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Zulgad: Who are the Vikings offensive and defensive MVPs? It’s time for mid-season awards

By Judd Zulgad

The Vikings enter their bye week with a 6-2 record and a 1.5-game lead on Green Bay (4-3) in the NFC North. Although taking anything for granted in the NFL is dangerous, this division appears to be the Vikings’ for the taking.

The Packers lost Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone in a Week 6 loss at Minnesota and are a below-average team without their Pro Bowl quarterback. The Chicago Bears (3-5) remain a bottom-feeder and the Detroit Lions (3-4) are in the process of taking a step backward.

The Vikings are coming off a season in which they got off to a 5-0 start before winning only three of their final eight games. Minnesota started 2-2 this season, but has won four in a row and appears to be a deeper team than it was last year when injuries played a role in the second-half collapse.

So what has made the Vikings tick this season? Here are some first-half awards for Mike Zimmer’s team:

Offensive MVP: Case Keenum has done a nice job of stepping in for the injured Sam Bradford. Adam Thielen is fourth in the NFL with 48 catches and second with 627 receiving yards.

But considering what the Vikings saw last season from turnstile left tackle T.J. Clemmings, the choice for this award is newcomer Riley Reiff. Signed to a five-year, $58.75 million free-agent contract in March after five seasons in Detroit, Reiff has played 539 snaps this season without allowing a sack, according to Pro Football Focus.

He plays the most important position on a unit that was incompetent for much of last season but was rebuilt by general manager Rick Spielman and has given up only 10 sacks this year. That is tied for the third fewest in the league.

Reiff, who will receive $26.3 million in guarantees over the first two years of his contract, is a huge upgrade on Clemmings and a significant improvement on Matt Kalil. Offensive linemen often get overlooked but in this case there’s no overlooking what Reiff has meant to the Vikings so far.

Defensive MVP: The Vikings defense is filled with impact players, but we’re going to go with safety Harrison Smith.

After not having an interception last season, Smith leads the Vikings with three this year and sets the tone for a defense that is ranked fourth in the league in points given up (16.9 per game). Smith, in his sixth season, is third on the Vikings with 43 tackles and has 1.5 sacks, four tackles for a loss and six passes broken.

Runners-up would like nose tackle Linval Joseph, who dominates in the middle of the line, defensive end Everson Griffen, whose 10 sacks are tied for second in the NFL, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who, for the most part, is left alone by opposing quarterbacks because he’s so good in coverage.

Best addition: This goes to Reiff for the reasons stated above but also gives us a chance to recognize free-agent right tackle Mike Remmers. The Vikings left tackle play was so bad last season that we forget the right tackle play was pretty pathetic, too. Remmers, signed to a five-year, $30 million contract that includes $10.5 million in guarantees, has helped to stabilize the position.

Top rookie: Running back Dalvin Cook was a difference-maker for the Vikings’ offense before his season ended in Week 4 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. With the second-round pick out, we’re giving the award to third-round selection Pat Elflein. Elflein, drafted out of Ohio State, has stepped in to become the starting center and provided stability in the middle of the line. You might not notice the athletic Elflein all that much but given his position that’s a good thing.

Most improved: Trae Waynes had solid stats last season with three picks and 11 passes broken up, but he has been even better this season with two interceptions and eight passes defensed in eight games.

The 11th-overall pick in the 2015 draft, Waynes was brought along slowly by Zimmer, but he has developed into a reliable corner who gets a ton of work because opponents don’t want to throw toward Rhodes’ side of the field. When Waynes does give up a reception, he is a solid tackler, something that is often a lost art in today’s game.

Comeback player: Whether Anthony Barr simply didn’t work hard enough or was battling an injury, the linebacker had a noticeable and disturbing drop in production last season.

The big question was if Barr would rebound this year. So far he has and that’s a reason why an already very solid defense has been that much better in 2017.

The ninth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Barr is second on the Vikings with 46 tackles. Six of them have been for losses and he also has broken up five passes. When Barr is on top of his game, he causes headaches for offenses. Two weeks ago against Baltimore, Barr had a season-high 11 tackles, broke up a pass and was dominant for much of the game.

Biggest disappointment: This would have to go to 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, who is fifth on the Vikings with 12 receptions for 142 yards and no touchdowns. If Treadwell were a late-round pick, or had been signed as a free agent, his frequent lack of production wouldn’t be a big deal but given he was a first-round pick it’s looking as if we soon can call him a bust. Treadwell isn’t reliable and his lack of speed makes it impossible for him to get separation from defenders.

Runners-up would include free-agent wide receiver Michael Floyd , who sat out the first four games while serving an NFL suspension, and has only three receptions for 31 yards in three games. Floyd missed another game because of a hamstring injury.

Running back Latavius Murray, signed as a free agent from Oakland, also has not made the expected impact. Murray rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago against Baltimore, but hasn’t rushed for more than 39 yards in any other game. Offseason ankle surgery landed Murray on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open training camp.

The presence of Cook to open the season and the play of Jerick McKinnon since Cook’s injury has helped make up for Murray’s lack of impact at the running back position.

The post Zulgad: Who are the Vikings offensive and defensive MVPs? It’s time for mid-season awards appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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