Minnesota Vikings 2015 Preview

(Bill Haber/AP)

Mike Zimmer’s first season as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings went off script often, but things still managed to work out for the rising franchise. After week one the Vikings lost star running back Adrian Peterson for criminal charges related to child abuse and they lost starting quarterback Matt Cassel during their third game of the season to injury. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater learned on the spot and by the end of the year he was looking like an above average NFL quarterback. There’s plenty of reasons for optimism in 2015 including the return of Peterson and improvement from Bridgewater, but plenty of questions remain.

Offense

Norv Turner’s offense showed a lot of promise last year, despite having instability along the offensive line and at wide receiver along with the loss of Adrian Peterson. Additionally, Teddy Bridgewater had to learn his first new offense since his freshman year of college and he wasn’t expecting to see much action as a rookie. There won’t be as many excuses for the Vikings next year, as coordinator Norv Turner wants Minnesota to have a top 10 offense. Last year the Vikings were 27th in yards and 20th in points, and the hope more stability along the offensive line, improved play from Bridgewater who gets a new top receiver in Mike Wallace, and the return of Peterson will mean big gains next year.

Quarterbacks

Teddy Bridgewater got a shotgun marriage with the Vikings’ starting quarterback position after Matt Cassel went down with injury. Bridgewater was extremely effective at getting the ball to the Vikings receivers last year, completing 66.4% of his passes. His accuracy is already near the top of the league and he has the arm strength and decision making skills to develop into an elite passer. After not throwing a touchdown in his first two starts, Bridgewater threw at least one in his final ten starts. By the end of the year Bridgewater was looking like a franchise quarterback. Bridgewater was ProFootballFocus’ top ranked quarterback over the final five weeks of 2014. As Bridgewater gets more comfortable in Turner’s offense, his touchdowns and yards should go up and his interception numbers will go down. Turner said the big difference in Bridgewater at the end of the year was that he was much more decisive. That change probably came from Bridgewater’s comfort in Turner’s offense, which is good news for Vikings fans. Shaun Hill is one of the better and more experienced backups in the NFL. Hill, a career journeyman, has exceeded expectations in almost every stop he’s made in his career. Hill has a 16–18 career record as a starter and he’s thrown 49 touchdowns and only 30 interceptions in his career. Hill has experience playing in a lot of systems, including Turner’s, who he played under in San Francisco. Mike Kafka and Taylor Heinicke will compete for the third quarterback role. Last year the Vikings kept Christian Ponder as a third quarterback on the 53-man roster, but that was a special circumstance and the Vikings may only keep two quarterbacks next year. Heinicke, an undrafted rookie, was a great college player at Old Dominion, but he might have some major difficulties transitioning to the NFL level. Heinicke doesn’t have great physical attributes, but he has a lot of intangibles seen in some special quarterbacks. Kafka was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, but he’s struggled to find a home and has bounced around a lot. Last year Kafka was on the Buccaneers’ practice squad for the majority of the year. Kafka has better physical traits than Heinicke, but I’d be surprised if Minnesota doesn’t hold onto Heinicke.

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson is a once in a decade player, who’s probably going to go down as one of the top ten running backs to ever play, if not one of the top five. Peterson has a rare blend of speed and strength that make him a threat every time he touches the ball. In 2012 Peterson ran for more than 2,000 yards while averaging 6.0 yards per attempt, resulting in him being awarded the NFL’s MVP award. Peterson wasn’t fully healthy in 2013, but he was still effective. Peterson missed most of last season while he was on the exempt list while dealing with child abuse charges. The Vikings are welcoming Peterson back in 2015 and he’ll play a major role once again. The Vikings plan on giving A.P. a smaller workload next year and second year player Jerick McKinnon will certainly steal some snaps and carries. McKinnon, a third round pick, saw a lot of action last season and ran for over 500 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. McKinnon struggled as a blocker last year, but he’s reportedly improved in that area. Matt Asiata shared snaps with McKinnon and although he wasn’t as effective as a runner as McKinnon, he was a decent blocker and receiver. Asiata’s a bigger back, who doesn’t havea whole lot of speed, but is good for some forward momentum each time he runs the ball. Asiata should see a much smaller role this year, possibly limited to occasional short yardage situations. Former Packers DuJuan Harris, Joe Banyard, and Dominique Williams will compete to make the team as depth and help on special teams. Zach Line is expected to take over at fullback after Jerome Felton left in free agency. Blake Renaud played linebacker in college, but is switching to fullback and competing with Line for a roster spot. Line is the heavy favorite. Minnesota has a strong group of running backs, led by an all-time great in Peterson and a young emerging runner in McKinnon.

