No fan base suffered a more heartbreaking loss than the Vikings’ final game of last season. They were a Blair Walsh 27-yard Field Goal away from moving on to the NFC Divisional Round with their first playoff win since 2009. Only 4 players remain from that 2009 roster, but they return much of a talented young nucleus from their 2015-16 roster. According to Pro Football Focus the Vikings only lost 5.17% of their snaps from last season, the lowest number in the league. Expectations will be high in the Twin Cities with the return of a young, improving roster that went 11-5 last year, and playing in a glorious new stadium.
Teddy Bridgewater is one of the most promising young Quarterbacks in the league. He has incredible poise, which really shows itself in high-pressure situations. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league, and the offense doesn’t exactly work to his strengths. Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner has been in the NFL for 32 years, and hasn’t changed his philosophy much over the last 3 decades. His focus on a 7-step-drop, deep passing game doesn’t do Teddy any favors. Some of the questions surrounding Teddy’s deep passing capability may have been answered after his 49 yard strike to Charles Johnson against the Bengals in their first preseason game.
Adrian Peterson is still Adrian Peterson. He’s an outstanding runner, but struggles at everything else required of an NFL Running Back (pass protection, route running, pass catching, etc.). That’s why third year RB Jerick McKinnon’s skill set is so valuable. He’s an average pass blocker, but is an excellent route runner and receiver out of the backfield. His versatility covers up all of Peterson’s weaknesses in the passing game, and provides a change of pace in the run game.
This is probably the weakest position group on the team, which is why they spent their first round pick on Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell adds some size to this unit, has good ball skills, and even has a reputation as a good run blocker. Stefon Diggs will look to build upon his impressive rookie season in which he was able to rack up 720 yards on 52 receptions after being inactive for the first 3 games of the year. After a hot start to the season, his production dropped severely. In order for this unit to be successful in 2016: they need Laquon Treadwell to pick up the offense quickly, more consistent production from Diggs, and bigger contributions from Charles Johnson after a disappointing 2015 season.
The Vikings attempted to make a weakness into a strength by adding many key contributors to the Offensive Line throughout the offseason. They picked up accomplished linemen Andre Smith and Alex Boone in Free Agency, they drafted OT Willie Beavers in the fourth round, and John Sullivan returns after missing all of 2015 with an injury. Phil Loadholt’s retirement after an Achilles injury was a major blow, but fortunately the Vikings built one of the league’s deepest Offensive Lines during the offseason. Left Tackle Matt Kalil is still a major question mark. He’s submitted 3 straight years of subpar play after an impressive rookie season. If Kalil is able to return to form, this could be a top 10 unit in the NFL.
Linval Joseph and Shariff Floyd form an incredible Defensive Tackle duo on the interior of Mike Zimmer’s defense. Everson Griffen has compiled 22.5 sacks over the last 2 seasons. He is paired with Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter who split time at the other Defensive End spot. Danielle Hunter was really impressive in his rookie season, and Brian Robison is still a solid pass rusher entering his 10th NFL season. This unit excels in both defending the run and rushing the passer, which sets the tone for possibly the best defense in the NFL.
Anthony Barr was outstanding in 2015 following up an impressive performance as a rookie in 2014. He excels defending the run, rushing the passer, and in pass coverage. He is joined by fellow UCLA alum Eric Kendricks at Linebacker, who showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, but needs to improve his consistency in his second season. Barr and Kendricks will see a majority of the snaps at LB in Mike Zimmer’s nickel defense. Chad Greenway, Emmanuel Lamur, Audie Cole, and rookie Kentrell Brothers provide quality depth behind the two starters.
The Vikings treated Harrison Smith to a well-deserved contract extension in the offseason. Smith is probably the most well rounded Safety in the league, and is the centerpiece of a talented Vikings secondary. Xavier Rhodes was a little disappointing in his 3rd season putting up poor performances in all of the first ten games. He did turn his season around in week 11, and re-staked his claim as an above-average #1 Corner. Outside of Denver, the Vikings have the deepest group of Cornerbacks in the league with Captain Munnerlyn, Terrance Newman, Trae Waynes, and rookie Mackensie Alexander.
Outside of Jeff Locke, one of the worst punters in the NFL, the Vikings Special Teams unit is very solid. Marcus Sherels averaged a substantial 9.1 yards per punt return in 2015, and has been a dependable punt returner throughout his career. Cordarrelle Patterson has been a Pro Bowl level kick returner and took 2 kicks back for a Touchdown during the regular season. Blair Walsh’s career has been an absolute roller coaster. He had pinpoint accuracy in his first 2 seasons making a combined 61 FG on 68 attempts. He went through a slump in 2014 (26/35 FG), but seemed to be on the rebound in 2015 (34/39 FG) until his 27-yard shank against the Seahawks cost the Vikings a trip to the Divisional Round. Will he be able to put that miss behind him and return to form in 2016? That question might not be answered until he lines up for another playoff Field Goal in January.
The 2 keys to winning in today’s NFL are coaching and Quarterback play. There is a debate to be had whether Teddy Bridgewater is a Super Bowl level Quarterback, but there is no debate that this is the most experienced coaching staff in the league. Mike Zimmer is only entering his 3rd season as a head coach, but he has been coaching in the NFL for the last 22 years. Defensive Coordinator George Edwards is entering season 19 in the NFL, as is Defensive Line coach Andre Patterson. Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer is entering season number 11, and Defensive Backs coach Jarry Gray is ready to begin his 21st season. On the offensive side of the ball: Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner 32 years, Wide Receivers coach George Stewart 10 years, Offensive Line coach Tony Sparano 18 years, Tight Ends coach Pat Shurmur 18 years, and Running Backs coach Kevin Stefanski 11 years. These well-seasoned coaches will have their team ready to go with a sound gameplan week in and week out.
I don’t expect the Vikings to repeat as NFC North Champions in 2016, but I do expect them to be playing on Wild Card weekend for the second year in a row. Mike Zimmer and his experienced coaching staff will have this team well prepared and hungry for a championship. Sorry Vikings fans, but I don’t believe that hunger will be satisfied with a Super Bowl in February of 2017. Give this team one more year of playoff experience, plus a home game for the 2018 Super Bowl, and that could add up to the Vikings hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.