Minnesota Vikings 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings seem to have struck gold with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. After using the 9th overall pick on Anthony Barr (also a good pickup), the Vikings looked like they would head into day 2 with only Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Instead, they moved up from the 2nd round to grab quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sliding down the board, but likely wouldn’t have been available at the Vikings’ original 2nd round pick. Bridgewater had a fantastic college career and a lot of great tape, but concerns about his size, deep accuracy, and his poor Pro Day knocked him down boards.

The Vikings’ gain is the rest of the league’s loss. The Jaguars picked Blake Bortles 3rd overall over Bridgewater and the Browns picked Johnny Manziel 22nd over Bridgewater, despite spending 100K on a study that told them that Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the draft class (because Browns). Both of those quarterbacks struggled mightily as rookies and the latter’s career could be over before it starts if he doesn’t get his act together on and off the field. On top of that, there are several other teams that had a chance to draft Bridgewater in the first round (or trade back up into the first round) that probably would prefer Bridgewater to their current quarterback, including the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, the Jets, Houston, Oakland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia etc.

As a rookie, Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, rushed for 209 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries (4.45 YPC), graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, and ranked 15th among eligible quarterbacks. It’s important not to get too ahead of ourselves with Bridgewater, as he has a long way to go to become a proven franchise quarterback, but the future looks bright for the quarterback who is only going into his age 23 season. He certainly seems to have the brightest future of any quarterback in last year’s draft class and he definitely was the best of any rookie quarterback in the NFL last season.

The Vikings only ranked 24th in rate of moving the chains last season, but they were significantly better in the 12 games that Bridgewater started, moving the chains at a 70.52% rate, as opposed to 66.36% in their other 4 games. They were also significantly better in their final 6 games of the season, moving the chains at a 72.29% rate. Over those 6 games, Bridgewater completed 68.9% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while grading out 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus over that time period. It really seemed like something clicked for the rookie. You can’t necessarily extrapolate those 6 games to a whole career or even to the 2015 season, but I think there’s a very good chance that Bridgewater is better in his 2nd year in the league than he was in his first.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The one thing that Teddy Bridgewater will have this season that he didn’t last season is future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, who missed 15 games last season with team suspension, after getting arrested for child abuse after week 1. In his absence, Matt Asiata led the team in carries with 164, but only turned them into 570 yards (though 9 touchdowns), an average of 3.48 yards per carry. He graded out 56th among 57 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus as a result.

Jerick McKinnon, a 3rd round rookie, was better, rushing for 538 yards on 113 carries, an average of 4.76 yards per carry. He graded out above average as a runner, but below average overall because of his struggles on passing downs. His struggles on passing downs caused him to drop to the 3rd round in the first place, but he’s a good runner. His strong YPC average last season was part of the reason that the Vikings averaged 4.36 yards per carry on the season overall (11th in the NFL), despite Asiata’s struggles. On top of that, they had some fluky long runs, as the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Andrew Sendejo, and Jerome Felton all had 20+ yard runs. That’s two wide receivers, a fullback, and a safety.

Peterson will be a big boost to this offense, but you shouldn’t expect him to be the same back who rushed for 2000+ yards in 2012. As good as he’s been throughout his 8-year career, he’s only rushed for 1400+ yards twice and never in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, following that 2000+ yard year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 yards per carry, good, but not incredible. He barely played last season, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, and now he’s going into his age 30 season with 2054 career carries. He ranks 28th all-time in rushing yards with 10,190, but, of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He could be fresh off of a season off, but he could just as easily be rusty.

He should still be a big asset for them, as he ranked in the top-11 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, the only running back in the NFL who can say that. The Vikings will probably still give him 300+ carries as long as he stays on the field, because Norv Turner has always preferred feature backs who frequently carry the ball 20 times per game, but there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will average more yards per carry than they did last season, when they averaged 4.36 yards per carry. They will probably be more consistent on the ground though and pick up more than 90 rushing first downs on the season. McKinnon will work as a strict backup and probably only on running downs because he doesn’t possess any passing down abilities, though Peterson isn’t that good on passing downs either (neither is Asiata for that matter).

