Over his first two seasons as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer’s focus has been on defense. He has helped transform a low-end defense which gave up a ton of yards and more points than any other team in the league to a team that allowed more than two touchdowns in just one game all season.
With Zimmer and the entire Vikings draft posse in Indianapolis, they’re evaluating as many players as they can get their hands on. One position that is of innate interest is wide receiver. With an offense in need of free agent and draft attention, Zimmer is looking to find players that can help make the offense more complete and give Teddy Bridgewater the weapons he needs to succeed.
Zimmer admitted that Bridgewater hasn’t been turned loose in the way that quarterbacks like Russell Wilson were when Marshawn Lynch went down and Seattle became a pass-happy offense with exceptional results.
Half of that has been by design. Half of it has been that Bridgewater doesn’t want to throw the ill-advised pass that could cost his team a close game.
“Teddy is a tremendous kid,” Zimmer said. “He’s a big-time pleaser. He knows we don’t want to turn the ball over. But sometimes I think he has that subconscious thing in his mind where he doesn’t want to hurt the team where there are times when he can help the team. I told him one time during the season, ‘Teddy, I know you know I don’t want you to throw interceptions and I know you don’t want to turn the ball over, but we play pretty good defense and if you know a ball gets tipped or something, don’t worry about it. Just go out and play and be yourself.’ And I think that’s when he plays the best, when he just goes out and plays. It’s not, ‘OK, well, Norv will get mad at me if I do this’ or ‘Coach will yell at me if I do that.’ I think he’s just better when he feels comfortable and confident in the things he does.”
Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach and oftentimes they tend to evaluate players from their frame of expertise more critically and perhaps overrate elite players on the defensive side of the ball.
Much of the discussion about how to improve the team has centered around acquiring a big-time wide receiver, whether in free agency or the first round of the draft. Although Zimmer is keeping a close eye on defensive players, he realizes that for Bridgewater to succeed, he needs more high-powered weapons. If a wide receiver they have graded highly is there at No. 23, the Vikings won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on taking a game-changing offensive weapon.
“I think we need to get better everywhere,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know that we necessarily know if we have to, but I would like to. If there’s a good one there when we’re ready to pick, then I have no problem taking a wide receiver. The more playmakers you get, the better chance you have of increasing big plays and points and things like that, and I do think that’s important.”
The conundrum when it comes to wide receivers coming out of college is evaluating what player would be the best fit with your offense – a speed receiver or a big receiver who can outmuscle defensive backs and make plays downfield and in the red zone.
Zimmer has dealt with all types of players on the “other side of the ball” as an assistant coach and knows that every receiver has his own strength and a case can be made for speed guys who can take a bubble screen 80 yards to the house or a big, strong receiver that can dominate a matchup and catch 10 passes if not doubled up.
“We’ve talked about that a lot, about speed versus size and size versus speed. And I really think it comes down to the player, because there are big guys that don’t get off of bump and run very good and we see a lot of bump and run,” Zimmer said. “There’s smaller guys that have big catch radiuses. I think you just look at the most dynamic guy. He might not be as fast, but he has great size. He might not have great size, but he gets exceptional quickness in and out of breaks and he’s got the toughness and the demeanor.
“The best receiver I’ve ever been around was Michael Irvin, and Michael was the most competitive guy that I’ve ever seen. He was a great leader. He was like the bell cow of those teams in Dallas. He worked extremely hard. I wouldn’t say he was the fastest guy I ever saw, but he was probably the most competitive guy. They just come in all different shapes and sizes.”
As a rookie, Bridgewater had to pick up the offense without Adrian Peterson. Last year, he was asked to be more of a game manager as Peterson was the focal point of the ball-control offense the Vikings were running and Bridgewater was asked to be a game manager.
With a season coming with high expectations – defending the division title – the Vikings can’t afford to be too one-dimensional either way, running or passing. Zimmer believes that adding playmakers that can threaten the back end of the defense can only make the Vikings offense less predictable and more dangerous.
That is the reason why the Vikings added Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur to the coaching staff. What Zimmer sees the next level in Bridgewater’s maturation is to surround him with coaches who know the nuances of the game and potentially combine that with an elite receiver who can force a defense’s hand.
Much of the morphing of the Vikings offense will be mixing and matching lineups with a standard under-center offense and a shotgun formation. Adding a downfield weapon will keep defenses on their heels and keeping them off-balance will be the key.
Whether or not the Vikings use their first pick on a potential impact receiver is far from guaranteed, but if Bridgewater and Peterson are to coexist as equals in terms of defensive concern, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see the 23rd pick go the way of wide receiver.