The Vikings are 6-2 and coming off a bye week that arrived at the exact midpoint of their season. If ever there was an opportunity to try to determine this year’s Most Valuable Player on the team so far, this is it. It ends up being a lengthy list, a testament to both the balance and excellence throughout roster over the first eight games.
With apologies to a few defensive players who could be on this list and the entire Vikings’ offensive line, which has been a major upgrade over last year’s group, here are the realistic contenders for the designation of first-half Vikings’ MVP:
*Case Keenum, QB: He hasn’t been the best player on the field for the Vikings during the first half of the season, but you could build momentum for calling him the most important one. The Vikings were 2-2 when they re-inserted Sam Bradford into the lineup for a Monday night game in Chicago. Bradford aggravated his knee injury and looked uncomfortable for the first half. Keenum stepped in and helped Minnesota to a victory – and three more since then. His Total QBR suggests Keenum has been among the top third of NFL quarterbacks this season. Even if you don’t believe that, we should at least agree that without capable play from Keenum this Vikings season could have fallen apart quickly.
*Adam Thielen, WR: Thielen is on pace for 96 catches and more than 1,200 yards receiving — a testament to both his sure hands and his playmaking ability down the field. He’s formed a nice rapport with Keenum and been a consistent performer — at least five catches every game — on an offense that has had several injuries to key playmakers.
*Harrison Smith, S: The Vikings’ sixth-year safety has taken an already very good skill set to another level this season with a mixture of smart blitzes, solid run defense and excellent work in the passing game. It has added up to Pro Football Focus’s highest grade of any safety this season (93.7). Let’s not forget, too, it was Smith’s interception at Chicago with the score tied 17-17 that set up Minnesota’s game-winning field goal in a season-defining game.
*Xavier Rhodes, CB: As the Vikings’ top corner in a pass-heavy league, Rhodes’ ability to shut down his side of the field is a big reason the Vikings’ defense is among the league’s best in several categories. Rhodes can take a good share of the credit for Minnesota’s being second in the NFL in third-down conversions allowed, giving them up at just a 28 percent clip.
*Everson Griffen, DE: Griffen is another already very good player who has elevated his play this season. He has at least one sack in every game and has 10 for the season. Reaching double-digits at just the halfway point in the season puts Jared Allen’s team sack record (22) within reach for Griffen.
*Anthony Barr, LB: Let’s make one thing clear: including Barr on this list has nothing to do with the hit he put on Aaron Rodgers that broke the Green Bay QB’s collarbone. While that play significantly altered the landscape of this season for both teams, it’s not a reason to put someone in a team MVP conversation. Rather, it’s been Barr’s generally disruptive play in both the pass game and run game that puts him in the running.
The verdict: If we were parsing this into both offensive and defensive MVPs, my votes would be for Keenum and Smith. They might not be the statistical leaders in the race — Thielen and Griffen arguably would win that distinction on their respective sides of the ball — but it’s hard to imagine this Vikings season without the play of either one of them. Both were particularly important in that win at Chicago that very well might have altered this Vikings season for the better.
If you had to pin me down on one MVP across both sides of the ball, I’d say Smith. He’s just been that good, and his impact can be felt in so many different ways on defense.
We’ll see if the answers are the same when it comes to doling out team MVP awards at the end of the year.