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t nearly as good in 2014 as it was in 2013, even though they returned the same starting 5. They weren’t bad as run blockers, grading out 10th in team run blocking grade, but they ranked 25th in team pass blocking grade, after grading out 7th in that aspect in 2013. The biggest culprit was injuries. After their starting 5 missed a combined 3 games with injury in 2013, they missed 20 games with injury upfront in 2014.

The biggest loss in terms of sheer games was right guard Brandon Fusco, who was limited to 176 snaps in 3 games by a torn pectoral. Fusco graded out 8th among guards in 2013 when healthy, earning him a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s still a one year wonder, who graded out 73rd among 81 eligible guards in 2012 in his first season as a starter, but having him back and healthy will be good for this team. Joe Berger was decent on 626 snaps last season, but Vladimir Ducasse struggled mightily on 417 snaps, grading out 61st among 78 eligible guards.

Left guard Charlie Johnson also missed 2 games with injury so Joe Berger also played a little bit there last season. Johnson is gone, after grading out 56th among 78 eligible guards last season, so Berger could start there this season. Berger has actually never graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, as a super-utility man, playing left guard, right guard, and center, but he’s also only made 38 starts over that time period. He’s also going into his age 33 season, though he could still be decent this season. Long-term, he’ll face competition from 2015 4th round pick TJ Clemmings, who was seen as a 2nd round pick before a pre-draft foot injury. Berger is the favorite in my mind, with 2014 5th round pick David Yankey, who didn’t play a snap a rookie, also in the mix.

Right tackle Phil Loadholt missed 5 games with injury last season, which was a big loss, as backup Michael Harris struggled on 376 snaps in his absence. Loadholt graded out only slightly above average last season in 11 games, though he’s been better in the past. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL, including the last 4. In 2012 and 2013 respectively, he finished 21st and 11th among offensive tackles, proving himself as one of the best right tackles in the game. Only going into his age 29 season, he should bounce back to at least have a solid year in 2015.

On the other side of the offensive tackle, Matt Kalil made all 16 starts, but he was horrific. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft had a great rookie year, grading out 21st at his position. He slipped to 51st in 2013, but a knee injury was blamed as the culprit. I don’t know what happened in 2014 though, as he graded out 81st out of 84 eligible, allowing 12 sacks and committing 12 penalties. He had more knee problems (though he’s never missed a game with injury), but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever bounce back. The Vikings picked up his 11.09 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s only guaranteed for injury, so his future with the Vikings is definitely not secure. They really need him to play well, but he’s highly unlikely to live up to such a large scheduled salary.

The only Viking offensive lineman who started all 16 games and played well was center John Sullivan, who graded out 12th among centers in 2014. He’s been better in the past though and, only going into his age 30 season, I think he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. The 2008 6th round pick was a late bloomer, not really coming around until his 4th season in the league in 2011, but he graded out 3rd that year, 1st in 2012, and 3rd in 2013, meaning last season was actually a down season for him. He’s made 63 out of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and should remain a valuable asset in the middle of their offensive line. They can’t count on being as healthy on the offensive line as they were in 2013, but they should be healthier than they were in 2014 and I think Joe Berger (assuming he wins the job) is probably an upgrade on Charlie Johnson, so things are looking up on the offensive line.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The offensive line wasn’t the only place the Vikings had significant injuries on offense last season as they had the 10th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph missed 7 games with sports hernia surgery, in the first year of a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar extension that the Vikings have him last off-season ahead of his contract year. They gave him that extension even though he missed 8 games with injury in 2013, because he was very solid in his first two years in the league in 2011 and 2012, grading out 12th among tight ends in both seasons. That was largely because of his blocking abilities at 6-6 259, but he still showed decent pass catching ability with upside and the Vikings clearly wanted him to be a part of their future.

