Minnesota Vikings 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Minnesota Vikings finished the 2013 season 5-10-1 and among the worst teams in the NFL. However, it’s been a steady climb for them over the past 2 seasons, culminating with a 2015 NFC North title, on the strength of an 11-5 record.  Easily the two biggest reasons for the Vikings’ improvement in recent years were added the off-season after that 5-win 2013 season, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and head coach Mike Zimmer. I’ll get into more about Zimmer in the defensive section, because the long-time NFL defensive coordinator has made his biggest impact on that side of the ball, but Zimmer was a very savvy hire, as he’s respected around the league and had been successful as a defensive coordinator in 14 seasons with 3 teams prior to becoming the head man in Minnesota. How it took him this long to get a look as a head coach is beyond me and the rest of the league’s loss has been Minnesota’s gain.

The same is true of Bridgewater in a sense. He fell in the draft because of concerns about his arm strength, but the Vikings traded back up into the first round and grabbed Bridgewater at #32 overall, after the likes of Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel (lol). Through 2 seasons, Bridgewater was certainly rewarding them, as he made 28 starts in the last 2 seasons, including all 16 last season. His raw numbers don’t jump out, as he’s completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions in 2 seasons in the league, but he played better than his numbers. His production was largely kept down by a weak receiving corps.

Going into 2016, the Vikings had the look of a team on the cusp of being great, with one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. However, they were dealt a significant blow this August when Bridgewater suffered a brutal knee injury, tearing his ACL, dislocating his kneecap, and getting knocked out for the season with less than 2 weeks before the start of the season. Bridgewater is reportedly not only out for 2016, but there are real concerns about his ability to be healthy for 2017 as well. Given that, it’s no surprise they made a desperation move on the season’s eve, trading a 2017 1st round pick and a conditional 2018 pick to the Eagles for starting quarterback Sam Bradford, 8 days before their week 1 game.

Bradford was expendable in Philadelphia because they already had veteran quarterback Chase Daniel and rookie #2 overall pick Carson Wentz, but he’s an obvious upgrade in Minnesota over backup Shaun Hill.  Going into his age 36 season, Hill has played well enough in his career to still be around at this point, but his numbers weren’t great in his last significant action in 2014 (63.3% completion, 7.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) and now he’s two years older. Hill may still start the first couple weeks of the season as Bradford learns the playbook, but they paid a lot to get Bradford so he’ll be on the field sooner rather than later.

How he’ll fare in Minnesota after spending the whole off-season in Philadelphia is a legitimate concern, but, on paper, Bradford appears to be a capable replacement for Bridgewater. Neither quarterback has a great arm, but Bradford actually finished one spot higher than Bridgewater last season on Pro Football Focus (12th vs. 13th) and his numbers were comparable as well, as he completed 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. They paid a lot for him, but this is a talented team that can win now and the Vikings didn’t want to pass on an opportunity to get a quarterback who can win a Super Bowl with enough supporting talent. That’s simply not what Hill was.

The good news is this is not a team built around the pass. They passed just 454 times last season. For comparison sake, the Saints completed more passes than the Vikings attempted last season. They joined the Seahawks, Panthers, and Bills as the only teams in the league who ran more often than they passed. Even though Bradford isn’t quite nearly as mobile as Bridgewater (who took off 44 times last season), that should continue in 2016. They have a strong defense supporting them and one of the best running backs in the NFL in Adrian Peterson.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

With a strong overall roster, wide receiver was easily the Vikings’ biggest need going into the off-season and they predictably addressed it in the first round by taking Mississippi wide receiver LaQuon Treadwell 23rd overall. Treadwell might not enter the season as the starter, as he’ll face competition from veterans Charles Johnson and Adam Thielman, but will likely have a significant role by the middle of the season. Johnson and Thielman have just 40 and 20 career catches respectively in 3 seasons in the league. Johnson went in the 7th round in 2013 and Thielman went undrafted, so it’s not like either was a hot commodity coming out of school. Treadwell has much higher upside than both.

Johnson is reportedly the favorite to open the season as the starter though, unsurprising considering rookie receivers sometimes take a little bit to adjust to the speed of the NFL. Johnson would start opposite 2nd year receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs isn’t a true #1 receiver, but he was a steal in the 5th round last year. Despite only playing 13 games and starting just 9 of them, Diggs led the team in receiving with 52 catches for 720 yards and 4 touchdowns on 371 routes run and finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, higher than fellow rookie Amari Cooper, who had better numbers, but saw many more targets and ran many more routes. He and Treadwell are still unproven and inexperienced, but make a nice, young duo with good upside.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph is also a factor in the passing game, but injuries remain a concern for him. He played all 16 games last season, but missed 15 games with injury in 2013 and 2014. Rudolph finished 13th among tight ends in each of the first 2 years in his career, especially excelling as a run blocker, but wasn’t the same even when he was on the field in 2013 and 2014 and fell to 23rd among tight ends (out of 67 eligible) in 2015. That’s not terrible and he’s still only going into his age 27 season, but the Vikings probably expected more when they gave him a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago.

