2022 NFC North Preview: Fantasy Football Outlook, Sleepers, and Busts

Benjamin Haller breaks down the NFC North from a fantasy football perspective.

2021 Review

 

Points per Game 25.0 14th
Offensive Snaps 1087 8th
2021 Record 8-9 21st
2022 Vegas Win Projection 9

 

Finally, the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota has come to an end. The Vikings showed loyalty to the much-loved pairing of Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman for a couple more years than they should have, but a dismal 8-9 showing in 2021, mainly due to defensive inabilities (Zimmer’s bread and butter), sealed their fate. His replacement is Super Bowl winning Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who inherits an offense that on paper has all the ingredients to jump into the top six in the league if they can be inspired in the same way as another veteran Matt Stafford galvanized the Rams last season.

O’Connell will look to implement the same scheme that was so successful in Los Angeles, utilizing heavy play action off of outside zone run looks. This should suit quarterback Kirk Cousins, and star rushers Dalvin Cook, who was seriously underused in 2021 in a run game that finished third-last in touchdowns per game – an unthinkable outcome in truth. The receiving room gets back tight end Irv Smith Jr. from injury and returns promising wideout K.J. Osborn to sit alongside reliable red zone veteran Adam Thielen and superstar young receiver Justin Jefferson, the NFL’s best route runner hands down.

The defensive side of the ball saw heavy investment in the offseason from new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who traded back in the first round to pick up the best safety in the draft in my eyes in Lewis Cine, using the extra picks to recruit corners Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans and hard-hitting linebacker Brian Asamoah, immediately making this Vikings defense younger and faster.

The pieces are set, the game needs to be won.

 

Passing Game

 

Passing Yards per Game 249.3 11th
Passing Touchdowns per Game 2.0 9th
Pass Attempts per Game 35.5 11th

 

The offense wasn’t the issue last season, and despite Kirk Cousins’ limitations, the much-maligned Vikings quarterback is still one of the best fantasy options at the position when it comes to draft value. Cousins has the ability to make throws at each level and his downfield passes to Jefferson, Osborn, and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette were some of the best throws in the league last season. If the play-calling from O’Connell is more creative and decisive in the red zone, there is the talent and opportunity to average three scores per game through the air. Jefferson and Thielen are one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, and if tight end Irv Smith Jr. can return from injury and add another red zone threat, this passing game will be difficult to stop in all game scenarios.

The impact of rookie tackle Christian Darrisaw cannot be underestimated, and add to that new second-round guard Ed Ingram Jr. out of LSU, the Vikings now boast a young, athletic offensive line that can ensure the passing game thrives. Ingram received an 82.6 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, which led all SEC guards and is a valued commodity in play-action schemes.

 

Running Game

 

Rushing Yard per Game 113.5 17th
Rushing Touchdowns per Game 0.59 29th
Rushing Plays per Game 26.41 16th

 

It is almost criminal to see these numbers with a running back room featuring do-everything runner Dalvin Cook and explosive backup Alexander Mattison. The run game was either ignored too often or employed in the wrong situations last season, rendering a lot of good work by Cousins and the receivers without reward as the Vikings settled for too many field goals close to the end zone.

Cook is a strange proposition in terms of fantasy. The numbers fluctuate from the phenomenal to the mundane, and he has missed significant time with injury over the last two seasons. Still, everything now exists for him to ball out this season and there is no better time to reach for him in drafts.

Unlikely to receive a significant enough share out of the backfield, Alexander Mattison may benefit from a more balanced play-calling system at best. His role as a handcuff remains unchanged, however. The risk of young buck Ty Chandler stealing some work is also a distinct possibility.

 

Gotta Have Him

 

Justin Jefferson, WR

The all-encompassing skillset of the former first-round receiver LSU has wowed the NFL since his introduction two years ago. Jefferson has been a megastar in Minnesota, setting records left, right, and center to become one of the best, if not the best young receiver in the game. Jefferson fell just 17 yards short of breaking Randy Moss‘ Vikings single-season record in 2021 (blame the coaching staff), but did set a new record for the most receiving yards in a player’s first two seasons ever in the NFL. The sky is the limit in a pass-heavy offense with a quarterback he has great chemistry with and improved play-calling.

 

Sleeper

 

K.J. Osborn, WR

The Vikings have developed a number of promising young receivers over the past few years and K.J. Osborn could be the best of them. Set to step into the shoes of veteran Adam Thielen in the coming years, Osborn has forced his way onto the field regularly with his safe hands, intelligent route-running, and deep-threat speed. Osborn hauled in 50 catches and scored seven touchdowns in 2021 to catapult himself into FLEX spot territory in fantasy leagues. He is a worthy candidate to take late in drafts and is an essential bye-week starter.

 

Bust Candidate

 

Irv Smith Jr., TE

Injuries have plagued the second-round pick’s three years in the league, reducing him to just 14 starts and a missed season in 2021. News of a thumb injury in camp hasn’t inspired confidence that the exciting tight end can make the field regularly. When he has been on the field, he has been an impact pass-catcher, hauling in five touchdowns in just seven games back in 2020. The Vikings want him to be a key contributor but health is the main issue. Smith is currently going undrafted in regular leagues so the risk is low in fantasy, however, the Vikings don’t have any other playmakers at the position if Smith goes down with injury once again.

 

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Ian Johnson, Robin Alam, Larry Radloff & Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.