Now his future looks a little bleaker. Rudolph only missed 1 game with injury in the first 2 seasons of his career, after an injury riddled tenure at Notre Dame that caused him to fall out of the first round, but he’s missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player even when on the field. He’s going into his age 26 season so a bounce back year that gets his career back on track is still a possibility, but he’s hard to trust.

In his absence, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford played 564 and 345 snaps respectively. Ellison is a fullback by trade (and a very good one) but moved to tight end out of desperation. He wasn’t bad, but he did struggle and ultimately proved he’s more valuable at fullback, where he graded out 4th as a 4th round rookie in 2012 and 8th in 2013. With another talented fullback Jerome Felton gone, Ellison should move back to his old spot, where he could see a fair amount of action, even as a situational player. Ford, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 151 snaps in 2013 and then on 345 in 2014. He’ll compete with 5th round rookie MyCole Pruitt for the #2 job and he should be the heavy favorite.

Greg Jennings has been the Vikings’ leading receiver in each of the past two seasons. However, he’s never put up very big numbers 68/804/4 in 2013 and 59/742/6 in 2014, which is disappointing, considering the Vikings brought him in to be a difference maker in the receiving corps, when they gave him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago. Part of that was quarterback play and he didn’t grade out below average in either season, but the Vikings made the right move releasing him this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season in 2015. That move saved the Vikings 9 million in cash, 5 million of which immediately comes off their cap. The Vikings ended up paying him 18 million over 2 years.

The problem is the Vikings didn’t spend that 9 million in freed up money well, as they traded a late round pick to the Dolphins for Mike Wallace and his 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015. The Dolphins probably would have outright released him if the Vikings hadn’t traded for him, even though he still had 3 million in guaranteed money left on his deal that they would have had to pay either way. There’s a reason why the Dolphins were trying to get rid of Wallace so badly. Wallace is a solid receiver, but his last 1000+ yard year was in 2011, also the last season he graded out above average.

In his final year in Pittsburgh in 2012, he held out long into the off-season, which caused him to have a horrible season. His 64/836/8 slash line wasn’t terrible, but he caught just 55.2% of his targets and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. That didn’t stop the Dolphins from giving Wallace a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal two off-season ago and he predictably didn’t live up to it, grading out below average in both seasons, putting up slash lines of 73/930/5 and 67/862/10, and reportedly quitting on his team on multiple occasions. He’s younger than Jennings and fits well into offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, but I don’t think he’s necessarily an upgrade. He’s an average starting wide receiver and someone who should not be your #1 receiver, which he’ll be in Minnesota.

Opposite him, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson will compete for the starting job. Patterson was brought in during the same off-season as Jennings and the Vikings expected them to turn around their receiving corps and play together long-term. That really didn’t work out, as Patterson looks like a bust through 2 years in the league and Jennings is gone. Patterson has provided some value, but not doing things that wide receivers are supposed to do. He’s averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return on 77 kickoff returns, with 1 touchdown. He’s rushed for 275 yards and 4 touchdowns on 22 carries. However, he hasn’t graded out above average as a receiver in either season and has only caught 78 passes on 130 targets (60.0%) for 853 yards and 5 touchdowns on 656 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run.

Patterson spent most of his rookie year behind journeyman Jerome Simpson, won the starting job late in the season, started 2014 as the starter, but struggled and lost his starting job to the unproven Charles Johnson. Now and he Johnson will compete for the starting job opposite Wallace and it’s very possible that Johnson, who is well liked by the coaching staff, wins that job. That would push Patterson into possibly the #4 wide receiver job, working in on offense as primarily a gadget player and specializing in returning kickoffs.