Rhett Ellison has been the #2 tight end for the past couple seasons, but he tore his patellar tendon in January. That’s as serious as a knee injury can be. In fact, no one has come back the same from the injury in recent memory and it has ended several careers. He’s highly unlikely to be ready for week 1, just 8 months after the injury, and could easily miss the entire season. That leaves 2015 5th round pick Mycole Pruitt (who played 242 nondescript snaps as a rookie) to compete for 6th round rookie David Morgan for the #2 job. It’s an improved receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Vikings will rely heavily on Adrian Peterson and this running game in Bridgewater’s absence. Peterson ranked just 27th among running backs on Pro Football Focus last season, but that’s largely because of his deficiencies on passing downs. He ranked 8th at the position in pure run grade, rushing for 1485 yards and 11 touchdowns on 327 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. In a league where 300+ carry running backs are almost a thing of the past, Peterson led the league and had 39 more carries than anyone else. With offensive coordinator Norv Turner being a very traditional guy and Peterson being who he is, I don’t expect his usage to change much.

The one concern is age for Peterson, as he goes into his age 31 season with 2381 career carries. He ranks 17th all-time in rushing yards with 11,675, 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. Peterson is no ordinary running back, but neither is the average Hall-of-Famer, so most likely Peterson is entering the final 2-3 good seasons of his career, even if he doesn’t look like it. I’d be surprised if his abilities fell off a cliff this season though.

Peterson has always struggled on passing downs and taking him off the field in more passing situations could be a good way to keep Peterson fresher. That would give more playing time to backup Jerrick McKinnon. McKinnon has just 165 carries in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2014, but he’s rushed for 809 yards on those carries, an average of 4.93 YPC, and has been solid in the passing game as well, adding 48 catches for another 308 yards. He’ll remain the primary backup to Peterson and could see an increase in snaps, especially in obvious passing situations. Peterson and McKinnon are a strong duo on what should remain a run heavy team.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Another reason why this should remain a run heavy team is the fact that the offensive line is much better at run blocking than they are in pass protection. Despite only 454 pass attempts, the Vikings allowed 45 sacks, but part of that was Bridgewater holding onto the ball too long and the offensive line also frequently opened holes for the running game. Their best offensive lineman last season was center Joe Berger, who finished 2nd among centers on Pro Football Focus. That’s surprising considering he had made 38 starts in just 10 seasons in the league prior to last season. However, he’s always played well whenever he’s had a chance, grading out above average in every season in which he’s played since Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007. Even going into his age 34 season, he has a chance to be a good player again in 2016.

Berger wasn’t even supposed to be in the starting lineup last season and only took over when long-time center John Sullivan injured his back before the season and ended up missing the whole year. Sullivan was with the Vikings for most of this off-season, but ultimately got cut, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2016. Berger is a pretty center right now than Sullivan, but they may regret cutting Sullivan. They could have easily kept Sullivan and moved Berger to guard, where he’s actually spent most of his career.

Sullivan is a great player when healthy and doesn’t have an injury history, making 63 starts from 2011-2014 and grading out in the top-12 among centers in all 4 seasons and in the top-3 in 3 of those 4 seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, coming off of a major injury, he’ll be missed. Instead of keeping Sullivan and moving Berger to left guard or starting incumbent left guard Mike Harris (Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2015), who they re-signed for 2 million over 1 year this off-season, the Vikings brought in free agent right guard Alex Boone and will move incumbent right guard Brandon Fusco to left guard.

Fusco and Boone are not bad guards, but they’re not great either. Fusco was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard in 2013, but has proven to be a one-year wonder, grading out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, making 59 starts over that period of time. He’s a solid starter, but an unspectacular player. The same is true of Boone, who was Pro Football Focus 3rd ranked guard in 2012, but has finished 39th, 18th, and 38th in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. He was overpaid on a 4-year, 26.8 million dollar deal by a team that didn’t seem to need him.

The Vikings’ starting offensive tackles are equally uninspiring. Ex-Bengal Andre Smith was brought in to be the starter on the right side, signing for 3.5 million over 1 year as a free agent this off-season. Smith was a 45-game starter for the Bengals at right tackle from 2011-2013, finishing in the top-28 among offensive tackles in all 3 seasons, but has been limited to 22 games by injury over the past 2 seasons and has graded out below average in both seasons, including 56th out of 77 eligible in 2015. Going into his age 29 season, his best days are likely behind him and he’s reportedly not having a good off-season.

