Nearly every fanbase—the Minnesota Vikings fandom included—enters the offseason with optimism. Just as universal is the tendency for fans to overrate or underrate any number of additions.
Vikings fans are correct to get excited by Rick Spielman's strategy of pursuing young talent while signing younger veterans at key positions; he's been defining the Vikings tenure with one word: sustainability.
But some moves that have been met with derision or indifference have been unfairly cast by the wayside while other moves have been given too much weight.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the Vikings made the right or wrong move on those particular players, but that expectations are not commensurate with ability.
Who are the most underrated or overrated Vikings to be added in the 2013 offseason?
Matt Cassel is an unheralded signing from the worst-performing team in the league last year, ranking last not just in wins but in time with a lead, Football Outsiders’ DVOA and Pythagorean wins, suggesting not just that they happened to have the worst record, but that they were truly the worst team in football.
Because of that, the Cassel signing was largely met with indifference or even derision. That’s not quite fair.
In 2009, Cassel was paired with Todd Haley, who operated as both the head coach and offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs.
But in 2010, offensive coordinator duties were handed to Charlie Weis, who was immediately followed by Bill Muir the following year. Brian Daboll came in 2012, and coached the worst version of that Kansas City offense, despite having impact players like Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe.
When paired with competent coordinators, Cassel looked good enough to make the Pro Bowl, posting career highs in yards per attempt (6.9), adjusted yards per attempt (7.4) and adjusted net yards per attempt (6.64, nearly two yards higher than any other year with the Chiefs).
Not only that, his passer rating was 93.0, far better than anything the Vikings had seen since 2009.
Weis’ tenure featured a Kansas City team that was relatively pass-happy, despite featuring the NFL’s best rushing attack, with 165 rushing yards a game. That is, when correcting for situation, the Chiefs were slightly more willing to run in 2010.
But the “game script” database, which accounts for time remaining and the lead a team holds, found that Brian Daboll had the most run-heavy offense since 1940.
That is never good for a quarterback, and easily points to mismanagement as a bigger reason for Cassel’s decline.
While it might not be true that Cassel is better than Christian Ponder, it’s clear that he can perform at a high level in a balanced offense when asked to manage the game. And the game script database finds that Bill Musgrave runs a relatively balanced offense, with a small but understandable bias for running the ball.
Cassel is a smart quarterback who can take care of the ball and joins the Minnesota Vikings as one of the best (if not the best) backup quarterbacks in the league—rarely do teams have the option of fielding a veteran with proven success as their secondary option, and he’s a big upgrade over Joe Webb.
Instead of nail-biting anticipation, the Vikings can remain confident that there will be a cool head who can execute the offense should emergency strike.
After all, the backup quarterback is the most important player who hopefully never sees a snap (unless you’re Dan Pompei).
The most controversial draft pick for the Vikings in 2013 (aside from punter Jeff Locke) was wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings traded a boatload of draft picks to get Patterson, trading up their second-round pick by giving the Patriots picks in the third, fourth and seventh round.
Naturally, it’s difficult to tell if the trade has value, but it’s easy to over-project Patterson’s production based on his pre-draft hype and sheer physical talent.
Rookies drafted in the first round rarely produce yardage or receptions. In the last 10 years, rookies who saw the field averaged 40 yards a game (650 yards a season).
Complicating things, these receivers were at different stages of development. Players like Julio Jones and A.J. Green, for example, entered the NFL with an impressive technical resume to go along with their physical feats.
Percy Harvin, the best available analogue to Patterson, came out of Florida with some similar strengths and weaknesses, although it wasn’t often that scouting reports mentioned his route-running so much as the worry about hybrid players.
Detailed scouting reports, like Matt Waldman’s (available for purchase) found that Harvin had a whole host of route-running skills, but not all of them—he wasn’t precise, but he displayed veteran intuition at finding holes in coverage or adjusting the to the QB.
Harvin was ranked third in that report, with Jeremy Maclin and Kenny Britt described as rougher route-runners.
With all that, Harvin averaged 52.7 yards a game. Patterson doesn’t have the same latitude with his route-running and receiver skills.
