2018 Minnesota Vikings Fantasy Football Preview
The Minnesota Vikings hired former Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo as their new OC, hoping to maintain, or even exceed, their offensive outpour from 2017. Under defensive-minded HC Mike Zimmer, DeFilippo will have full control of an offense drenched with talent. Moreover, the new OC is regarded as one of the top QB gurus in the game, and was most recently credited with squeezing MVP Numbers and a historic post-season run out of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles respectively. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins joins Minnesota on the richest-guaranteed contract in NFL history, where he'll be surrounded with insane weaponry that far surpasses anything he threw to in Washington. Thus, this new offense carries massive 2018 Fantasy Football implications, and is essential to dig deep into.
Ugly Record Overshadows Actual Productivity
DeFilippo is most widely recognized and praised for his recent, impeccable work with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Deservedly so -- Wentz broke Philadelphia records with 33 TDs in only 13 games, while Foles took home Super Bowl 51 MVP honors following a historic postseason run few could ever predict. Simply put, the man knows how to maximize his signal-callers.
Yet, few remember DeFilippo gained NFL play-calling experience as the Browns OC in 2015. You may swallow back some puke before mockingly asking, "Haven't the Browns sucked since... forever?" While true, given they sputtered to a 3-13 finish this year, consider the following:
Suddenly, DeFilippo's 2015 Browns offense doesn't smell so horrible. In fact, the results are downright impressive. DeFilippo had bare minimum talent at his disposal, yet still made Browns' record books (admittedly a low bar); this speaks volumes to his offensive prowess. Moreover, being forced to squeeze this barren fruit for its maximum juice really prepared DeFilippo for the future:
"What really helps is I've done the job before," DeFilippo said. "Done the job on a team where you really had to manufacture yards and find ways to get guys open. Was it a great situation at the time? No. Was it perfect? No. At the same time, I think it really helped to prepare how to coach. When you do get that opportunity, when you do have guys that maybe are the next step up in terms of ability, I think it helps to take some of those ideas to manufacture yards and feed the ball in their hands. I think more so the fact that I've done this job before helped more than anything."
Outside of this OC stint and his past two seasons in Philly, DeFillipo has extensive 8-year history as QBs coach, including a wildly successful rookie campaign out of Derek Carr.
Simply put, DeFilippo has shown oodles of passing-game ingenuity in his NFL career. In Minnesota, he's landed perhaps an even more stacked cast than he had in Philadelphia, which should allow his big brain to flourish.
Similar to Todd Haley (here) and Mike McCoy (here), DeFilippo never approaches a team with a "set offense" in mind. Rather, he starts fresh, collaborating with his players to craft a scheme that perfectly fits their strengths and what they enjoy running the most.
This was especially evident this past post-season through Nick Foles' miracle run (3 wins, 72% completion rate, 971 yards, 6 TDs to 1 interception, Super Bowl MVP). As DeFilippo details, this was largely through game-plan collaboration with his QB:
"I sat him down and made him list me, with our coaching staff, what are your best concepts, what do you see yourself do well?” DeFilippo said. “Because I’m not, myself, (Eagles offensive coordinator) Frank Reich, (head coach) Doug Pederson are not throwing the ball. He is...And so, we really sat down and spent some time with Nick and formulated game plans based on what he felt comfortable doing. And to me that’s coaching. Why would you ask your player to do something that he’s not comfortable with?"
“I find myself being flexible to the guys that we have,” DeFilippo said. “I spend a lot of time on really getting to know what our players do well so we can put them in the best position to succeed. We’ll never try to ask our players to do something he can’t do well. That is No. 1."
Though malleable to his players' strengths, DeFilippo has West Coast upbringings. The Vikings operated this scheme last season under Pat Shurmur, who was groomed by Andy Reid... who groomed Doug Pederson... who groomed DeFilippo. Given the coach and player familiarity with the scheme, the new OC plans to make this his 2018 springboard.
