You can make a pretty strong argument that Kirk Cousins’ is the Vikings offensive MVP through 14 games. But on the other side of the ball the question is trickier. Who is the MVP of the Vikings defense?
First take: Michael Rand
I swore I wasn’t going to lean too heavily on Pro Football Focus grades, but then I looked them up and in this case they really support the eye test.
My top four contenders were: defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Eric Kendricks and safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. They happen to be the Vikings’ four highest-graded defensive regulars, per PFF.
All four are worthy, but I’ll say Harris and Smith (both top-five safeties) cancel each other out even if their excellence is propping up an otherwise shaky Vikings secondary (no corner is graded higher than No. 60).
Hunter has been a beast and was a major force in the win over the Chargers. But to me, the answer is Kendricks for his excellence against the run and in coverage. Somehow he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, but he’s PFF’s top-rated linebacker, and he deserves it.
Andrew Krammer: I need you to go back and watch the clip of Hunter breezing past Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, planting right tackle Sam Tevi on his back side and jarring the ball loose from quarterback Philip Rivers. While defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo returned that fumble for a 58-yard touchdown, Hunter took down left tackle Russell Okung as a lead blocker.
Hunter changes games before they’re played with how offenses need to scheme around him. This isn’t to diminish Kendricks’ career-best season, and he was certainly a Pro Bowl snub as perhaps the second- or third-best defender on this team, but Hunter just makes your jaw drop.
His team-leading 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles don’t hurt his case.
Rand: Hunter was a beast against the Chargers. But there’s some recency bias at play here. I think he’s the runner-up in this overall vote — a tribute to just how good Kendricks has been all season.
What if I told you that not only is Kendricks graded as PFF’s top linebacker, but also that he’s well-rounded enough to have top-five grades among linebackers in both pass coverage and as a run stopper?
This is a guy with 12 passes defended this season, including one that might have saved the game (and the Vikings’ season) late against Dallas. Those 12 PDs rank in the top 20 in the entire NFL — and all 19 of the other players are either corners or safeties.
Krammer: Kendricks has emerged as a monster in coverage this year. To the point cornerback Mike Hughes said something I hadn’t heard in seven years covering the Vikings — he, a defensive back, asked the linebacker for advice on breaking up passes.
But let’s not overlook Kendricks foreseeing this run-stuffing production when he called playing behind defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen a “linebacker’s dream” in training camp. Especially against subpar offensive lines, Kendricks can go untouched on his way to the running back.
Hunter, for the reference to his recent dominance, ranked top three in quarterback pressures in September, October and November, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rand: The takeaway here is that the Vikings still have monster playmakers on all three defensive levels.
Krammer: That puts an up-and-down season (so far) in perspective for the Vikings defense.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
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