Midseason NFL Player Grades: 6 Vikings Top the Rankings (And 4 At the Bottom)
The NFL has reached its midway point of its 17-game schedule, with teams who still have a bye to come (such as our Minnesota Vikings) having played 9 games, and those who have already had their bye sitting at 8.
The Vikings are above .500 (5-4) and looking like playoff contenders after a rough 1-4 start. Four-game winning streaks are a wonderful thing. How did they turn things around? Although it’s a team game, it’s always instructive to take a look at a team’s overachievers (and underachievers).
That’s where NFL player grades come in handy. To do this effectively, one must review countless hours of film, grading every NFL player’s performance for every game in every key facet of the sport. Who’s got time for that? Fortunately, the fine folks at Pro Football Focus (PFF) have done all the work for us.
PFF grades each player every week against these key facets: passing, running, receiving, pass-blocking and run-blocking on the offensive side of the ball; run defense, pass rush and pass coverage on the defensive side. Then they assign overall grades for offense and defense, and rank-order players who meet minimum snap presence. With this information, they have named their first- and second-team All-Pro picks, with two Vikings making elite grade status (see below for more on that).
As a numbers nerd, I like to look at quintiles—who’s in the top 20%, who’s in the bottom 20%–as a way of confirming the eye test, or sometimes discovering that there’s more than meets the eye. This season’s mid-season rankings offer up a little of both.
It’s interesting that the Kirk-Cousinsless Vikings are calling on their defense to step up now through the end of the season, because the team’s overachievers are heavily weighted to the offensive side of the ball: 5 Vikings offensive players are in the top 20% at their positions, while only one defender can say the same. Similarly, 3 defensive players are in the bottom 20%, with only one on offense. It should be noted that those defensive players are certainly seeing and/or will see less and less playing time as Brian Flores continues to refine and improve the defense as a whole.
NFL Player Grades: Vikings at the Top
Justin Jefferson, WR (PFF Grade 89.9, ranked #4 of 118 wideouts): No surprise here. PFF’s second-team All-Pro Wide Receiver probably would have been first team alongside Tyreek Hill if not for his injury. JJ continues to amaze. His area of improvement, according to PFF, would definitely be in blocking for his teammates; his grade of 58.5 in that area is just so-so—but still the best of the four qualifying Viking receivers.
Christian Darrisaw, OT (PFF Grade of 86.0, #1 of 77): You can’t do better than first. PFF’s First-Team All-Pro selection has continued his standard of excellence in 2023 after excelling last season, rising to #1 among all NFL Offensive Tackles. Whereas Viking interior blockers at center and guard received middle-of-the-pack grades, the tackles (Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill) are leading the way with strong two-way blocking in passing and running situations. Vikings running back Alexander Mattison might point out that these two are the only Minnesota blockers whose run-blocking grades were equal or better than their pass-blocking grades—with many of the others showing up as better-than-average pass blockers and lower-than-average run blockers.
Kirk Cousins, QB (PFF Grade of 86.1, #6 of 36): Cousins was performing at his best before tearing his Achilles; there’s no doubt his loss was a major blow. As exciting as Josh Dobbs was last week, his contrasting grades tell the tale: Dobbs’ overall grade of 66 places him 26th of the 36 qualifying QBs. Whereas Cousins’ pass vs. run grades were 85.1 and 64.8, Dobbs’ were flipped at an impressive 90.6 run grade (which we saw in full view last week) against a middling 66 pass grade.
Cameron Bynum, S (PFF Grade 85.1, #7 of 87): Cam has stepped up in a big way this year–and we are watching an elite safety develop before our eyes. He grades out strong in both run defense and pass coverage; his pass-rushing grade is the only middling number on his report card, though he is asked to blitz much less than fellow safety Harrison Smith, and actually has the better pass-rush grade of the two. At age 25, Bynum is just entering his prime, and has become a leader on defense – it’s nice to see him getting a great deal of respect from a respected source. Although he’s the only member of the defense to achieve Top-20% status, three others just missed and are in the top 25% at their positions: LB Jordan Hicks (78.3% grade, 18 of 81), S Josh Metellus (72.5, 21 of 87) and blossoming rookie CB Mekhi Blackmon (70.7 / 28 of 114).
