Questions and takeaways from pre-draft Vikings projections

Once the final pick of the seventh round is made, we will have a (nearly) complete picture of every NFL team’s roster heading into 2019. Heading into the draft, ESPN’s Mike Clay has released his team projections for next season, which includes statistics for each player and win probabilities for each game.

The projections are below (click to expand):

As the kids say: There’s a lot to unpack. So here are five questions based on Clay’s projected 2019 Vikings season:

How can Kirk Cousins out-perform his projection as the 19th best quarterback in the NFL? 

Over his four years as a starter, Cousins has consistently put up more than 4,000 yards, so it’s a little surprising to see his projection below 4,000 total yards. Clay explained on Twitter that the expectation is that the Vikings will run more than they did last year. Fair enough. And keep in mind: Nobody will be judging him on whether he helped the masses to fantasy championships, rather if he performed in situations that led to winning.

But if we look at Pro Football Focus’s grades for Cousins’ career, he’s been in that mid-pack range, ranking 14th, 10th, 18th and 14th over his four years as a starter. So 19th might be a little on the low side but it isn’t unrealistic with quality young quarterbacks rising up the ranks.

The projections make it clear that the Vikings must come out of the draft with more weapons around Cousins. The expected No. 3 receiver presently is Chad Beebe with 33 catches and No. 2 tight end is David Morgan with just seven receptions.

In the bottom right corner of the projection sheet is the grades by position group. The Vikings’ O-line is getting a 2.6 out of 10 right now. That can change on draft night if they select a first-round difference-maker up front. And the pass protection and receiving numbers can be bolstered by an improved scheme/playcalling with Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski at the helm.

If Cousins matches his projection, do the Vikings make the playoffs? 

With the Vikings’ talent on defense and Mike Zimmer’s track record, the Vikings could definitely make the postseason with a 4,000-yard, 25-touchdown season. They didn’t exactly put up Patrick Mahomes numbers in 2015 or 2017 and won 11 and 13 games, respectively. What mattered most in those two seasons was situational play and turnovers. Teddy Bridgewater tied Tom Brady for the eighth best yards per attempt on third downs in 2015 (7.9 YPA) and Case Keenum had the second highest first down percentage on third down pass plays in 2017 (42.0%).

Comparatively Cousins was 22nd in YPA (6.6) and 14th in first down percentage. He also led the NFL in fumbles lost with seven last season whereas Keenum had one in 2017 and Bridgewater had three in 2015.

Again play calling could be a big factor in closing the gap, but the point is: Not all 4,000-yard seasons are the same. If Cousins puts up those numbers largely in important situations and doesn’t turn the ball over, the Vikings can be a top contending team with Clay’s projected numbers.

Would 7.5 sacks be enough to justify the Vikings bringing back Everson Griffen? 

The Vikings elected to restructure Griffen’s deal rather than creating more than $10 million in cap space by releasing him. Following a down year at age 31, it’s hard to project that he will bounce back into superstar shape but it also wasn’t that long ago that Griffen was near the top of the NFL leaderboard in sacks.

If he’s only just a solid edge rusher instead of elite, we will probably look back at the decision as a mistake. However, that largely depends on things that are out of Griffen’s control.

Judging the restructure will ultimately be based on the offense’s performance. His cap space could have been used to add a tackle like Ja’Wuan James or a receiver like Golden Tate in free agency. If the passing game doesn’t improve from ranking 22nd in Expected Points Added, we will ask whether that cap space could have been allocated to better places regardless of whether Griffen plays at the top of his game.

Will the defense live up to its rank? 

Clay expects the Vikings to be a top-five defense. While there are reasons to believe they will face bumps in the road, Zimmer’s track record and elite players Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith should be enough to perform at a high level. Zimmer has put together seven top-10 defenses in yards allowed over the last nine years and helped the Vikings go from 32nd in 2013 to 14th in 2014.

There are questions surrounding the defense: Will Xavier Rhodes return to form? Will Anthony Barr’s role change? Will they draft an interior defensive linemen to replace Sheldon Richardson? All these things could be the difference between ranking No. 1 and No. 10, but it’s very difficult to see the Vikings’ defense being anything other than very good.

Over/under 8.8 wins? 

What makes the Vikings’ win-loss projection difficult is the questions surrounding the NFC North. Will Chicago regress? Will Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense find their form from several years ago under Matt LaFleur? Will the Detroit Lions’ defense take a big step forward after adding all sorts of talent in free agency? If things go right for the NFC North teams, the Vikings could be looking at a difficult road to 10 wins. It’s hard to see them under eight partly because they had very bad fumble, injury and kicking luck last season. If those things even out, there’s a good chance they clear the nine-win threshold.