Welcome to the second installment of Zone Coverage‘s weekly Vikings mailbag, where I try to answer all your burning NFL and Vikings-related questions, submitted via Twitter to @NickOlsonNFL.
Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are similar players in a lot of ways — both listed at 6’1″, both weighing in at around 200 pounds and both are well-rounded receivers with the deep speed and technique to threaten deep along with the route running savvy to separate underneath.
But Jefferson is already the better receiver. He’s a better route runner and explodes much more naturally out of his breaks:
Jefferson is a little more quick and explosive, and it shows when comparing the two players’ initial explosion off the line of scrimmage or in-and-out of routes — and that’s before accounting for any decline in athleticism Thielen may experience as he ventures into his 30s.
Jefferson is also much better than Thielen after the catch. Last year he forced 13 missed tackles — nearly double the highest single-season figure Thielen has ever posted — while also averaging 5.1 yards after each catch, also higher than any single-season figure Thielen has posted. Jefferson is also better as a blocker, and as Thielen gets older his injury risk rises as he’s missed a couple of games over the last couple of seasons.
Thielen still has a better release; arguably among the very best in the NFL. Jefferson improved his release dramatically since his college days but still struggled at times with giving up his chest and being stymied off the line of scrimmage. Thielen is also better at tracking the ball in midair (Jefferson still sometimes tracks the ball over the wrong shoulder) and is a little savvier with his mid-route hand usage in the stems of his route and at the catch point.
Statistically, both have very good hands with each having only a 5% drop rate over their NFL careers. But from the film, I would still say Thielen is slightly less prone to concentration drops.
So those are points where Jefferson can still improve. I wrote extensively about what Thielen does well here after the 2019 season and wrote in-depth about Justin Jefferson does well here before his rookie campaign. Fast forward to today, and Jefferson has significantly improved his areas of weakness to the point where I’m already comfortable saying he’s better than Thielen and well on his way to being a consensus top-10 receiver in the NFL.
Via DM: If there was a punter guaranteed to always drop the ball on the one-yard line regardless of where they punted from but you had to draft him #1 overall, do you do it? You have to… right?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: So I went back and looked at every punt from 1999 through 2020 and the average EPA on the 52,977 punts over the last 21 years is -0.036. Zero is an average result, so that makes sense, and the reason the result here is below zero is because teams who go for it on fourth downs over the last 21 years on average get above-average results, and so the number reflects that opportunity cost of not going for it.
If you look only at the 17,324 punts over the last 21 years that were downed inside the 20-yard line, the average EPA/play shoots up to 0.31. That’s a really good result — for comparison, Tom Brady‘s career EPA/play is 0.216. The average NFL team punted the ball about 3.7 times per game last year, so that means a punter who could guarantee any punted ball would be downed inside the 20-yard line would be worth more than an extra point per game.
But this theoretical punter can do much, much better than that and can drop the ball at the one-yard line from anywhere on the field, guaranteed. There have been just 508 punts over the last 21 years that have been dropped right on the one-yard line, excluding plays that were challenged and overturned as touchbacks. The average EPA/play on those punts? 0.687. And note that that figure includes punts to the one-yard line that were returned (including two occasions that were returned for a touchdown, one by Patrick Peterson in 2011 coincidentally enough). If we limit to just the punts that were downed at the one-yard line, the average EPA/play jumps up to 0.731.
But even that understates how valuable this player will be, because most punts that wind up at the one-yard line start much farther away from your own goal line. The average punt that lands at the opposing one-yard line starts around midfield, at the opponent’s 48-yard line, but the average punt over the last 21 years comes from your own 35-yard line. That’s an additional 17 yards per punt because this punter can drop the ball at the one-yard line from anywhere on the field, which makes a huge difference: the average EPA/play of the 11 punts that went 64-66 yards and landed at the one-yard line was 1.439!
The only thing capping this player’s value is the fact that most teams will only punt as a matter of last resort, and even with a punter this good, a team is still better off trying for touchdowns and field goals rather than punting the ball on early downs. The average team punted the ball 59 times last year, so if you assume this punter earns 1.439 EPA/play based on the value of a punt that goes to the one-yard line from the average NFL starting punt position and does so 59 times in a season, this super punter would net a team on average an additional 5.3 points every single game for their career.
So how valuable does that make this punter? It’s roughly the difference in value between Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith over the last decade: Rodgers posted an average 0.242 EPA/play over the last decade (ranking second only to Patrick Mahomes), while Smith posted an average 0.104 EPA/play over the last decade (ranking 23rd between Cam Newton and Jared Goff). Over an average of 600 passes per year, that’s about 145 total EPA compared to about 62 total EPA, compared to our super punter providing roughly 85 total EPA per year.
