Point Differential: +63
Scoring Offense: 22.8 ppg, 16th in NFL
Scoring Defense: 18.9 ppg, 5th in NFL
The Vikings were one of 2015’s biggest success stories, rising up from consecutive losing seasons to capture the franchise’s first NFC North title since 2009. Mike Zimmer crafted quite an impressive defense, one which was stout enough to compensate for an offense that struggled at times to put up points or challenge defenses down the field. Adrian Peterson captured another rushing title, keying the ball control offense that thrived on eating clock and playing it safe.
Expectations are higher now, with the entire starting defense returning and real upgrades to the balky offensive line. Teddy Bridgewater has proven capable, but he needs to be more dynamic for this team to take the next step. Adding a first-round receiver in Laquon Treadwell and all the superior talent up front takes away any excuses, but Bridgewater has the ability to jump up into the next tier of quarterback talents in Norv Turner’s QB-friendly but complex offense. GM Rick Spielman has done a great job accumulating both dynamic talents and great depth across the roster.
1. How much can the special teams contribute?
Blair Walsh’s awful miss in the playoff loss to Seattle is the kind of play that can haunt a kicker. It haunts many a Vikings fan as they look back on a very successful 2015 season and wonder “what if."
Walsh is back, though the team had better be ready with a Plan B if he falters early. He’s coming off an interesting season. The 26-year-old led all kickers in made field goals with 34, but he also led the league in missed extra points with 4. That followed an abysmal 2014 where Walsh couldn’t even hit 75% of his field goals in a league where 85% is barely average. As of now (it’s July 5), the Vikings don’t even have a competing “camp leg”. That’s either an absurdly strident vote of confidence or a terrible oversight by Speilman and special teams coach Mike Preifer.
They also failed to bring in a challenger for Jeff Locke at punter. He had the lowest gross average of any qualifying punter, a full 6 yards per kick behind the Rams’ Johnny Hekker. That’s an awful lot of field position being given away for a team that prefers low-scoring games. Locke also had a below-average touchback percentage (7%, league average is 6.2) and rate of punts terminated inside the opposing 20 (33% to a 37.8% average).
At least Minnesota has Cordarrelle Patterson returning kicks. He’s the best in the business. In fact, his career kick return average of 30.1 yards is the 2nd-best in NFL history and handily leads active players. Patterson took two kickoffs to the house last year, something he also did in his 2013 rookie campaign. He might not have developed as a wideout, but Patterson helped the Vikings attain the best average starting field position of any offense off of the kicking game. Marcus Sherels is a dangerous punt return man, albeit an inconsistent threat. I know some Vikings fans are hopeful Sherels won’t make the team, but there are far worse punt returners earning more money than him.
2. Can Teddy Bridgewater take the next step?
As he enters his third season, Teddy Bridgewater has proven he belongs as an NFL starter. The 23-year-old improved his completion percentage (to 65.3) and shaved his INT percentage from 3 to 2 while successfully guiding a run-based offense to an unexpected (to many) division title. Even so, Teddy has to do more going forward.
Only one team threw fewer TD passes than these Vikings. While some of that is undoubtedly a function of having the league’s top rusher in Adrian Peterson, there is no question Minnesota needs more production from Bridgewater as he enters his third season.
Look at the losses from a year ago. Including the playoff game, Minnesota ran for its fewest yards in those six games. Some is a function of being behind, but Bridgewater was not good when he had to throw to move the ball. That has to change if the Vikings are going to repeat as division champs and/or advance in the postseason.
Grip it and rip it is normally a golf axiom, but Bridgewater needs to embrace the spirit behind it. Far too often he is too content to give up on deeper routes before it can even be determined if the receiver could get a step. There is a fine line between being risk averse and being too conservative, and right now Bridgewater is dangerously close to drowning in the latter pool.
He has the weapons, even after the team smartly let free agent disappointment Mike Wallace go away. Stefon Diggs impressed as a rookie and is poised to step up even more in his second season. Diggs has straight-line speed to get deep, and his wiry strength can help him win contested throws down the field. His 52 receptions and 720 yards led the team. That’s great for the rookie from Maryland, but those are paltry numbers to top a team. He should get 70 and 1050 this year. Should. It’s more about Bridgewater than Diggs to get him there.