“The things you keep the same are formations, for example — what you call formations,” DeFilippo said. “We’re calling the run game pretty much the exact same. If there was a [similar] pass concept that we’re putting in, we called it what they called it last season. Coach Shurmur got taught by Coach [Andy] Reid, and like the purest West Coast guys. I’ve learned from some of the guys on that tree, as well. So from a philosophical standpoint, there’s very similar things. It’s more what you believe in philosophically. It’s not like Coach Shurmur and I were on two ends of the spectrum. We both kind of came up the same way, the same system. It’s just, everyone’s taken that West Coast system and kind of created their own flavor to it.”
The core of a West Coast centers on horizontal, high-percentage routes (slants, drags, outs), emphasizing ball-control and security over the big play. Yet, DeFilippo's hinted at what types of seasoning and spice will craft up his own "West Coast flavor." One major staple will involve player movement to create mismatches, get his playmakers in space, and allow them to rack up YAC and explosion plays:
“The No. 1 thing is creating explosive pass gains and explosive run gains,” DeFilippo said. “How do you do that? You do that by putting your best playmakers in space and in position to make plays.
“I think you’re going to see our players move around in a bunch of different spots. I think you’ll see us pre-snap move and shift some, and you’ll see us try to create many mismatches as we can with the guys that can make plays with the ball in their hands,” DeFilippo added.
Additionally, after his work in Philadelphia with Wentz, expect DeFilippo to incorporate an aggressive, rapid-fire pace with plenty of no-huddle; these were staples of Pederson and Frank Reich.
“That was one of the best things for me, just learning their way of doing the no-huddle offense, which was way more efficient than what I had been used to,” DeFilippo said. “A lot of our third-down thoughts came from San Diego, and what Frank did with those guys in San Diego. That was a really good package, as well. I know some of that trickled down from his time in Buffalo [with the Bills’ offense in the 1990s].”
In Minnesota, he inherits perhaps the ideal cast for this type of "fast-pace," "mismatch" "move-all-over" offense. While we dig into specifics below, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs all excel in space and with racking up YAC, plus can play all over the formation; Diggs and Thielen both have extensive experience both out wide and in the slot, while Cook can and will be split out wide. Even more dangerous -- the two wideouts can get over the top of a defense with ease. Meanwhile, Kyle Rudolph is both strong and athletic enough to play in-line or split to the slot as well, and could be a mismatch nightmare outside.
When you mix in a high-percentage passer like Kirk Cousins, who has plenty of arm strength to make every single throw, the options for DeFilippo are truly endless. In fact, the coach himself can't stop creating new ways to free up his explosive cast. After OTAs, new slot WR Kendall Wright raved about the creativity and passion in DeFilippo and his scheme:
"He puts new stuff in there every day," Wright said. "He's really excited when he's putting it in. Sometimes I think he's more juiced up than us to go out there."
“The No. 1 thing is creating explosive pass gains and explosive run gains. How do you do that? You do that by putting your best playmakers in space and in position to make plays." - John DeFilippo
In 2018, Todd Gurley added 881 yards and 13 TDs to his 2017 total.
The Rams also went from dead last in scoring to 1st in the league, more than doubling their points (14.0 to 29.87).
Did the line and WR upgrades help? Of course.
But the most important addition wasn't one with a helmet, but rather the guy with the headset:
Coaching Scheme plays a huge role in fantasy success, but is so often overlooked.
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With a strong and accurate arm, magnetic leadership qualities, and strong durability, Cousins has all the makings of a potential franchise QB. He’ll now be in the perfect spot to prove this in Minnesota.
Cousins’ three year stats since taking over for RGIII have been prolific — on par even with Aaron Rodgers. He’s thrown for over 4,000 yards and 25+ TDs in all three starting years, despite some severely limited weaponry. Which is why I’m so excited for this landing spot.
As we dig into below, the Vikings drip in offensive firepower. Adam Thielen is among the league’s smoothest route runners, is deceptively fast down the field, and consistently finds the soft spots on a defense. Meanwhile, Stefon Diggs has flashed elite traits in all three seasons, at times putting the entire passing attack on his back for 10+ reception games. He’s a gym rat and pure lover of the game, thus working on his craft nonstop. Both wideouts can be moved around all over the place, and take the top of the defense. Kyle Rudolph is enormous yet can fly down the seams. Dalvin Cook is dangerously explosive in the receiving game out of the backfield.