Johnson didn’t play a snap as a 7th round rookie in Cleveland in 2013, but ended up starting the final 6 games of the 2014 season for the Vikings and playing 451 snaps. His numbers in those final 6 games are solid, as he caught 19 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns, but that was largely to do with Teddy Bridgewater’s play over those 6 games, as Johnson still graded out below average on the season. Even over those final 6 games, Johnson only caught 19 of 36 passes (52.8%). As I mentioned, the coaching staff likes him and his size (6-2 215), but he’s not guaranteed to ever develop into a solid starter or anything beyond a situational deep threat.

Jairus Wright is probably locked into the slot job regardless. The 5-10 180 pounder couldn’t make a living outside, but does a decent job on the slot and should remain there. He’s not a spectacular player, only grading out above average once in 3 years in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, but he’s caught 90 passes on 137 targets (65.7%) for 1332 yards and 7 touchdowns on 805 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Expect more of the same from him this season. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of unresolved issues, holding back an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ defense wasn’t great in 2014, as they finished 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed, but they were noticeably better than 2015, when they finished 30th in that aspect. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Mike Zimmer’s history and background. Zimmer spent a whopping 14 years at the defensive coordinator level and did a great job across 3 stops, Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. When the Vikings hired him as their head coach last off-season, it was long overdue and the results were immediately noticeable, even if it didn’t get the team into the playoffs right away. The Vikings were helped by having the 3rd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season, something they won’t be able to count on again, but they have a good enough mix of talent and coaching where they can overcome that. With Zimmer and Bridgewater in the fold, the Vikings seem to finally have quarterback/head coach stability that they can build around.

Like on offense, the Vikings benefitted significantly from a first round rookie on defense, as 9th overall pick Anthony Barr contributed in a big way as a rookie, great to see from a guy regarded as really raw coming out of UCLA. He’s only going into his age 23 season and only his 4th season on offense after spending the first 2 seasons of his collegiate career as a fullback. He wowed at the Combine running a 4.66 40 at 6-5 255, looking like a running back in a pass rusher’s body, and he has a great future after such a strong rookie year. He ranked 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie, largely playing as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, dropping into coverage on 340 of 455 pass play snaps. With minimal depth on the defensive line, Barr could play more of a hybrid role this season, rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages, while staying at 4-3 outside linebacker in sub packages. He was much more effective as a pass rusher than he was in coverage as a rookie, and predictably so.

The Vikings were also helped by a breakout year from 4-3 defensive end Everson Griffen. The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons.

One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one. Griffen has experience playing defensive tackle in sub packages and he has the size to do it effectively at 6-3 273 so he could do that more this season, with Barr rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages.

One of the weaknesses of the Vikings’ defense last season was the other starting defensive end, Brian Robison. Kept long-term instead of Jared Allen, the Vikings gave Robison a 4-year, 22.4 million dollar extension during the 2013 season, but he bombed in 2014, grading out 52nd among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Going into his age 32 season, it’s very possible that his best days are behind him. He graded out above average in every season from 2008-2013, both as a starter and a backup, so there’s definitely bounce back potential here, but he can’t be allowed to play 932 snaps (5th at the position) again in 2015.

The Vikings should give Barr more pass rush snaps and should use 2014 3rd round pick Scott Crichton in a larger capacity, after he played just 16 nondescript snaps as a rookie. They also added Danielle Hunter in the 3rd round of the draft this year. Robison will need a good year to stay on the roster at his scheduled 4.05 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. At the very least, the Vikings will have better depth at defensive end than last season, when Corey Wootton was their 3rd defensive end. He played just 275 snaps, but still was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite the limited playing time. No one graded out worse at the position on fewer snaps.

Along with Everson Griffen and the rookie Barr, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd also had a breakout year in 2014, in his first year in Mike Zimmer’s system. The 2013 1st round pick graded out below average on 472 snaps as a rookie, but he lived up to his billing and then some in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. The 6-3 305 pounder seems to be Mike Zimmer’s new Geno Atkins. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has a ton of talent and is in a great system for his abilities. Only going into his age 24 season, he could even be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be more in the 700-800 snap range as an every down player.

