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Monday Morning Mailbag: Strength of Schedule's Significance & Versatility of Offensive Personnel

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Those of you who have been repeat readers and commenters probably know that our Vikings.com editorial team bid a fond farewell to Team Reporter Eric Smith last Friday. Editor/Writer Lindsey Young and I will miss Eric, who has become a brother to us in the past seven years of working together. He's delivered some great content and been a genuine friend.

Eric will be sharing the news on his future destination in a couple of weeks, but we're so excited about the opportunity in front of him for multiple reasons.

Lindsey and I are dividing responsibilities, and I'll be handling the Monday Morning Mailbag as we continue to deliver content, so please keep your questions coming. We truly value opportunities to communicate with fans.

As you know, Eric took some questions by Twitter. I'm admittedly less active on social media — I was razzing Eric Friday about me needing to be more active to pick up the slack for what he'd normally provide from his account — but here’s a link to my account if you'd rather submit questions through that medium.

You mentioned how strength of schedule changes from what is projected to what actually happens.

Do you have any data on how that has gone the past few seasons?

— Craig

Boston, MA

Thesis research projects could try to identify all the factors that affect how hard each particular week is, depending on when a game is played (if your favorite team or the opposing team had one or more players injured, if either team participated in an overtime game the previous week, short rest vs. bye week rust, etc).

The Vikings full 2022 schedule was released last month, and based solely on this year's opponents win percentage from 2021, it is the 20th toughest. The teams Minnesota will face this season were a combined 139-148-2 (.484) in 2021.

That is a drop-off from this time last year when the Vikings had the fifth-toughest schedule based on the same metric, with 2021 opponents totaling a win percentage of .531 in 2020 after going a combined 144-127-1.

A Cincinnati team that went 6-25-1 in Zac Taylor's first two seasons (4-11-1 in 2020) was included as the team Minnesota visited to open the 2021. The Vikings lost to the Bengals out of the gate, but Cincinnati wound up being a 10-7 squad and won the AFC Championship Game. Thus, by the end of that season, defeating Cincinnati was proving tougher than it had in the past two seasons.

The Vikings preseason strength of schedule (.531 heading into 2021) wound up being .507 after opponents finished the regular season at 145-141-3. Minnesota, which finished 8-9, could have lowered that by winning more games or raised it by losing more.

To expand beyond last season and the Vikings, I can thank the NFL Media Research Department for the info that follows in this response.

View photos of the Vikings 2022 schedule at U.S. Bank Stadium and on the road.

The 2021 Steelers entered the season with the hardest strength of schedule and became the first team to hold that distinction and make the playoffs since the 2016 Falcons, who tied with the 49ers that season for the hardest strength of schedule entering Kickoff Weekend.

The 2017 Broncos (5-11), 2018 Packers (6-9-1), 2019 Raiders (7-9) and 2020 Patriots (7-9) all missed the playoffs after entering those respective seasons with the toughest strength of schedule based on previous results.

Conversely, four of the past six teams who have entered a season with the easiest strength of schedule have gone on to make the playoffs that year.

The 2016 Packers (10-6) lost to those Falcons in the NFC Championship. The 2018 Texans went 11-5 but lost in the AFC Wild Card Round. The 2020 Ravens went 11-5 but lost to Buffalo in the AFC Divisional Round. The 2021 Eagles finished 9-8 before losing to the Buccaneers in the NFC Wild Card Round.

The 2017 Colts went 4-12, and the 2019 Commanders went 3-13, despite facing the lightest schedules.

The Super Bowl LVI Champion Los Angeles Rams face the toughest slate this season (2022 opponents went 164-125 for a win percentage of .567 last season). Dallas and Washington (.462) are tied for the easiest lineup of foes.

Seeing people talk about both TE depth and if new staff wants to use a fullback.

Couldn't both questions (partially) be answered if Kevin O'Connell looks at using C.J. Ham in an H-back/Jim Kleinsasser role? Ham can block and has shown enough hands out of the backfield to catch the ball. Likely see some struggles against top edge rushers, but that goes to game-planning, and they probably won't line Ham up on the end of the line but in an offset or wing back position. Thoughts??

Thanks for taking time to read.

