The Diary of an Illinois Boston Fan

NFL Previews

Finally we finish up the NFC North with last year’s division champions. The Vikings are ever improving each year under head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer spent well over 10 years as a top tier coordinator…offensive or defensive…but never found a head coaching job until 2014 with Minnesota. It’s not really understood why a coach of his caliber had to wait so long before getting his shot but the Vikings front office has to be glad he did. He has created a foundation predicated on defense and let his smart hires on offense handle the organization of the very talented players that were already on the roster. Now, time is getting closer to find out what this team is really made of.

Projected Offensive Depth Chart:

QB: Teddy Bridgewater

RB: Adrian Peterson

FB: Zach Line

OL: Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, Johnathan Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Andre Smith

WR: Stefon Diggs, Charles Johnson

TE: Kyle Rudolph

We all know who makes or breaks this team. It’s the future hall of fame running back that may actually be an alien. Adrian Peterson is virtually an unreal player, bouncing back from injuries and controversy unlike any other player has. When he suffered his gruesome ACL injury at the end of 2011, it had fans everywhere worried that another talented player would have a stifled career because of a stupid injury. We’ve all seen ACL’s ruin plenty of other players, so the reason for concern was prominent. Instead, AP knocked on history’s door by nearly rushing for the record in yards.

After 2014’s child “abuse” scandal, people thought the mental distraction would prove too much to overcome…instead Peterson answered with 1,485 yards (the 3rd time he led the league in rushing yards) and 11 touchdowns as he led the Vikings to their best year since Brett Favre’s magical 2009. All of this at 30 years old, the notorious age when running backs start to decline.

Now at 31, Peterson is still explosive, still has elite top end speed, and has shown no signs of slowing down. The one thing that could disrupt another wonderful season would be his turnover woes. After seemingly lowering them in his last 2 real seasons, he had a disastrous 7 fumbles in which he lost 3, tied for 2nd most in his career. He’s still going to be the primary option in the redzone, leading the league in red zone carries last year, but he can ill afford to be so careless with the ball again if he wants another All-Pro season.

Now in his 3rd year, Teddy Bridgewater has to be expected to take some of the burden off of Peterson. By most measures, Bridgewater had what looked like a let down year by throwing only 14 touchdowns compared to 9 interceptions. His inability to throw deep was a red flag for most.

Looking deeper, though, you’ll see all the makings of what should be a dominating 2016. Bridgewater didn’t throw deep because the system wasn’t built around throwing deep. Getting Stefon Diggs to jump up the depth chart wasn’t an expected result. Diggs is a force down the field but he was also in his rookie year and didn’t show off great timing abilities. Mike Wallace was never comfortable or happy in the system and couldn’t break away to warrant Bridgewater taking risks to him. Charles Johnson and Kyle Rudolph are more possession guys than burst receivers. Bridgewater was just doing what he was asked and in the redzone, where the NFL has seen a hilariously gigantic leap to 64% of plays being passes, the Vikings still gave the ball to Peterson there. I like Bridgewater to get to at least 20 touchdowns after another year with Diggs and new receiver Laquan Treadwell to make a dangerous speed combo.

The Vikings have also done a stupendous job rebuilding their offensive line after a couple of unacceptable years protecting the QB. Matt Kalil looks like he’s back to his rookie form and finally feeling comfortable taking defenders 1 on 1. I’m not one to speculate often but an undisclosed injury may have been in play with him. I really like the 1 year “prove it” contract they gave to Andre Smith. He was always a decent if not underperforming part of the Cincinnati line since being drafted, never costing them games but never being a difference maker. Zimmer worked with Zimmer on the Bengals and has a good understanding of the player they’re bringing in. At his current pay, he’s a bargain even if it’s only temporary. Johnathan Sullivan remains one of the best run blockers in the league and is the big reason the Vikings have been near the top in rushing yards whether it was Peterson running or not. His leadership is also key as he’s one of the best line changers the league has. He and his two tackles will set the pace for Minnesota.

Projected Defensive Depth Chart:

DL: Brian Robinson, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen

LB: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Chad Greenway

CB: Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes

S: Andrew Sedejo, Harrison Smith

Minnesota has fantastically built the best up-and-coming defense this side of the 2012 Seahawks. Every unit has Mike Zimmer’s handprints specially set in and they’re ready to prove that the hype train they’re running isn’t going to fall off the rails.

The front seven is a special unit made out of wise picks and even wiser free agency moves. Sharrif Floyd is a terror in the middle, creating many pass rushing opportunities for his teammates much like Aaron Donald does for L.A. Floyd isn’t nearly the quarterback devourer Donald has been, but he’s got just as strong a motor and presence to grate centers and guards into lesser players by the 4th quarter. Even at 5.5 sacks, he was in the top 10 for DT and is trending upwards this season. Mixed with Linval Joseph, who had a career high 4 sacks himself, they provide the Vikings with perhaps the best nose tackle duo in the NFL.

Between Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr, Minnesota is going to create a lot of quarterback pressure this season. Last year the Vikings were around 6th in QB hurries (depends on which site’s stats you pay attention to) with just over 130 and that should only increase, especially as Barr notches another year under his belt. While Barr hasn’t been lavished like his 2014 draft counterpart, Khalil Mack, he’s become an undoubted monster in his hybrid inside-out linebacker role. That’s a Zimmer specialty, utilizing a player that operates on the outside and inside of the unit. He did it often with Rey Maualuga, he tried to do it with Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita, and now he’s got his best chance to create an All-Pro with it. Griffen doesn’t get a lot of love for a guy that’s racked up just over 20 sacks and seven pass deflections over the last two years. Another part of Zimmer’s technique is the pull shift pass rush move. It’s where a defender power rushes a lineman at a lower angle and let’s him grab between his jersey, then fakes one direction to only shift his weight back the other way and force the blocker to either let go or face a holding penalty. Griffen has added that to his arsenal of moves and has turned into a very talented pass rusher.

Xavier Rhodes is turning into the star this defense sorely needs if they ever want credibility (though I doubt they care). After putting up huge passes defensed numbers in his 2014 season, last year they dropped from 18 to 11 and that’s actually a good thing because targets thrown his way dropped nearly 30% in 2015, meaning opponents have recognized his talent as a potential lock down defender. He doesn’t do any one thing great, like Revis has with jamming receivers or Peterson has with his speed…Rhodes just does everything really really well. I like his vision better than anything, reading the QBs eyes and really locking down his man as the game goes on after adjusting to routes. Going into his 4th season the difference between another division title and missing the playoffs could very easily be whether he takes another step forward or another step back.

After missing out on a divisional playoff berth last year by the most heartbreaking kick, the Vikings are hungry for a chance to repeat as division champs for the first time since the division realignment in 2002. Zimmer has turned into every bit a great head coach that was expected of him and now needs to show us, much like his players, if he can handle the pressure of taking the next step.