This time around, however, there are much higher aspirations for the 2015 Vikings. The goal is making the playoffs and potentially knocking Green Bay off its perch atop the NFC North. It seems as though just about every national media outlet is predicting the Vikings to be one of the sleeper teams expecting to make a big jump in 2015.
Before Vikings fans start booking plane fights to Santa Clara to cheer the team on in the Super Bowl, there are three reasons to be concerned about the 2015 Vikings. These are the areas of biggest concern for the team heading into what has the looks of being a promising season.
1. OFFENSIVE LINEThis was an area of concern from the start of free agency when the Vikings made the decision that Charlie Johnson no longer fit in their long-term plan. The first change was to move Brandon Fusco from right guard to left guard. Filling the right guard spot has been a changing process. First, rookie T.J. Clemmings was moved to the right guard spot, hoping that being in between veterans John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt would be the cure to his inexperience. However, at the start of training camp, Mike Harris, who has been a career tackle, was moved into the right guard spot and the impression was that the Vikings had their starting five in place.
However, an Achilles injury to Loadholt means he is gone for the season, creating a huge void at right tackle, because he was arguably the best run blocking lineman on the team. The team also lost backup tackle Carter Bykowski with a torn pectoral muscle, further depleting the depth of the Vikings.
As things currently stand, if the team doesn’t sustain any more injuries, the Vikings can make do with the players they currently have on the roster, but depth has been pushed to its limits and, if more injuries happen, the Vikings could find themselves in a difficult position.
2. BACKUP QUARTERBACKA year ago, the Vikings found themselves in an enviable position when it came to player depth. Veteran Matt Cassel was the starter, Christian Ponder was the former starter who provided veteran depth and experience, and Teddy Bridgewater was a promising youngster who was viewed as the quarterback of the future, but not necessarily the present.
A year later, Bridgewater is the unquestioned starter, but both Cassel and Ponder are gone – Cassel is competing for a starting job in Buffalo and Ponder is looking to be the No. 2 QB in Oakland. The result is that the depth at the position has gone from one of the deepest in the league to one of the thinnest.
In the offseason, the Vikings signed veteran Shaun Hill, who started his career with the Vikings, but spent the last decade bouncing around the league. During training camp, despite having non-contact rules for quarterbacks, Hill was given time off. He is hoped to be the backup the Vikings need if Bridgewater is sidelined for any period of time, but he is far from a proven product as a long-term answer.
The only other quarterbacks currently on the roster are undrafted free agent Taylor Heinicke and journeyman Mike Kafka. If Bridgewater would suffer a serious injury that would sideline him for an extended period of time, the drop-off would be significant. Much like the offensive line depth issues, the Vikings are fine as things stand, but can’t absorb a long-term injury to Bridgewater.
3. SPECIAL TEAMSMost fans look at winning and losing games as being the result of offense and defense, but it is the third phase of the game – special teams – that can often be the difference between winning and losing. A catastrophic play at Miami late last season cost Minnesota a win and the unit as a group had its share of struggles last year.
The Vikings moved outdoors last season and there were struggles in the kicking game. Blair Walsh had been one of the most automatic field goal kickers in the league his first two seasons. He was extremely good from long distance and was among the best kickers in the NFL. However, in his first season at TCF Bank Stadium, Walsh struggled badly. He was 20th in scoring with 107 points and missed 9 of 35 field goals. His .743 field goal accuracy percentage was dead last in the NFL and he needs to turn things around this year, in the final season the Vikings will be playing outdoors.
Similarly, punter Jeff Locke had his problems as well. He was 23rd in the league in punting average (44.2 yards) and 21st in net punting average (38.7 yards). He was drafted to provide the Vikings with a deep punting leg and good hang time, but was inconsistent and often had short punts that didn’t give the Vikings the field-position advantage they expected when forced to punt.
Throw in the fact that the team has yet to decide on whether or not to stick with veteran Cullen Loeffler as their long snapper or go with younger Kevin McDermott leaves that position in flux as well.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism around the Vikings with the return of Adrian Peterson, the improvement of Bridgewater, an aggressive young defense and speed at the receiver position. However, until the Vikings solidify their three biggest concerns heading into the season, Vikings fans may need to tap the brakes a bit on the enthusiasm because all three of these issue-laden positions could be the cause for the Vikings losing games they should win.