On an absolute basis, our super punter provides about as much EPA as an average starting quarterback. But given his unique talents and the positional scarcity, he’s probably the most valuable player in the league (though you could still make an argument for Mahomes). And since he comes with the guarantee to always down the ball at the one-yard line, there’s no risk. So yes, he’s absolutely worth a first-round pick in my eyes.
Good question. I think NFL teams are generally well-run, with the only exception being the developing realm of football analytics. So if I could give the Vikings three actionable pieces of advice, they would be:
- Try to Run the Most Play-Action in the NFL. Every quarterback in the NFL plays better under play-action. The average QB adds about 0.12 EPA/play when comparing play-action passes to non-play action. And this is doubly true for the Vikings receivers, who are excellent at getting open on play-action routes; triply true for Kirk Cousins, who excels at play fakes and executing play-action concepts; and quadruply true for the Vikings’ offensive line, whose best chance of holding up for long in pass protection is by starting with the run action of a play-action fake. Each year in the NFL, the average percentage of play-action dropbacks creeps up, so it would be good to try and be ahead of that curve.
- Pass the Ball More. It’s trite, but passing the ball simply gets you more yards. An elite running back will get you 5.0 yards per carry; a terrible quarterback will still get you over 6.0 yards per drop back. Yes, it’s riskier, but so is shooting 3-pointers compared to two-pointers, and the NBA still figured that out. Passing the ball means a greater risk of turnovers and sacks, but EPA/play accounts for all those bad outcomes and still finds the elite running teams like the Baltimore Ravens or Tennessee Titans last year posted an EPA/carry on the ground worse than Mitch Trubisky‘s EPA/drop back. The Vikings don’t need to be as pass-heavy as the Kansas City Chiefs or Buffalo Bills, but Matt LaFleur last year showed how successful a team can be by marrying a Mike Shanahan wide-zone foundation with a pass-heavy attack.
- Prioritize Investments in Players Who Affect the Pass More Than the Run. This would mean not letting Anthony Harris walk for pennies on the dollar and not signing a second nose tackle. In the upcoming draft, it would mean trying to move up for one of the top five quarterbacks, or drafting one of the Alabama receivers if they fall to the 14th pick. In free agency, it would mean finding offensive linemen who can hold up at least decently in pass protection while adding a WR3 who is better than Chad Beebe. It would also mean finding a pass rusher or two so that Danielle Hunter isn’t the only player capable of winning their pass rush, whether that’s in the first two days of the draft or by signing one of the remaining free agent pass rushers like Everson Griffen.
You are correct that the Vikings currently have a little over $7 million in current cap space, with another $8 million set to be cleared once Kyle Rudolph is cut after June 1. It will cost the Vikings roughly $6 million to pay for their draft class, practice squad, the final 53-man roster and to have a rainy-day fund for IR and midseason signings. That means they still have around $9 million of cap space available to work with, not including another few million that could be created by extending Harrison Smith.
There are still a handful of starting-caliber offensive linemen out there, including not just Eric Fisher but Mitchell Schwartz, Russell Okung, Austin Reiter, and Ben Garland. Fisher has been a very solid tackle for the Chiefs but remains unsigned after suffering a torn Achilles in the AFC Championship Game, which puts his ability to start in September or even October or November in question.
I think the reason these players remain unsigned is that they want more than just the veteran minimum, and this year’s offensive line draft class is exceptionally good, with the potential to find starting offensive linemen well into the third and even fourth rounds. So teams are likely waiting to see how the draft shakes out before committing additional cap space to older veterans with injury question marks. If the Vikings for some reason whiff on offensive linemen in the draft, I think it’s very likely that they would try and sign one of the players above, but they have little incentive to do so until the end of the draft.
Ideally, it’s not someone currently on the roster: Beebe is great at separating underneath against man coverage and thus well-suited for third-down duties, but a lack of size and speed really limits his general utility. And Olabisi Johnson is kind of just a guy: his routes are solid and he’s good at the catch point, but he lacks the speed or explosiveness to be a difference-maker.
And ideally, it’s not a current free agent, although there are some intriguing older veterans still available, including Antonio Brown, Golden Tate, Alshon Jeffery, and Larry Fitzgerald. Reuniting Dede Westbrook with Keenan McCardell is also intriguing if Westbrook’s medicals check out after a gruesome ACL tear ended his season last year.