— Jake

Would it make sense to move a running back who is performing well to play receiver if he is outperforming our third and fourth wide receivers in order to get our best weapons on the field?

— James Hanke

I'm grouping the questions from Jake and James because there's a little bit of overlap with coaching strategy and personnel usage.

O'Connell and Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips have both expressed their excitement for seeing all of the things C.J. Ham can do. Swiss Army Knife is a colorful descriptor for multitalented people like him.

The Rams didn't have a fullback like Ham, who has helped running back Dalvin Cook make the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons.

We saw former Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak utilize Ham in different ways and put Cook on a receiving route down the middle last year against Pittsburgh. Phenom WR Justin Jefferson also perplexed opponents last year at times when he lined up in the backfield, by the way.

It's likely that O'Connell and Phillips will try to create mismatches in the chess game that occurs before snaps.

An overly broad example is the use of 21 personnel (Ham, Cook and a tight end, along with two receivers) could prompt some teams to go with heavier run-stopping defenders who may not be as good in pass coverage.

Getting Irv Smith, Jr., back at tight end should be a big help for an offense that planned to use a lot of 12 personnel with Smith and Tyler Conklin last year. Now that Conklin is with the Jets, there's an opportunity for lesser-known players to step up.

View photos from the Vikings OTA practice which took place on June 3 at the TCO Performance Center.

The Vikings top three receivers from 2021 — Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn — combined for 225 catches, 2,997 yards and 27 touchdowns. That's strong production. I think most would take Osborn's line of 50 catches, 655 yards and seven scores out of WR3 with a big smile.

Cook, by the way, added a solid 34 catches for 224 yards last season.

We might catch a few more glimpses of usage during training camp and the preseason, but O'Connell has also mentioned the way other teams try to comb through video highlights from practices. He'll intend to keep some things up his sleeves for Minnesota's Week 1 opener against Green Bay, even though training camp practices will be open to fans.

It seems as though no NFL expert thinks that Kirk Cousins is capable of winning a Super Bowl, but isn't Super Bowl champ Matthew Stafford pretty similar to Kirk Cousins?

— Rod from Reading, Pennsylvania

Out of respect for the NFL personnel executives who have developed their careers as talent evaluators, I'm not going to do a major critique of either player.

Cousins tied for the fourth-highest passer rating in the NFL with a 103.1, and Stafford finished in sixth place with a 102.9.

Stafford, who entered the NFL in 2009 as a No. 1 overall pick, has led 34 fourth-quarter comebacks and 42 game-winning drives in 182 regular-season starts, going 86-95-1.

Cousins was a fourth-round pick in 2012, 100 spots after Washington also drafted QB Robert Griffin III. He's totaled 14 fourth-quarter comebacks and 20 game-winning drives in 120 regular-season starts. Cousins is 59-59-2.

I think Stafford and Cousins have each had their share of doubters and their believers.

But generally, no matter the status of the Lions for much of Stafford's career, teams always knew he'd provide quite the challenge. Very few people believed he'd have the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl with the Lions. His trade instantly boosted an already great team in Los Angeles, but that team also needed the season he put together and clutch play in the postseason to win it all.

View the best photos of Vikings QB Kirk Cousins from the 2021 season.

Cousins has put up some monster traditional stats since joining Minnesota in 2018, but the Vikings haven't been on the precipice of a Super Bowl in that time.

O'Connell certainly deserves credit for helping Stafford's best season of his career, and the fact that he did, ought to provide some excitement among fans. A former NFL backup QB, O'Connell will do what he can to benefit Cousins — and the entire team so the Vikings can reach their full potential.

Got a feeling this is going to be a great season. Like the vibes coming out.

— Roy Appleby

Who am I to argue with you, Roy?

The power of positive thinking in the building and among the fan base shouldn't be discounted.

View photos of the Vikings 2022 coaching staff.

O'Connell has directed efforts during the offseason program on "neck up." He and his staff have learned how their players learn and helped them adopt Minnesota's new scheme and techniques.

We're under the 100-day mark until kicking off the regular season.

Players will have the mandatory minicamp this week and then break before returning to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for training camp in July. While they'll no doubt enjoy their break, I believe they'll also be looking forward to the 2022 season.

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