By contrast, Waldman’s scouting report listed Patterson’s as one of the worst of the draftable prospects:
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson just needs to become more consistent. He doesn’t always combat press until late in a route and he doesn’t always execute hard breaks to his capability. He relies a lot on his incredible quickness and fluid athleticism to get the job done. Patterson may turn out to be one of those exceptions to the rule where he doesn’t need perfect form to get open in the same way that Brett Favre could drop the ball further down his hip than Tim Tebow and still throw a perfect pass. However, it’s more realistic to project that Patterson will need to refine his route skills to produce every quarter of every game.
That inconsistency will limit his ability to contribute at a level like the more refined receivers in the draft. He rounds off routes, can’t sell his deception and doesn’t break press coverage with the speed that his athletic talent implies.
Limiting separation is a problem for any quarterback, but especially Christian Ponder. Given that the former Juco standout has issues with body positioning and boxing out defensive backs, he’ll have to learn on the job before he makes an impact.
Neither does Patterson read coverages well, something that will surely improve over the course of his career.
What that means is not that Patterson was a bad pick—his vision, balance and sheer athleticism may make him one of the premier receivers of the decade. It simply means he will be slower to contribute than most rookie receivers, and that wasn’t very much to begin with.
Many fans are expecting Patterson (along with Jennings) to revive the passing offense and make defenses respect the pass to open up new holes for Adrian Peterson. That may be true, but not in 2013.
It doesn’t seem that Vikings fans are too down on the potential middle linebacker of the future in Michael Mauti, but his national showing has been very weak.
Searching news aggregators like Google News or Lexis Nexis Academic (subscription) produce recent results about Michael Mauti almost exclusively from Minnesota sources (or failing that, Pennsylvania).
While it’s understandable that a seventh-round pick doesn’t generate headlines in the offseason (for good reasons, anyway), a player like Mauti should demand attention not just because he has a compelling story (his third ACL recovery in four years), but a boatload of talent.
Russ Lande, lead scout at the National Football Post, argued that Mauti would be a late first-round or early second-round pick:
If I gave Mauti a grade strictly for his on field play, I would likely give him a late first- / high second-round grade because he is truly an outstanding linebacker when healthy.
Amazingly, before being injured in 2012, Mauti displayed the quickness, agility, flexibility and top speed that you would never expect for a player who had torn the ACL in each knee.
While many college inside linebackers excel playing the run between the tackles, Mauti is different because he has sideline range versus the run and is excellent playing off the ball in coverage.
While first-round players are getting national attention for their performance in OTAs and minicamps, Mauti toils in relative obscurity.
That shouldn’t be the case. While he may not make an enormous splash in 2013, he should be primed to go and NFL-ready come the 2014 season, particularly because the Vikings have done a great job not just in rehabbing impossible injuries (like they did with E.J. Henderson’s broken femur), but with ACL recovery as well—Chad Greenway suffered two ACL injuries and didn’t miss a snap afterwards, while Adrian Peterson famously almost broke the NFL’s rushing yardage record.
Mauti has the instinct, talent and intangibles to be a big-time player in the NFL. That virtually every media outlet has forgotten him is a sad reality.
Don’t mistake a player being overrated as an argument that the player is a bad pick or teammate. Sometimes, it only means that the bandwagon has grown a little too large too early. There’s a reason that Gerald Hodges was drafted in the fourth round.
Optimum Scouting ranked Hodges as their 11th-best outside linebacker, and Draft Countdown ranks him 12th. ESPN’s draft rankings (only available through ESPN Insider) ranked him as the 14th-best outside linebacker.
While these rankings are skewed by the addition of some prospects who were ranked as inside linebackers by some and not others (and the addition of 3-4 outside linebackers, a different skill set), the overall consensus is clear: Hodges isn’t ready to start yet.
He’s a sound tackler, but he doesn’t have the type of physicality that one wants as a linebacker, and could be a liability against the run, particularly for powerful running backs.
For the past few years, the Vikings’ system has asked its weak-side linebackers to stack up against lead blockers as well as flow to the ball-carrier, and Hodges suffers there, too. It’s not only because of potentially questionable field strength, but also his unrefined technique when taking on blockers.
While most Vikings fans have not really pounded the table for Hodges to start (although that’s not a silent refrain, either), there has been considerable demand to throw him in as a situational coverage linebacker in nickel packages.