Simply put, Cousins will be equipped with the most firepower of his young career.
Beyond the obvious "Surrounding Talent" upgrades, Cousins will also greatly benefit from DeFilippo's creativity and aggressiveness, as well as the new OC's deep track record of crafting offense's around his QBs strengths. DeFilippo will have plenty work with in Cousins, and the coach is well aware:
“I’ve always been a fan of Kirk’s,” DeFilippo said. “I don’t know the exact grade I gave him when he was coming out of college, but I know I liked him a lot. I’ll never forget that speech he gave at Michigan State. That was part of the evaluation process, just being like, ‘Wow, this guy’s really impressive.’ … Seeing the way he moves, the way he throws, I’ve always admired him from afar.”
“[John] loves that Kirk’s a football junkie,” Gene DeFilippo said. “Just knowing what I’ve read about Kirk, and what I’ve heard, I think he and John are going to be really, really good together.”
DeFilippo left OTAs even more impressed, particularly with Cousins' arm strength, noting, "The ball jumps off his hand better than I expected to be quite honest wiht you. He can drive the ball to the perimeter -- you need that to play QB in the National Football League. I knew he had a strong arm, but I didn't know he'd be able to drive it as well as he does. And he has a very compact release, so the ball just jumps off his hand... all the things you're looking for."
QB - OC chemistry is crucial, and thankfully here, the feelings of admiration our mutual. Cousins, who said his conversation with DeFilippo was one of the most important parts of his free agent visit, gushed:
“It’s a big part of success in the NFL — not only the strategy of the play design during the week, but during the game, the general theme of the system, the focus on what you want to be about. How similar was my background to his background? I have a lot of reps banked on doing things a certain way, so if there’s a lot of change, it’s going to change the way that I can play. That whole conversation was helpful. He has a West Coast background; I have a West Coast background. I love his intensity, and how committed he is to being the best he can, and being on the best team possible."
One area DeFilippo could elevate Cousins is the Red Zone, where the QB and Redskins ranked ninth, 28th and 14th in points per trip during the quarterback’s three seasons. Meanwhile, the Eagles ranked 2nd in TD percentage and red zone scoring in 2017, while the Vikings, with the lesser Case Keenum, rode their weaponry to the fifth highest points per red zone trip (5.11) according to Football Outsiders.
Just listening to DeFilippo break down his Red Zone offense is a joy for any Xs and Os nerd. From the different route combinations and pre-packaged adjustments that free WRs up, to the way he coaches up his QBs on ball placement, to the way he maximizes big frames, DeFilippo is truly a wizard within the 20. Even if the Eagles ranked just 18th in RZ Pass / Run Ratios (52%), the team visited so frequently and were so efficient that Wentz and Foles combined for the most RZ TDs in the league. Between Diggs' contested ball skills, to Thielen's 6'2" frame, to Rudolph's bullying red zone ways (15 TDs past two seasons), the weapons and arm talent are here for similar results.
All-in-all, between the Coaching Scheme and Surrounding Talent upgrades, Cousins has a real shot to top 4,500 and 30+ TDs in 2018. Currently prices around 77 overall and the QB8, Cousins' price is right if you want a high-floor, high-ceiling option (I still prefer waiting on a QB, however).
DeFilippo craves versatile, long receivers who he can move all over the formation to create mismatch and YAC opportunities. He's equally adept at dialing creative screens as he is winnable one-on-one situations, and is always looking for big, "chunk" plays. DeFilippo utilizes his taller pass-catchers expertly in the red zone, crafting up unique routes to allow them to frame up defenders and use their size in the corners and tight roping the end-line.
2018 Outlook – Thielen & Diggs Tailor-Made for this Offense
Thielen and Diggs could not be more perfect for DeFilippo's system. The new OC wants receivers who can run the entire route tree from every single position. Both wideouts are dangerous on every pattern, vast experience both outside and in the slot.
The creative, mismatch possibilities are truly endless here.
