Minnesota Vikings 2013 Team Review: Cassel to the Rescue?

Matt Cassel isn't good, but he also isn't Christian Ponder. So at least he has that going for him.

The Minnesota Vikings are quite a conundrum. On one hand, their name recalls the fierce Norse warriors that slaughtered those in their path a thousand years hence. On the other hand, their uniforms are purple. This dichotomy more or less sums up the NFC North representatives from a fantasy perspective as well: for every Adrian Peterson, there is a Christian Ponder.

Yet all is not lost, as hope springs forth in the form of Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph, and my best friend, Norv Turner. But before we get to all that, let’s talk about the year that was.

The Good

It took over two-thirds of the season, but Patterson finally broke through. Sorta. Why, “sorta?” Because the breakout was one big game (Week 14) which was followed by a couple big plays and a whole lot of nothing else.

That is some pretty faint praise, which may be a bit unfair. Patterson did reel off some explosive, highlight reel stuff on more than one occasion. Watching them back on tape, you can see the talent seeping out of his pores. But you also see a very raw, unrefined route runner who relied on wide receiver screens and gimmick-type plays to be effective.

I will digress for now and pick this topic back up in the next section.

Greg Jennings played really well as long as Matt Cassel was starting; the splits are pretty startling. In the eight games where Cassel didn’t play significant snaps, Jennings averaged 3.9 non-PPR fantasy points per game (FPPG). In the eight games with Cassel, he put up 10.4 FPPG, which is a top-tier WR2 result. To put it succinctly, when Jennings had an NFL-caliber quarterback (even if it was a very low one), he was still very effective. Keep this in mind when watching who Minnesota signs to play under center in 2014.

The Bad

While his season wasn’t the unmitigated disaster suffer by a number of backs drafted in the first round, Peterson was a big disappointment for his fantasy owners. Despite managing to work his way to a respectable seventh place finish in Rushing Net Expected Points per play, his mark of .03 is a three-year low. From a pure fantasy perspective, AP ended up as the eighth-ranked running back, which is a long way off of his lofty numero uno ADP.

Much of Peterson’s poor-by-his-standards year can be pinned to couple lower body injuries. They hampered him greatly down the stretch, as he finished with 6.4 total fantasy points in Weeks 16 and 17. To put it all in perspective, he scored under 7.5 fantasy points four times in 2013, a tally he failed to reach only three other times in the three previous years combined.

Kyle Rudolph carries such promise. He's big, strong, athletic for his size, fairly polished, and has good hands. The main knock on him had been consistency, and 2013 did nothing to change that. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see if the young tight end could string some good games together as he broke his foot in early November, missing the rest of the season.

Here's the part where I pump the brakes on Cordarrelle. (Just a bit. I promise it won’t hurt too much.) While Jennings was flourishing with Cassel at the helm, Patterson was looking every bit the raw prospect he is. This is no more evident than in his Reception NEP per target rank of 129 out of 144 players with at least 50 targets.

But wait, I have more.

Over 37% of Patterson’s yards came on five plays for an average of 46.8 yards per. The other 63% came on 52 touches, for an average of 7.6 yards per. His 10.4 yards per catch is more than two fewer than Dez Bryant in 2010, who had the poorest rookie season in terms of yards per catch among the "Big Six" NFL wide receivers.

The point of this data isn’t to bury Patterson. It's simply a reminder that his rookie year was more or less not good. His time may come as early as 2014, but there wasn’t a whole lot to convince me that will happen. If nothing else, please just keep all this in mind during the draft season, as Patterson is a prime candidate to be highly overdrafted.

As long as we are piling on the bad, I think we should take a moment to recognize the Vikings’ defense, when adjusted for strength of schedule, ranked 30th in the league. Against the pass, the team ranked 31st, and they weren't much better against the run, finishing 22nd. That translated nicely in terms of fantasy points surrendered, ranking 32nd, 26th, and 31st respectively against quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers.

What Should They Do?

The Vikings need to do two things: hire Norv Turner and find a quarterback.

With phase one complete, it is time to worry about phase two.

My hope for Minnesota is that they don’t move up or reach for a quarterback in the NFL Draft. If somebody is there at eight, fantastic, but they have enough holes on defense, so the last thing they need to do is overpay for a signal-caller in this fairly week class.

In any event, I’d like to see them find a vet who can give them a year or two. There are plenty of serviceable guys around including Matt Schaub, Mike Vick, and, gasp, Matt Cassel. None of them are sexy, but all are capable of bridging the gap to the quarterback of the future.

I wrote much, much more about Turner back in January, but the short version is that he is probably the single most effective offensive coordinator in the entire league. His teams show tremendous improvement immediately upon his hiring. I have so much faith in Turner that I think even with the likes of Cassel, they could be a top-15 fantasy offense as soon as right now. Norv’s presence alone has traditionally been worth a more than 10 percent increase in fantasy points per game.

It's a team in a rebuilding mode, and the defense is just as in need as the offense. But at least the only direction the Vikings can go, hopefully, is up.