Receivers

Mike Wallace quietly had a pretty good year in 2014 with the Dolphins, but he probably didn’t fit as nicely with the Dolphins as both sides would have liked, so the Vikings sent a fifth round pick to Miami for Wallace. Wallace has elite speed, and he thinks he’s still the fastest wide receiver in the NFL. The Vikings plan on using Wallace more as a vertical threat than the Dolphins did as Ryan Tannehill struggled getting Wallace the deep ball, completing only 6 of 24 targets to Wallace of 20 yards or longer according to ProFootballFocus. Charles Johnson emerged last year as the Vikings’ X wide receiver, catching 31 passes for 475 yards The Vikings are really high on Johnson, who has a nice combo of size and speed, but is working to become a more refined player. Slot receiver Jarius Wright also had a breakout year in 2014, catching 42 passes for 588 yards. Wright is effective after the catch and he is a nice safety valve for Bridgewater. 2013 first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson will compete for the starting X receiver job with Charles Johnson, but Patterson will have to show that he can be more than just a kick returner. Patterson has had plenty of opportunities at receiver, but he’s never taken advantage of his tremendous talent because he’s not a strong route runner and he’s not a polished receiver. Rookie fifth round selection Stefon Diggs could develop into a solid playmaker because of his decent size, speed, and ability to create with the ball in his hands. Local product Adam Thielen will likely make the team because of his special teams value and he could see some snaps at lot receiver. Donte Foster and rookies Gavin Lutman, Jordan Leslie, and DaVaris Daniels could be practice squad candidates. Kyle Rudolph is a nice redzone target who needs to do a better job at staying healthy. Norv Turner’s tight end friendly offense didn’t mean big numbers for Rudolph in his nine games last year, so it will be interesting if Rudolph can have a bounce back year. Rhett Ellison took over at tight end last year and did a decent job, but he’s not a great receiving threat. Ellison is a solid run blocker who should have a blocking role next year. Chase Ford, MyCole Pruitt, and Brandon Bostick will compete to be Minnesota’s third tight end.

Offensive Line

John Sullivan is one of the better centers in the NFL, excelling as a run blocker and solid against the pass as well. Sullivan should benefit from the return of Brandon Fusco, who’s making the switch from right guard to left guard after Minnesota released underwhelming left guard Charlie Johnson. At right guard, the Vikings have an open competition that will include T.J. Clemmings, Joe Berger, David Yankey, and maybe even Mike Harris and Tyrus Thompson. Phil Loadholt’s a solid right tackle, but he allowed five sacks last year. The Vikings will be looking for a bounce back season from him and from left tackle Matt Kalil, who was a major disappointment last year. Kalil ranked out as ProFootballFocus’ 81st best tackle out of 84 qualifiers last year. Kalil gave up 12 sacks last year after only giving up four in 2013. Clemmings, a fourth round pick, was projected by most as a first or second round selection. Clemmings could start off at guard, and then move out to tackle, where he has the versatility to play left or right. Thompson, a sixth round pick, has the tools to be a solid pass blocker in the NFL. Berger filled in well for Fusco at right guard last year, but his upside is limited. Berger’s nice depth with the ability to play center as well. 2014 fifth round pick David Yankey didn’t play as a rookie, but the Vikings are still high on his potential. Harris will compete for a roster spot as Minnesota’s swing tackle and will probably earn a spot because he adds some experience and versatility. Local prospect Carter Bykowski spent last year on the practice squad and will try and make the 53-man roster in 2015. Minnesota has enough talent on the offensive line, but they need to stay healthy and they need bounce back years from their four returning starters.

