Young Teddy Bridgewater’s unusual composure and good old Mike Zimmer’s as-expected defensive acumen gave the Vikings a renewed sense of direction despite their 7–9 finish a year ago. Now comes the next step, which the Vikings will take with the full-on power of Adrian Peterson’s unbridled return to the NFL.
Bridgewater went 5–4 in his last nine games as a rookie quarterback, and Zimmer orchestrated a turnaround from last in scoring defense to 11th in his first year as a head coach. And they did it with 2012 NFL MVP Peterson missing all but the season opener as he dealt with the law and the league over injuries he inflicted while disciplining his 4-year-old son. So, despite Peterson’s reservations about returning to a team and a city he feels didn’t support him initially, the Vikings held him to his contract because they believe he can help carry Bridgewater past the verge of being something special.
“I think Teddy’s play gives fans hope,” Zimmer says. “Hopefully, they also like how we compete. There’s no question what Adrian gives us. But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Bridgewater didn’t become a starter until Week 3, so he hasn’t played with Peterson or enjoyed the steady diet of eight and nine defenders crowding the box. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, for one, can’t wait to get started.
Turner has had decades of success running an offense that melds John Robinson’s running game with the old Air Coryell route-numbering system. He’s expecting a return to greatness for the 30-year-old Peterson and a significant residual effect on Bridgewater and the play-action, deep-ball attack. That part of the offense struggled last year until Charles Johnson, who was claimed off of Cleveland’s practice squad, emerged late as the No. 1 receiver by default.
General manager Rick Spielman executed a low-risk trade, sending his extra fifth-round pick to Miami for moody receiver Mike Wallace. His contract contains no guaranteed money beyond this season, and room for his $9.9 million cap hit was created painlessly with the release of Greg Jennings, whose $11 million cap figure was outlandish for an aging player who could no longer consistently separate from defenders. If Wallace plays like he did in Pittsburgh, when he was the league’s fastest deep threat, the Vikings got a steal. If Wallace pouts like he did in Miami, the Vikings can remove the cancer before it infects teammates, particularly receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who took a big step backward last year and has been given numerous warnings to take his job more seriously.
The offensive line has been an overrated liability. Right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt return from injuries, while the pressure is intense on left tackle Matt Kalil, who blamed last year’s awful performances on preseason knee surgery. Left guard is undetermined and a big question mark. Veteran interior backup Joe Berger, who started nine games at right guard last year, is the safety net and an upgrade over Charlie Johnson, who was released. David Yankey is the preferred candidate, but the 2014 fifth-round pick wasn’t strong enough to play as a rookie. Center John Sullivan had one of his finest seasons a year ago.
At tight end, Turner still has high hopes for Kyle Rudolph, who has prototypical size and enough speed to be one of the league’s tougher mismatches. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to nine games last season and 17 over the past two years.
Meanwhile, the sense of excitement about the offense is rooted in the popular belief that the Vikings finally found a franchise quarterback. Poise, touch and adequate arm strength contributed to Bridgewater posting the third-best completion percentage (64.4) by a rookie in NFL history.
Zimmer’s first priority last year was transforming a reactionary Cover-2 scheme into an aggressive unit that attacked from multiple fronts and blitz packages. Initial results were encouraging as the unit ranked seventh in pass defense, but the 25th-ranked run defense disappointed often and needed more time for linemen to adjust to an unfamiliar scheme.
Four defenders have shown All-Pro potential, and all are younger than 28. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr (23) was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before suffering a knee injury. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (25) was shadowing No. 1 receivers with a swagger during a breakout season under Zimmer, a noted defensive backs whisperer. Safety Harrison Smith (26) was the team’s biggest Pro Bowl snub. And end Everson Griffen (27) had a career-high 12 sacks while justifying the team’s decision to let Jared Allen walk.
Spielman used the draft to add two more likely starters in cornerback Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks, who should become the team’s first three-down middle linebacker in years.
Backup tackle Tom Johnson posted a career-high 6.5 sacks as part of a deep rotation. Meanwhile, starter Sharrif Floyd had 43 quarterback hurries and will enjoy a breakout season once he stays healthy enough.
At linebacker, Barr is a three-down star with no limitations. Chad Greenway, 32, returns for a 10th season at outside linebacker. The coaches still value his experience and leadership but are likely to give Kendricks his reps in the nickel.
In the secondary, Waynes gives the Vikings a big cover corner, a must against the big receivers in the NFC North. With Waynes on board, Captain Munnerlyn can slide inside exclusively as the nickel back. Meanwhile, at strong safety, Robert Blanton won the job by default last summer but didn’t establish himself as a long-term solution. The preferred candidate to win the job this year is Antone Exum Jr., a second-year player who was converted to safety a year ago.
Two former Bengals — cornerback Terence Newman, who will be 37 when the season starts, and safety Taylor Mays — could start or contribute this season for Zimmer, their former defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
Kicker Blair Walsh’s accuracy was a career-low 74.3 percent as the Vikings moved outdoors to their temporary new home last season. But don’t fret. The 2012 first-team All-Pro remains a viable scoring threat from 50 yards and farther. And the team is moving back indoors in 2016. Punter Jeff Locke enters his third season still needing more consistency and precision on punts inside the 10-yard line. Patterson, who was All-Pro first team as a rookie kick returner in 2013, regressed there as well. Punt returner Marcus Sherels remains a safety blanket, but rookie Stefon Diggs could push Sherels for his roster spot.
Peterson could challenge 2,000 yards, while Bridgewater and the defense each hope to take another step. But whether the team can close the gap in its own division will be the big question. After all, the Vikings were 0–4 against Green Bay and Detroit and were the only team in the league not to beat an opponent with a winning record. And their schedule gets tougher with the NFC West and AFC West in the rotation. The Vikings are heading in the right direction and should be a playoff contender. Getting there and winning their first postseason game since the 2009 season could be another matter.