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By: Warren Ludford
Move Makes Clear Vikings’ Priorities
After meeting with Dalton Risner over a month ago, with no offer extended and no movement on signing him for a month afterward according to local beat writer Darren Wolfson, the Vikings and Risner made a deal for the top free agent guard to come to Minnesota.
My guess is that the deal was done because Risner was willing to come down on price. He had a market value of $9.5 million in annual average contract value according to Spotrac, based on comparable signings adjusted for performance, but the Vikings were able to sign him on a deal that pays him up to $4 million on a one-year deal, with $2.25 million guaranteed. The difference may be incentives if he becomes a starter. That allowed the Vikings, who freed up $10 million in cap space the day before the regular season opener (presumably for a Justin Jefferson extension that didn’t happen), to be able to afford Risner while still leaving some cash on hand in case of emergencies.
Offensive Line Musical Chairs
The Vikings lost swing tackle Oli Udoh for the season on Thursday night, leaving backup David Quessenberry to play in relief of Udoh. Starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw was out with a minor ankle injury and could be available for Sunday’s game against the Chargers. Starting center Garrett Bradbury has also been out with a back injury, which he suffered against Tampa and it’s unclear when he’ll be available. In the meantime, he’s being replaced by Austin Schlottmann. Both Quessenberry and Schlottmann have been decent, if not outstanding (high 60s PFF pass pro grades), filling in for injured starters. By contrast, starting right guard Ed Ingram has struggled more in pass protection, earning just a 51.4 (below average) PFF grade in pass protection. None of the Vikings offensive linemen, except Brian O’Neill, have done well so far this season in run blocking.
Be that as it may, the Vikings’ depth at guard would appear to be better than at tackle, now that Udoh is lost for the season, and with Blake Brandel as the IOL backup (he’s practiced and played at both guard spots this off-season and is being trained at center), and IOL backup Chris Reed eligible to come back after Week Four. The Vikings have just Quessenberry as a backup tackle at this point, and the three offensive linemen on the practice squad are all primarily guards.
Risner has played only left guard since entering the league, although he played right tackle in college at Kansas State from 2016-2018, starting at center his freshman year in 2015. So conceivably, Risner could fill-in at any position for the Vikings. He was asked about his position flexibility by the Vikings when he met with them in August. At the time, however, the Vikings had no injuries to their starters or primary backups.
All of the above creates some doubt about what position Risner may be asked to play. My guess is that he’ll compete at right guard to begin with, and if he earns the starting job, Ed Ingram will become a backup guard. Ingram played left guard in college. The Vikings could then focus on getting Brandel up-to-speed at center, where he’s never played, in the event Schlottmann goes down. I believe Brandel was the backup center on Thursday night. That would leave Quessenberry as the only backup tackle. But either Brandel or Risner could also serve as a backup tackle too.
There is also the question of how long Bradbury will be out with his back injury- which caused him to miss five games last season- and how long before Chris Reed is able to return to the active roster. If both of them are expected to miss extended time, that would create a need for additional interior linemen, in which case Brandel would be the primary backup at center and either Ingram or Risner the backup at guard.
That being the case, the Risner signing could be an indication that the injury issues along the Vikings offensive line could be more of an on-going issue than previously believed.
Strengthening the Weakest Link on Offense
On the other hand, while the injuries along the offensive line are not ideal, they could be expecting to get some guys back over the next couple weeks. Darrisaw perhaps this week, and eventually Bradbury and/or Reed, which would solve their depth issues. That being the case, the Risner signing would have come from a desire to upgrade their starting roster, rather than simply add depth- although both could be the case as well.
But focusing on Risner as an upgrade opportunity the Vikings took advantage of once Risner’s price fell sufficiently to make it feasible, this signing could signal something else as well.
Focus on the Passing Game
Over the first two games, the Vikings passed on 78% of their offensive snaps- enough to make even Andy Reid blush. And while some of that was due to game situation, it didn’t have to be that high. But it was. What’s more, the running game- when they did run the ball- wasn’t very good. In fact, the Vikings’ averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, which ranks 29th in the league, while the 69 rushing yards gained over two games ranks dead last. Last season, the Vikings ranked 26th and 27th in those same two rushing stats.
Changing Skill Sets Up-Front
But a funny thing has happened since last season. Last season, all the starting offensive linemen graded better in run blocking than pass blocking. In fact, looking at the PFF run blocking grades among starting offensive linemen last season, you’d have thought the Vikings would’ve had a pretty good ground game. They ranged from above average to elite. In fact as a team, the Vikings had the 4th best run blocking grade in the league. But not much to show for it.
So far this season, however, all the Vikings offensive linemen grade better in pass protection than in run blocking. The biggest shift has come from Ezra Cleveland. He graded 25 points higher as a run blocker compared to pass blocking last season, but so far this season he grades 24 points higher in pass protection. Apart from Brian O’Neill, who has been elite in both this season, all the other starters have been better pass blockers this season. The only real problem has been Ed Ingram, who’s been below average in both. He’s declined as a run blocker while not improving in pass protection.