That makes some degree of sense; the projected starter at either middle linebacker or weak-side linebacker will either be Desmond Bishop or Erin Henderson—and neither of them have looked good in coverage in their last full season of play. Knowing that Chad Greenway will be the other linebacker on nickel downs, the Vikings won’t be fielding a murderer’s row of pass defenders in the middle.
The Nittany Lion hangs his hat on coverage abilities, and he does indeed have that in spades. But a linebacker in a zone system absolutely needs to hit his depth markers and patrol the zone with efficiency, and that has been a constant question for Hodges throughout his career.
His coverage instincts at the combine were impressive, but he hasn’t consistently hit his landmarks on an actual field of play, which is crucial in today’s NFL.
He can read the quarterback well, and has performed well in man coverage. At the same time, his “burn rate”—a measure created by STATS, Inc to measure how often a defender was “burned” in coverage (beaten out of position)—is outside of the top 10 of linebacker prospects.
Hodges had an explosive day at the combine, measuring in with an incredible vertical jump (35 inches) and an extraordinary broad jump (119 inches) while putting forth an effort worth 4.78 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
But until he adds muscle to his frame and fixes those mental errors, he won’t be worth putting on the field on nickel downs.
Aside from former teammate Lawrence Jackson, Jacob Lacey may have been the quietest signing by the Vikings in the offseason.
Having lost Winfield through either mismanagement or simple free agency decision-making, the Vikings were in a tight position when it came to covering the slot. Josh Robinson is slated to play at the nickel cornerback spot, covering the slot, but that doesn’t mean the position is covered.
Robinson has very little experience playing in the slot, and the slot is an entirely different animal than playing on the outside, which Greg Cosell emphasizes well on his blog:
Keep in mind teams also run three-wide groups in normal down and distance situations as a regular feature of their offense. What burden does that place on the defense, as it specifically relates to the slot corner? It means he has three responsibilities: cover man (the most apparent), blitzer and run defender (not talked about enough). Those are three distinct skill sets, but they are all required of a slot corner.
Think about that for a minute. It's not a filler position, simply employed because the offense lined up with three wide receivers. It's a well-defined position that is essential to NFL defense, and it demands a specific set of attributes. Look at the Philadelphia Eagles last season. They had three very good NFL corners: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All three are perimeter corners. The Eagles believed they could put Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Asomugha in the slot, solely because they were athletically talented players. It doesn't work that way, so things didn't play out as the Eagles expected. Neither Rodgers-Cromartie nor Asomugha possessed the combination of traits necessary to play effectively in the slot, and it proved to be a primary contributing factor to the Eagles' struggles in 2011. As the Eagles now know, a slot corner is a key component to defensive success.
Now, routes I've been associated with that are called options are normally slot routes. Guys in the slot will do certain things depending on how [the defense plays] you. We do our share of those. In the West Coast offense, an option route could go either way -- a lot of people call it a 'jerk' route -- where you go in, set the linebacker up, and then go either way. It depends on the terminology, and what you want to call an option route, but in our offense, nearly every route has a conversion. If they do this, you do that.
Robinson never played the slot at Central Florida and only played eight snaps at the nickel with the Vikings, which may turn out to be critical.
Luckily, the Vikings have a Plan B in Jacob Lacey, who played as the nickel cornerback for the Lions.
That may not be the greatest recommendation for a quiet offseason signing, but Lacey was actually remarkably successful in the slot.
Pro Football Focus’ signature stats on cornerbacks reveals who some of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL were in 2012, and Lacey ranks among them. Not only did Lacey rank 11th in cover snaps per target (suggesting that quarterbacks looked off of him), but he also only allowed the 14th-fewest yards per snap in coverage as well.
Those numbers aren’t stellar, but they are a little bit better than league average—which is much more than you can reasonably expect in your backup plan for the slot.
Lacey will have to prove that he can repeat that performance as well as transition to a defense that features more zone coverage than off-man coverage, like the Lions used, but he’s not a bad player. He was a quietly good performer on a surprisingly average pass defense (allowing league average 6.2 yards per pass attempt).
The Vikings unquestionably made a very good decision when they signed Desmond Bishop. At a deal worth near the veteran’s minimum salary for a player of his experience, the Vikings most definitely did not overvalue him.
