MIA players forced depth to be tested

The Vikings have been ravaged by injuries and the absence of Adrian Peterson, but they have found plenty of positives about their depth and young players.

When the Vikings were sitting at 2-5 a week before Halloween, it had all the makings of a long, cold autumn and winter in Minnesota. The team was coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Buffalo Bills in the final second of the game.

It could have been a time when the team resigned itself to the fact that the 2014 season wasn’t going to be a playoff year. Two days short of two months later, the Vikings still aren’t going to be a playoff team, but the outlook on the team is much different despite being two games below .500.

A lot of teams’ seasons get derailed by injury, but, in the bigger picture of things, getting experience to know what you have on your roster – both in the starters and the depth players who become the “next man up” – can be extremely valuable in the long-term even if it’s a little painful in the short-term. Considering what the Vikings have faced this year, they could be applauded for the effort they’ve put forth and how much closer they’ve got to being a contender without a lot of their expected horses.

Quarterback – The plan was for Teddy Bridgewater to sit most or all of 2014. The plan was to go with veteran Matt Cassel until either he broke down, his play wasn’t good and/or the Vikings fell out of playoff contention. As it would turn out, Cassel’s 2014 ended in Week 3 at New Orleans and the Teddy Bridgewater era began. While Teddy has had his ups and downs, even jaded Vikings fans are pleased overall in his performance.

Running Back – The difference of not having Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson is hard to quantify. He is the type of player who can almost singlehandedly win games for a team. His absence forced the team to completely alter its offensive philosophy because you can’t take a Hall of Fame player out of the lineup without it having a ripple effect. Instead, the Vikings made the most of it. Before suffering a back injury, Jerick McKinnon put together some impressive days and gave the coaches a lot to consider with his potential moving forward. Matt Asiata remained a between-the-tackles banger and they got a chance to get a long look in practice and the meeting rooms at Ben Tate and Joe Banyard. If Peterson isn’t back next season, the Vikings have a wealth of knowledge on the guys they have and where they stand at the position.

Wide Receiver – Whether it was injury, work habits or something in between, Cordarrelle Patterson has had an awful season. So bad in fact that he has been almost nonexistent in the Vikings pass offense over the last month – seeing the field for a dozen plays over the last three games. But in the meantime, the Vikings have seen increased contributions from Charles Johnson, who wasn’t even on the team at the start of the season but has emerged as an intriguing prospect with big-play ability. Jarius Wright has also stepped up at critical times, giving the Vikings depth options that weren’t as prevalent at the start of the season.

Tight End – Given how much Norv Turner has incorporated the tight end over the years, Kyle Rudolph was expected to have a big year. But when he went down with an injury early, it gave Chase Ford a chance to show what he can do. He isn’t flashy, but he catches just about everything thrown his way and picks up tough yards after the catch – proving his worth as a pass-catcher in the Turner offense.

Offensive Line – No unit has been hit harder, even though most of the talk/criticism has been directed squarely at Matt Kalil. The one talking point about the offense coming into the season was that the O-line was together as a unit for a third year. As they head down the stretch, they lost both of their guards (Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson) and their right tackle (Phil Loadholt). Johnson could be back this week, but the injuries have given the Vikings a chance to grade out tackle Mike Harris, guards Joe Berger and Vlad Ducasse, and the team still has rookie David Yankey waiting in the wings. With the experience gained by the backups this year, if the starters come back healthy, the Vikings will have more competition and depth along the line than they’ve had in years.

Defensive Line – There were more questions than answers here, but it seems clear that Everson Griffen was the right choice to hook the money train to. He has put together Pro Bowl numbers and would get plenty of votes for team MVP. Sharrif Floyd took strides in his second season. The additions of Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson made an immediate impact. Brian Robison continues to be a disruptive force on the left side of the line. Injuries have allowed Shamar Stephen to see action and show that he belongs as well, giving the team depth and the bodies to play the Zimmer rotation system.

Linebackers – Prior to the draft, some analysts felt that Anthony Barr could only excel in a 3-4 scheme, but he has exceeded production expectations and lived up to his high draft spot by playing at a high level. Veteran Chad Greenway has provided a strong veteran presence and Jasper Brinkley remains a two-down thumper in the run game. The most pleasant surprise has been the strong play of Gerald Hodges. He saw almost no time with the defense as a rookie, but, as injuries to Greenway and Barr opened the door for him, he has taken full advantage.

Defensive Backs – The Vikings have a solid core with Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson at cornerback and Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton at safety. When Blanton went down to injury, Andrew Sendejo has stepped in with his hard-hitting style that is hard to miss. Rhodes and Smith are going to start getting their names mentioned for Pro Bowl consideration if they keep playing at the level they are and Munnerlyn has been a significant upgrade in the slot with his tenacity and competitiveness.

The 2014 season is going to remembered more for the “what if?” questions as to how things would have been different if Peterson had been there with a healthy O-line and a veteran QB in front of him. But, as we head down the home stretch of the year, it seems clear that the Vikings are moving ahead with Bridgewater as their quarterback and a defense that has filled a lot of holes in the first year learning the new system.

What will next year bring? Higher expectations … and deservedly so.

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