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How soon will first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater take over at quarterback for the Vikings?
General Manager Rick Spielman created 13 categories that he thought described a successful NFL coach. He identified 10 preferred candidates, interviewed seven and fell in love, professionally speaking, with just one. “It’s like when I met my wife,” he said. “You just know.”
Mike Zimmer, the self-proclaimed “fixer” and first-time head coach at any level, replaces the fired Leslie Frazier. And, boy, does he ever have some fixing to do after a 5–10–1 season that featured the league’s worst scoring defense and a three-headed fiasco at quarterback. Zimmer and Spielman immediately infused the defense with youth and depth, signing five unrestricted free agents before spending seven of their 10 draft picks on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Norv Turner has been entrusted with maximizing a group of talented players and a less-than-ideal quarterback situation that already looks more promising with the franchise-wide acceptance that Christian Ponder never will be a franchise quarterback.
The Ponder experiment is over. Matt Cassel, who had opted out of the second year of his original contract with the Vikings, re-signed in part because he trusts that Turner and Zimmer are committed to him as the starter. That wasn’t the case last year when the Vikings waffled between Ponder, Cassel and Josh Freeman despite obvious examples that Cassel, though not great by any stretch, had the most poise, courage to throw the deep ball and overall success (a 3–3 record).
Ponder will start only if Cassel is injured. And even that would depend on whether rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater is ready or not. Ideally, the Vikings want Cassel to be a one-year bridge and then back up Bridgewater in 2015.
Unlike former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Turner can be counted on to not only groom a young quarterback, but also produce a creative and diverse offense. He’s proven over decades that he gets the most out of quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends while still being able to satisfy Hall of Fame-caliber running backs. And, of course, Adrian Peterson will remain the focal point of the Vikings’ play-action, run-first attack.
Musgrave’s approach was simple, predictable and puzzling in that it failed to incorporate obvious superstar-in-waiting receiver Cordarrelle Patterson until the team’s season had already collapsed. Patterson, an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last year, will excel in Turner’s offense even though it’s more complex and he’s still a bit raw as a route-runner.
Up front, the offensive line underachieved last season and needs to live up to the level one would expect of a unit that’s still young and enters its third season intact. Left tackle Matt Kalil, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, had too many lapses in his second season. Left guard Charlie Johnson struggled and may be challenged by younger players.
Peterson is 29 and has had knee, hernia and groin surgeries the past three years. But he looks ready to surpass his 1,266-yard effort from 2013. Peterson will get some help from rookie Jerick McKinnon, the kind of third-down, change-of-pace back Turner likes.
The Vikings have played a Cover-2 base defense since 2006. Zimmer, meanwhile, has displayed admirable versatility throughout his career. He’s a 4-3 guy who has posted top-10 defenses using his own 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 alignment he learned working for Bill Parcells.
The selection of UCLA’s Anthony Barr ninth overall fills a huge need at strong-side linebacker and will be a key ingredient as Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards transform the Vikings into a more unpredictable unit capable of easily mixing fronts, coverages and blitz packages. Barr, who has played linebacker for only two years, is raw, but his 6'5", 255-pound frame comes with unusual length, speed and cornerback-caliber agility. He’s a natural rusher from the up or down positions and has the skills to cover the seam downfield, which has been a weakness for the Vikings.
Up front, the Vikings said goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams and hello to a dramatic youth movement. Everson Griffen, 26, steps in for Allen after four years as an heir apparent. He possesses a freakish combination of speed, size, position flexibility and potential. Meanwhile, Sharrif Floyd, who had a nondescript rookie season, takes over for Williams and will be given a chance to live up to being a 23rd overall pick. Linval Joseph, 25, moves in at nose tackle, giving the Vikings their first legitimately sized nose since Pat Williams in 2010.
In the secondary, Spielman is finally starting to assemble a solid unit after the team experienced some bad misses in the draft. Free safety Harrison Smith, a first-round pick in 2012, is instinctive, fast, physical and will be an All-Pro one day if he stays healthy. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is a potential Pro Bowler who needs to prove he can be durable.
Meanwhile, the other starting corner is Captain Munnerlyn, a prized free-agent signing and a huge upgrade over Chris Cook, who was a four-year disappointment on and off the field. Munnerlyn also can slide inside over the slot in the nickel, something Josh Robinson failed at last year when asked prematurely to fill that role after Antoine Winfield was cut in a salary cap move. Finding a suitable third corner on the current roster will test Zimmer’s reputation as “the fixer.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was one of Frazier’s three assistants retained by Zimmer. That’s because the Vikings are as good if not better top to bottom than any other team when it comes to special teams. Patterson, the kick returner, turned a ridiculous combination of size and speed into an NFL-leading 32.4-yard average and a league-record 109-yard return. Meanwhile, at punt returner, Marcus Sherels staved off being released and averaged a franchise-record 15.2 yards per return, good enough for second in the league.
Kicker Blair Walsh, an All-Pro as a rookie when he made a record 10-of-10 field goals of 50 yards or longer, struggled from long range last year (2-of-5), but he will be fine. Punter Jeff Locke was typically inconsistent as a rookie last year but should improve.
If turnovers aren’t an issue at quarterback, there’s enough firepower in Turner’s creative hands to maintain a balanced, run-oriented attack that highlights Peterson, camouflages Cassel and taps the potential of Patterson. Defensively, there’s more of a leap of faith required. How quickly can a unit that’s been overhauled with youth get up to speed in Zimmer’s system? The schedule-maker doesn’t give them much time with an opener on the road at St. Louis followed by games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, the latter on the road on a Thursday night. An 8–8 finish might be a nice place to start.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC North
(Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)