There’s no question that the signing was a positive one for the Vikings, but there are a few reasons to tone down the excitement.
The most obvious worry with Bishop is also the reason he came so cheaply: his hamstring injury warded away NFL teams. A June 2013 study in the American Journal of Orthopedics found that of the 10 confirmed cases of ruptured hamstrings between 1990 and 2008, only five players were able to play more than one game.
Two of those five players injured themselves once more—an ACL and a hamstring strain.
The study concluded that a “rupture” in the hamstring is significantly different than a simple strain, and that teams should proceed with caution. The study had an extremely low sample size, but certainly suggests some fairly large risks in terms of recovery. There’s a good chance that Bishop could simply not return to the physical form he had two years ago.
But even if he did, the former Packer is a one-dimensional player.
He’s much more of a run-stuffer (and he’s very good at it) than a coverage player. But the Vikings’ schedule is filled with more passing threats (the Lions, Bears and Packers twice as well as the Giants, Steelers, Cowboys and Bengals) than running threats (the Panthers). The multidimensional teams (the Redskins, Seahawks, Ravens and Cowboys) will often win through the passing game and finish the game off with their running.
As much as the Vikings are fighting it, pass coverage has become much more important than run defense. By passer rating, eight of the top 12 defenses made the playoffs. Only four of the top 12 run defenses (by defensive run success rate) did the same.
There’s no question that adding Bishop upgrades the Vikings at the linebacker position—they were potentially going to start Marvin Mitchell or Tyrone McKenzie.
But that doesn’t mean Bishop is the last piece the Vikings needed in order to be dominant. While it’s true that many recognize this fact, it’s equally true that others are projecting Bishop to perform at a Pro Bowl level.
Even if he matches his best year in performance, Bishop is too one-dimensional to be considered among the league’s best linebackers.
An unlikely target to make the roster is Zach Line, an undrafted free agent from Southern Methodist University.
Gil Brandt, former Vice President of Player Personnel with the Dallas Cowboys and draft analyst with NFL.com listed Zach Line as the top undrafted free-agent running back. Walter Football listed Zach Line as their second-best fullback (first was Kyle Juszcyk, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens).
The Vikings evidently agreed, willing to commit Line with the highest bonus among their undrafted free agents—particularly compelling given the cap on signing bonuses one can give to undrafted free agents.
Throughout his career, Line has consistently demonstrated impressive running, blocking and pass-catching ability. Not only does he hold SMU’s rushing record (a record previously held by Eric Dickerson), he did it all from the fullback position—without the eight yards of run-up that modern running backs are traditionally afforded.
That requires a tremendous amount of burst and decision-making ability.
Line has the baseline bulk and strength to perform traditional fullback duties as well, anchoring well in pass protection—he was a middle linebacker in high school and for a short time at Southern Methodist.
He was fast enough at 230 pounds to be a gunner on SMU’s punt team, and initially made his mark on the team as a lead blocker. He even blocked in line as a tight end on occasion.
His one-cut running style fits the Vikings well, who often run zone runs that employ similar principles to the Mustang offense. His 40-yard dash time (between 4.77 and 4.65) has been deceptive again and again, as he continues to hit creases with authority and plays much faster than he’s timed.
Line is effective at setting up defenders at the cuts and employs a running style that translates well into the NFL, eschewing the stop-start elusiveness that takes advantage of poor college athleticism and tackling angles and favoring smoother cuts forward.
When asked to block at SMU, he’s been effective, too. Not only did he do a great job swallowing up linebackers in the run game as a freshman, he’s consistently protected the pocket on blitz protection.
Because almost all of his film is from the fullback position, Line fell out of the draft, but he’s truly a talented runner and surprisingly capable blocker (in-line, leading or in pass protection).
He doesn’t have a wide variety of routes in his arsenal, but he ran them well and caught passes crisply before turning upfield.
Line has had injury problems, including a troubling history with infections, but if the Vikings can manage his health, he might be an effective “move” player along the lines of tight ends Jim Kleinsasser, Rhett Ellison or the troubled Aaron Hernandez. Fullbacks like Marcel Reece, Charles Clay or Michael Robinson do the same thing.