The Vikings added widebody Laquon Treadwell in the first round. He’s not going to help stretch the field, but the Ole Miss product gives Bridgewater another big target on all those intermediate comebacks and hitches. Treadwell was incredibly difficult to tackle in college, and that aspect could pay real dividends in the shorter passing game in Minnesota. Pairing him with Jarius Wright on one side of the field should help Bridgewater get more favorable matchups for one or the other farther down the field. Both are excellent blockers, with Treadwell being one of the most physical collegiate WR blockers in memory.
Kyle Rudolph returns as one of the better, more reliable receiving tight ends in the league. He’s not a dynamic player, but when he’s on the field he is an effective weapon. 2015 marked the first time in three seasons he’s hit double figures in games played, so the durability has to be questioned. Rudolph led the Vikings with 5 receiving TDs; most teams have at least three players finish with that many or more. I do like young MyCole Pruitt, who flashed in limited opportunities as a rookie.
One of the excuses often lobbed for Teddy is that his offensive line didn’t protect him well or give him time to look down the field. That is not wrong, but it’s an incomplete truth. The grind-it-out driving does work in Norv Turner’s offense, but if this team is going to take the next step, so must Bridgewater. He’s got the skills to climb the ladder, and the arrow is still pointing up, but with a team poised to win now the pressure is on Teddy to up his game.
3. Will the defense rise to the sum of its parts?
There is abundant talent all over the Vikings defense, with impact talent and scads of first-rounders at all three levels. However, this defense hasn’t congealed into a dominant unit…yet.
Other than scoring defense, where the Vikings finished an impressive fifth, this was barely a top 10 overall defense in most statistical metrics.
Yards per carry
Yards per game
3rd down conversion
The bottom two figures there are proof this unit can be stifling. It’s a matter of being more consistently stout.
Injuries played a role, and hopefully this year the bug is less virulent. Several regulars missed time here and there, so much that only three defenders started all 16 games: DE Brian Robison and corners Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman.
Now for the good news--the depth at every position except safety is outstanding. Battle tested, too. The interior tackle combo of Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd fits together perfectly, and Speilman made smart choices in the reserves with Kenrick Ellis and Tom Johnson. Floyd and Johnson are backfield agitators, penetrators who are too quick for opposing blockers. Floyd still isn’t fully cleared after a foot injury and surgery and he’s not really a sack artist (9.5 in 3 seasons), but he forces blocking to react to him and creates a lot of sack opportunities for the ends. Johnson is brutal against the run but fits nicely as a nickel rusher, and his 5.5 sacks in limited reps proves he can still finish plays. Ellis stoutly plays the role of immovable object at nose tackle behind Joseph, an excellent free-agent signing in 2015 who never gets enough national recognition. As long as he’s recovered from turf toe--a bad injury for a big man--Joseph is Pro Bowl-worthy at the 1 tech.
Robison and Everson Griffen are a strong end tandem. Both play well versus the run and pass, and Griffen is a threat to repeat his double-digit sacks from last year. Robison is going to lose some pass rush reps to young Danielle Hunter, a speedy presence who impressed with 6 sacks as a technically raw rookie. If the third-round pick from LSU in 2015 ever figures out how to coordinate his hands, shoulders and feet, he will also push double-digit sacks. He might be the best athlete in the NFC North.
The UCLA alumni LBs, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, are a great young tandem at the second level. Barr does a little bit of everything, which helped him earn a Pro Bowl berth in his second season. Coming out of college he was noted as a pass rusher, but Barr has quickly proven very adept in coverage and stouter than expected against the run at the SAM spot. Kendricks has good range from the middle and is very quick to diagnose and react. The key for improvement here is for these two, as well as third backer (likely vet Chad Greenway playing out the string) to make more of an impact closer to the line of scrimmage in the run game. The depth here is younger, with Audie Cole, fifth-round rookie Kentrell Brothers, Edmund Robinson and former Bengal Emmanuel Lamur all under 28. Lamur could, and probably should, push Greenway for the starting WLB job.
The secondary is where things really get interesting. Rhodes is emerging as a pretty strong shutdown cover man, albeit a grabby and leggy one when playing smaller/quicker wideouts. Newman was outstanding last year but he’s now 37. He led the team in PDs with 12, INTs with 3 and also wound up with more solo tackles than superb free safety Harrison Smith. Fortunately the Vikings have youthful insurance with last year’s first-rounder in Trae Waynes and this year’s second-rounder in Mackensie Alexander. Veteran journeyman Melvin White is better as the final outside reserve CB than most teams have.
