The votes are in, and three Vikings made ESPN's NFL All-Pro Teams.
Only one Viking landed on ESPN’s First-Team All-Pro list: rookie Kene Nwangwu, who has made a splash as the team's kickoff returner with two touchdowns in his first year. Jets returner Braxton Berriors made the Second Team. ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote:
Nwangwu has fielded 13 kickoffs and returned two of them for touchdowns; the only other player to do that since 2013 is [Cordarrelle] Patterson, who is the best kick returner of his generation. Percy Harvin, Devin Hester and Steve Smith also pulled it off in their rookie seasons before the league changed its kickoff rules. It's a good sign that Nwangwu is going to be a valuable returner for a long time.
Berrios was already having an excellent season before he took a kickoff 102 yards to the house for what ended up as a game-deciding score against the Jaguars last week.
Nwangwu was the lone Viking on the First Team, but receiver Justin Jefferson and right tackle Brian O'Neill both made Barnwell's Second Team.
Barnwell slated Rams WR Cooper Kupp and Packers WR Davante Adams ahead of Jefferson, pushing the second-year pass-catcher to the Second Team. He called it a close race between Jefferson and Adams, though.
The tough decision here was picking between Adams and Jefferson for the second spot. I wouldn't fault anyone for picking Jefferson, who is 89 yards ahead of Adams, in part because the Packers star missed a game. Jefferson averages more yards per target, but Adams generates more yards per route run and has done more with the ball in his hands. Adams' targets go for a first down about 3 percentage points more frequently than Jefferson, who admittedly plays with Kirk Cousins as opposed to [Aaron] Rodgers. The margin is razor thin here, and I could change my mind over the final two weeks of the year. [Tyreek] Hill is a clear No. 4 in this race, with Stefon Diggs trailing behind.
At right tackle, Tampa Bay's Tristan Wirfs made the First Team over O'Neill.
As it turns out, this ended up as a three-man race between the two guys above and the Rams Rob Havenstein. I went for Wirfs and O'Neill, who have both played every snap for their respective teams this season, ahead of Havenstein, who has missed two games. Statistically, there might be a slightly better case for O'Neill, who hasn't allowed a sack, while Wirfs has allowed one and might be at least partially at fault for a second. By ESPN's measures, though, O'Neill has allowed more pressures leading to incompletions than his Bucs counterpart. They're both very good run blockers, so the difference between the two might amount to a coin flip.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
Darrisaw among PFF's highest-graded rookies since Week 12
Christian Darrisaw's NFL debut was delayed by injury, but he's thus far shown why Minnesota grabbed him in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked the highest-graded rookies since Week 12, and Darrisaw came in at No. 5 on the list with an overall grade of 82.9. Ahead of him from 1-4, respectively, was Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle (88.9), Jaguars CB Tyson Campbell (85.9), Cowboys LB Micah Parsons (84.7) and Chiefs C Creed Humphrey (83.8).
PFF's Michael Renner wrote the following:
Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell jumps off the page with the second-highest PFF grade over the last five weeks. Since Week 12, he's allowed only 12 receptions on 23 targets for 101 yards, recording two picks and three pass breakups in the process. That stretch of play is already more impressive than anything former top-10 pick C.J. Henderson offered last season.
On the flip side of the ball, Christian Darrisaw has planted his flag firmly as a legit starter at left tackle for the Vikings. Since Week 12, he's allowed only four pressures on 101 pass-blocking snaps — much-needed competency for an offensive line that's been a problem in recent years.
The final player who deserves some love for turning things around is linebacker Nick Bolton, who has fueled the Chiefs' nearly improbable turnaround from defensive doormat to dominant outfit. You won't find many linebackers quicker to diagnose than Bolton. While that showed in the run game early on, it's been evident in coverage down the stretch, as well. He's allowed only seven of nine targets to be completed for 45 yards, with two pass breakups in his last four games.
Frelund offers 1 reason for Vikings to hold onto postseason hopes
Heading into this weekend's Sunday Night Football game at Green Bay, the Vikings have just a 13.5-percent chance of making the playoffs.
That number does jump to 50 percent, though, if they beat the division rival. Despite Minnesota's struggles this season, it's one of just three opponents so far to defeat Green Bay during the 2021 campaign.
In a recent article, NFL.com's Cynthia Frelund offered "one reason to hope" for each of the league's 10 "fringe teams" with two regular-season contests remaining. She wrote the following for the Vikings:
Justin Jefferson leads the NFL with 52 receptions and 1,132 yards on downfield attempts (10+ air yards, per NGS), which is 16 more catches than any other player (Tee Higgins and Cooper Kupp are tied at 36). The Pro Bowler's field-stretching prowess will be a big help in the Vikings final two games – both as a weapon, and as a decoy who can draw coverage and open up opportunities for his teammates (especially with Adam Thielen injured).
[Kirk] Cousins was 8-for-14 for 221 yards and a touchdown on downfield passes against the Packers in Week 11. The Bears are allowing a 113.3 passer rating on downfield passes this season, which ranks 30thin the NFL.