Thu, 29 Jul 2021

Lunchbreak: ESPN Rolls Out Early Power Rankings for 2021

Minnesota Vikings
20 Jul 2021, 04:37 GMT+10

Lindsey Young

As we all know, it's nearly impossible to accurately predict exactly how an NFL season will go for any given team.

That doesn't stop the preseason power rankings, though, as pundits across the league assess teams' rosters and situations as they stand now. ESPN recently rolled out its early power rankings for 2021 and placed Minnesota at No. 19.

ESPN's Field Yates answered the "why they're here" question:

For years, we could count on the Minnesota defense to be reason enough to bet on the Vikings short-term future. This past year was one to forget, but offseason moves give confidence that it can once again find its way under [Head Coach] Mike Zimmer.

Yates also pondered how Minnesota's quarterback situation will play out with Kirk Cousins under contract for two more years. If the Vikings don't find postseason success, Yates opined, "it's only natural to wonder whether speculation will start about when Kellen Mond takes over."

Louis Riddick said the Vikings ability to rush the passer is the team's biggest worry, and success in that area this season could depend on Danielle Hunter returning to form after missing all of last year with a neck injury.

What could change for the better this season? Jeremy Fowler weighed in:

Minnesota has cap flexibility to go all-in or rebuild, whichever it chooses. The 2022 cap will be tight under [Cousins' final contract year], but Minnesota has up to $133 million in space in 2023. This allows the Vikings to evaluate whether the Zimmer era regains its defensive footing over the next one to two years without overspending.

Lastly, Seth Walder highlighted a "stat to know" for the Vikings, pointing to second-year receiver Justin Jefferson.

As a rookie, Justin Jefferson ranked second among wide receivers in completed air yards over expectation and yards after catch over expectation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He was a home-run pick that should pay off for years to come.

Hunter in top 10 of PFF's '32 best edge defenders'

While ESPN posted overall team power rankings, analytics site Pro Football Focus went with individual positions and ranked its 32 top edge defenders.

Worth noting is that the designation "edge defender" includes 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends. PFF's Ben Linsey slated Hunter at 10th overall and wrote the following:

It didn't take long for Hunter to develop into a quality run defender in the NFL following his third-round selection out of LSU back in 2015. He ranks in the 87th percentile of all qualifying players at the position in run defense grade across the past six seasons.

However, 2019 was the first season that Hunter made a big leap as a pass-rusher. He put up an 84.5 pass-rushing grade - over 10 points higher than his previous career high - and 88 quarterback pressures in 2019. He'll look to build on that in his return from a 2020 season lost to injury.

There are certainly plenty of talented edge rushers across the league, and here's an interesting thing to note: The Vikings are scheduled to play against every one of Linsey's top five, starting with Chicago's Khalil Mack.

That one will come to no surprise for Vikings fans, who have considered Mack a thorn in their side since he was traded to the Bears by the Raiders.

Mack falls outside the top 10 edge defenders in the NFL in total sacks over the past two seasons, but thatis just one number that doesn't reflect how dominant he has been on the field. PFF's wins above replacement metric, PFF WAR, pegged Mack as the league's most valuable edge rusher in 2020, and that dominance extends back to his rookie season in 2014. Mack has recorded an overall grade above 85.0 in each of his first seven NFL seasons.

Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt was listed second on the list, and this will be Minnesota's second time meeting J.J.'s younger brother. The Steelers will come to Minnesota for Thursday Night Football at U.S. Bank Stadium Dec. 9.

Going purely off of pass-rushing production, it's difficult to top what Watt has been able to do over the past two seasons in Pittsburgh. He leads all edge defenders in sacks (29.5) and quarterback hits (46) since 2019, falling just short of Shaquil Barrett in total pressures. Watt turned in PFF grades of 91.3 and 91.6 in those two seasons; he has developed into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the premier edge rushers in the NFL.

Joey Bosa (Chargers) and Nick Bosa (49ers) were listed at Nos. 3 and 5, respectively, and Cleveland's Myles Garrett came in at No. 4. The Vikings will host Garrett and the Browns in Week 4.

Garrett finds himself at the top of almost every significant pass-rush grade category since entering the league as the No.1 overall pick back in 2017. He ranks in the 98thpercentile in pass-rushing grade, pass-rush grade on true pass sets and pass-rush grade without play action. Garrett is one of the position's best athletes and can win his individual matchups in various ways. He will enter the 2021 season with another former No. 1 overall pick across from him on the defensive line in Cleveland, as well.

Click here to see PFF's full list of its 32 top edge defenders.

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