For the first time since 2006, the Vikings head into a season without Adrian Peterson as the face of their franchise and the engine that drives their offense. Considering that Peterson is 32 and averaged 1.9 yards per carry while missing 13 games a year ago, well, they were better off starting anew. After releasing Peterson, general manager Rick Spielman went to work restocking an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL during an injury-ravaged 2016 season that saw the Vikings lose eight of their last 11 games to miss the playoffs for the second time in coach Mike Zimmer’s three seasons.
Spielman gave $100 million to three prized offensive free agents — running back Latavius Murray and tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers — and used his top two draft picks on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook and Ohio State center Pat Elflein. Spielman signed only one defensive free agent and didn’t draft a defender until the fourth round, but the defensive-minded Zimmer was fine with that, saying, “I just want to win. And it’s very obvious that we need to improve offensively.”
After nine weeks of coordinating a hybrid offense on the fly after Norv Turner’s surprising resignation last November, Pat Shurmur has an entire offseason to install his own attack. He runs a West Coast system with a heavy dose of the shotgun looks that quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater prefer but Peterson struggled with.
At quarterback, Bradford is the undisputed starter in part because the Vikings believe Bridgewater will miss a second straight full season as he works his way back from the career-threatening knee injury suffered last August. Bradford was exceptional last season, arriving eight days before the regular season and setting an NFL record for completion percentage (71.6) while throwing only five interceptions. He was durable, quick-minded, smart with the football and steady in spite of losing Peterson in Week 2, both starting tackles by Week 6 and Turner heading into Week 8.
The key to the season is the offensive line. Again. A year after using 12 linemen, including five left tackles, the Vikings will start three new faces up front. Reiff and Remmers aren’t elite, but they’re young, durable and the best the Vikings could find with free agency and the draft so thin at tackle. Reiff was cast aside in Detroit for an upgrade and is moving from his more natural right tackle spot to left tackle. Elflein has some limitations athletically, but the third-rounder is strong and physical enough to start from Day 1 at center or right guard.
Murray and Cook improve the league’s worst running attack instantly. Murray is a big back who can pass protect and make people forget last year’s repeated failures in short-yardage situations. Cook is a three-down back with first-round talent who fell into the second round. He needs polish in pass protection and ball security, but he’s a home run threat.
Shurmur is a pass-oriented coach but has worked to change the team’s run-blocking schemes to include more outside zone plays that could benefit Murray and Cook. Zimmer is determined to run the ball to control the game and prevent a repeat of the plethora of three-and-outs that caused his defense to wear out down the stretch last season.
At receiver, the Vikings have two overachievers as starters in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Neither has the size of a typical No. 1 receiver, so it’s time for the underachiever in the room — 2016 first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell — to bounce back after an injury-marred season saw him start only one game and catch one pass.
The defense can be dominant, as it was while racking up 12 takeaways during the 5–0 start last year. Zimmer uses a 4-3 base but plays sub packages more than 60 percent of the time. His signature Double A-gap look puts offenses on the defensive because of all the different things the young playmakers can do out of that look.
A defense that ranked third in the NFL last year could be even better if 3-technique tackle Sharrif Floyd is able to bounce back from nerve damage in his knee. He missed 15 games last year and isn’t being counted on to return this year. The Vikings signed former Packers first-round draft pick Datone Jones, an end who the Vikings believe is better suited to play the penetrating 3-technique spot. Spielman also made Iowa tackle Jaleel Johnson the team’s first defender drafted. The fourth-rounder had 7.5 sacks a year ago and is stout enough to also hold the point of attack on the nose.
The line is the team’s strength. Right end Everson Griffen is the rare elite pass rusher who is doggedly determined enough to be a strong run stopper as well. Nose tackle Linval Joseph sets the tone with size, strength and lateral quickness. Left end could see a battle between steady 10-year veteran Brian Robison and rising superstar Danielle Hunter, who had 12.5 sacks last year as a situational pass rusher. Hunter overwhelms right tackles with freakish athleticism for a man that big and strong. Zimmer often moves Robison inside in passing situations and allows him to freelance from the standing position.
Linebacker in the sub packages is set with two 25-year-old three-down players in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Kendricks keeps getting better and has led the team in tackles during both of his seasons. Barr, meanwhile, has All-Pro potential but had a flat, no-flash season while coasting too often a year ago. He needs to step it up this year.
In the base defense, the Vikings are looking for someone to win the weak-side position vacated with Chad Greenway’s retirement. Emmanuel Lamur, who sometimes looked lost last year, is a candidate. So is rookie Ben Gedeon, who is limited athletically but would be primarily responsible for stopping the run in the base. Another option would be to move Kendricks to the weak side and let Kentrell Brothers play in the middle.
In the secondary, free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are Pro Bowlers with All-Pro potential. Smith is Zimmer’s most useful game-plan gadget because he can rush off the edge and cover deep. Rhodes is a big, long corner who continues to gain confidence and savvy as a guy who can shadow the opponent’s top receiver. On the other side is Terence Newman, who turns 39 before the season yet shows no signs of giving up the starting position. Trae Waynes, a first-round pick in 2014, has been groomed to take over the position but might have to wait another year. At strong safety, Andrew Sendejo can be a speed liability, but he’s an overachiever who plays foot to the floor at all times.
The biggest hole defensively could be at nickel back, where Captain Munnerlyn left via free agency. The Vikings drafted his heir apparent, Mackensie Alexander, in the second round a year ago. Alexander has skills and instincts but is raw and immature.
There will be a new punter, holder and kick returner. The latter could see a big drop-off; Cordarrelle Patterson left after leading the league in kick returns in three of the past four seasons. The top contenders to replace him are third-day draft picks who play receiver — Rodney Adams, a fifth-round pick from South Florida, and Stacy Coley, a seventh-round pick from Miami (Fla.) who is a sub-4.5 runner. Punter and holder Jeff Locke moved on to Indianapolis in free agency. But after four mostly inconsistent years, it was time for a change. Ryan Quigley, who punted for the Cardinals last season, will get the first shot. Meanwhile, punt returner remains stress-free with underrated Marcus Sherels back for another season. Kicker also was stress-free last year after Kai Forbath replaced Blair Walsh. But Forbath has never lasted long in his previous NFL stints.
The offensive line and running game should be much better, which could transform the Vikings from the worn-out 8–8 team that missed the playoffs last year into one that more closely resembles the one that went 11–5 and wrestled the NFC North title away from the Packers in 2015.