Don't look now, but the Vikings first preseason game is less than a week away.
As teams around the league get their exhibition season off the ground, Sam Monson of analytics site Pro Football Focus made multiple "bold predictions" for each NFC North team.
Monson looked at Minnesota and predicted Justin Jefferson to lead the entire league in receiving yards and targets. He wrote:
Justin Jefferson has placed second in the league in receiving yards in each of his first two seasons. Last season, when the team clearly realized what it had, he finished fourth in targets — just three behind Diontae Johnson in second.
With the new offense under Kevin O'Connell, the Vikings expect to be more pass-happy on early downs, and O'Connell just led an offense with a versatile receiver (Cooper Kupp) to a receiving triple crown of catches, yards and touchdowns. Jefferson has as much talent as anybody in the league and has been flirting with these numbers for two years. He now gets to work in an offense way better suited to feature him than the previous one.
On the other side of the ball, Monson said the Vikings defense will be ranked in the top 10 by season's end.
Things went badly for the Vikings last season, but it's easy to overlook 1) how beat up they were at key positions and 2) the additions they've made this offseason.
Danielle Hunter has now missed the majority of the past two seasons but is still just 27 years old, and the last time he was healthy he notched a career-high 88 pressures. Za'Darius Smith missed most of last season for Green Bay but tallied 144 pressures over the previous two seasons. They now feature as bookend pass rushers on the same defense.
The secondary was a weak area, but two top draft picks in Andrew Booth, Jr., and Lewis Cine will provide reinforcements. The Vikings defense was also historically bad in 2-minute drill situations a season ago. If the unit stays healthy, this is a vastly better defense than last year's group.
Finally, Monson believes quarterback Kirk Cousins will garner a lower PFF grade than he did for the 2021 season. He explained that the offense could take a step forward as a unit even if Cousins' individual stats dip.
Expectations are that O'Connell and a new-look offense can come in and take this group to a new level, potentially tapping into Kirk Cousins in a way Mike Zimmer never appeared particularly interested in even attempting.
The offense as a whole may improve, but Cousins may have already hit his ceiling. It would take something impressive to build upon a season with an 88.2 PFF grade that saw him pass for 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions at 7.5 yards per attempt and a 77.6% adjusted completion rate. Cousins is already playing at a level that should foster an elite offense. Minnesota may get better in that regard this year, but my money would be on Cousins seeing a regression in his grade, not an improvement.
Graziano shares observations from Vikings camp
ESPN's Dan Graziano spent two days (Aug. 2 and 3) at Vikings Training Camp last week and shared his observations from the visit.
Yes, Cousins knows O'Connell from the time they overlapped in Washington. It's still a new voice in Cousins' ear calling plays, though, which is really what he's used to.
"System-wise, it's been only maybe three. But play caller – the voice in my helmet, the person leading the room, it's been I think seven in seven years," Cousins told Graziano. "It's hard for me to keep it straight. I think I've had eight in my career and seven in seven years. I've been with some good ones, and the system hasn't changed dramatically. But having a different voice in your helmet, a different person leading the room, you wish that wasn't the case. You wish you had one guy your whole career."
O'Connell was Cousins' quarterbacks coach in Washington in 2017. And of course, O'Connell was an assistant to Rams [Head Coach] Sean McVay, who was with Cousins in Washington prior to that. Cousins knows the basics of the new system, but it has naturally evolved over the past four years as the league has tried to adjust to it. There is a lot for him to learn this camp.
All of that said, the vibe around Cousins and the Vikings is good. O'Connell and new [General Manager] Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have lightened the mood and players seem refreshed, physically as well as mentally. New defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, who came over from Buffalo, said O'Connell does a good job investing the players in the reasons for his decisions about how practices are run.