Just look at their history: Diggs was the primary slot man in 2016, racking up 43 catches and 478 yards inside; a year later, Thielen logged the most slot snaps, and did the most damage here with 592 yards on 46 receptions. Both have the finesse and pristine route-running to dominate inside.
Yet, they also are equally dangerous out-wide. Both have excellent top-end speed, and can blow by defenders who bite on their dangerous double moves. From 2015-17 on throws of 20 yards or more, Thielen posted a 51.4 reception percentage on 35 targets. Diggs notched a 43.5 reception percentage on 46 targets, with five of his touchdowns coming on such deep routes.
Even more, Diggs in particular can dominate in one-on-one situations. In fact, Diggs was PFF's highest graded WR in contested situations last year:
This mirrors DeFilippo's evaluation of Diggs, who was not only "shocked" by his pristine route running, but also added, "More of the tape study of what I had of the Vikings was when I got here, the tape doesn’t do that justice,” he said. “His ball skills are fantastic. The way he tracks the football in the air.”
This is crucial praise from DeFilippo. When you dig into his red zone philosophies and tendencies, he's gushes about giving his players chances to win those one-on-one balls:
"Red zone football is about matchups,” DeFilippo said. “It’s who can beat who, one-on-one. Can a back beat a safety one-on-one in the hole? Can a receiver beat a DB one-on-one, in a two-yard space, where you’re telling him he has two yards to work from the back of the end line to go up and get a football?
"I’ve been on a team where we had a bunch of 5-foot-8 receiver [in Cleveland}, and it made life really, really hard, and our 6-foot-5 tight end [Gary Barnidge] broke Ozzie Newsome’s record for touchdowns in the red zone. So, does having guys that are bigger, like [Stefon] Diggs and [Adam] Thielen and [Laquon] Treadwell and [Kyle} Rudolph help? Heck yeah."
Expect Diggs' contested skills to be called upon heavily in the Red Zone. According to "all accounts," Diggs "has shown up to OTAs and the offseason program looking quicker and stronger as he works to develop a bond with a new quarterback in Cousins." I like his chances at topping 10+ TDs for the first time in his career.
Health remains an issue -- he's missed time in all three of his professional seasons, and often seems to have something nagging to play through. Yet, if he can get this under control, Diggs is set up for his first 1,000 yard and double-digit TD season of his career. He's never played with a coach who can maximize his skill set, or a signal caller who can deliver the mail, quite like DeFilippo and Cousins. Despite Thielen's massive 2017 breakout, I think Diggs is the highest scorer here.
Meanwhile, Thielen should remain his reliable third-down security blanket self. Last year, Thielen quickly established himself as Case Keenum's go-to guy on third down, receiving 32 percent of Minnesota's third-down targets; Cousins loved in Jamison Crowder in this similar role, sending him 24 percent of Washington's third-down looks. Expect the more talented Thielen to help Cousins improve his poor passing first down rate (30.4 percent), and rack up oodles of receptions in the process.
Though Thielen would be hard-pressed to top his Pro-Bowl level 91 receptions and 1276 yards from last season (especially if Diggs can stay healthy), he could stand for an uptick in his 4 TDs -- especially under Red Zone maestro DeFilippo. Thus, I expect him to remain a low-end WR1, with the upside to even surpass last year's explosion if Diggs' health woes get in the way.
All-in-all, both WRs will be playing with the best QB, and potential best play-caller of their young careers (granted, Shurmur is a beast). Expect a career season from Diggs (health-permitting), and continued success from Thielen, making both prime Round 3 targets -- ideally as high-end WR2s, yet passable WR1s if you've gone RB-RB for a stable of horses.
During his time with Cleveland, DeFilippo obviously utilized the otherwise invisible Gary Barnidge to his absolute fullest. Barnidge was moved all over the place, especially in the RZ, given the team's lack of size out wide. As DeFilippo explained: “Red zone football is about matchups,” DeFilippo said. “It’s who can beat who, one-on-one. Can a back beat a safety one-on-one in the hole? Can a receiver beat a DB one-on-one, in a two-yard space, where you’re telling him he has two yards to work from the back of the end line to go up and get a football? I’ve been on a team where we had a bunch of 5-foot-8 receiver [in Cleveland}, and it made life really, really hard, and our 6-foot-5 tight end [Gary Barnidge].
