In 2012, the Vikings rode a historic season from Adrian Peterson all the way to the post-season. In 2013, Peterson went back to being just very good and the Vikings ended up winning just 5 games. Peterson rushed for 831 fewer yards in 2013 than 2012. 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries is definitely not a bad season, especially considering Peterson missed 2 meaningless games with injury, but because he wasn’t averaging 6.0 yards per carry, it exposed their quarterbacks.
Christian Ponder was benched after 3 games for Matt Cassel and then returned to the starting job after mid-season pickup Josh Freeman bombed his only start of the season. Ponder then played until he got hurt and then Matt Cassel took over for the rest of the season. Cassel attempted 254 passes on that quarterback carousel. Christian Ponder attempted 239 and Josh Freeman attempted 53. All in all, Minnesota quarterbacks completed 59.5% of their passes for an average of 6.68 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 76.0 that ranked 9th worst in the NFL.
In spite of that, their offense wasn’t as much of the problem and the reason why they declined this season, as their defense was horrible. In terms of rate of moving the chains against, they ranked 30th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.91% rate. Their offense wasn’t great, ranking 19th and moving the chains at 70.56% rate, but they weren’t the biggest problem. They’re a quarterback away from being a very solid offense, with a great offensive line and running game and a solid set of weapons in the receiving game. I expect them to target quarterbacks early in the draft, but they are picking 8th with a bunch of quarterback needy teams ahead of them so they might have to move up to get their guy.
So what happened to their defense? Well, they suffered more injuries than they did in 2012, when they barely suffered any injuries. The loss of secondary leader Harrison Smith was the most notable one. They also missed Antoine Winfield, who played great in 2012, but left as a cap casualty and eventually retired. Other 30+ veterans did not play up to their standards, including Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Brian Robison, and Chad Greenway.
One year after he was being touted as a Coach of the Year candidate, the Vikings fired Leslie Frazier after the season, in part because of the struggles of the defense, which is his specialty. He was replaced with another defensive coach in Mike Zimmer and he should be an upgrade. Zimmer has been an above average defensive coordinator for 14 years in the NFL, with the Cowboys, Falcons, and Bengals, but didn’t get his first head coaching job until now, when he’s going into his age 58 season, a testament to the NFL’s obsession with offensive coaches. 2013 was perhaps Zimmer’s best season as his Bengals were one of the best defenses in the NFL, despite losing Geno Atkins and Leon Hall to injury.
Zimmer will get the most out of the Vikings’ defense, just like he did with the Bengals’ defense. They don’t have nearly as much talent, especially since they could be undergoing a veteran purge, but Zimmer will do the best he can. I’m very excited to see what he can do with 2013 first round picks Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, who will have bigger roles in 2014, as well as Harrison Smith, who had a strong rookie year in 2012, but missed most of 2013 with injury. Teams that have a big regression in win total tend to improve about half the total the following season. Given that, we could see the Vikings back in contention next season, especially if they can get the quarterback position right.
Christian Ponder was benched after 3 games for Matt Cassel and then returned to the starting job after mid-season pickup Josh Freeman bombed his only start of the season. Ponder then played until he got hurt and then Matt Cassel took over for the rest of the season. Cassel attempted 254 passes on that quarterback carousel. Christian Ponder attempted 239 and Josh Freeman attempted 53. All in all, Minnesota quarterbacks completed 59.5% of their passes for an average of 6.68 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 76.0 that ranked 9th worst in the NFL. I expect them to target quarterbacks early in the draft, but they are picking 8th with a bunch of quarterback needy teams ahead of them so they might have to move up to get their guy.
The Vikings took Xavier Rhodes in the first round in 2013, but they still need help at the position. Chris Cook and Marcus Sherels are both free agents and both struggled this season. Cook has had an inconsistent tenure in Minnesota, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010, which has included off the field problems. Sherels, meanwhile, is much more valuable as a return man than as a defensive back. Josh Robinson will still be under contract, but he’s been miserable in two seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked cornerback in terms of coverage grade in 2012 and 12th worst in terms of coverage grade in 2013. He shouldn’t be considered an option to start on the outside opposite Rhodes, so that’s a big need of theirs.
The Vikings also took Sharrif Floyd in the first round in 2013, but defensive tackle remains a position of need. Kevin Williams and Fred Evans are both free agents this off-season and both are over 30, going into their age 34 and age 31 seasons respectively in 2014. Letroy Guion, meanwhile, is a mediocre at best player who could easily be a cap casualty this off-season. Floyd can be a replacement for Kevin Williams long-term, but they still need a long-term replacement for Pat Williams, who they have yet to replace since he retired following the 2011 season. This is something they need to address.