Josh Oliver AND T.J. Hockenson, TE (Oliver PFF grade 74.5 / #4 of 68; Hockenson PFF grade 73.0 / #7 of 68) – Oliver, the fourth best tight end in football? PFF says it’s so, and I’m inclined to agree. Oliver’s doing what he was brought here to do—block—at an elite level, with an 83 run-blocking grade versus a 53 grade for pass-catching. Hockenson is the polar opposite, with a 74 pass-catching grade vs. a 58 run-block tally. Note that T.J.’s pass blocking grade is a very strong 71, which makes him suitable for both running routes and staying home in the passing game. Together, they’re an ideal tandem.
NFL Player Grades: Vikings at the Bottom
Alexander Mattison, RB (PFF Grade 58.0 / #52/59) – We’ve all been watching Mattison take handoff after handoff and promptly crash into a wall of opposing defenders, and we know his backstory—career backup to Dalvin Cook, ascended to the number one back spot for 2023 with Cook’s departure, presumed career year to come. It’s easy to shake our heads and wonder why the Vikings can’t open up a hole for this guy. But PFF is here to tell us, it’s not them (the line), it’s Alexander. His grade as a runner is a meh 62—and that’s the good news, for us. His other metrics drive this overall grade: subpar pass-blocking, and truly abysmal receiving scores. The good news for Alexander? His backfield partner Cam Akers, whose scores are all well ahead of Mattison’s, is out for the season. For better and for worse, Alexander is still “the guy” and will be until season’s end.
Byron Murphy, CB (PFF Grade 51.2 / #95/114) – Like Lowry, Murphy was an offseason signing the Vikings envisioned as a stabilizing influence and new fixture in the secondary. While he has indeed been a fixture, playing 50+ snaps each game this season, the results have been disappointing thus far. His 51.2 grade is his lowest since his rookie season, when he posted a full-season 48 tally. Since then, Murphy has been on the every-other year plan, with slightly better-than-average PFF scores in 2020 and 2022, and scores in the bottom third each odd-numbered season. Only 25, he has room for improvement – but if Flores can’t squeeze the most out of him, one wonders if he has already plateaued.
Dean Lowry, DI (PFF Grade 48.7 / #103/126) – The former Packer is performing at the lowest level of his 8-year career. He was ranked in the top third of the league as recently as 2021, but took a big step backwards in 2022, his last year in Green Bay. Brian Flores and the Vikings may have envisioned a turnaround when he landed in Minnesota, but thus far his trajectory continues on a downward slope. In last week’s contest versus Atlanta, Lory left early with a groin injury, and he’s out for this Sunday’s matchup with New Orleans.
Patrick Jones II, EDGE (PFF Grade 30.4 / #107 of 107) – The 25-year-old has some work to do in his third NFL season. He has only started one game, but has seen over 300 snaps thus far in 2023, with two-thirds of them coming against the pass. Jones has yet to manage a sack, has just two quarterback hits, and 6 solo tackles on the season. Last season, Jones was a second-year man who flashed promise, and garnered an end-of-season PFF grade of 65.6, more than double his current grade, while ranking squarely in the middle of all Edge Rushers—56th of 119 qualifiers. To say his game has taken a step backwards would be an understatement.
If you’re keeping score at home, or if you’re Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, you see, among other things, much of the GM’s recent and upcoming personnel decisions on display in these two lists.
There’s the top-of-their position pair of Jefferson and Darrisaw, doing the things that All-Pros do. Adofo-Mensah, no doubt, is losing some sleep as he ponders the best path to locking them both down with new long-term contracts.
There’s the lightning rod Cousins, who the GM declined to extend before this season, and who is raising his game to new heights even as his future value takes a ding thanks to his season-ending injury. Does this increase the chances of re-signing a Top-6 (yeah, I said it, and so did PFF) Quarterback to a new 2- or 3-year deal at a steep discount?
Then, there’s the tight-end duo, one acquired at the trade deadline last fall, the other over the summer, one could argue the two best decisions Kwesi has made thus far? There’s the floundering lowball-deal veterans, Lowry and Murphy, two signings that owe as much to salary-cap woes left over from the previous administration than to Kwesi’s own shortcomings. And, there’s the decision to elevate Mattison and jettison Cook—given Cook’s own struggles in New York, this may well have been a no-win situation.
With a half-season to go, the script could certainly change quickly. Lord knows, with these Vikings, it usually does. Who will maintain their status? Who will rise, who will fall? For the Vikings to achieve post-season success, they’ll need more rising than falling in the season’s second half and postseason.
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