The results were a monstrous, WR1-level season from an otherwise nobody. Simply put, DeFilippo will move around and fully utilize everyone in his offense, which clearly includes his seam-stretchers.
2018 Outlook – Kyle Rudolph among only a few true TE1s
Indeed, DeFilippo's past usage of Barnidge is highly promising for Rudolph's 2018 fantasy prospects. Zach Ertz's heavy usage can only be considered positive as well. Based on these two, Rudolph should expect to be split out wide, tossed in the slot, streak from in-line, and be just one of many moving chess pieces, especially in the red zone. Moreover, DeFillipo has spoken at length about maximizing long frames and big bodies, and they don't get much more mammoth than the 6'6", 259 lbs Rudolph. On a team that'll frequent the red zone, expect Rudolph to have a very fair shot at 10+ TDs -- especially considering Cousins' past affinity for Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis inside the 20.
The only real concern is how much of this aerial pie Rudolph will be fed. If Cousins has a 4,500 yards and 30-35 TDs ceiling, Rudolph has a real shot at a 800-1000+ and 8-10 TDs slice -- a high-end TE1 by any standard. More likely, he'll struggle to hit that 800 yards, but remains a real threat for 10+ TDs, and is among the Top-Six Fantasy TEs. With such uncertainty around the 2018's TE crop (outside the Top 6), Rudolph's mid-6th round price is entirely reasonable -- his consistency at a volatile spot could prove to be a real weekly edge.
While the passing attack seems set to explode, DeFilippo's running games have been littered with committees. Granted, judging the Eagles is unfair since DeFilippo was far more involved in the passing-game, and Doug Pederson is notorious for his committees.
Even still, DeFilippo hand-coordinated a full-blown committee between Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell as the Browns' OC. Some promising trends emerged -- especially Johnson's heavy receiving game usage. Ultimately, however, there wasn't enough overall offense for either to be truly difference-making in a timeshare.
Anyone who owned Dalvin Cook in 2017 knows: the guy was an absolute monster.
Sure, the 340+ touch, 1776 total yard, 8 TD pace was thrilling. Yet, not only did that seem entirely sustainable, Cook seemed to only be ascending. Those numbers almost seem a floor for what he would've done.
Instead, he suffered a soul-crushing ACL injury, and owners were robbed of a R.O.Y-contending RB debut.
Yet, the injury recovery shouldn't be fantasy owner's greatest concerns. He reportedly "knocked his rehab out of the park," and, after participating throughout OTAs in every facet, is expected to be a full-go for training camp.
Rather, Latavius Murray should be at least on the mind after he thrived in a short yardage role. Despite playing only 12 games, Murray ranked 3rd in the NFL in red zone carries, and has consistently converted upwards of 60% of his 1-2 yard runs, dating back to his Raiders day.
Considering DeFilippo is a master of using all his talents in their exact roles, Murray's "Vulture" potential (and high TD upside) is very real. We know the new OC wants to pound the rock inside the 20:
"The best red zone teams do two things,” DeFilippo said. “No. 1, they run the football. They have success running the football. So right now, when you come out to our practice, you’re going to see us throwing the football more than we’re going to [during the season], because we have to work on that timing. It’s so unique down there; we’ve got to get that timing down. I told our O-line the other day, ‘Hang in there with me, fellas,’ because I would be shocked if we don’t have more rushing attempts inside the 20 than we do passing attempts."
Yet, prior to his injury, Cook showed extremely well at the stripe and after contact himself. According to PFF, he ranked eighth in yards after contact per attempt (2.6) and tied for second in total forced missed tackles (18) among the 27 running backs with at least 50 touches in Weeks 1-4 (in 2017). If he holds off Murray and remains involved at the stripe, Cook would contend with Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley for fantasy's top scorer.
That's because he's about to explode as a pass-catcher. DeFilippo has already spoken at length about extending Cook's receiving role, particularly with splitting him out wide:
“The thing we’ve tried to work with Dalvin coming in here is getting him outside the numbers a little bit, and getting him out wide, and getting him comfortable out there. Because we want our skill guys, our best players, and all of our players, to be able to lineup anywhere.”