As a result, TJ Clemmings, who is technically the incumbent after making 16 starts as a 5th round rookie in 2015, could beat out Smith, the heavy favorite when he signed. Clemmings predictably struggled as a rookie, finishing 62nd out of 77 eligible offensive tackles and was only in the starting lineup because the now retired Phil Loadholt got injured. Smith ought to be able to beat him out and if he can’t, it’s likely a bad sign for Smith’s career, rather than a good sign for Clemmings’ career.

With neither Clemmings or Smith capable of playing the left side effectively either, Matt Kalil is locked in at the position where he’s made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, since going 4th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Kalil looked worth the pick as a rookie, finishing 21st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he’s declined significantly since then, grading out below average in each of the past 3 seasons, including 46th in 2015. He’ll have another shot to turn it around in 2016, but I don’t have high expectations for him. It’s an overall underwhelming offensive line outside of center.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, long-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has had a profound impact on the Vikings’ defense since he took over as head coach prior to the 2014 season. He inherited a defense that finished 30th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 and has led them to finish 23rd in 2014 and 13th last season. Obviously, that’s not all Zimmer, but a young defense has come of age under his leadership. One player who is not young is 9-year veteran defensive end Brian Robison, who is going into his age 33 season. Despite that, he’s still coming off of a solid year, finishing slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, the 7th time he’s done that in 8 seasons in the league. However, his age is concerning and his rough 2014 season, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th worst 4-3 defensive end, could be a preview of things to come. At the same time, I would not be surprised if he had another solid year left in the tank.

Either way, Robison should see fewer snaps this season, as 2015 3rd round pick Danielle Hunter showed a lot of promise as a rookie, finishing 42nd among edge defenders on 426 snaps. He has the look of a future starter and should work in close to even rotation with Robison, which could help the veteran as he ages. Hunter’s emergence probably means that this is Robison’s final year in Minnesota. He’d be owed 5.6 million between salary and bonuses in 2016 under the current terms of his contract, likely too much for him at that stage in his career.

Everson Griffen remains as an every down starter on the opposite side and has made 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. He’s the perfect example of a player who has coming into his own under Zimmer. A 2010 4th round pick, Griffin started just 1 game in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2010-2013 and, while he had flashed in limited action as a rotational reserve at both defensive end and defensive tackle, he never finished higher than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. That jumped to 8th in 2014 and then he finished 20th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2015. The Vikings may not have had to pay him 42.5 million over 5 years to keep him as a free agent two off-seasons ago, but he’s certainly been worth it over the past 2 years of the deal.

Griffen still rushes the passer from the interior from time to time, which opens up more pass rush snaps for guys like Hunter and outside linebacker Anthony Barr (more on him later). However, the Vikings have a pretty good situation at defensive tackle, where Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd return as starters. Joseph had an outstanding year in 2015, finishing 3rd among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. However, that’s pretty out of character for him, as he had never finished higher than 24th in 5 seasons in the league. He’ll likely never have a season as good as he did last season again, but he’s an obvious asset upfront for the Vikings.

Floyd on the other hand, had a great 2014 season, but was much more middle of the pack in 2015. Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in 2014, Floyd finished 50th out of 123 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2015. Only going into his age 25 season, the 2013 1st round pick has a higher upside than Joseph, but both are more than solid starters at the position. The issue is depth, as Tom Johnson, a declining player going into his age 32 season, is their only real depth at the position.

Johnson was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle on 444 snaps in 2014, but that’s the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average. He finished 81st out of 123 eligible defensive tackles in 2015. With few needs, I was surprised the Vikings didn’t add a young defensive tackle in the draft. They have 2014 7th round pick Shamar Stephen, but he struggled mightily on 414 snaps as a rookie in 2014. Still, it’s obviously a deep defensive line across the board.

Grade: A

Linebackers

As I mentioned, outside linebacker Anthony Barr occasionally rushes the passer as a defensive end in sub packages, especially in dime packages when the Vikings only use 1 linebacker. He’s primarily a coverage linebacker in pass situations, but excels in all 3 phases of the game, rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, and stopping the run. He finished 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014 and then 2nd among all linebackers (behind Carolina’s Luke Kuechly) in 2015.

A rare athlete at 6-5 255, Barr has only been playing defense for 5 seasons (spending his first 2 seasons at UCLA as a fullback/running back). Only going into his age 24 season, the sky’s the limit for the 2014 9th overall pick. As valuable as the addition of Bridgewater at 32 was to their offense, the addition of Barr at 9 in that same draft has been equally valuable to this defense. By adding Barr, Bridgewater, and Zimmer, the foundation for last year’s playoff run was established 2 off-seasons ago.