Waynes needs to play better than he did as a rookie, where he struggled with both speed and agility of NFL receivers. Alexander does not lack confidence or collegiate effectiveness but he’s undersized and tested quite poorly in workout season. He probably slides into the slot behind Captain Munnerlyn, who played well inside after coming over from Carolina. No offense to Newman, but it’s not a good sign for the future if Waynes hasn’t stolen at least 15-20 snaps per game from him.
Back to Smith, the All-Pro caliber safety. He’s as good as it gets at the position, a smooth finisher against both the run and pass. Smith is great at quickly and smartly reacting to the action in front of him. It would be nice if he got his hands on more balls, as he registered just 3 PDs and 2 INTs in 2015. When he does get his hands on the ball, he’s dangerous; the 6’2” Notre Dame product has four career return TDs in his four seasons.
One of the reasons he doesn’t post big numbers is because Smith has been covering for inadequate strong safety play. That position has been a problem for years. This year’s potential remedy is Michael Griffin, a former Titan who was once pretty good but has not been close to that status for the last 3-4 seasons. Now 31, he’s a worthwhile reclamation project, but the odds aren’t real high that Griffin will be any better than Andrew Sendejo. If either strong safety can function even a little bit in covering opposing tight ends and backs, it will be real progress. Sendejo needs to keep his eyes up while on the run.
Zimmer has a lot of talent as his disposal, and he’s widely and properly regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the business. There is no reason for this defense to not finish in the top quarter (that’s 8 for the mathematically lazy) in just about every defensive metric. For that to happen, Zimmer will have to find the right combination and hope for better health and more cohesive coordination between the first and second level.
4. How does the offensive line sort out?
Speilman has collected a cavalcade of linemen with NFL experience to have a battle royal over the summer. Entering training camp, the projection looks like this:
- LT Matt Kalil
- LG Alex Boone
- C John Sullivan
- RG Brandon Fusco
- RT Andre Smith
Questions abound at both tackle spots and center, however. Those start in the middle, where Sullivan is attempting to come back after missing 2015 with a back injury. He’s newly lighter and that can only help, but back injuries are tricky. He initially bulked up to over 320 in part because he struggled to handle more powerful interior defenders. Now he’s back down to about 300 and has a questionable back; let’s just say it’s not easy to have confidence even though I do like him as a player.
Sullivan will have to beat out last year’s starter, Joe Berger. The veteran journeyman had a career year at age 33, proving one of the best run-blocking centers in the league. Expecting a repeat is unlikely for a guy who has largely been a backup and who was not very good in a stint as the starting right guard in ’14. At worst, Berger is a valuable veteran reserve, but the team needs Sullivan to recover or else the Vikings are likely asking too much from the Michigan Tech product.
Kalil and Smith both have stronger name value than actual football skills at the tackle spots. Since a superlative rookie campaign, Kalil has consistently been a weak link on the left side. It was never more evident than against Ezekiel Ansah in Week 7, though Kalil routinely gets beat by any end with more than one trick in the bag. Injuries have been a big factor, but he plays with so little confidence it’s hard to see him ever being good again.
Smith was also a first-round pick, by the Bengals in 2009. His play was up and down, as was his considerable weight. At his best, he is a street brawler at right tackle who has enough sheer length that even when beaten around the edge, it’s so far around that edge the QB has enough time to escape. His 2015 ended with a torn triceps and a lot of bad penalties, however. He’s a more well-rounded player than Phil Loadholt, his primary competition and the starter in Minnesota for several years before missing 2015. Loadholt has better range in run blocking but the same trouble with countering quickness across the line. Given the financials, Smith should win. It will be interesting to see if Loadholt sticks, as the team does have younger, cheaper depth in TJ Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles, a Nebraska product I thought was underrated in his draft evaluations.
Clemmings, a fourth-round pick in 2015, could also factor in the mix at guard. With Boone the prized free-agent signing, that would be battling Fusco at right guard. Fusco has been nothing short of overmatched on the left side, but did have serviceability at right guard in the past. Mike Harris wasn’t a problem at right guard last year, and he could hold the gig. If he holds up as well in pass protection as he did in 2015, Harris is a no-brainer over Fusco. But sometimes the NFL defies thinking…
Minnesota even has young depth with some potential. I was a big Zac Kerin fan coming out of Toledo in 2014, though he’s yet to elevate from the practice squad. He can play guard or center. Fourth-round pick Willie Beavers is likely a guard after being a (pretty awful) tackle at Western Michigan. Beavers has impressive athletic attributes, but thus far it hasn’t translated; he was the worst-graded blocker in the MAC, and it was not a strong year in that conference either.
