Byron Dixon| Elite Insiders
Adrian Peterson is back, the best running back in the NFL will be back with a vengeance this season for a team that overachieved in many peoples eyes under first year coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings could surprise a lot of people in the competitive NFC North and make a run at the playoffs.
While We Were Away: Prior to 2014, losing Adrian Peterson for 15 games would have been disastrous. The offense was centered around Peterson, so seeing him get hurt or suspended would’ve crushed Minnesota’s chances, perhaps relegating them to one or two victories for the entire year. That wasn’t the case this past season, however, as the Peterson-less Vikings went 7-9 and were close to the opposition in many of their defeats, as five of the losses came by eight points or fewer.The difference was obvious. Teddy Bridgewater, who predictably slipped in the 2014 NFL Draft, proved almost every team wrong by thriving as a rookie. Taking over the starting job in Week 4, Bridgewater posted a 6-6 record while throwing for 2,919 yards, completing 64.4 percent of his passes in the process on a solid 7.3 YPA. He also rushed for 209 yards and a touchdown. He ignited a Minnesota offense that was lacking explosion with either Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder at the helm, becoming the type of leader at the position that the Vikings have lacked since the early Daunte Culpepper days.
Bridgewater will be playing with at least one other new starter. That would be receiver Mike Wallace, who was exiled from Miami because he often quit on the team.The Vikings said farewell to some long-time members of their defense last offseason, including Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. The consensus opinion was that their defense would decline, but that was hardly the case. In fact, the Vikings improved dramatically on this side of the ball; they surrendered 30 points per game in 2013 and just 21.4 points per contest last year.
Several players obviously stepped up, and a couple of those were on the defensive line. The best player up front was Sharrif Floyd, who dominated the trenches in all aspects. Floyd, another first-round pick who slipped, was monstrous in shutting down the run and put plenty of heat on opposing quarterbacks, notching 4.5 sacks in 14 contests. He missed a couple of games at the end of the year because of a minor knee injury. He’ll once again start next to Linval Joseph, who played well in the second half of the season after getting off to a slow start. Still, Joseph hasn’t proven that he’s worthy of the 5-year, $31.5 million deal Minnesota gave him last spring. Perhaps he’ll step up in 2015.
2015 Season Outlook: One player who has definitely lived up to his contract thus far is defensive end Everson Griffen, who was handed a 5-year, $42.5 million deal an offseason ago. It was a criticized move, given that Griffen had previously been unproven, but he made the front office look brilliant; he racked up 12 sacks in his first season as a starter. It’s a good thing that Griffen had a huge 2014 campaign because the other defensive ends on the roster struggled. Anthony Barr will have to pick up the pass-rushing slack as well. Barr had a terrific rookie campaign, collecting four sacks in 12 games and also thriving as a run-defender. He showed lots of promise as a franchise cornerstone, and he and Gerald Hodges played well for Minnesota’s blossoming linebacking corps. However, there was one liability in the group, and that was Chad Greenway, who has suffered a huge decline in recent years.
Another big difference between the 2014 defense and the 2013 version was Harrison Smith’s presence. The stud safety dominated in all regards this past season, whereas he barely played in 2013 because of an injury. Smith made it very difficult to throw on the Vikings, even though the other safety, Robert Blanton, wasn’t nearly as good in coverage. Blanton, however, thrived in run support, so he wasn’t useless. It helped Smith and Blanton that they had assistance from a shutdown cornerback, as well as a talented nickel. Xavier Rhodes qualified as the former, routinely clamping down opposing No. 1 receivers. Captain Munnerlyn thrived in the nickel, but the team needed another corner on the outside. That would explain the Vikings’ first-round selection this April. Minnesota chose Trae Waynes, the consensus top cornerback in the class. He’s expected to start right away, and he figures to serve as an upgrade over Josh Robinson.
Minnesota is just 17-62-1 in outdoor road games the past 13 seasons. Playing outside at home this past year didn’t help, as the Vikings were just 1-4 in such contests.
Blair Walsh took the league by storm as a rookie in 2012, drilling 35-of-38 tries, including a perfect 10-of-10 from 50-plus. However, he has regressed each season, and he was just 26-of-35 in 2014, though he did go 5-of-9 from 50-plus. Jeff Locke is a mediocre punter. He finished in the middle of the pack in terms of net yardage in 2013, and he ranked 21st last season. The Vikings didn’t score or allow any special-teams touchdowns in 2014, but they managed to out gain the opposition in both punt and kickoff returns. They were especially effective when taking back punts, thanks to Marcus Sherels.
2015 Record: 9-7
The Vikings are coming ladies and gentlemen mark my words, with a stable QB and head coach combo in place with the best player at his position coming back at running back in Adrian Peterson they will be in the wildcard race. This defense should be even even better and has a youth imprint all over it which will allow for them to be good for years to come. Do not be surprised if they not only compete for a wildcard sport but are in the divisional race as well.