The rest of the linebacking corps is not as good. Second year player Eric Kendricks starts every down in the middle again. He struggled as a rookie, finishing 56th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but the Vikings are obviously giving him another shot and hoping the 2nd round pick can take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league. On the other side, Chad Greenway has made 135 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but is a shell of himself going into his age 33 season and looks at about the end of the road. He’s graded out below average in 5 straight seasons, including 61th out of 97 eligible linebackers last season.

He’ll face competition from free agent acquisition Emmanuel Lamur, but he’s not really any better; there’s a reason the Vikings were able to get him for only 5.5 million over 2 years. He’s made 15 starts over the past 2 seasons, but finished 39th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014 and 82nd out of 97 eligible linebackers last season, even worse than Greenway. He’s best off as a reserve, but he could be pressed into a starting role. Fortunately, it’s a purely base package role, so whoever wins the job won’t play more than half the snaps and will come off the field for a 5th defensive line in sub packages. Barr elevates the group a lot by himself, but the unit has problems.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Vikings may be overall a young defense and have 5 players on defense drafted in the 1st round since 2012 (Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, and 3 defensive backs, who I’ll get into in a minute), but they also have the 2nd oldest defensive player in the league (behind Pittsburgh’s James Harrison) in Terence Newman, who is heading into his age 38 season. Newman still played well last season, making 16 starts and grading out above average for the 3rd time in the last 4 seasons, but it’s hard to rely on someone his age. Given that the Vikings used their 1st round pick on Trae Waynes in 2015 and their 2nd round pick on Mackensie Alexander in 2016, Newman will have plenty of competition for his job and probably won’t play as many snaps as he did in 2015.

Waynes and Alexander might not have big roles though. Waynes barely played as a rookie, playing pretty well on 215 snaps, and the Vikings didn’t lose any cornerbacks this off-season. In fact, they gained one with the addition of Alexander. Alexander was a great value in the late 2nd round, as most expected him to be a top-40 pick. A more natural slot cornerback than Waynes, Alexander will likely compete with incumbent slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for the slot cornerback job, while Waynes competes for snaps outside with Newman.

Don’t expect Alexander to win that battle though, as Munnerlyn was arguably the Vikings’ top cornerback last season, finishing 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, primarily playing on the slot, where he excels. He’s given up less than 1.1 yards per route run on the slot over the past 3 seasons. Though he’s undersized at 5-9 195, he can also play outside if needed and has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at 10th overall in 2013 with the Panthers. Alexander will likely have to wait until next season to see much playing time. Munnerlyn is a free agent at the end of the season.

The only cornerback locked into his current role is Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 1st round pick who has started 32 games over the past 2 seasons. He’s graded out above average in 3 seasons in the league, but has never finished higher than 21st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and fell to 58th in a down year in 2015. His biggest issue has always been penalties, as he’s committed 22 in the last 2 seasons combined. Going into his 4th year in the league and his age 26 season, the Vikings are hoping he can cut down on the penalties and put it all together. The Vikings may not have a true #1 cornerback, but they have ridiculous depth at the cornerback position.

Along with Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes, the 5th defensive player the Vikings have drafted in the first round since 2012 is Harrison Smith, who might be the best of the bunch. It’s close between Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith for the Vikings’ most valuable defensive player, but both are All-Pro caliber players who are among the best in the league at their respective positions. Smith was Pro Football Focus #2 ranked safety in 2014 and them moved up to #1 in 2015. The Vikings gave him a well-deserved 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, making him the 3rd highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.

Things are not as good at the other safety position. The Vikings mentioned several times publicly this off-season that they wanted to add a big-time safety this off-season, which made sense, given that incumbent Andrew Sendejo struggled mightily last season (finishing 85th out of 89 eligible safeties) and given that they had few other needs and adequate cap space with which to work. Instead, before free agency even started, they ended up re-signing Sendejo to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal. The Vikings did add Michael Griffin on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal, but the veteran didn’t even make the final roster, despite a $750,000 signing bonus. It’s a position of weakness in an overall strong secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

I’ve had to change Minnesota’s season preview twice this week, first for the injury to Bridgewater then for the trade for Bradford. On paper, Bradford and Bridgewater are incredibly similar players, so the Vikings have a good chance to make the playoffs again, but it’s tough to know how Bradford will fare, being brought in with just 8 days to go until the start of the season. This is a talented team that’s built around their running game and defense, which makes life easier for Bradford, but they’re not a lock to return to the post-season.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC North

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