Defense

Defensively Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator have a very physical defense. Edwards and Zimmer have an attacking scheme that has multiple looks. Zimmer puts a premium on strong man cornerback play and also wants linebackers who can stop the run and rush the passer. Zimmer popularized the double A-gap blitz, which was a trendy concept in the NFL last year. The Vikings have a nice mix of youth and experience on defense and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be a top 10 defense next year.

Defensive Line

Defensive end Everson Griffin is probably one of the more underrated defensive ends in the NFL. Griffin had a breakout year in 2014, recording 12 sacks after being rewarded with a huge five year extension.Before 2014 Griffin was an effective and productive pass rusher behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison, but he emerged as a starter in 2014 with Allen leaving to join the Bears. Griffin was ProFootballFocus’ tenth ranked 4–3 defensive end in terms of pass rush productivity last year. Robison had a down year in 2014, recording only 4.5 sacks after having at least eight sacks in the previous three years. At 32 years old, Robison seems like a declining player. Robison’s not a strong pass rusher and he really wasn’t that productive against the run last year. The Vikings have drafted defensive ends in the third round in the past two drafts, and Robison could feel some heat, potentially losing his starting job to Scott Crichton or Danielle Hunter. Crichton didn’t see much action at all as a rookie, but the Vikings remain high on the second year player. Crichton has reportedly made a lot of strides since his rookie year and could be a breakout candidate. Hunter has elite measurables, but he’s raw and might take some time to adjust from LSU to the NFL. Hunter wasn’t a productive pass rusher at LSU, but he has all the tools to develop into an elite pass rusher. He’s a project who could as easily end up being a bust as a star. The Vikings also selected B.J. Dubose in the sixth round, who could develop into a strong run defending 4–3 end. With the new additions at end, inexperienced veteran Justin Trattou could face an uphill battle at making the roster. Shariff Floyd, like Griffin, is one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the NFL, and a force as a run defender and pass rusher. Floyd’s biggest weakness is his conditioning, which limited him to only 587 snaps last year. Linval Joseph is a solid run stuffer, but he’s limited as a pass rusher. Joseph, 26, along with Floyd and Griffin, are the foundation for one of the better defensive lines in the NFL for years to come. The Vikings have good depth behind their starting tackles in Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen. Stephen is young and showed some promise last year as a rookie, but Minnesota wants him to be more consistent. Johnson is an elite interior pass rusher, who picked up 6.5 sacks last year in a rotational role. Minnesota probably has one of the top ten lines in the NFL, and they have a string foundation for the next 5–10 years on their defensive line. Depth is also very impressive here.

Linebackers

Minnesota added a force with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft when they selected Anthony Barr. Barr just scratched the surface of his abilities as a rookie, although he was very impressive racking up four sacks and 70 tackles in only 12 games. His fumble strip and return for a touchdown single handedly won a game for the Vikings last year in overtime. Barr is effective when he creates confusion for quarterbacks because he was moved around a lot last year and used effectively as a pass rusher. Barr is also very solid against the run and he’s not the worst in pass coverage either, although that’s his weakness. Another area Barr needs to work on his his tackling. where he missed 22 tackles last year per PFF. Chad Greenway is no longer a solid starting NFL player, but he adds a veteran presence. Greenway doesn’t have the athleticism he entered the league with and he was outplayed by backup Gerald Hodges last year. Greenway may end up losing his starting job to Hodges, who quietly played extremely well at both WLB and SLB last year. Hodges showed he was strong against the pass and against the run last year and he might even factor in the competition at middle linebacker. Rookie second round pick Eric Kendricks is expected to start right away, potentially at middle linebacker, but his best position may be at WLB. Scouts praise Kendrick’s instincts and he should develop into a solid starting linebacker, although he’s not an elite athlete. Audie Cole has the versatility to back up all three linebacker spots, but he’s probably best suited at middle linebacker, where he’s competing for the starting job. Cole’s primarily a special teamer, but he shined in week 17 against the Bears last year when given a start. Seventh rounders Edmond Robinson, Brandon Watts, and Michael Mauti will compete with ex-Eagle Casey Matthews, ex-CFLer Brian Peters, and ex-Dolphin Josh Kaddu for a roster spot and a special teams role. The Vikings have string depth at linebacker, but they will want to see Eric Kendricks emerge as a rookie to solidify the middle linebacker spot. Chad Greenway is a liabilty and Gerald Hodges seems like a player ready to emerge as a starter. Kendricks and Barr should be a solid duo at linebacker for years to come.

