To borrow a Denny Green saying, “If you want to crown them, then crown their ass.”
When Green defiantly delivered those words, he wasn’t referring to the Minnesota Vikings, but after three weeks of organized team activities and an abridged minicamp, there is reason for optimism in Minnesota. But we’ll also raise some issues that could cause angst among those who need that to carry them through until training camp. In other words, we aren’t going to “let them off the hook” like Green’s Cardinals did with the Bears before Green’s infamous press conference. The Vikings should be good, but they could be great if the questions are answered positively.
1. Deep-pass emphasis
It’s been the most consistent storyline of the offseason: “Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings’ deep passing game is (insert writer assessment here).” The slant on those stories have varied from simply chronicling the emphasis placed on the passing game to some that would lead you to believe there should be vast improvement.
But after viewing a practice each week of organized team activities and both minicamp sessions, the only thing clear is that the coaching staff is following through with their desire to work that aspect repeatedly. While fans and media repeatedly pointed out the lack of success trying to stretch the field in 2015, coaches no doubt drew their conclusions based off their own eyes and team-commissioned analytics.
In short, based on our own observations, it’s fair and accurate to call it a work in progress. The most success in the 12 offseason practices seemed to come with Bridgewater throwing to Charles Johnson and Kyle Rudolph, but there were occasions for interceptions, too, which is why labeling it an improved deep passing game is premature at best. But it is a positive that the coaching staff sees it as worthy of repping repeatedly.
2. Patterson’s improvement
Unless the Vikings’ offseason was the offseason for your online activity, you already know that Cordarrelle Patterson was promoting his work ethic through social media before the Vikings even convened for practices in May and June. In the past, we’ve learned that talk has to be backed up with results, but this year it really does appear that Patterson put some focus where he claimed.
Patterson has improved his familiarity with the offense and his execution of it, and is being rewarded with increased opportunities, both as a receiver out in routes and as a runner on end-arounds. Still, coaches tell us that the proof will be in the sustainability of his efforts and concentration. Like many fans, they are looking for Patterson to prove it over the long haul.
Even Captain Munnerlyn alluded to the need for Patterson to sustain the progress.
“Normally, CP, he knew one speed, he was just coming at you full speed and he would chop down and break. This time, he knows how to lull you to sleep a little bit and then he’ll turn on the burners,” Munnerlyn said of Patterson’s route-running improvement. “He’s just doing different things. It’s kind of messing the DBs up a little bit, but at the same time I told him, ‘Man, you’re running some great routes. Just keep it up, keep working and then when we get to the month of July don’t backslide. Just keep doing what you’re doing and get better.”
3. Overall depth
Going beyond the starters, many of whom will remain the same, especially on a defense that finished 2015 fifth in points allowed, the overall depth of the roster is improved. The defense might actually have all 11 starters the same, but it appears better equipped to handle the inevitable injuries.
Starting defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd were mostly out of offseason practices with injuries, but Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson are capable replacements. Danielle Hunter might end up being the most improved player from last year, offering defensive line coach Andre Patterson a starter-worthy talent as a backup to Brian Robison and Everson Griffen.
At linebacker, Emmanuel Lamur has starting experience in Mike Zimmer’s defense. And the safety position next to Harrison Smith should provide the biggest intrigue of training camp and the preseason, with veteran Michael Griffin and 2015 undrafted rookie Anthony Harris pressing incumbent Andrew Sendejo.
Offensively, there is plenty to figure out at receiver and on the line, but the legitimate options are plentiful.
1. Line a work in progress
No position has more uncertainty, and perhaps greater potential for improvement, than the offensive line. It was underwhelming last year and coaches knew it. Zimmer called it his top priority to “fix” this offseason and the front office spent resources to aid that effort, signing Alex Boone and Andre Smith in outside free agency, re-signing Mike Harris and renegotiating a contract with Phil Loadholt that puts the pressure on him to perform.
Tony Sparano was hired as the offensive line coach and left no doubt that he understood why he was hired – to bring more attention to detail and a new attitude to the trenches. The early read here is that he is to the offensive line what Zimmer is to the defensive backs and defense. “No excuses” is his philosophy and players no longer have a comfortable history with their position coach.
So what do all the changes mean to the line? Here’s what we’re certain of at this point: Boone will start at left guard, moving Brandon Fusco to right guard, and Matt Kalil will be aiming to get back to his rookie form and beyond at left tackle. What we don’t know is who wins the job at right tackle, although the best bet goes Andre Smith, who looked solid and consistent this spring. If John Sullivan’s back holds up, he could win back the starting job he lost with injury last year, but Joe Berger is a very capable option at either center or guard if a starter falters or falls to injury again.
2. No true No. 1
So far, Johnson and Stefon Diggs have been the clear starters at receiver, with a mix of Patterson, Laquon Treadwell and Adam Thielen working in three-receiver sets. Most simply assume that Laquon Treadwell’s draft status and success at Ole Miss will propel him into a starting job, but that isn’t necessarily the case. He showed progress each week of offseason practices, but coaches made it clear that Treadwell hasn’t consistently faced quality cornerbacks in his SEC competition.
What we also don’t know is whether he will look better or worse once the pads go on and cornerbacks can press him at the line of scrimmage. It might play into his strengths or it could create another learning curve. But even with Johnson and Diggs, there likely isn’t a 1,200-yard receiver on the team in 2016, which can be good and bad for Bridgewater. It should help him continue to develop in reading defenses, but doesn’t provide him with that automatically reliable outlet when things get hurried and harried.
3. Injury uncertainty
While the product on the field had plenty of competitive sessions, some of the better players were sidelined. Sharrif Floyd got no action during the 12 offseason practices and Joseph only got limited individual work toward the end. Barr got in on only limited team drills. Boone missed time in minicamp, giving Berger opportunity at left guard and Sullivan more work as the first-team center again.
No doubt Zimmer calling off the last day of practice was an indication of his level of satisfaction that players had worked well in the schemes. It further supports the good feelings floating around the team, but there are both reasons for hope and cause for understanding that improvement is necessary.