The Minnesota Vikings are in a weird spot.
They are in the middle of a playoff push, trying to secure either a wild card spot – they are currently the fifth seed – or even an NFC North title if they win out, which would include a season-ending win over the Green Bay Packers.
Now is obviously not the time for evaluations of youngers players, but yet the Vikings were forced to do that in several instances in Thursday night’s game. That was thrust upon them by necessity after injuries ravaged the defense at all three levels. And, yet, they stuck right with the Arizona Cardinals, who own the NFL’s top offense and secured a playoff berth with their 11th win of the season. While Vikings coach Mike Zimmer isn’t into moral victories, the loss actually was a bit of a moral victory for the outlook of the team’s future.
We saw that Trae Waynes has legitimate starting skills if he can cut down on the mistakes, which should come with more experience. We saw that Anthony Harris could at least be a quality backup at safety. And we saw that Terence Newman can play some safety, even if that might not be in the regular plans this year.
“(In) the future we’ll probably definitely have to visit that situation, but right now I don’t think it’s much of a conversation just for the simple fact that I think I’ve played 11 games at corner,” Newman said last week (before he started at safety).
“The safety part to me is much easier, I guess, for me to study because I don’t have to look as much at the receivers, but I definitely have to approach it as I’m going to play corner. And then the safety part, it’s more what to do. So I think taking it from that aspect, you must prepare as a corner and then the safety part is pretty much the same. I just know what I have to do, where I have to fit and where I have to be at.”
But what if Newman does want to return under a new contract for another year or two at safety for somewhere near the $2.5 million, one-year contract he signed this year? Charles Woodson proved that versatile defensive backs can still play at a high level at safety in their late 30s. With Newman there and if the confidence in Waynes is high enough to elevated him to a full-time starter, the Vikings in 2016 would have much of their defense set, save for the part-time role at weakside linebacker if Chad Greenway retires. That’s what two years of defensively focused drafts gets them, along with a sound defensive scheme that should continue to become more rote with the emerging players.
That means the Vikings, with an increased salary cap expected to be within a few million of the projected $153 million, could spend where they want. They are currently on the hook for $129 million in 2016 salary, but there is plenty of maneuvering left to happen and surely nothing is set in stone yet. One possibility is improving their cap position even more with the release of receiver Mike Wallace, who is scheduled to make $11.5 million but wouldn’t cost the Vikings any dead money by releasing. It would take less than half of that to extend Harrison Smith beyond 2016.
Releasing or restructuring the contract of Phil Loadholt, who is entering the final year of his deal with a $7.75 million cap number is another possibility. But whatever happens with Loadholt, one thing is clear: the Vikings’ biggest needs are on the offensive line and at receiver.
Improving the offensive line with two high-quality acquisitions in the draft and free agency should immediately improve both the run blocking and pass protection. Perhaps Brandon Fusco moves back to right guard, where he played better, and the Vikings get a left guard in between Matt Kalil and John Sullivan, along with a right tackle (either Loadholt or a replacement). Immediately the starting five would be improved and so would the depth with one or more 2015 starters playing the role of backup swingmen.
The offensive line played better against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday, but one game doesn’t prove anything after a season of inconsistency and mistakes.
“For the most part they played much better,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Friday. “Really, the whole team played a lot better and maybe Seattle just did that to us. I would say probably everybody on the team played better last night and offensive line did a good job. They protected much better, they were doing a lot of the same run blitzes that we had been seeing earlier in the year and we got off the double-teams and get-up to the linebackers better.”
The other sore spot has been at receiver. Charles Johnson and Wallace entered the season as the starters. Wallace has struggled, but not everything can be placed on him. The protection simply hasn’t been good enough to take advantage of Wallace’s speed. Johnson lost his starting position with the emergence of rookie Stefon Diggs, who appears to be a long-term, productive starter.
But the addition of a big-bodied, physical receiver that Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t been able to become is either the second or third priority for the team, depending on how many offensive linemen are needed.
With an upgraded offensive line and a full complement of receivers, the true evaluation of Teddy Bridgewater can begin. Until then, there will always be the feeling he can be a quarterback with top-10 potential but concern that he might not get there.
“I think one thing about Teddy is he's a great competitor,” Zimmer said. “… Every game is different. You get different matchups, different plays, different rushes, all kinds of things. I think it helped moving him in the pocket a little bit, I think getting the runs, getting those guys up there and those guys having to deal with Adrian (Peterson), I think that helped a little bit. And then he just made plays. I think he threw the ball a lot better (Thursday) night obviously than he did the week before, but you can probably say that about our whole football team.”
The offensive coaches also (finally) did a better job of putting him in better spots with quicker throws that should have come earlier. But, right now, the program appears on track. With a few finishing touches in the offseason, it might be on its way to consistent contention.