A disclaimer on this brief analysis of the best Minnesota Vikings players of the last half-decade: The following rankings adjudicate the full body of work from the last five seasons, 2016-2020. For example, Kirk Cousins did not play for the team in 2016 or 2017, so he will not participate the Top 3. He did not partake in 40% of the last half-decade with the Vikings. Dalvin Cook was not drafted until 2017, and in that season, he did not play because of injury. The standalone accolades by Cook for 2020, though, make him one of the most valuable assets of the last five years – just not in totality. Another example is Danielle Hunter missing all of 2020 with a neck injury.
So, consider this a cumulative look-back that examines all five seasons from 2016 to 2020. If there is “bias” with this analysis, it is longevity and subsequent impact on the team.
For these purposes, the “last half-decade” began the moment Sam Bradford signed on with the Vikings. Minnesota turned to the now-retired quarterback via trade just days after Teddy Bridgewater’s career hit the pause button because of a cataclysmic injury.
In the timeframe, 2016-2020, the Vikings are the league’s 10th-best franchise with wins and losses. At 46-33-1 (.581), the team started with bad odd-even year mojo as 2016 finished in depressing fashion. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s team roared to 5-0 at the season’s commencement only to concede the postseason and hold an 8-8 record at the end of 2016.
2020 was worse. Minnesota was 7-9, third place in the NFC North, and forced the upcoming 2021 season into a make-or-break classification for senior leadership.
During the last five seasons, though, these (in ascending order) are the three players to have the most on-the-field impact for the Vikings.
3. Adam Thielen
Thielen became a bonafide starter in 2016 and hence benefits from the timing of the lustrum. He was an alembic commodity when he arrived team, transforming from special teams guru to eventual WR1. What a journey.
Since 2016, among all NFL wide receivers, Thielen ranks sixth in receiving touchdowns, 10th in receptions, 11th in receiving yards, 12th in catch percentage, 13th in games played, and 16th in times targeted. Not bad for a player nobody surmised would make the cut for an ironclad WR1 at any juncture of his career.
All in all, Thielen can be fairly classified as a Top 10 wide receiver of the last half-decade. The numbers confirm it. His fairytale-like story merely sweetens the deal.
And offensively, Thielen and Kyle Rudolph are the only two players to really “go the distance” with the team since 2016 – a noteworthy feat.
2. Eric Kendricks
The UCLA alumnus is a pass-coverage maven at linebacker. Coverage stats are not as scintillating as sacks, tackles for loss, or quarterback hits that pass-rushing linebackers tally, but Kendricks is the best of the best in pass coverage by linebackers.
For that reason, Kendricks is the second-most impactful Vikings player of the last five seasons. He is the cardiovascular system of Mike Zimmer’s defense. This was on full display in 2020 – in an unfortunate light. Kendricks was having a prototypical year by his standard last season until he was beset by injury in Week 13. That game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars was the final meaningful win of 2020 for the Vikings (and it even it was ugly).
With his injury went the Vikings postseason aspirations. The defense fundamentally collapsed, and Minnesota lost pivotal games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, and New Orleans Saints. “Next man up” works some of the time, but replenishment for Kendricks was not one of those scenarios.
During the last five seasons, Kendricks is the NFL’s sixth-leading tackler among linebackers. He has also grabbed the seventh-most interceptions by a linebacker.
A period of deterioration will confront Smith sometime in the future, but it has not happened yet. Each season that Smith enters is fair game for a performance-related decline, and Smith scoffs. His dedication to his craft is on consistent display game in and game out – even as he navigates his 30s.
A fact-based argument can assert that Smith is the NFL’s best safety over the last five seasons. Among all safeties since 2016, he ranks second leaguewide in interceptions, third in sacks, fourth in tackles for loss, fifth in passes defended, sixth in quarterback hits, and seventh in total tackles. Normally, a safety specializes in one or two for these categories and then prosecutes average-or-decent production in other aspects of his game. But not Smith. He does it all — at a herculean level.
Until the pandemic year, Smith reached the Pro Bowl in each season since 2015. He did not get the nod in 2020, and no Super Bowl “replacements” were called upon because the game was not physically played. Otherwise, Smith would tout six straight Pro Bowl selections.