Aug. 12, 2014
Can The Vikings Conquer?
With a new coach, a quarterback of the future, and a new stadium on the way, the Vikings enter a new era
Adrian Peterson remains the NFL's best back, even after a down 2013 (Getty Images)
Written by Jake Elman
Not too long ago, Minnesota was a playoff city. The Twins had a decade or so of AL Central dominance, the Timberwolves were always in the hunt, the Golden Gophers and the Wild were decent enough that they could make a run.
Then, there were the Vikings. Culpepper to Moss was a duo that even the greatest defenses of all time would fear, as the two were the faces of Vikings football during the early to mid 2000's. Now, those are days gone bye, and as the team enters 2014, they're in rebuilding mode.
This will be a season of preparing for the future, but have the Vikings found the right weapons, or will this be a year of waiting for nothing?
Let's look at the Vikings' schedule, courtesy of ESPN.
When the Vikings kick off the season against the Rams come week one, their quarterback will be...well, we don't know yet. More than likely, it'll be the veteran Matt Cassel, who started six games for the Vikings a year ago. Cassel, a former seventh round pick of the Patriots in 2005, enters his second season with the Chiefs after four in Kansas City, one of which featured an AFC West division title in 2010.
Cassel was solid in 2013, and you may be saying 'Jake, his TD-INT ratio was garbage and his stats weren't that amazing, so how could he be solid?' Well, think of it like this. The Vikings went 5-10-1 last year, but all five of those victories were because of Cassel either starting the whole game or rallying the team in the final minutes. Week 13, for example, showcased Cassel throwing for almost 250 yards and completing 61 percent of his passes in an upset of the rival Chicago Bears.
Cassel is what I like to call a placeholder; he's what Matt Schaub is for the Raiders, Chad Henne is to the Jaguars, Brian Hoyer is for Cleveland, Carson Palmer is for Arizona, etc. Cassel is solid, good enough that with the right pieces in place he could maybe take you to the playoffs, but he's not the long term plan.
Who is the long term plan? If you said Christian Ponder, I recommend you just stop talking for a moment because the long term plan is former Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater! A former consensus number one overall pick who nearly fell to the second round, being selected with the 32nd pick after the Vikings traded up, Bridgewater looks to say to teams that passed on him 'you made a mistake.'
Now, some believed that Bridgewater falling actually made sense. After the selection, Walter Football said the following:
"Bridgewater (6-2, 214) has a skill set, but not a great one, according to numerous NFL evaluators. Bridgewater has a slightly above-average arm, but not an elite cannon. While he has some mobility on rollouts, he isn't viewed as a real running threat. His best traits are his work ethic and film study, but teams were also concerned about his thin frame and holding up under the hits from pass-rushers."
I liked the pick of Bridgewater, truth be told. While I did have a feeling he'd fall in the draft (I had him going in the late twenties to Oakland via trade up), I still have a lot of optimism for Bridgwater's future. If all goes well, he'll be spending most, if not all, of this season on the bench learning and observing, with the hopes that he can take the starting job in 2015 and bring a Lombardi Trophy to the Twin Cities.
Bridgewater made his Vikings debut Saturday night, playing into the third quarter of what was a 10-6 victory for Minnesota. The rookie played decent - 6 for 13 for 49 yards, two sacks and one fumble the Vikings recovered.
"I felt pretty good. There were some missed opportunities, but I'll be able to come back next week and play more aggressive," Bridgewater said.
"There were a couple times in the game where he just didn't act like a veteran," rookie head coach Mike Zimmer said. "Things happened that he hadn't seen before. So those are all great experiences for him. But he made some great throws."
Let's look at what was probably Bridgewater's best throw of the night, which came halfway into the first quarter:
While the pass was wiped out due to a penalty, that was a great job by Bridgewater to scramble on the fake and find the open man. Vikings fans should get used to those types of plays from the former Louisville signal caller. Of course, not all was bright with Bridgewater's debut...
Watch this again. You'll see Bridgewater get panicked by the rush coming after him, which in turn causes him to fumble. That's something you cannot do in the NFL if you have any hopes of being an NFL quarterback. In a second and goal situation no less...throw the ball away if the rush is that close!
I don't expect too much from Bridgewater in 2014, and even if Cassel were to seriously struggle or get hurt, I feel like coach Mike Zimmer may be more inclined to go with Christian Ponder over Bridgewater. Whoever the quarterback is, they'll be handing the ball off to the best running back in the league and possibly the best of our generation, Adrian Peterson. The seventh overall pick in a draft that saw JaMarcus Russell go number one, Gaines Adams go fourth, and Levi Brown go fifth, Peterson has been nothing short of dominant.
I mean, look at some of these records. He has the most yards rushing in a single game with 296, 2nd all-time rushing yards in a single season with 2,097,he's ran for a touchdown of 60 or more yards twelve times in his career, he's got the most rushing yards in any eight-game period with 1,322, he ran for 861 yards in December 2012 alone, and he's never had below ten touchdowns in a single season.
What's that? You can draft Peterson in fantasy? Then what are you waiting for? Do it! Yes, he's at the age of 29, but he's going to be the Vikings' main option in 2014 with the quarterback situation and the lack of a true number two back right now.
With Jared Allen's departure, it'll be up to Brian Robison to be the veteran leader Minnesota's defense needs (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
"I feel like, you know, in the past we kinda have been predictable. I'm sure you guys [the media] have wrote stories about being predictable in the past seven years. You won't be able to write that story this year," Peterson said during training camp. "This is what I've been looking for, you know, for the past seven years and now I feel we have an offense that, you know, fits our talent."