The Vikings have a bunch of free agents this off-season and things are no different at defensive end. Brian Robison was locked up on an extension this season, as he goes into his age 31 season, but Jared Allen and Everson Griffen are both free agents. Allen is going into his age 32 season anyway. My guess is they’d prefer to lock up Griffen, who is much younger and has thrived as a rotational player over the past few seasons, but it’s unlikely they’re going to be able to bring both back. They need to add depth at the very least.
Chad Greenway used to be a great player, but he hasn’t graded out above average on Pro Football Focus since 2010 and last season he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, struggling in coverage and against the run and missing a league leading 21 tackles. He’ll make 6.5 million in 2014 and count for 8.4 million on the cap, in his age 31 season, so the Vikings could definitely cut him, which would free up 4.8 million in cap space. They may also keep him as a veteran presence if they don’t feel they need the cap space, but even if they don’t, he won’t be around much longer. They also may need to add someone opposite him as Marvin Mitchell is a free agent, though the two-down linebacker spot is much easier to fill.
The Vikings quietly have one of the best offensive lines in football. The only hole is left guard, where Charlie Johnson is a below average starter. Fortunately, he’s a free agent so the Vikings can use this opportunity to upgrade the position and improve even further on their dominant offensive line. After the quarterback position, this is their only real hole on offense.
Erin Henderson is a decent starting linebacker, but he was arrested for DUI twice this season. He was benched following the first one and is now expected to be cut. The Vikings would save 2 million both in cash and on the cap by letting him go before his contract year next season. They’d need to replace him in that scenario, though Audie Cole, who flashed in limited action this season, could be a cheap internal option.
I mentioned under the cornerback section that Marcus Sherels is a free agent. In spite of his issues in coverage, they need to bring him back because of his dominance as a punt returner. He was 2nd in the NFL in punt return average, returning 22 punts for 335 yards and 1 touchdown, an average of 15.2 yards per punt return. In his career, he averages 10.3 yards per punt return. If he isn’t brought back, they’ll need to replace him.
Key Free Agents
DE Jared Allen
Jared Allen is has declined in Pro Football Focus’ rankings in every season since 2011, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That makes sense as he’s getting older and he has played a significant snap total in almost every season in the league. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2014 and the Vikings don’t seem like they’re going to bring him back. Given the cold market that met Dwight Freeney and John Abraham last off-season, similar pass rushers in similar stages of their careers, Allen will probably have to settle for a short-term deal, hopefully with a contender.
DE Everson Griffen
Everson Griffen has played a significant role as a rotational player in the last two seasons, playing 623 snaps in 2012 and 717 snaps in 2013 and grading out about average. He’s going into the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season in 2014, and the Vikings, in a re-build, are much more likely to bring him back than Jared Allen. That would lead to a large role for him and he could thrive in Mike Zimmer’s defense. Expect him to re-sign with the Vikings on a multi-year deal that pays him like a starting caliber player.
DT Kevin Williams
Kevin Williams has been with the Vikings for 11 seasons since they drafted him 9th overall in 2003, but it appears that his tenure with the team is up as he heads into his age 34 season. The Vikings have an in-house replacement for his 3-technique role in Sharrif Floyd, a 1st round pick in 2013. He could retire, but he’s still got something left in the tank, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked defensive tackle last season. He’ll probably be looking at short-term deals this off-season.
RB Toby Gerhart
Toby Gerhart was a premium pick in the 2nd round in 2010, but has served purely as Adrian Peterson’s backup in 4 seasons. He’s been impressive when given a chance, rushing for 1305 yards and 5 touchdowns on 276 carries, 4.5 yards per carry, while adding 77 catches for 600 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air. He could draw some interest as a lead back going into his age 27 season on the open market this off-season.
CB Marcus Sherels
Marcus Sherels isn’t much of defensive player. He had played 384 snaps in 2 seasons from 2011-2012 and this season, when he saw significant action, playing 545 snaps, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th worst ranked cornerback in terms of coverage grade. That being said, they need to bring him back because of his dominance as a punt returner. He was 2nd in the NFL in punt return average, returning 22 punts for 335 yards and 1 touchdown, an average of 15.2 yards per punt return. In his career, he averages 10.3 yards per punt return.
