U.S. Bank Stadium gets the treat of one of the league’s most potent offenses against the hometown defense in week one. As the Saints come marching into town, a lot is at stake already for the Vikings as they need a hot start in order to make noise in the loaded NFC. How do they stack up to Sean Payton’s Cajun creation?
There is not much debate here. Drew Brees has a decade-plus of being one of the league’s elite passers. Sam Bradford has one year of above-average play under his belt.
The choice here is between experience and upside. The Saints have Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson: backs with years in the league. Fans know what they should expect from them. The Vikings on the other hand trot out rookie Dalvin Cook and free agent signing Latavius Murray. While it is unclear how much impact Murray will have on the game, the intrigue surrounding Cook’s potential and the versatility he brings puts Minnesota ahead.
Saints number one Michael Thomas is coming off a record-setting rookie season in which he did something last year that no Vikings player did: finish with over 1000 yards receiving. That being said, New Orleans starter on the other side is veteran Ted Ginn Jr., who while athletic and experienced, has a fairly low ceiling. Then again, he could re-break out with Brees like he did two seasons ago with Cam Newton in Carolina.
Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs has all the talent Thomas has but with greater ability to stretch the field. On the other side is Adam Thielen, a solid, if unspectacular possession guy who should reach 900 yards this year. Neither team has the clear advantage here.
Minnesota’s perennial Pro Bowl talent Kyle Rudolph is coming off a career year while New Orleans’ Coby Fleener was somewhat of an afterthought in a pass-heavy offense. He still finished with 50 catches for 631 yards and three touchdowns but he is nowhere near the redzone threat Rudolph is.
Few lines enter the season with more questions than the Vikings’. Five new starters will try to keep Sam Bradford clean on Monday so the mere fact that New Orleans returns multiple guys gives them the edge here.
By the same token, the Vikes are bringing back their whole starting front on defense. They have been one of the stoutest units for years now and few teams in the league would have the edge over them. The Saints least of all can compete as they struggle more than just about any team at getting to the quarterback. Only defensive end Cameron Jordan has proven to be a threat off the edge and he is coming off a down sack year in 2016.
Saints weakside linebacker Craig Robertson is a tackling machine, recording over 100 a year ago. The other two, A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o, combined for 48. New Orleans’ linebackers stay fairly true, mostly as run-stoppers. Mike Zimmer, on the other hand, uses Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks in a variety of roles. They rush the passer quite a bit, they move around the field and they are both versatile, expecially Barr. Rookie Ben Gedeon, though unproven, impressed in preseason and earned the start in base defenses. This should be a position of strength for Minnesota.
The Vikings have Pro Bowlers Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith and returning contributors Andrew Sendejo and Trae Waynes atop the depth chart. New Orleans will start three players under the age of 25 on Monday, including 2017 first round pick Marshon Lattimore. This position is one big question mark for the Saints. Minnesota has the clear advantage here.
Vikings kicker Kai Forbath returns as the guy after a hit-and-miss 2016. While he did not miss a field goal attempt, he missed three extra points in seven games for Minnesota. They signed Ryan Quigley as the punter back in April but he has not seen consistent time since 2015. Marcus Sherels holds the Vikings record for career punt return touchdowns with five and he returns in that role. Jerick McKinnon will handle most of the kick return duties to start the season.
In his rookie year, Saints kicker Wil Lutz performed fairly well, making 82 percent of his kicks including one from 57, and only missing one extra point. Punter Thomas Morstead is one of the longest tenured members of the franchise and he returns for his ninth year with New Orleans. Ginn will do what he does best and return most of the kicks.
The Saints get the slightest advantage here solely due to consistency. It is safe to say that both kicker and punter will be handled by the same guys for the whole season while the Vikings have more uncertainty.
There was a time not too long ago that Sean Payton was the hottest commodity in professional football. His offensive schemes had a mythical feel to them and the Saints were nigh unstoppable. However, the bloom has effectively come off that rose as he has failed to get the Saints back to the postseason three years in a row. It seems year after year fans can pencil in a 7-9 record for the Saints.
Zimmer, on the other hand, appears to be an up and comer, despite being 61 years old. He has built up the Minnesota defense to one of the league’s best and got the team out to a 5-0 start heading into the bye a year ago. Granted, his eye troubles and a 3-8 record the rest of the way put a damper on 2017.
The mixed success of these two teams last year makes it tough to pick an advantage. Payton coaches an offensive air raid, Zimmer a defensive juggernaut. This one is a wash.
Minnesota is a playoff caliber team, so long as they get off to a good start. They have to win at least six of their games in the first half if they want to make the postseason as they have a brutal road schedule after the week nine bye. New Orleans, however, looks like the fourth best team in a stacked division.
The Vikings set a good first impression at home with a powerful defensive showing. They get off the bus running and keep the Saints on their heels from the start.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Saints 17