He's right - the offense is quite good. Greg Jennings can still put the team on his back, and looks to improve on a season where he only scored four times. Jerome Simpson is a decent wide reciever, although I'm excited to see if he'll pull off this year...although that may be a bit of a long shot, considering he has one touchdown over two years in Minnesota.
There's also the second year man Cordarrelle Patterson, who made first team All-Pro as a rookie and showcased some massive potential as a rookie. Yet, it's year two where the Tennessee alum feels he's much more comfortable.
"I feel like I belong here," Patterson admitted during training camp. "Last year I didn't feel like a part of the team but this year I know I belong here."
This kid's the real deal, and I wouldn't hesitate drafting him in fantasy. WR2 or a flex seems to be an ideal position for Patterson, only because of the quarterback situation. Tight end for the Vikings is Kyle Rudolph, who just got paid big time...as in 37 million with 19 of that guaranteed.
Walter Football was quite critical of the Rudolph contract, saying "Rudolph is coming off an injury-plagued season and has never accumulated more than 500 receiving yards in a single year. He had no leverage, and quite frankly, is worth less than this deal indicates ... The only reason I'm not giving Minnesota an "F" is because Rudolph is young (25 in November) and has tons of potential. However, throwing lots of money on a player with no leverage or proven track record does not seem like a very good idea. "
He's exactly right. This was a poor contract, and I wouldn't be shocked if it blows up in the Vikings' face after a couple of years. Why would you guarantee Rudolph nearly twenty million dollars when he has yet to show any of that potential! Had the Vikings ended up with a top five pick in the 2015 draft, they could've made a run at Florida State's Nick O'Leary!
The offensive line is pretty good, and Matt Kalil's been pretty good since being a top five pick in 2012...I also really like John Sullivan, because you know, us Mount Kisco boys have to stick together (Sullivan was born in Mount Kisco, NY aka where I am writing this from).
This Vikings defense isn't too bad either, honestly. Yes, Chad Greenway is on the decline, but I like what else this defense brings to the table. It helps that the new coach is a proven former defensive coordinator, that's for sure.
With their first pick in May's draft, the Vikings took UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. This was an excellent choice, one of the best in the entire first round.
"Zimmer's defenses love to utilize a pass-rushing linebacker, so it was no surprise that Minnesota chose Anthony Barr with the No. 9 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft," Walter Football said of the rookie linebacker. "Barr is a bit raw as a former running back, but he has tons of potential, and he should be able to bolster the Vikings' pass rush."
Barr was a great pick, and the Vikings should be awfully pleased Barr even fell to the Vikings at 9; some had Barr going in the top five, and even though in hindsight that seems somewhat silly, this was a great pick for the Vikings. Barr could even be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, although if the team struggles big time, he may not get the necessary votes.
"My expectations of him are probably higher than for anybody else," head coach Mike Zimmer said about the first rounder. "I've seen great things out of him."
Sharrif Floyd, a first rounder himself last year, looks to show why the Vikings used such a high pick on him. The same goes for cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and even 2012 first rounder Harrison Smith, who arguably has already cemented himself as one of the best players on this defense.
Brian Robison is still here, and with Jared Allen now in the Windy City, this could be Robison's year to shine; the thirty one year old had a career high nine sacks last year, and I wouldn't be too surprised if that were to go up in 2014. Robison even had his first career touchdown last year!
Pro Football Focus brought up an interesting point about the defense, saying "Erin Henderson is gone at middle linebacker in Minnesota, but who will replace him is very much up in the air. Audie Cole reportedly took the snaps with the base unit during the most recent OTAs, but he'll be competing with the returning Jasper Brinkley throughout the offseason. Based on last season neither are likely to make a big impact in the middle, but Cole did at least flash some skills in coverage when he got on the field last year."
I'd like to see Brinkley at middle linebacker, but that's just me. The secondary doesn't seem to be too bad, but it's not the best; we'll see how they fare in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford.
Special teams for the Vikings features Blair Walsh at placekicker and Jeff Locke at punter. Walsh has been very good since entering the NFL in 2012, kicking at an 89.7 percent clip. Pro Football Focus rated Locke a poor starter, so I'm sure he'd like to make them take that back in 2014.
Coaching the Vikings in 2014, and hopefully many years beyond, will be the former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. 58 years old at the start of this season (he and I have the same birthday...just forty one years apart), this will be Zimmer's first time as head coach of a franchise; the past six seasons of his career, Zimmer's been the defensive coordinator for a Bengals team that made the playoffs four years during that span. Zimmer has the potential to be a great coach in this league, and if he can bear with rebuilding for a year or two, he has a chance to take this team to the promised land soon.
Schedule: 2014 will see the NFC North face off against both the AFC East and the NFC South. This is a tough schedule, and it doesn't help that the Vikings essentially have sixteen road games because instead of hosting teams at the Metrodome, they'll be playing their home games at TCF Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
X-Factor: When I about the Jaguars a few weeks ago, I called veteran quarterback Chad Henne the X-Factor because if he were to struggle, the Jags' rookie quarterback Blake Borltes would be thrown into action. The same applies here for veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater; Cassel will need to play well enough that Bridgewater isn't rushed into action, something that could delay his development.
Final Prediction: We see teams like the Vikings once every year or so - a rebuilding team with a great offense/defense while the other side is subpar, one of (if not the) best player in the NFL at a position, but young pieces of the future in play as well. That is the Minnesota Vikings this year, and it's for that reason I have the Vikings finishing 5-11 this year. It's a shame that a team with Adrian Peterson is primed to finish that low, but the holes on defense and lack of a 'home field' hurt this team greatly.
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