The NFL analytics website Football Outsiders is not impressed by the Minnesota Vikings’ changes on offense.
In their 2017 projections, FO ranked the Vikings as the 22nd best offense in the league in DVOA – a stat that adjusts yards to situations. Last year, Minnesota finished 26th in DVOA.
The projections are explained this way:
“Our system starts by considering the team’s DVOA over the past three seasons and, on offense, a separate projection for the starting quarterback. Then we look at a number of other variables which suggest when a team will be better or worse than would otherwise be expected due to standard regression towards the mean. Factors include major offseason personnel changes, coaching experience, recent draft history, combined tenure on the offensive line, and certain players returning from injury.”
Few teams could rival the Vikings’ number of upgrades on offense. So why didn’t their ranking see a more drastic change?
The answer starts with Sam Bradford.
There isn’t a projection system on earth that would suggest Bradford is going to have one of the most efficient, productive years of all QBs because all projections are based on the past and he’s never had an efficient season.
Over the last two years, Bradford has ranked 19th and 25th in Yards Per Attempt. For his career, he is 23rd among active quarterbacks, tied with Matt Cassel, Blake Bortles and Chad Henne at just 6.6 Yards Per Attempt.
But you could reasonably expect that the massive upgrades at right and left tackle and running back combined with continuity at offensive coordinator will have much more significant impact on Bradford than the numbers suggest.
Bradford wasn’t just under center with below average tackles, he played behind the 74th (of 76) ranked left tackle by Pro Football Focus and a right tackle who struggled mightily in protection in Jeremiah Sirles.
Stats might project Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers to only have a small impact over Clemmings and Sirles, but both new Vikings were playing out of position last year. Reiff was moved to right tackle after the Lions drafted Taylor Decker and Remmers played left tackle because of injuries on the Panthers’ offensive lines.
And you certainly can’t account for chemistry of offensive grasp via a projection system.
The Vikings and Bradford have talked at length about how important stability has been to his growth within the offense.
“He got off a plane and he got into a crash course to learn our offense, and then I guess 13 days later he was taking snaps and starting,” OC Pat Shurmur said. “So, just compared to that experience this has got to be a lot more settling for him. Certainly being able to train throughout the year, get used to the players that we have, and then go into the season having a much better understanding of what we are trying to accomplish has to feel good for him. Certainly we’ve got to go out and do it, but that’s a good starting point.”
Age could also be a factor – but not how you might think with a soon-to-be 30-year-old NFL player. For most positions, 30 represents the downside. For QB, it’s generally the top of the mountain.
The Quarterback Ave Curve via Football Perspective.com would tell us that Bradford is squarely in the prime of his career. He would hardly be the first QB to have years of mediocrity, only to succeed in/near his 30s.
Vinny Testeverde is one of the most comparable examples. A former No. 1 overall pick (like Bradford), Testeverde didn’t post his first winning season until age 31, then went 12-1 as the Jets starter at 34 and played until he was 44 years old.
Here is the QB age curve:
None of those factors guarantee that the Football Outsiders projection will be wrong, they only tell us that it’s plausible that Sam Bradford could out-perform his past numbers and by proxy improve the Vikings’ offense by more than four spots in DVOA.
The running game
If you were creating a projection system, you wouldn’t weigh a team’s running game all that heavily because running success simply does not equate to overall offensive production. In fact, the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns were No. 1 and 2 in rushing Yards Per Attempt last year.
In the Vikings’ case, however, improving from the worst rushing game in the NFL to the 16th was a difference of 527 yards and 59 “Expected Points,” by Pro-Football Reference’s measures.
Most projection systems are conservative on rookies. So the expectations set by Dalvin Cook’s magnificent camp and preseason are different than a system that would base its estimate on historical rookie production.
Jerick McKinnon’s talent also far outweighs his numbers last season. His 3.4 Yards Per Carry was well below his previous career mark of 4.9 per run. He was largely derailed by an injury-riddled offensive line and overworked due to Adrian Peterson’s absence.
Football Outsiders’ projection system is set up – as all projections are – to give a “most likely scenario” based on previous results. But the Vikings’ scenarios have a wider range of possible outcomes because of a unique set of circumstances last season.
Whether the Vikings and Bradford maximize all the possibilities on offense, well, Shurmur said it best:
“Now we’ve got to go out and do it.”