WHO ARE THESE GUYS? EAGLES PLAYING A VIKES TEAM FILLED WITH NO-NAMES AND NEVER-WERES!

By Michael Bennett

Yes, the Vikings arrive at the Linc this Sunday having already experienced one miracle.

Quarterback Case Keenum was an undrafted journeyman who was expected to be the team’s backup—or third-stringer. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs (above) was a fifth-round pick who gets paid less than four other wide receivers on his own team. They were never supposed to be stars on a Super Bowl contender.

Except in Minnesota, they’re the norm.

While the team’s vaunted defense is loaded with blue-chip talent, the offense is a high-functioning collection of misfits that were either overlooked or cast off by other teams. It’s what makes the Vikings, who play the Eagles on Sunday in the NFC Championship game, a team that’s as improbable in its construction as the play that catapulted them this far.

The Vikings are a master class in winning when that plan goes up in flames. The key offensive players who will be tasked with beating the Eagles were plucked off the scrap heap.

Two more wins and Minnesota would enter near unprecedented territory. The team started four undrafted players on offense in last week’s divisional round thriller against the Saints. In the common draft era, since 1967, only four Super Bowl winning teams have done that, according to Stats LLC. And none of those four teams trotted out an undrafted quarterback. (The only Super Bowl winner with that distinction is Kurt Warner.)

“Any time you can get a free agent, an undrafted free agent, a young guy, to come in and make your club, it adds basically extra draft picks,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said before the season.

One way to understand the Vikings’ makeup is by looking at who’s not contributing and the hugely valuable resources they expended on those players. The Vikings traded their first round pick in the 2017 draft for quarterback Sam Bradford, who is also the team’s highest-paid player. He spent most of the season injured and backed up Keenum in the Divisional Round win against the Saints. They used their second round pick on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. He’s out for the season.

In 2016, they drafted wide receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round. He played sparingly this season and caught 20 passes—and none against the Saints. In 2014, they spent a first-round pick on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose injury prompted the trade for Bradford. He wasn’t active last week.

The normal consequence for such a litany of mishaps at the skill positions would be a dreadful record. But the Vikings went 13-3. Players who were supposed to be backups, and the backups’ backups, didn’t just keep the team afloat. They became stars in their own right and propelled the team further than anyone thought possible.

Keenum wasn’t taken in the draft despite setting an NCAA record for most career passing yards at Houston, where he was seen as a product of a spread offense that produced gaudy statistics, not NFL quarterbacks. He bounced around between the Rams and Texans before winding up in Minnesota before this season on a cheap deal. After stepping in for Bradford, he finished the season with 22 touchdowns and a 98.3 passer rating—seventh highest in the NFL.

And Keenum isn’t even the most impressive undrafted player on the Vikings. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who was so unnoticed he played college ball at Div. II-level Minnesota State Mankato, racked up 1,276 yards, fifth most in the league and was second-team All-Pro. He lines up across the field from Diggs, a fifth-round pick, with Latavius Murray, a bargain-bin free-agent signing, replacing Cook as the starting running back. Starting offensive linemen Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill also suffered through their drafts with no team choosing to call their names.

These four players—Keenum, Thielen, Diggs and Murray—have a combined cap hit of $9.3 million this season. For some perspective: That’s cheaper than 106 individual players across the league, according to spotrac.com. Which means the average team has three to four players who make more than Minnesota’s four most important offensive players.

The Vikings want to try to keep this going for the future, too. While none of these players are in their first years out of college, general manager Rick Spielman explained before the season that he spent more on undrafted free agents than in prior years. “We were very aggressive,” Spielman said in April, “and had a game plan of how we were going to attack this.”

And what’s just as important as the production Minnesota gets from these players is the financial flexibility it gives the rest of the roster. The Vikings can afford to have the defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL because of how cheap its skill position players on offense are. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen, and free safety Harrison Smith are three of the best, and priciest, players at their positions.

“The Vikings have all the pieces they need to succeed,” said Zack Moore, salary cap expert from overthecap.com, “and it’s because of those low costs.”

This isn’t normal. Most teams pay so much for a star quarterback and receivers that it isn’t possible to continually invest in a defense. Other teams that spend a bunch on defense haven’t succeeded in finding players on the margins the way Minnesota has.

According to Moore’s research, the Vikings have spent 40.1% of their salary cap on their offense. Only two Super Bowl winners in the salary cap era have spent a lower percentage of money on that side of the ball. This is made even more remarkable by the fact that almost half of the Vikings’ offensive expenditures go to Bradford, who won’t even play in the playoffs unless something totally crazy happens.

Still, there’s one other team left in this year’s playoffs that also started four undrafted free agents on offense last week. That team also leans on a quarterback who was overlooked in the college, then in the pros where he slipped to the sixth round of the draft. That’s the New England Patriots and Tom Brady.

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