'Tis the season to name underrated and overrated prospects in the draft. In essence, that is simply the art of analysts saying they don't agree with other analysts and therefore view a prospect as better or worse than the common opinion.
The Vikings will certainly hope to have a number of the underrated prospects in their stable when the NFL draft ends on May 10. There are definitely holes left to fill on the roster, but head coach Mike Zimmer has largely withheld judgment on his returning players until he gets a look at them in person … and in their new systems. As Zimmer points out, it's hard to know for sure what a player is capable of doing until he asked to do it.
For sure, the Vikings will be asking many different tasks of their players compared to the old coaching staff. Defensive linemen are going to be asked to occupy multiple gaps more often than they were in the past. Zimmer's philosolphy is to have his big guys hold up the big guys on the other team and let his linebackers flow to the ball in a more disciplined yet aggressive manner. That might mean fewer stops behind the line of scrimmage for the defensive linemen but more consistent looks at the ball carriers for the linebackers.
The Vikings did a lot on defense in free agency. They added bulk with Linval Joseph, who is more of a natural, two-gap nose tackle than Letroy Guion. They got younger by re-signing Everson Griffen and allowing Jared Allen to leave via free agency. That was obviously a look to the future and pinning hopes on potential vs. more consistent production over the last six years. And there were the supplementary/depth additions of versatile linemen like Corey Wootton and Tom Johnson.
They also added to the defensive backfield with Captain Munnerlyn and some potential depth with the signing of Derek Cox.
Yet, holes – both real and perceived – remain. Signing Jasper Brinkley only added to the largely unproven corps of linebackers; Chad Greenway is the only obvious starter.
But there is a hidden element to all the addition and what is left to accomplish: a new coaching staff.
To be sure, Zimmer will have a different coaching style than Leslie Frazier. He has also been given a more aggressive approach to adding talent – the result of shedding an especially large contract with Allen – most notably the addition of Munnerlyn, who is compared to a player that Frazier clearly wanted back last year, Antoine Winfield.
But the real and immediate dividends of all the change in Minnesota might not be found solely in the personnel pluckings or in Zimmer's approach versus Frazier's. The unsung and behind-the-scenes coup of change might be in the staff Zimmer assembled.
Frazier was a loyalist to the coaches he knew and largely inherited from the Brad Childress regime. Zimmer, however, took his time to evaluate the assistants under contract and that created some tense and confusing times for a couple weeks after Frazier's dismissal. Coaches from the 2013 staff attended the 2014 Senior Bowl with many of them not knowing for sure if they were going to be retained or not, which meant they weren't really sure which employer they were scouting for or knowing much about the desired attributes Zimmer would be seeking.
Ultimately, though, it appears that Zimmer got it right with his selections and retentions. The most recognizable among the additions is offensive coordinator Norv Turner. While his scheme is respected, his bigger fulcrum to success may lie in his ability to adequately develop a quarterback for the future. If that can be figured out in short order, an offense that finished in the middle of the NFL rankings could flourish in the future.
And it was on offense that a couple of key assistants were retained – receivers coach George Stewart, who has helped develop Cordarrelle Patterson from a raw but immensely talented player to a feared threat in short order, just like Stewart helped develop numerous successful young receivers over the past decade of his career – Percy Harvin to 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year; Sidney Rice to his most successful season; Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes in San Francisco.
Defensively, the first real change in philosophy since 2006 spurred an overhaul of coaches. The defensive coordinator was changed from Alan Williams, who seemed to lose credibility with the players last year, to George Edwards. That said, the real architect of the defense will be Zimmer, at least initially, and that should comfort Vikings fans.
Zimmer was universally haled a strong hire by the Vikings, based off his reputation with the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. Especially in Cincinnati, he emerged as a no-nonsense coach who knew what he wanted, preached it effectively to his players, and then – whether through intense study or a keen sense – could dismantle an offense with his knowledge of it.
In addition to the coordinator and scheme changes on defense are a couple of key new position coaches – Jerry Gray joins as one of the more respected secondary coaches in the league and Andre Patterson as the new defensive line coach. Patterson, who returns to the Vikings after coaching their defensive line in 1998-99, is expected to add more individualized coaching. Gray has eight years of experience as a defensive coordinator and helped coach Samari Rolle and Blaine Bishop to All-Pro honors, as well as developing Earl Thomas in Seattle.
Returning players won't get to experience the on-field coaching of new additions for the first two weeks of the offseason program, which starts Monday, but after that coaches can start working on individual concepts with players and that's when they might start to learn the benefits the new coaching staff is expected to bring.
We won't know for sure until the season begins how much of the Vikings' issues in recent years have been personnel and how much coaching, but the view here is that some of the replacements on the staff are upgrades, and that could be a hidden benefit of the significant sea of change that has taken place at Winter Park.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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