The Vikings were one of the rare cases where the majority of the media saw them taking a step forward this year and they actually did. Still, not many actually predicted them to take that step all the way to 11-5 and division champions. This is especially after a 20-3 debacle in San Francisco to open up their year. From that game on the only teams they lost to were the Seahawks, Cardinals, Broncos and the Packers. They got revenge on the Packers in a 20-13 win at Lambeau that was more one sided than the scoreboard indicates, but like a lot of these teams it should be pointed out that they went 1-4 against playoff teams last year. While having just their one bad loss be on an 11 pm west coast kick off in week one, it can be chalked up to a young team growing, but they will certainly be tested early on next year as the schedule should look much tougher. Still, you would assume if you can go 5-1 in the division every year that they will be right back in the thick of thing.
Mike Zimmer is doing a fine job in year two of his takeover of the Vikings. He has an identity and they really stick to it. It is a defense first team that uses the run to wear down opposing defenses. Norv Turner called a run play over 75% of the time on first down. It became almost too predictable, but it tied into their identity, three yards and a cloud of dust. The offense is being built up from having little around Adrian Peterson, and Turner certainly deserves another year or two because as predictable as the run was, they still were the eighth most efficient running team.
For me being a supporter of Teddy Bridgewater back to before the draft it was nice to know that he made the Pro Bowl in year two. Then you look at his stats and wonder if the Pro Bowl has any validity. Dont get me wrong, Bridgewater wasn’t a train wreck by any means. He only threw 9 interceptions, which would put him in the top eight for quarterbacks with over 300 attempts. He also had completed 65% of his passes, also solidifying top ten status. However, his 14 touchdowns and 7.2 yard per attempt rate are in the bottom half of the league. To be fair, Bridgewater also played with the worst offensive line in the league. While throwing a completion ⅔ of the time, the other third could have been even lower had he not thrown away a plethora of balls to avoid being sacked. He also was the quarterback under pressure the most but had seven quarterbacks who were sacked more than him this year. Bridgewater is a guy the Vikings will build their franchise around and the hope is that with more time next year he can even take another step forward. As for the backup, the Vikings should feel comfortable with Shaun Hill.
As mentioned this was a run first team and Adrian Peterson led the league in carries, with almost 40 more than the next guy, Doug Martin. While his 4.5 yards per carry rate isn’t quite where Martin was, it is above average, and his 11 touchdowns is also tied for a league lead. Peterson is signed on for the next two years and will be the focal point of the offense for both years. Behind Peterson, Jerick McKinnon had a solid year as a change of pace guy and boasted a 5.2 yard per carry mark. Matt Asiata took snaps as a goal line back, and running back is one of the most complete unit on the team from top to bottom.
How surprised would you be if you knew Mike Wallace was the highest paid player on the team last year. He wasn’t even the best wide receiver on the team as fifth round rookie Stefon Diggs out played him on a week to week basis. Wallace was third on the team in targets, catches, yards and touchdowns, and carrying such a high cap charge the Vikings should be looking to move on. Diggs is a solid possession receiver, and it leaves a need for a deep threat like Wallace, but if he isn’t going to step up, maybe Charles Johnson will and the Vikings can find another rookie to outplay Wallace as well. Jarius Wright did well out of the slot so if Johnson can step up wide receiver isn’t a pressing need, but a group of Diggs, Johnson and Wright isn’t a scary group either. At tight end Kyle Rudolph began taking steps towards being a successful NFL tight end. He led the team with 5 touchdowns but at age 26, he should be looking at this year as a taking off point.
It is tough to argue against the Vikings having the league’s worst offensive line. When Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan went down prior to the season it took away the only two productive players and left them having to fill holes with unproven commodities. Those two should reassume their positions, but the rest of the line should be in danger of losing their jobs. This should be a good year to test Matt Kalil with rookie TJ Clemmings behind him. Kalil has one year on his deal left, but for being a former top five pick has been one of the worst left tackles in the league and is almost certainly labeled a bust. Clemmings was drafted as a project who may take over when the Vikes let Kalil go, but he was forced into playing right tackle when Loadholt went down. With Loadholt healthy his job should be to push Kalil now and potentially sure up the line if he can grow into the mold of a left tackle. At guard, Brandon Fusco is tied into one of the starter spots, but this is a position that can addressed in either the draft or free agency to boost the interior. Loadholt also only has one year on his deal, so if they aren’t sure what they will get from him post injury, it makes most of the offensive line positions open in the draft.
The Vikings defensive line is one the most complete units, and probably my personal favorite unit in the entire league. They have an awesome mix of run stuffers, pass rushers, speed and power. The depth is also fantastic. On the edge, Everson Griffen compiled 10.5 sacks this year and was one of the more feared pass rushers. He rushes across from Brian Robison, a tenured underrated vet, and rookie Danielle Hunter, who added six sacks himself last year. Scott Crichton also got some play in what was his second year, and to bring all four of them back this year should make the pass rush a major problem for opponents. On the inside, Linval Joseph is an absolute wall in the run defense, and beside him Sharif Floyd who very athletic for his size. The two are spelled by Tom Johnson, who also is a tank in the run defense. There really is little to complain about up front here and they should only get better with more continuity behind Zimmer.
Anthony Barr joined the front line as one of the bigger breakouts this year. Barr was everywhere this year, from rushing the pass, to defending the run to guarding tight ends and even wide receivers, and is now one of the more complete do everything backers in the league. His college roommate Eric Kendricks began to take steps in joining the starting lineup in his rookie year, and as Kendricks enters year two, the thought would be that familiarity will be there with those two. Chad Greenway is an impending free agent, but also added he wants to finish his career in the Vikings purple. Drafted in 2006, it will be interesting to see how long of deal the Vikes give him, and also how important they take replacing him in the off-season.
The Vikings pass defense wasn’t as effective as the front end, but still on paper this is a unit that will need little touching up. Harrison Smith is the best player of the back end and took over as the captain of the defense from Greenway this year. Smith is great because he can play center field, can lay lumber, and isn’t afraid to stop the run in the box. It makes whoever the safety is beside him have a much easier time at it, and currently that position is up for grabs. Either Andrew Sendejo, or Robert Blanton could be retained rather cheap, but it will be interesting to see the Vikings thoughts on either of them, or if the think they can find a solution elsewhere. At corner, Xavier Rhodes has established he can hang in the league and is a pretty solid corner. The hope would be that last years first round pick, Trae Waynes can take that step with Rhodes and give them an overall better secondary. Captain Munnerlyn is also signed, but if Wayans isn’t stepping into the starting position, the hope is someone better than Munnerlyn can emerge. Terrance Newman is debating retirement or one last year in Minnesota, and slot specialist Marcus Sherels is a free agent, although Sherels should be retained.
Where do they go?
The Vikings currently have a defense that can win this team a lot of games. They have a young quarterback who avoids mistakes, and they have a run game established through the running back position. What they need now is to beef up the offensive line, and give Bridgewater some playmaking receivers. Some touching up to the defense may be done, especially in the secondary, but overall this is still a team on the rise.