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Positive Regression is Coming to Minnesota: What to Expect for the Vikings in 2020

If you’re not weak of memory you’d remember how Minnesota started the 2019 season. It was something bizarre, so strange, in fact, that there were virtually no modern-era comparisons to what Kirk Cousins and the rest of the Vikings put together during the first three to four weeks of the season.

For those who have forgotten about it, here is a quick refresher:

  • Through three games, Minnesota had logged 63 passing attempts to 103 rushing attempts; the Vikings racked up 494 passing yards and 581 yards on the ground in that span. Only the 2008 Atlanta Falcons had lower passing numbers and higher rushing numbers since the Bears did so in 1984.
  • Through four games, Minnesota had logged 99 passing attempts to 119 rushing attempts; the Vikings racked up 676 passing yards and 621 yards on the ground in that span. The last team to have such a split close was the 2007 Raiders, with just four other teams doing it in the 2000s and the 1990 Bears the next team on the list.

We all knew Minnesota was going to run the ball, but this was a little too much, which prompted Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to grow frustrated and raise concerns about Cousins’ and the Vikings’ approach to the game. From Week 5 on, though, things took a turn in Minnesota as the Vikings improved from 2-2 to 6-2 and ultimately finished the season 10-6 and reaching the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

After changing the way they approached the game, all of Cousins, Diggs, and Thielen (when available) improved their outcomes. It’s unlikely Cousins will replicate such bizarre numbers as those he posted during the first four weeks of the season, and an uptick in volume can only mean improvements for those surrounding him in the Vikings offense.

Kirk Cousins Will Bounce Back

Using the RotoViz Screener we can check for quarterbacks since the 2000 season to have posted numbers similar to those of Cousins this past season. I have looked at quarterbacks who logged fewer than 100 passing attempts through the first four weeks of the season and started all of those games while throwing at least 50 passes. There are 36 such entries in the database.

Of those 36 players, only 16 retained the starting job in the next season (that is, played the first four games and threw at least 50 passes) and they raised their attempts by 31.3 on average in year N+1. Only two players threw fewer passes, but the volume dropped by just two and four throws respectively. This means Cousins and his 99 passes thrown through the first four weeks of 2019 are a virtual minimum that can only get higher next season.

That should be what Cousins is after, too, considering his season splits before and after the offensive shifts in Week 5:

The difference is staggering. Comparing Cousins’ last three seasons, the Weeks 5-16 split above aligns much better with his recent career-average numbers:

Even more encouraging is the fact that Cousins’ FPOE per game went from 0.8 through Week 4 to 5.2 in Weeks 5 through 16.

If history is to be trusted and everything goes according to logic, then there is no reason not to think Cousins will experience positive regression and amplify his numbers just by erasing those surreal first four weeks he offered us to start this season.

Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen Will See Collateral Benefits

What a year for the Vikings receivers. You already know the story, but let’s just split the Vikings 2019 season at the Week 5 breakpoint just to have a clearer vision of how it went for them before and after the change in gameplay. Here are Minnesota’s wide receiver per-game stats during the first four weeks and during the following 11 (Cousins missed Week 17):

More targets, which meant more receptions, which meant more yards, which meant more touchdowns and ultimately a better performance in fantasy terms.

In a convoluted season full of early-season drama and in which Thielen missed six of the total 16 games, the Vikings receiving corps still thrived. Diggs finished the season as the WR21 and Thielen as the WR65. Wait, what? Sure, those numbers aren’t great, but both Diggs and Thielen were incredibly efficient. Diggs logged 4.3 FPOE/G during his 15 games played (WR4) and Thielen finished with an average of 3.4 reFPOE/G in his 10 games (WR7).

The slightest of upticks in volume with similar efficiency from both of them and a full, healthy season of play will only mean bumps in their fantasy numbers. Just to try and see what could have happened in a full season of play (16 games), I have calculated expected progressions in both PPR and EP fantasy points for Diggs and Thielen had they played all of the 2019 games to Weeks 5-16 average opportunity and fantasy scoring values.

Diggs averaged 7.16 opportunities per game from Week 5 to Week 16. Thielen averaged 4.83 in the same span. Rounding those numbers, I used seven opportunities per game for Diggs and five for Thielen. Here are the “real” seasons (including missing games) for both, along with what they would have done had they logged those average opportunities through the full schedule, both in PPR and EP (to account for a possible drop in efficiency and what we should realistically expect), while still averaging the same PPR/Opp and EP/Opp as they did in their real-life games:

Given that Diggs played 15 of the potential 16 games, his outcomes don’t vary as much as Thielen’s. He would still have racked up 246 PPR points compared to his actual 218 PPR had he averaged seven opportunities per game all season long. Even if we go by EP, he would have still gotten to 170 EP instead of his actual 151 EP, which would have seen him finish as the WR12 on the year.

Had Thielen played the full 16-game schedule on a weekly five-opportunity dose, his numbers would have been quite a bit higher. The PPR tally would have been bumped from 114 to 179 PPR (WR35) and the EP would have been 122 EP (WR60, but keep in mind Thielen played a good amount of games banged up and the numbers are based on those performances) instead of his actual paltry 65 EP.

Although it may be unrealistic to expect Diggs and Thielen to maintain quite the level of efficiency they displayed last season, this analysis shows that both should have solid floors given the expected increase in volume, with massive upside if they can build upon last season.

Diggs is currently the WR18 in early best ball drafts, and Thielen is the WR22. Both could end up being values at those prices if the volume increase is met with even a portion of the efficiency from last season.

What About Minnesota’s Rushing Game?

It is probable that you are thinking that I’ve completely forgotten about the key piece of the Vikings 2019 success: Dalvin Cook. That’s fair, considering Cook amassed 250 rushing attempts in his 14 games played in 2019 and finally avoided major injuries for most of the year.

Minnesota is naming Gary Kubiak as their new offensive coordinator. He was already part of the team this season and one of the reasons the Vikings used a run-heavy scheme, so that will undoubtedly remain in place.

Something that might have gone unnoticed, though, is how this run-heavy approach didn’t negatively impact Diggs or Thielen when they shared the field with Cooks from Week 5 onward. Considering the average RB1 in 2019 averaged 16.2 rushing attempts per game, and setting that as the split cutoff, here is what Diggs and Thielen did in games in which they played and Cook logged 16 or more rushing attempts compared to those in which he rushed the ball fewer times:

Even with a run-heavy game plan, Diggs, Thielen, and Cook still managed to co-exist, so I have no worries about Minnesota keeping a run-heavy approach in 2020 (which is what they are going to do or at least what they’re already saying will be the case).1

There is no reason to think Minnesota won’t improve on their 2019 results. They found a way to maximize both Cousins’ and Cook’s value, adjusted the quarterback’s play after a shaky start to make him a better version of himself, and exploited their top-two receivers to the extent they could given the health problems and the not-so-smooth relationship WR-QB bumps they went through during the season.

Perhaps the best news for fantasy players, no matter the league format, is that Minnesota’s 2019 season lowered the value of every single one of the Vikings offensive pieces (other than Cook, that is) entering 2020. It’s time to pounce on all of them because improvement is the only word on their horizon.

Image Credit: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Kirk Cousins.

  1. The fact that Thielen and Diggs both played better in games in which Cook logged at least 16 carries speaks to the fact that Minnesota’s best chance to win games — and therefore to feed Cook in order to chew clock — is to get their star receivers going. One hopes this is not lost on Minnesota coaches.  (back)

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