There have been plenty of reasons cited for the Minnesota Vikings’ rise in the NFC this season. The defense continues to show improvement. The return of Adrian Peterson to the offense has made a huge impact. But, perhaps not since the offseason between the 2009 and 2010 seasons have the Vikings been as set at so many positions as they are right now moving forward.
From the top of the roster to the 53rd man, the Vikings have created depth on both sides of the ball that wasn’t there when Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff took over the team less than two years ago. It’s pronounced and is the foundation of a team that has the potential to be strong for years to come.
In his second season, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has become an improving player who still has steps in his progression to make. But, at the same time, there is no questioning who the Vikings’ starter is and what is expected from him. During the Christian Ponder era, there was never the sense of consistent improvement that gave fans the confidence he could be the franchise quarterback. With Bridgewater, there is the sense that the Vikings have found their long-term solution at quarterback.
At running back, the impact of Peterson’s return has been obvious. He leads the NFL in rushing and, despite turning 30 earlier this year, he has shown no signs of losing a step. With the valuable experience that Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata gained last season when forced into starting roles, the Vikings now have depth to handle injuries if Peterson is on the shelf for a week or two. Heading into last season, many thought the sky was falling when Peterson was taken away from the team, but, a year later, A.P. remains the dominant running back in the NFL and depth at the position is strong.
The receiver corps hasn’t completely lived up to its billing, especially in terms of spendy free agent Mike Wallace. He hasn’t provided the big-play deep threat that was expected from him and there has to be some internal discussions going on as to whether the Vikings will be willing to spend the kind of elite money that Wallace’s current contract requires them to pay. He may well be gone at the end of the season unless a dramatic improvement in production comes down the stretch.
The core of the new-look receiver group is Stefon Diggs, Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson. Cordarrelle Patterson will be entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2016, so there could be a lot of turnover at the position in the next year-plus. Whether the Vikings commit a high draft choice to a playmaking young wide receiver is uncertain, but it’s a possibility. At tight end, when Kyle Rudolph is healthy he can be a game-changer downfield and with youngsters Rhett Ellison and MyCole Pruitt, the Vikings have solid depth behind him.
No area of the team was hit harder by injury than the offensive line, losing veterans John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt in the preseason. If they can return healthy, there will be position battles on the O-line next summer and the Vikings will have the starting quality depth at the line that has been missing for years.
The defensive line has blossomed into one of the best units on the team. With young players Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd all still looking at their best days in front of them, the Vikings have a strong nucleus to build from and veterans Brian Robison and Tom Johnson give the team quality depth players, even if one or both will be viewed as role players moving forward. The Vikings may be one blue chip defensive end away from having the best defensive line in the league.
The linebacker corps was a glaring weak link when Zimmer and his staff took over, but the team has used high draft picks in both of Zimmer’s drafts to add players that fit his scheme. Anthony Barr is on the cusp of being a breakout star and Eric Kendricks is arguably the best middle linebacker the Vikings have had since the pre-injury E.J. Henderson. Chad Greenway is nearing the end of the line of his long NFL career, but he still can play at a high level. Don’t be shocked if the Vikings address linebacker in the draft, free agency or both, but with Barr and Kendricks, the team has two-thirds of the long-term puzzle already solved.
The secondary was also a big question mark when Zimmer took over. That has changed quickly. With first-round cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes to go along with veterans Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson, the Vikings have as much quality depth at the position as they’ve ever had. Newman clearly isn’t a long-term answer, but he is still playing at high level at age 37. The team will never stop looking at cornerback in the draft, but it is no longer a front-burner priority.
At safety, the Vikings have one of the best in the game in Harrison Smith. He can dominate games and is a playmaker in every sense of the word. The jury is still out as to whether Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton or Antone Exum will be a long-term solution at the other safety spot, but the team is set up to have competition for depth spots.
When Zimmer took part in his first draft as a head coach in 2014, a case could have been made to use a first-round pick on five or six different positions, because the Vikings had glaring needs at a handful of positions or more.
Less than two years later, the Vikings find themselves in a position to augment what they already have because the number of weaknesses the team has are far fewer than what they had when Zimmer and his staff took control of the roster. That could explain why the Vikings are currently among the elite NFL teams with the prospect of an even brighter future staring them in the face moving forward.