What this suggests, especially considering last season’s offensive line strengths and weaknesses, is that the Vikings and offensive line coach Chris Kuper have focused on improving pass protection over the off-season. Why wouldn’t they? The Vikings pass more than they run, so pass protection is naturally more important in a passing league. And despite the fact that the Vikings have passed nearly 80% of the time, Cousins’ pressure rate has dropped from 36.4% last season to 32.3% so far this season- and with backups playing a much higher percentage of snaps so far this season. That percentage decline may not seem like much, but in terms of rankings Cousins has gone from one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league last season to the fifth least pressured this season in terms of pressure rate.
Most of the pressures allowed from offensive linemen so far this season have come from backups or Ed Ingram- who has given up the most with seven. In fact, 18 of the 25 quarterback pressures given up so far by offensive linemen were allowed by backups and Ingram, including all three sacks. Ingram is on-track to give up as many pressures this year as last year after two games.
The point here is that if the rest of the starting offensive linemen except Ingram have improved in pass blocking, and Ingram is replaced by a better pass protector in Dalton Risner, the Vikings could actually have a good offensive line this season when it comes to pass protection, particularly if they get their starters back.
Get the Ball to Your Playmakers
Now let’s move on to the next element of the passing game: talent at the skill positions. Clearly this is where the greatest strength of the team resides. Kirk Cousins is second in passer rating, completions, passing yards, leads the league in TD passes, and is 6th in QBR. Justin Jefferson is elite and the best receiver in the league. TJ Hockenson and Josh Oliver are the two highest PFF-graded receiving tight-ends in the league with at least a half-dozen targets and are ranked 1st and 4th in the league among tight ends in overall PFF grade. And then there is rookie Jordan Addison, with two deep touchdown catches in his first two games. And Jalen Nailor is waiting in the wings. These are the Vikings’ money players, the guys who make the big plays, the guys that score points, the guys that win games. And the guys the Vikings want with the ball in their hands. But to do that the Vikings need to pass the ball. Running the ball minimizes the impact of all these playmakers.
In terms of the ground game, I don’t see Alexander Mattison as much of a downgrade from Dalvin Cook, and their stats so far this year would bear that out. Mattison has 3.2 yards per carry and Cook has 2.4. Both have a fumble too. But regardless of that, no running back is going to overshadow the talent the Vikings have in the passing game.
The Vikings signing Risner could be an admission that their running game isn’t going to be a strength of the team, or much of a difference maker, so the focus now is on making the passing game as good as it can be.
Analytics Confirm It’s a Passing League
Both Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell use analytics in their approach and decision-making. And when it comes to running vs. passing the ball on offense, analytics confirm it’s a passing league and passing is the way to go.
One measure of performance in football is called EPA, or Expected Points Added, which is increasingly becoming the standard for efficiency on offense and defense. It has its flaws like other measures but is at least as good as others in measuring efficiency rather than just yards and points. What it measures is the difference in expected points scored based on down, distance, field position, time remaining, and other situational factors. The general idea is that the closer to the opponent’s endzone a team is, the greater the likelihood of scoring. So, if the expected points for a team starting first-and-ten at their own 20-yard line is 0.7, and the team completes a 20-yard pass making it 1st-and-ten at their own 40-yard line, with expected points now having increased to 2.0, then that play added 1.3 expected points, or had an EPA of 1.3.
The issue with running the ball is that unless the run play results in a first down or a touchdown, any run less than five yards is likely to have a negative EPA- decreasing the scoring likelihood for a team which is a negative play from an efficiency standpoint. And given that most teams rushing average per play is less than five yards, most teams have a negative EPA when running the ball. In fact, just four teams had a positive EPA running the ball last season. And of those, half had a top running quarterback (Ravens and Eagles) and the other two teams positive EPA was just 0.01- not much to write home about. More NFL teams have a positive EPA when passing, and the best teams passing EPA is significantly above the best rushing team EPA.
All this confirms what any NFL football fan already knows- you need to pass to win. Running is fine to keep a defense honest and maintain some balance on offense, but even the best running teams with the best running backs are hard pressed to keep up with a top passing team.
That being the case, the question becomes how much does a team need to run so the passing game is not negatively impacted, either because defenses focus only on defending the pass and/or passing more brings diminishing returns? There’s not a clear answer to that question, but so far passing a league-leading 78% of the time has led to the Vikings averaging 6.3 yards per play- 2nd highest in the league behind Miami- not exactly a run-first offense either. The Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs led the league with 6.3 yards per play last season in their Super Bowl run.
Time is Short, Time to Go with What Works
And so the signing of Risner, in an effort to upgrade pass protection at the right guard spot- Risner is a better pass protector than run blocker- could also be seen as a signal the Vikings are going all-in with their passing game. They may not always pass 78% of the time- hopefully they’ll have games with a lead when running the ball to run out the clock makes sense- but realistically waiting around for the running game to improve at 0-2 isn’t going to lead to success.
It would be nice for the Vikings to average 5 yards a carry, and maybe with a dominant passing game defenses will adjust sufficiently for the run game to be more efficient, but in the meantime running to setup the pass makes no sense for the Vikings. Passing to allow for a decent run game is a better approach.
Originally posted on Daily Norseman