Think about that. The Vikings’ decade-long, dark journey through dried-up desert without their savior behind center could finally be over. Every now and then, a team without a high-quality quarterback can win a Super Bowl, but it doesn’t happen very often (think Baltimore Ravens under Brian Billick) and it requires an incredible defense to stave off the storm of the playoff opponents firing darts from the other side of the ball.
Finally, the future at quarterback looks bright. In the eyes of some, Teddy Bridgewater was only average. By the NFL’s standard of quarterback play – the passer rating – that’s about right. Bridgewater’s 85.2 rating was 21st among quarterbacks that played half of their team’s snaps and his 64.4 completion percentage was 11th.
But among rookies his rating and completion percentage were easily the best this year. His growth showed, too, as he had the third-highest completion percentage among any rookie in one month. In December, Bridgewater completed 72.3 percent of his passes, behind only Carson Palmer’s record-setting 2004 December (78.3 percent) and Ben Roethlisberger’s 2004 October (75.8).
So with Bridgewater firmly in the starter’s seat with the resolute backing of his head coach, the challenge for the Vikings is to plug the other holes on the team and not worry much about the quarterback position, a unique storyline for the franchise in the last 10 years.
What are the biggest decisions in the coming months of free agency and the draft?
Salary cap smoothingThe Vikings don’t have to continue their recent trend of parting ways with aging, high-priced veterans – according to a projected salary cap of about $140 million in 2015, they should have about $17 million in cap space with their current roster – but they do have some contracts that could come into consideration.
Linebacker Chad Greenway, at 32 years old in a couple weeks, is slated to count $8.8 million against the cap in 2015, the last year of his deal, and would appear to be a prime candidate for a restructure. He seemed resigned to the fact that something would have to be done if he wants to remain in Minnesota, which is his first choice. Cutting that by a few million would place him in the range where his productivity has been, but the Vikings also have to weigh the leadership benefits of experienced veterans like Greenway. He can be a productive starter for a couple more years and would like to remain a starter. At a reduced salary, that makes sense.
Greg Jennings is another likely candidate to be approached about a restructure. He is due an $11 million cap number in 2015. Releasing him would save $5 million, as he still has $6 million left in prorated bonus, so a restructured contract versus a release would keep a veteran presence among a still relatively young group. But there is little question that Jennings isn’t the 11th-most productive receiver in the NFL, which is where his 2015 cap figure is compared to other highly paid receivers.
Running back riddleOf course, the biggest cap question is held by Adrian Peterson. His contract calls for a $15.4 million cap hit next year, and given how far out of whack that is with the other top-paid backs in the league something has to be done. Cutting him – given the public outrage against him by some sponsors, that could be a real possibility – would save the Vikings $13 million in cap space. But it would also leave them with a big void in the backfield that would have to be filled either with a draft pick or free-agent signing. Jerick McKinnon is an exciting complementary back, but can he really carry the workload? Pairing him with one of the rookies in a fairly decent draft class would be a wise move if Peterson is let go.
And if Jennings and Greenway are restructured and Peterson released, the Vikings would vault into one of the top 10 teams in cap space.
Line danceThere is no doubt the offensive line suffered in 2014. Matt Kalil had his worst year as a pro, Brandon Fusco was playing well before his season-ending injury, and Phil Loadholt was having a decent year before he was lost to injury, too. It isn’t time to give up on Kalil, as some fans are determined to make the Vikings’ destiny. Giving Kalil another year to prove himself is the right move, with rookie Antonio Richardson a promising backup behind him and Loadholt. Adding another guard to replace Charlie Johnson would allow that acquisition to compete with the likes of David Yankey and Austin Wentworth, and Minnesota might just have the offensive line they hoped for last year.
The Patterson project“It’s up to Cordarrelle.” That was the repeated phrase from head coach Mike Zimmer and he is spot on. Cordarrelle Patterson has the chance, and the athletic tools, to be a very good receiver. But is he willing to put in the work to make that happen? That’s the million-dollar question as he teeters between potential playmaker and potential bust. Is Patterson willing to spend time in the offseason learning the nuances of the receiver position, and then putting in more time refining his route-running and camaraderie with Teddy Bridgewater once the offseason program starts? While Bridgewater was often putting in overtime following practices in his rookie season, Patterson wasn’t seen on the scene with him. That has to change. In other words … “it’s up to Cordarrelle.”
Greg Jennings said he wants to help. Patterson has to accept that and the mentor that Zimmer is trying to hook him up with.
If not, then the Vikings have to realize if Patterson isn’t willing to dedicate fully to his craft he isn’t worth committing to, either. Zimmer has proven true to his word that every player has to earn their spot. When Patterson didn’t and Charles Johnson outperformed him, Patterson was benched and Johnson elevated. However, if Patterson is willing, there is promise to cultivate.
Smoothing out the secondaryXavier Rhodes made tremendous strides in his second season, and he and Zimmer both felt indebted to each other for the improvement. That, along with always-ascending play of safety Harrison Smith, is a very promising start to building a top-notch secondary. Then there are the unknowns. Can Captain Munnerlyn live up to his own standards, as he admitted he had probably his worst season as a pro? Can Josh Robinson continue to work his way back from a miserable 2012 spent in an uncomfortable role and up-and-down 2013 in which his confidence was often tested? Can the Vikings find legitimate starting competition to push those two, and an impact safety to pair with Smith? If so, Zimmer would have the talent to take his secondary to the top.
If you thought the quarterback drought was long, how about the secondary? It might be arriving in full force in Zimmer’s second year in 2015.
The Vikings were close to a .500 team in 2014. That’s average. But with the quarterback question apparently answered, it could be a short trip from that to the playoffs in 2015, despite an imposing cast of opponents, if a handful of personnel moves go their way.