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The Vikings’ Success Hinges On Two Undrafted Stars

When a team’s starting quarterback and running back both go down with season-ending injuries in the first half of a season, said team would be expected to prepare for a high pick in the draft and crumble into pieces in the meantime. But that’s not what’s happened in Minnesota this year. After limping to a 3-2 start on the season — a start that included rookie running back Dalvin Cook tearing his ACL and quarterback Sam Bradford playing in just two games before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery — the Vikings’ season could have easily gone south. Instead, head coach Mike Zimmer challenged his offense to see who’d be the next man up. Five games later, it would appear that Zimmer got more than just one player to take him up on his challenge.

The offensive resurgence has been led by a pair of players who could easily not even be in the league: Quarterback Case Keenum and wide receiver Adam Thielen both entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. Since Week 6, the two have been among the top players at their positions and have helped Minnesota reel off five straight wins to improve to 8-2. Minnesota now holds a 90 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions.

Signed as a backup for Bradford to start the season, Keenum has the second-best total quarterback rating1 in the league since Week 6 behind only Tom Brady. Keenum’s been so good that he kept Teddy Bridgewater, who’s looking to make his first regular-season start since the 2015 season, out of the starting lineup. As for Thielen, it’s been a rapid rise to the top for the Minnesota native, who was playing for Division II Minnesota State-Mankato just five years ago and only made it onto the Vikings by paying to attend two NFL combines before being invited to Minnesota’s rookie camp. Thielen now leads the league in receiving yards since Week 6 and has averaged more than 100 yards a game in that span. Together, the unlikely stars have connected for 739 yards in the nine games they’ve played together. This partial-season total is already the sixth most in the past 20 seasons by a duo of undrafted quarterback and undrafted wide receiver. Eastern Illinois’s Tony Romo and Monmouth University’s Miles Austin hold the record by this measure, when the undrafted pair connected for 1,320 yards for Dallas in 2009. Keenum and Thielen need to average 97 yards per game in their remaining six games to beat the record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The NFL’s most out-of-nowhere QB-WR combos

Total yards between an undrafted quarterback and undrafted wide receiver in the past 20 years

YEAR QUARTERBACK WIDE RECEIVER TEAM TOTAL YARDS GAMES YARDS PER GAME
2009 Tony Romo Miles Austin Dallas 1,320 16 82.5
2006 Jon Kitna Mike Furrey Detroit 1,086 16 67.9
2012 Tony Romo Miles Austin Dallas 943 16 58.9
2004 Billy Volek Drew Bennett Tennessee 868 10 86.8
2014 Brian Hoyer Andrew Hawkins Cleveland 756 13 58.2
2017* Case Keenum Adam Thielen Minnesota 739 9 82.1

* Six games remain in the Vikings’ regular season

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

The Keenum-Thielen partnership has been partly reliant on a rejuvenated offensive line that is currently tied for No. 1 with New Orleans for fewest sacks allowed in the league with 10. This has given Keenum a ton of time to survey the field for open receivers — Keenum’s average time from the snap to his release is 2.63 seconds, which is currently ninth longest in the league among qualified QBs, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group. But another reason has been Keenum’s ability to scramble in the backfield and find a receiver for a big gain after the play breaks down.

This scrambling skill and the already stout protection has made Keenum virtually impossible to bring down. Through Week 11, Keenum has the lowest sack percentage rate of any quarterback in the league. This also makes the league-best 10 sacks allowed by Minnesota a little misleading, because four of those sacks came in one half against the Bears against a visibly hobbled Bradford.2 Keenum would come on in relief in that game and lead Minnesota to victory.

Can’t touch Case

Share of QB dropbacks that result in a sack, though Week 11

PLAYER DROPBACKS SACKS SACK %
Case Keenum 92 5 5.4
Philip Rivers 92 12 13.0
Blake Bortles 118 16 13.6
Jared Goff 100 15 15.0
Drew Brees 62 10 16.1
Russell Wilson 138 23 16.7
Jay Cutler 72 13 18.1
Matt Ryan 77 15 19.5
Deshaun Watson 94 19 20.2
Jameis Winston 64 13 20.3

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

With Keenum and Thielen dominating secondaries around the league, and with the team’s defense ranked No. 4 in points allowed per game, the Vikings will be a team to avoid in the playoffs. Zimmer’s men will travel to Ford Field to face Detroit in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game, and a win would almost certainly lock up the NFC North. The Vikings would then have their eyes fixed on securing a first-round bye come January.

FiveThirtyEight vs. The Readers

Week 11 in our NFL predictions game — in which we invite you to outsmart our Elo algorithm — saw the readers claim one of their biggest wins of the year so far, netting 13.7 points when Philadelphia thrashed Dallas 37-9 at AT&T Stadium. Our Elo algorithm doesn’t take into account player injuries (or suspensions, in Dallas’s case) and continues to defy logic by picking the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers. The readers are too smart for that, however, and were rewarded with 12.8 points by putting their faith in Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens, who shut out the Packers 23-0.

The biggest loss for the readers came at MetLife Stadium, where the Giants somehow kept the Chiefs and their No. 7 offense to just 9 points in a windy, miserable afternoon for Andy Reid’s team. With the loss, the Chiefs are now 1-4 in their last five games and suddenly look like one of the worst teams in the league. The other double-digit loss for the readers came at the hands of the aforementioned Vikings, who picked apart the otherwise impressive Rams to serve the readers with a net loss of 13.3 points.

Make sure you get your Week 12 predictions in early with three Thursday games — thanks for playing.

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 11

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 11 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. RESULT READERS’ NET PTS
DAL 53% PHI 66% PHI 37, DAL 9 +13.7
GB 67 GB 54 BAL 23, GB 0 +12.8
MIA 59 MIA 54 TB 30, MIA 20 +4.0
DEN 60 DEN 56 CIN 20, DEN 17 +2.5
DET 62 DET 67 DET 27, CHI 24 +1.8
JAX 77 JAX 82 JAX 19, CLE 7 +0.3
SEA 58 SEA 56 ATL 31, SEA 31 -0.7
LAC 54 LAC 54 BUF 24, LAC 54 -2.4
NE 79 NE 78 NE 33, OAK 8 -2.8
PIT 76 PIT 74 TEN 17, PIT 40 -3.2
NO 79 NO 76 WAS 31, NO 34 -3.3
HOU 57 HOU 51 ARI 21, HOU 31 -8.0
MIN 62 MIN 50 LAR 7, MIN 24 -13.3
KC 75 KC 84 KC 9, NYG 12 -16.1

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Total QBR incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he affects the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties.

  2. Bradford was also sacked in Week 1 against the Saints.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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