So ideally the Vikings can upgrade at WR3 in the draft, which should be doable given how great and deep this receiving class is. As far as the type of receiver, they could ideally use a size/speed prospect who can create space for Thielen and Jefferson underneath while also contributing as a blocker in the run game if they wanted to base out of more 11 personnel. Return ability would be an added plus. And given McCardell’s track record of developing receivers, I might give the edge to high-upside rookies with traits to develop. All that said, I would only use fit as a tiebreaker — better to just draft the better receiver who can get open, catch the ball and create after the catch than get a bad receiver who’s a better fit.
So at 1.14, I would sprint to the podium for any of Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, or DeVonta Smith, as each of them might be the best WR prospect since Amari Cooper six years ago. But since the Vikings have more pressing needs, and none are likely to fall to the 14th pick anyway, I might instead look to receivers projected to go in the third and fourth rounds, where the Vikings currently have six picks.
Receivers who could be available in that range, per The Athletic’s Consensus Board, include Dyami Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tylan Wallace, D’Wayne Eskridge, Amari Rodgers, Nico Collins, Tutu Atwell, Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, Jaelon Darden, and Cade Johnson. Each of Brown, Collins, Eskridge, Atwell, Schwartz and Darden would be a home-run threat with their long speed, and St. Brown, Eskridge, Rodgers, Darden, and Johnson could compete for return duties. Personally, I would be happy with Brown, Eskridge or Collins in the third round, or Atwell, Darden or Schwartz in the fourth round.
Via DM: As far as edge rushers goes, I’ve heard the names Kwity Paye and Jaelan Phillips to the Vikings a lot. Is there any chance Azeez Ojulari could be in the mix to the Vikings or why haven’t we heard his name linked to them much heading into the week?
It is a bit odd that we have seen Paye and Phillips connected to the Vikings a fair amount but not Ojulari, especially considering all three are in a similar range on the Consensus Board, where Paye ranks 14th, Phillips ranks 19th and Ojulari ranks 20th (the next two pass rushers, Gregory Rousseau and Jayson Oweh, rank 30th and 31st).
But I think it’s primarily two things driving the Paye/Phillips chatter. The first is that, unlike Ojulari, they are both athletic freaks — something Rick Spielman has consistently prioritized with the Vikings. Phillips posted a 9.87 RAS, just one-hundredth apart from Hunter’s 9.88 RAS, while Paye is probably an even more impressive athlete. Paye posted a 9.34 RAS despite a quadriceps injury at his pro day that kept him from running the 3-cone and short shuttle, and ran a 6.37-second 3-cone at Michigan. A 6.37-second 3-cone would not just break the all-time record for defensive linemen but would be the third-best performance among any position in Mockdraftable’s entire database.
Ojulari doesn’t have that same athleticism, with an 8.17 RAS brought down by his slim stature (6’2″, 249 pounds) and only a 30″ vertical and 7.27-second 3-cone — disappointing figures as those two metrics are the most predictive of future success for edge defenders. He’s still a good athlete and he makes up for poor size with 34½” arms, but it would be a little surprising to see Spielman take Ojulari over two über athletes.
The second reason is that Ojulari isn’t the ideal fit for the open 5-technique spot on the Vikings’ roster. The way Zimmer likes to run his base 4-3 under defensive front is to have a superhuman nose guard and a stout 5-technique who can take on a double team from a tackle and tight end or set a hard edge on the strong side of the formation, while the 3-technique defensive tackle and Hunter flank the quarterback from the weak side.
At under 250 pounds and without much power to his game, Ojulari simply isn’t a good fit for that and is more of a 3-4 linebacker. The Vikings could move Hunter to play more 5-technique and let Ojulari feast, but that would not be putting Hunter in the best spot. So while Ojulari could be a great player, he might not be the best fit for the Vikings.
I think Spielman will definitely try and wind up with a second-round pick, whether by trading down in the first round or by trading up using some of the Vikings’ six third and fourth-round picks. And Spielman seemed to hint as much at his presser on Tuesday, saying both “To have the draft capital we have gives us a lot of flexibility if we want to move up in the draft if we want to do that” and “[If] we see most of the guys we’re targeting are going to be gone in the 2nd round, we’re going to have to be aggressive to move up“. I don’t think that has much to do with Spielman’s contract status — Spielman’s job security seems to be pretty safe for the moment based on recent reports.
Via DM: Is there anyone projected in the mid to late rounds with some elite KR/PR skills that might also fill a hole in the Vikings roster?
