly (first): 72.4
2016, Graham Glasgow (third): 53.0
2015, Mitch Morse (second): 70.0
2013, Travis Frederick (first): 85.4
Of the seven first-year starters since 2013, two were star-level players, three were average or slightly above and two struggled. Both of the poor performers were third-round selections.
Part of that formula is Elflein moving to guard, where he played twice as much in college as center and received higher pass blocking grades.
At guard in 2014 and 2015 Pat Elflein had an:
82.3 and 87.5 overall grade
73.8 and 80.5 pass block grade
84.9 and 88.5 run block grade
In 2016 at center Pat Elflein had an:
80.9 overall grade
66.5 pass block grade
88.2 run block grade https://t.co/UeIhdC61j1
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) April 23, 2019
It is massively important to reduce the amount of pressure on Cousins. Here’s his pass ratings with a clean pocket vs. when pressured during his career:
Clean — 108.5 (11th)
Pressured — 83.1 (7th)
Clean — 109.4 (8th)
Pressured — 66.3 (16th)
Clean — 107.2 (8th)
Pressured — 72.9 (11th)
Clean — 115.7 (2nd)
Pressured — 73.0 (16th)
So over four years, Cousins’ rating drops somewhere in the range of 25-40 points when pressured.
One thing to note: QB pressures can be impacted by the player. Cousins ranked 17th in PFF’s “Time in pocket” statistic which tracks time of snap to throw. When the Vikings had a poor O-line in 2016, Sam Bradford was seventh.
Cousins was pressured 38.9 percent of the time in 2018. In years past he was under duress on 36.6 percent (2017), 32.0 percent (2016) and 35.9 percent (2015). We can reasonably conclude that the Vikings won’t be repeating the 2016 Washington season because they had Trent Williams at left tackle.
In 2018 starting left guard Tom Compton allowed seven sacks and 34 pressures. He was graded a 60.6 by PFF. With a full healthy offseason there’s a good chance Elflein is a significant improvement on Compton, who was a career backup before last year.
if Bradbury performs at even an average level and a scheme change helps Cousins, a drop from 38.9 percent to 35 percent could mean subtracting around 25 pressures over a season. That’s 25 more drop backs with an expected 105-plus QB rating instead of 75.
Assuming we don’t see a Stefon Diggs-like out-of-nowhere emergence from a late-round pick next season, the Vikings still won’t have a stable No. 3 wide receiver option.
Spielman pointed out that the Vikings were an 11 personnel team last year (55 percent of the time, according to SharpFootballStats), rarely using No. 2 and No. 3 tight ends. He wants that to change.
“We were predominately three-wide… I think getting the athletes we have you can do a lot more different with types of personnel to create mismatches,” he said.
Second-round pick Irv Smith was routinely used as a slot option for the Crimson Tide. Per PFF he made 18 catches out of the slot, fourth most in the draft class.
“I think he can create mismatches with linebackers or if safeties get on him,” Spielman. “At tight end, that type of tight end we haven’t had here and I know that’s a big part of Gary Kubiak’s offense and Kevin Stefanski’s offense right now. The other thing I thought was, don’t want to put him there yet, but he has a lot of [Jordan] Reed like traits in Washington and that’s why he was very appealing to us.”
Reed was Cousins’ tight end in Washington who grabbed 66 passes in 2016.
If the Vikings do not elect to trade Kyle Rudolph and make Smith a fourth receiving option, it would be difficult for him not to be an improvement on Laquon Treadwell, who was fourth in receptions among Minnesota’s receivers or tight ends. Here’s Cousins’ rating when targeting his top four targets:
Adam Thielen — 115.4
Stefon Diggs — 107.9
Kyle Rudolph — 113.5
Laquon Treadwell — 80.3
Treadwell averaged just 6.4 yards per target, which is lower than both fullback CJ Ham and blocking tight end David Morgan’s career marks combined.
Rookie tight ends regularly play a receiving role in their team’s offense. Last year six first-year TEs caught more than 20 passes. The Jets’ Chris Herndon, a fourth-round selection, made 39 grabs for 502 yards and a 110.3 rating. Baltimore’s Mark Andrews had 36 receptions and a 129.9 rating when targeted. Dallas Goedert as a No. 2 TE to Zach Ertz had 33 catches and 110.0 rating.
Even a relatively mild first-year projection for Smith in the 30-catch range would find him to be far more effective than Treadwell was in 2018.
Keeping Rudolph might be wise. With two tight end sets in 2016, Cousins had a 113.4 rating, per ESPN Splits.
Running back and warning label
In the third round the Vikings looked to replace Latavius Murray by selecting Alexander Mattison.
On the Boise Stat back, Spielman said:
“I know his ability to go forward on contact, a lot like Latavius did for us, I know his ability to catch the ball. I know his ability in pass protection, and I know we have to have multiple backs in this offense. We wanted something that was similar to a [Latavius] Murray type, and we felt that Alexander can definitely do that.”
More likely than not the offensive line and Cook’s health will determine whether the Vikings improve as a running team.
As far as Day 3 receivers Dillion Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson go, it’s impossible to know whether they will contribute immediately. In 2015 Stefon Diggs emerged as a top receiver but the Vikings also drafted Rodney Adams and Stacy Coley in 2017 and neither are still on the club.
In the best case scenario, the Vikings will have a more fitting scheme, middle-of-the-pack pass protection and a viable No. 4 option. What is that worth in terms of points?
Pro-Football Reference’s Expected Points added estimates that moving up from 22nd in passing to 15th would be worth 25 points, 10th would be worth 77 points. Getting into the top five is worth 121 points.
Jumping from 29th in running EPA to 15th is worth 37 points, 10th is 45 points, fifth is 60 points.
Going from their 2018 rankings to 15th in passing and 15th in rushing would mean going from 19th in total points would get the Vikings into the top 10 in scoring.
Will the presence of Bradbury and Smith help them that much? The scenario seems totally plausible.
It’s also possible they have no impact at all.
In 2018, top pick Mike Hughes was lost to an ACL injury. Same goes for Dalvin Cook in 2017. In 2016, Treadwell finished his rookie year with one catch.
By relying on rookies to improve spots on a win-now team, the Vikings are playing with fire. But they chose the route of maintaining the same defense that’s ranking in the top five in yards allowed the last three years. If Bradbury and Smith shine, that risk could play out wonderfully. If not, we might be questioning the direction next January.