CB Chris Cook
Chris Cook had a very disappointing 4 years in Minnesota after they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. He played just 34 of a possible 64 games, for a variety of reasons, including injuries and off the field issues. And while he flashed in coverage from time to time, he was terrible in 2013, his most significant season in terms of snap count. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, allowing 9 touchdowns to no interceptions and 71.2% completion. Only Justin Rogers allowed a higher QB rating. It’s easy to see why the Vikings drafted Cook so high. He has a rare combination of size and speed at 6-2 212 and at his best, he can be pretty damn good. My guess is his tenure in Minnesota is done and he’ll have to settle for one year prove it deals like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib did last off-season.
G Charlie Johnson
A 6th round pick in 2006, Charlie Johnson has been a starter for quite a few years, playing both left guard and left tackle, dating back to his time in Indianapolis with the Colts. He’s never been particularly good though as he struggled to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside, arguably the easiest blindside to protect, and then in Minnesota he got replaced by 1st round pick Matt Kalil and moved back to left guard. He’s the weakness on an otherwise strong Minnesota offensive line and the Vikings should take this opportunity to upgrade the position as he goes into his age 30 season. As for Johnson, he’s probably looking at one year deals without guarantees of a starting job.
WR Jerome Simpson
Simpson had a career high 726 receiving yards on 48 catches this season, though he did score just once. Still, he needed to have that kind of season after his miserable 2012 season, in which he struggled through injuries and caught just 26 passes for 274 yards. That being said, anyone signing him should know that he caught fewer than 50% of his targets not just last season, but in 2011, his other big receiving year (50/725/4). He also has a history of off the field problems. He’ll be greeted with a stronger market this year than last year, but he might still be looking at one year deals. The Vikings might be wise to bring him back cheap as a depth receiver.
OLB Marvin Mitchell
Marvin Mitchell was the 3rd linebacker in Minnesota this season, but only played 310 snaps. He’s never played more than 361 snaps in a season since being drafted in the 7th round in 2007 and he’s already going into his age 30 season. He’s almost definitely looking at one year deals this off-season. He wasn’t bad in his role last season so it might make sense for the Vikings to bring him back cheap, but he’ll also be very easy to replace if they don’t. Finding a two-down outside linebacker isn’t hard.
QB Josh Freeman
I’m not entirely sure what happened to Josh Freeman, but in his last 8 starts, Josh Freeman has completed 47.8% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He was demoted to 3rd string in Tampa Bay and cut despite still being owed a guaranteed salary. He then picked up 3 million from Minnesota, but ended up making just one start, a national televised trainwreck against the Giants in which he completed 20 of 53 for 190 yards and an interception. Sure, he probably didn’t have the playbook down yet, but the fact that the Vikings never went back to him for the rest of the season says something. Many members of the media have suggested there’s something deeper to his struggles, though those in the know seem uncomfortable divulging this information. Whatever it is, NFL teams are likely aware of it as well and Freeman should consider himself lucky if he even gets a chance to compete for a starting job anywhere this off-season.
Cap Casualty Candidates
DT Letroy Guion
Letroy Guion has graded out well below average in a rotational role over the past 2 seasons, including ranking dead last among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2012 on just 509 snaps. In 2013, he played just 397 snaps behind Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd. The Vikings can save 4 million in cash and on the cap by cutting him this off-season so he’s probably as good as gone.
MLB Erin Henderson
Erin Henderson is a decent starting linebacker, but he was arrested for DUI twice this season. He was benched following the first one and is now expected to be cut. The Vikings would save 2 million both in cash and on the cap by letting him go before his contract year next season.
OLB Chad Greenway
Chad Greenway used to be a great player, but he hasn’t graded out above average on Pro Football Focus since 2010 and last season he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, struggling in coverage and against the run and missing a league leading 21 tackles. He’ll make 6.5 million in 2014 and count for 8.4 million on the cap, in his age 31 season, so the Vikings could definitely cut him, which would free up 4.8 million in cap space. They may also keep him as a veteran presence if they don’t feel they need the cap space.
TE John Carlson
The 5 year, 25 million dollar deal the Vikings gave John Carlson last 2 years ago was absurd. He caught just 31 passes in 2010 and missed all of 2011 with injury and the Vikings already had Kyle Rudolph. Carlson caught just 8 passes in his first year with the team. This year, with Kyle Rudolph missing time with injury, Carlson had an opportunity to shine, but caught just 32 passes on the season. Carlson could easily be cut this off-season, which would free up 2 million in cap space. With Kyle Rudolph coming back, that’s definitely a possibility. He wouldn’t be worth his 4 million dollar salary as a backup.