I love how Zimmer has embraced competition, and bringing in no-nonsense veteran coach Tony Sparano to take over the OL duties should make for a spirited summer in Mankato. If anyone can fix Kalil, it’s Sparano. Having the bedrock Boone to his inside flank can only help him, too.
5. What does Adrian Peterson have left?
It might seem odd to question the league’s returning rushing champ and the man almost universally considered the best running back of the last decade. His 2015 campaign is one of his most impressive given the offensive line inconsistencies and the lack of a deep passing game to loosen up the box.
Still, there are signs AD is trending in the wrong direction. His yards per carry was 4.5, the same as 2013 but well below the career 4.9. Beyond that, his season was more punctuated with long runs and huge games to boost up some real (relative to Peterson) clunkers. 361 of his 1485 yards came in two games; the subsequent games he rushed 21 times for 63 yards. His 327 carries topped the league by more than 2 per game; he had the most carries in the NFC by 62. With almost 2500 NFL carries, there is a lot of mileage on those rippled legs.
Make no mistake, 4.5 yards per carry and 11 TDs is still awesome production. It’s just that compared to his own elite prime era, Peterson isn’t quite what he used to be. And because Bridgewater is still a work in progress and the offense heavily relies upon Peterson and the run game to set up favorable down/distance, any further slipping could be real problematic.
The Vikings do have capable reserves to help ease the burden. Jerick McKinnon posted 5.2 yards per carry as the shifty change of pace back. The third-year runner brings versatility as a very solid receiver and a player who can make things happen in open space. Matt Asiata can grind out short yardage, but he also flashed receiving skills when Peterson was out of action in 2014. They even have a decent fullback in Zach Line, who got just 12 touches last year but is adept at seal blocking in his 10-12 snaps per game. More McKinnon might be a good thing, though reports from OTAs indicate the Vikings are working with Peterson on doing more out of the backfield. They might be better served, both short and long term, by keeping Peterson doing what he does best and hitting defenses with McKinnon and Asiata more frequently.
A year ago, I opined this team was dangerously close to being a legit NFC contender but that they would ultimately top out with 9-10 wins. This season was when I thought they would really rise up and threaten to win the NFC North. Zimmer and his charges got there quicker than anticipated. The bar has been raised.
I really like the defense, with impact talent at all three levels and strong depth at most spots. The weakest position is probably weakside backer, and the incumbent starter there is still better than a lot of teams will trot out. The offense has to score more points and challenge defenses more down the field. The potential for both is in place. I like the weapons around Teddy Bridgewater to bring out his best, and the improved OL and more help from Jerick McKinnon should help keep Adrian Peterson a game-changing talent.
Drawing arguably the two worst divisions (AFC South, NFC East) in non-division play gives Minnesota a solid chance to make it back to the playoffs even if they can’t defend the NFC North title. Weeks 8 thru 13 are the key; it opens with Monday Night Football at Chicago, followed by Detroit, at Washington, home for Arizona, a trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving and then what should be an improved Dallas team. Six straight NFC opponents, all of whom have the ability to exploit the Vikings’ soft spots. The poor kicking and punting doesn’t engender confidence in close games. Even so, I see a minimum of 8 wins.
Will they repeat? That’s going to be difficult. Green Bay can only be healthier and it’s unlikely the resurgent Lions open 1-7 again. Chicago arguably improved more this offseason than any other NFC team, too. That’s why the NFC-heavy stretch in the middle of the schedule is so critical. Every win will matter, and the tougher schedule will keep those wins more elusive than last year. The difference between a disappointing 8-8 or a repeat 11-5 and potential playoff glory is Bridgewater. I’m confident in Teddy, but not ready to make that leap until he proves he can make it, too. Minnesota finishes 9-7 and falls out of the NFC playoffs this year.
RealGM's Season Previews: Buffalo Bills | Cincinnati Bengals | Cleveland Browns | Dallas Cowboys | Denver Broncos | Detroit Lions | Green Bay Packers | Houston Texans | Indianapolis Colts | Jacksonville Jaguars | Kansas City Chiefs | Los Angeles Rams | New Orleans Saints | New York Giants | New York Jets | Philadelphia Eagles | San Francisco 49ers | Washington