Linval Joseph is the other starter. He signed a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal last off-season and played solid in his first season in Minnesota, grading out above average on 743 snaps. The 2010 2nd round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, maxing out at 24th among defensive tackles (2013), after grading out below average in each of the first 3 years in his career. He’s a solid, but unspectacular starter. The 6-4 328 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but he’s not useless on passing downs either. If Griffen plays inside on passing downs more this season, it would probably be at the expense of Joseph.

Tom Johnson was re-signed this off-season to a 3-year, 7 million dollar deal and will return as a talented reserve. Johnson graded out 23rd among defensive tackles on just 444 snaps as a reserve in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and has never graded out above average in his career prior to last season, dating back to when he went undrafted in 2006, so he’s unlikely to be as good again. Shamar Stephen, meanwhile, was the 4th defensive tackle last season as a 7th round rookie and he played like a 7th round rookie, grading out 67th among 81 defensive tackles on just 414 snaps played. With Griffen expected to line up inside more often this season and Floyd expected to play more snaps, Stephen should rightfully have his role reduced this season. It’s a strong defensive line, with the exception of the declining Robison. It’ll help to not have guys like Shamar and Wootton playing significant roles.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One of the reasons the Vikings figure to be deeper on the defensive line this season, a big problem for them last season, is because Barr is expected to play more at defensive end. That’s only possible because they probably will have a middle linebacker capable of playing every down this season, freeing up Barr to play defensive end in sub packages. That middle linebacker is Eric Kendricks, a 2nd round rookie. He might not be great as a rookie, but he’s not as limited of a player as Jasper Brinkley, their starting middle linebacker last season. Brinkley graded out above average among middle linebackers, including 8th against the run, but really struggled in coverage and played just 471 snaps as a result. He’ll be missed against the run, but Kendricks is a much more versatile player with greater upside.

Chad Greenway has been an every down starting outside linebacker since the Vikings drafted him in the 1st round in 2007, making 124 of 128 starts in 8 seasons in the league, missing the first 4 games of his career only last season. However, he could lose his starting job to youngster Gerald Hodges. Greenway almost got cut this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 7.1 million in his contract year in 2015, and only was brought back when he agreed to a 3.1 million dollar pay cut. Greenway signed a 5-year, 40.6 million dollar deal after the 2010 season, but he hasn’t graded out above average since then. He’s been especially bad over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013 and their 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014.

Going into his age 32 season, it sounds like the Vikings are finally going to stop giving him too much credit for past performance and his starting job could be in jeopardy as a result. If it’s a fair competition battle, Hodges should be the starter, but that might not be the case. Hodges is unproven, but the 2013 4th round pick played 495 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. Most of those snaps came when Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway were hurt last season and played great, grading out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. He’s better than Greenway, but the Vikings may continue giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt, to their own peril. With a rookie inside, Anthony Barr will be the only saving grace of this linebacking corps if Hodges doesn’t start and he’s only going to play there in base packages, with Kendricks, Greenway/Hodges playing every down.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was strong last season. Their top-5 defensive backs (3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties) all graded out above average and they missed a combined 1 game, as part of a defense that had great luck with injuries in 2014. Despite that, the Vikings still felt like they needed to upgrade the secondary, adding veteran Terence Newman and rookie first round pick Trae Waynes to the mix. The former is going into his age 37 season and coming off of a down season in which he graded out below average.

However, he’s been with Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati and has always played better with Zimmer around. Newman had his career revived once before by Zimmer, grading out above average as recently as 2012 and 2013, despite ranking 96th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks in 2011 in his final season in Dallas. It’s also possible that he’s just done as a quality player in the league at his age. He’s reportedly the favorite for the starting job right now over the rookie and he’ll make a decent amount of money this season (2.5 million), but Waynes should overtake him in the starting lineup sooner or later.