Setting aside running backs (who wouldn’t fill a hole) and the early round receivers (like Waddle or DeVonta Smith), Eskridge was the highest-graded returner in football last year, and his 27.5 average yards per kickoff return ranked 11th in the FBS. He should go in the third round. Avery Williams might go undrafted as an undersized nickel corner but posted nine career special teams touchdowns at Boise State and led the country in kick and punt return yardage last year. As for receivers in the later rounds, Cade Johnson, Marquez Stevenson, Demetric Felton, Dazz Newsome, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette could all compete for both receiving snaps and return duties.
Via DM: If the Vikings were to get Rashawn Slater (likely via a tradeup), do you think the idea would be to play him at guard? And then get a left tackle in free agency (Okung, Villanueva, et al)?
Tom Pelissero reported on Tuesday that “Who’s calling to move up? The Vikings have been actively working the phones — that would probably be if one of those offensive tackles ends up sliding.” In an unlikely scenario where either Penei Sewell or Slater started to slide within reach of the Vikings, I could certainly see Spielman spending some draft capital to snatch Sewell or Slater ahead of the OL-needy Los Angeles Chargers at pick 13. We actually saw a very similar scenario play out last year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded their fourth-round pick (117th overall) to move up from pick 1.14 to pick 1.13 and get a 7th-round pick back (245th overall).
Going by the Rich Hill chart, which is based on the classic Jimmy Johnson chart but updated to reflect more recent trade values, it would take the Vikings a future first (which is discounted to a current second-round pick) to trade up to 1.06. Trading the Vikings’ earlier third-round pick (3.78) along with their sixth-round pick (6.199) would be about enough to move up to 1.09. If the Vikings wanted to leapfrog the Chargers by trading with the Philadelphia Eagles up to 1.12, it would cost them one of their fourth-rounders (likely 4.125).
Given how deep this offensive line class is, I don’t think Spielman would necessarily trade all that ammo for a tackle. However, if Sewell or Slater were sitting there at 1.12 and the Vikings had a much higher grade on him than any of the other available players, I could see Spielman paying the price to leapfrog the Chargers and walk away with a blue-chip offensive line talent.
Pelissero’s report mentioned above suggests any trade up would be for one of the blue-chip tackle prospects, but that said, yesterday in response to a question about whether the Vikings might draft a quarterback, Spielman responded “No position is off-limits.” Furthermore, Spielman personally attended each of Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields‘ pro days. A trade up for a quarterback would slightly surprise me, but it wouldn’t shock me.
I personally would prefer to take Alijah Vera-Tucker or Christian Darrisaw at 1.14, unless Slater fell and it only took one of Minnesota’s four fourth-rounders to leapfrog the Chargers and take Slater. It’s just difficult to win trades when you trade up, unless it’s for a quarterback, as Pro Football Focus has written about before.
Per Grinding the Mocks, Sewell is expected to go around the fifth overall pick, and moving up to the sixth overall pick would cost a future first. So that seems unlikely.
Fields is a lot harder to judge. His tape suggests a top-five prospect, but Grinding the Mocks has him expected to go around the 8th overall pick, and some reporters are even guessing he will fall into the teens. I don’t see him getting past the New England Patriots with the 15th overall pick, and it’s likely someone trades up to take him before that point — hopefully, the Vikings.
That’s an interesting heuristic, and I think generally fairly true: it’s very difficult to find an above-average quarterback outside of the first round. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson (and arguably Dak Prescott and Cousins) are the exceptions that seem to prove the rule.
And in recent years, the best quarterback in each draft class is rarely the first one taken: last year, Justin Herbert impressed more than Joe Burrow, in 2018 it was the third and fifth first-round quarterbacks taken (Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson) who performed best, in 2017 it was the second and third first-round quarterbacks taken (Mahomes and Deshaun Watson) who impressed more than Mitch Trubisky and so on.
I think it would be a little wacky to take two quarterbacks in the first round. I understand the logic, since you are trying to guarantee you get the best quarterback prospect of the two (think if the Bears managed to draft both Trubisky and Mahomes in 2017). But I’m not sure Mahomes or Allen develop the way they did if they are competing with another first-round rookie, nor am I sure the team will be able to correctly identify which of the two prospects is the better one. I think in the scenario where Fields is still available at 1.14 even after taking Trey Lance at 1.09, I would want to sell the fourteenth overall pick in exchange for a number of picks and use those picks to give the quarterback a supporting cast to succeed, the way the Chiefs have with Mahomes and the Bills have with Allen.
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