The Minnesota Vikings hit the halfway mark at 5-3. What a long strange trip it’s been to get to that record, too.
Mike Zimmer’s team burst out of the gate with five straight wins. Minnesota was the last team to lose a game, but it hasn’t won since. Division losses to Chicago and Detroit are a major wet blanket on the bullish start. It makes these midseason awards a tough call, too
Offensive MVP - Sam Bradford
I went back and forth on this award between Bradford and Stefon Diggs. The quarterback earns the nod ever so slightly over the top wideout for his fairly steady hand in guiding Minnesota’s offense during the winning times.
Bradford is completing a career-high 68.3 percent of his passes and has done an admirable job of protecting the ball, tossing just one interception against nine touchdowns. That overlooks his five fumbles, though that’s technically below his career fumbling rate too. He’s done his best to keep the trains on time despite a chaotic offensive line in front of him, unreliable receivers other than Diggs, and the worst yards-per-attempt rushing attack since at least 2002.
Diggs is the Vikings’ best weapon, hauling in 48 passes on 66 targets. He’s scored just twice and his yards per reception average of 11.4 is pretty pedestrian compared to most other teams’ leaders, but here it stands out. It’s worth noting Diggs was better without Bradford (Week 1) than the QB was without him (Week 5).
Defensive MVP - Everson Griffen
Another tough choice, but this time it’s happily from an abundance of worthy candidates.
Griffen creates the most issues for opposing offenses on the most consistent basis. The defensive end leads the team in sacks with six and is second in QB hurries with 10. Griffen is a fixture in opposing backfields who spearheads the strong first-level run defense too.
Harrison Smith doesn’t have gaudy stats, though he does lead the team in tackles. Yet he got strong consideration here for being the glue which binds the whole book together. Smith does whatever the Vikings need, and does it all better than most safeties. Eric Kendricks has a pick-six to his credit and his range and interplay with Smith is another big key to success. Did I mention Linval Joseph? Anthony Barr?
Maybe Defensive Coordinator George Edwards deserves credit for getting all these talented players to fit so well together.
Biggest Surprise - Adam Thielen
Many times, training camp and preseason wonders fizzle once the action really matters. That has not been true with Thielen, who emerged a couple of summers ago as a special teams demon who dabbled occasionally at wideout. In 2016, the undrafted Minnesota State product has taken on a bigger role in the offense.
He’s been impressive enough to help keep first-round pick Laquon Treadwell chained to the bench. Thielen already has 29 receptions and a team-leading 14.9 yards per catch. Some of them have been great catches, including a diving off-balance stab on an errant Bradford lob in Sunday’s loss to Detroit.
Thielen beats out Danielle Hunter, the leader in QB hurries. That Hunter is still just 22 and has improved his countermoves to the point where he’s one of the most effective edge rushers in the league is mighty impressive.
Biggest Disappointment - The Rushing Game
No team since at least 2002 has averaged fewer than three yards per carry. After half of the 2016 season, the Vikings are averaging a paltry 2.7.
It’s easy to point the finger at Adrian Peterson’s injury, but he netted just 50 yards on 31 carries before hitting injured reserve. The offensive line certainly bears its share of the blame. Tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith are both out for the season but weren’t up to snuff even before the injuries. This line sorely misses Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan, words that make Vikings fans simultaneously guffaw and weep.
Jerick McKinnon has been softly ineffective. Matt Asiata has been blindly predictable. The tight ends and wide receivers are not blocking well enough, either. It’s a major disappointment and the single biggest issue keeping Minnesota from running away with the NFC North.
A close second — very close after the Detroit game — is kicker Blair Walsh. No kicker has missed more than his three extra points, and his 75% on field goals is also wildly substandard in today’s NFL.
Rookie of the year - Jayron Kearse
Perhaps no NFL team has had a smaller rookie class impact than these Vikings. The first-round pick, Laquon Treadwell, has exactly one catch. The second-round pick, corner Mackensie Alexander, has exactly one tackle. The fourth-round pick, offensive tackle Willie Beavers, couldn’t even initially make the team despite dire need at his position.
Kearse is the only rookie to start a game.
Yes, he (rightfully) got yanked quickly after playing so poorly, but nobody else can claim that feat. The seventh-round safety out of Clemson has been a fairly steady fixture on special teams, too. In fact, when accounting for his special teams snaps Kearse has played more than all the other rookies combined. That’s enough to win the honor here.