With Newman or Waynes occupying one starting spot, Captain Munnerlyn, who started all 16 games last season, will be pushed to the 3rd cornerback job and will be purely a slot specialist in sub packages. The 2008 7th round pick has played well in recent years, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, and 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at 10th among cornerbacks in 2013. He’s also made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. However, the 5-8 186 pounder does have some issues with bigger wide receivers outside and does his best work on the slot as a result. Over the past 3 years, he’s allowed 1.39 yards per coverage snap outside and 1.08 yards per coverage snap on the slot. He should be a good slot cornerback, with the loser of the Newman/Waynes battle falling to 4th on the depth chart.

Josh Robinson was the 3rd cornerback last season, but, with Newman and Waynes coming in, he seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff and will serve as nothing more than strong, experienced depth as the 5th cornerback. Robinson played alright last season, grading out above average in his 3rd year in the league, after going in the 3rd round in 2012. However, maybe the Vikings are right for still not trusting him, after he graded out 109th among 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012 and 99th among 110 eligible in 2013. On top of that, he tore his pectoral earlier this month and could miss a significant portion of the season as a result, but that won’t really matter because of all the talent the Vikings have in front of him on the depth chart.

The one thing that remains the same at cornerback is that Xavier Rhodes will once again be their #1 cornerback. A first round pick in 2013, Rhodes impressed on 686 snaps as a rookie and then was even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. He struggled against the run and committed 12 penalties, but ranked 14th among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade, allowing 53.0% completion, 6.34 YPA, and deflecting 15 passes (2nd at the position). Rhodes could be even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015, only his age 25 season.

He’s one of 8 first round picks the Vikings have made over the past 4 seasons, thanks to a series of trades back up into the end of the first round, and the 1st rounder they got from Seattle for Percy Harvin, which was a steal by the Vikings. Constantly trading back up into the first round was a risky strategy that could have really backfired if they missed on a bunch of those picks, but they have generally done well with these 8 first rounders (Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Cordarelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Trae Waynes) and that’s a huge part of the reason why the team is on the up.

Harrison Smith might be the best of the bunch, which is saying something. The talented safety shook off a sophomore season in 2013 in which he graded out below average and missed 8 games with injury, by playing all 16 games and grading out 2nd among safeties in 2014. He played at an All-Pro level and he’s not a one-year wonder either. His 2013 wasn’t great, but he played all 16 games and ranked 19th at his position in 2012. The Vikings made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year rookie option this off-season (another benefit of moving up into the first round to grab him) and hope that he continues this kind of top level play into his age 26 season in 2015 and beyond. They’ll try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year and it could rival or even surpass deals given to Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 48.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million). He’s one of the best safeties in the NFL.

At the other safety spot is another safety from the 2012 draft class, but a much more unheralded one. Robert Blanton was a 5th round pick in 2012 and was actually a teammate of Smith’s at Notre Dame, where Blanton played cornerback. Blanton flashed on 59 snaps as a rookie and then 405 snaps in 2013 (grading out above average both times) before winning the starting safety job in 2014, making 15 starts and grading out 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a one-year wonder, but I see no reason he couldn’t continue being at least a solid starter, considering he’s always played well when given a chance. Another strong season would set him up for a significant payday in free agency next off-season, assuming the Vikings are unable to lock him up beforehand.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Vikings were fairly mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, en route to a 7-9 finish and a 27th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential. However, they should be better on both sides of the ball this season. They’ll have Teddy Bridgewater under center for the full season this year and he could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league. On top of that, Adrian Peterson will be back and they should have fewer injuries on the offensive line.

On defense, they won’t be able to count on fewer injuries and will probably have more, but they have a lot of young talent and they should work in more fitting roles this season. Their defense was largely brought down by players like Brian Robison, Shamar Stephens, Corey Wootton, and Chad Greenway. The first 3 should definitely play smaller roles this season and Greenway could as well. This team still has weaknesses in the receiving corps and the linebacking corps, but they have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC. Whether or not they make the playoffs and how far they go once they get there is largely going to be on Teddy Bridgewater, but things are looking up and the future looks bright. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Vikings after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 3rd in NFC North

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