Granted, the Eagles' "propensity to throw to the RBs" is overblown -- in 2017, they ranked dead last with only 13.5% of their targets going to the backfield. Moreover, DeFilippo's Browns RBs only netted an 18% target share. Even still, Duke Johnson did net an impressive 74 looks (for 61 receptions), and Cook is on a different level talent-wise; if he nets a similar targets, Cook will approach 700-800 receiving alone.
Lastly, when asked what excited him about the Vikings, DeFilippo's first response was, “Dalvin Cook I loved coming out of the draft; he was a fantastic player."
Cook is an elite, versatile talent, capable of being the centerpiece of this explosive offense. With health, Cook will hover anywhere between 1400 - 1800 total yards while netting 50+ catches -- an excellent floor, particularly in reception-based leagues.
Cook's ceiling, however, hinges upon his involvement at the stripe. DeFilippo will run early and often in the red zone, but whether Cook or Murray receives the bulk of this work remains to be seen. Should this lean Cook, he'll approach Gurley and Bell status in 2018. If it bends Murray's way (my expectation), Cook still remains an excellent first round target given his major role in an explosive, creative offense. His early second ADP is a bargain right now.
Meanwhile, Murray himself remains an excellent bargain at his 148 overall ADP. His handcuff value alone already exceeds that price; a 10+ TD ceiling makes it a flat out steal. He's the best cheap guarantee at some stake in what projects to be a juggernaut offense.
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Pat Shurmur sparked the Vikings' transition into a juggernaut last season. In 2018, the DeFilippo / Cousins combo will send the scoring to new heights. DeFilippo is a red zone maestro, among the best at crafting schemes around his players' strengths, and creatively moves his pieces all over the place for mismatches galore.
Meanwhile, Cousins is cerebral, and possesses the arm strength to make all the throws. He's accomplished prolific numbers with far less Surrounding Talent in Washington, and is now equipped with the best weaponry of his career. The OC / QB chemistry is incredibly real here, and with a step forward in the red zone, Cousins could easily be looking at 4500 yards and 30+ TDs. His 6th round asking price is extremely fair for his floor / ceiling, even if we prefer waiting on QBs in general.
Diggs and Thielen will soak in the majority of this potentially huge aerial pie. Both have extensive experience at all the WR positions and are pristine route runners that can also take the top of defenses, giving DeFilippo the versatility and movability he craves. Thielen's massive 2017 breakout will be sustainable, while Diggs seems destined for a career year if he can maintain health. Both are incredibly worthy third round investments, capable of anchoring a WR1 hole if you've passed on the early Alpha Hogs.
Elsewhere, the 6'6" Kyle Rudolph will undoubtedly benefit from DeFilippo's affinity for peppering tall targets in the red zone for one-on-one "high point chances." Zach Ertz and the far lesser Gary Barnidge have both racked up WR1 numbers with DeFilippo's guidance, and Kyle Rudolph should at least approach double-digit scores in 2018. He's among 5-6 TEs who deserve TE1 investing, and thus his early sixth round price is awfully enticing if you pass on the elite tier.
Last, Dalvin Cook will be the first Viking selected in 2018 fantasy drafts, and deservedly so. He's among the position's elite, versatile talents, and will have his strengths capitalized upon under DeFilippo. Expect Cook to be moved all over the place, giving him a 1400, 50+ reception floor should he maintain health. The only question mark is at the goalline, with Latavius Murray lingering as a potential vulture. Murray himself is among the biggest steals in early drafts. He falls beyond Round 12, and is worth that price for just his handcuff value. He additionally offers standalone 10+ TD upside as the potential drive-capper in an explosive offense. If you fail to scoop up any other pieces of this potential juggernaut, be sure to scoop up Murray late.
Entering the offseason, the Vikings already dripped in upside. Now, with the additions of a true top-10 QB, and one of the game's brightest young minds at OC, this attack is downright drenched in potential. Invest in Vikings early and often in 2018, as none are overpriced, with many presenting excellent bargains.
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