Defensive Backs

Because the Vikings aren’t a playoff team, not a lot of casual fans know who Xavier Rhodes is, but Rhodes is without a doubt one of the best young corners in the NFL. Per ProFootballFocus, quarterbacks completed just 53 percent of their passes when Rhodes was targeted and Rhodes allowed ponly two touchdowns last year. Veteran cornerback Terence Newman played with Zimmer in Dallas and in Cincinnati and he’s expected to take over at cornerback opposite Rhodes until he’s beat out by rookie first round pick Trae Waynes. Despite his age, 36, Newman is still a good starting cornerback and probably one of the top 32 in the NFL. Zimmer was patient with rookie cornerbacks in Cincinnati and he’ll probably be patient with Waynes, who has elite size and speed with the potential to be a very special player. Captain Munnerlyn started at cornerback for the Vikings last year, but he’ll move to the slot where he’s a better fit. Munnerlyn was a liability last year and he’s better utilized as a slot cornerback because of his small size. Josh Robinson worked in the slot last year and showed some promise, but he didn’t play to the level that Mike Zimmer requires out of his cornerbacks. Robinson adds nice depth, but his season could be in jeopardy after recently tearing his pectoral muscle. Marcus Sherels has some experience, but he’ll make the roster next year because of what he provides on special teams. 2014 seventh rounder Jabari Price saw some action last year, but he may have a hard time making the roster with the additions of Waynes and Newman. Shaun Prater also saw some time last year and played under Zimmer in Cincinnati, but he’s a longshot to make the team. The Vikings are just full of underrated defensive players, including starting safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton. Smith, easily one of the top five safeties in the NFL last year, is as complete as they come, excelling in pass coverage while also being solid against the run. Blanton is also quietly a really good player, and is very strong in run support and he’s not a liability in coverage like many who are solid run supporters. Former United Football League player Andrew Sendejo made the team as a special teams player, but he’s worked his way up to be the Vikings’ top backup at strong safety and did a solid job in several starts last year. 2014 sixth round pick Antone Exum can play both strong and free safety and will probably compete with Blanton and Sendejo for a starting job, although Blanton is the heavy favorite. The Vikings are very high on Exum internally, which prevented them from drafting a safety in 2015. Undrafted free safety Anthony Harris was projected to go in rounds 3–4, and he has a very good chance at making the team or spending time on the practice squad. The Vikings quietly have one of the best secondaries in the NFL and this unit might start getting a lot of credit if the Vikings start winning more games

Special Teams

Blair Walsh had the worst accuracy of any full-time kicker in the NFL last year, but the Vikings aren’t bringing in any competition for Walsh, who has one of the stronger legs in the NFL. Walsh converted on over 92 percent of his kicks as a rookie in 2012, so the Vikings are working on getting him back to that consistency. Jeff Locke was PFF’s lowest rated punter last year and it’s somewhat surprising that the Vikings aren’t bringing in more competition for their struggling kickers. The Vikings are bringing in competition for long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who will have to beat out Kevin McDermott. Minnesota has a string group of returners in kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and punt returner Marcus Sherels. Wide receiver Adam Thielen was a force on the coverage units last year. Linebackers Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole are also effective special teamers.

Conclusion

Minnesota looks like a team that is building a perennial playoff contender, but it’s hard to endorse something before you’ve seen the success. That said, I believe in what Mike Zimmer is doing and I think the Vikings are building one of the most complete teams in football. Much depends on how quickly Teddy Bridgewater can develop, but the Vikings have the potential to be very good behind a very talented defense and one of the greatest running backs of all-time returning in 2015. Minnesota’s division is tough, but I would not be shocked at all to see the Vikings earn a wildcard spot next season.