Mike Zimmer’s team has apparently earned the respect of NFL observers. His team is predicted to make the playoffs among NFL preview magazines and the odds-setters in Las Vegas.
The thinking goes like this: Despite the Minnesota Vikings winning the NFC North in 2015, the Green Bay Packers are still predicted by many to reclaim the crown. But the Vikings are still good – playoff good.
They have the defense to do it, giving up the fifth-fewest points in the NFL last year, a returning Adrian Peterson and a young quarterback they like in Teddy Bridgewater. While there are a few players in the twilight of their careers, in general this is a young, ascending team.
So, what could derail the season? Perhaps a few things.
The Vikings will enter training camp with much the same quarterback depth chart they had during the 2015 season, with the exception of Joel Stave battling Taylor Heinicke for the No. 3 spot. Few teams would survive a playoff push if they had to resort to their third quarterback for an extended period of time, so that portion of the quarterback analysis might not matter for the present drive for success.
However, if Teddy Bridgewater does miss any extensive time, the Vikings have a proven – but aging – backup in Shaun Hill. The man that used to be called “Hank” during his first stint with the Vikings – he’s so old that he was a Mike Tice acquisition from Maryland – has a decent amount of starts (34) as a backup. Age might be just a number, as Drew Brees is a year older than Hill, but Hill’s mobility and arm strength are fading to the point that most times when he has scrambled he has teammates razzing him.
The Vikings were lucky that Bridgewater, despite being one of the most sacked and pressured quarterbacks in 2015, held up to start every game. He looks more solidly defined this year and that should help, along with what is expected to be an improved offensive line.
It also helps that Hill is experienced enough to diagnose defenses quickly, and he seems to understand his limitations by getting the ball out quickly on short passes. But if the Vikings are forced to rely on him for more than a couple of games, they will be leaning heavily on their defense to hold opponents’ scoring down and increasing the load on the running backs.
With the offensive line the top rebuilding priority for the offseason, the wide receiver corps was likely considered topic No. 2. But, despite the release of Mike Wallace and the drafting of Laquon Treadwell, there still doesn’t appear to be an immediate, sure No. 1 receiver in the group.
The Vikings paid Wallace like he was a go-to, 1,000-yard receiver last year, but he didn’t come close to producing to that level – or even half of that. He finished with 39 catches for 473 yards, and in the second half of the season never even had a four-catch, 50-yard game. In the only game he had a catch of more than 30 yards, he finished with three receptions for 37 yards.
Between his $9 million salary and lack of production, the Vikings made the obvious move and released him. But who will fill that deep-threat role, if Wallace was considered much of a threat by defenses?
Stefon Diggs’ strength is his quickness and acceleration in short and intermediate routes. Treadwell isn’t known for his speed, but rather being a muscle-up, physical receiver. Cordarrelle Patterson has long speed and a big build, but can he improve and sustain his technique to gain separation on deep routes?
If you are looking for the best possibility of the deep-route runner, it might be a healthy Charles Johnson, who was cemented with the first-team offense throughout spring practices after recovering from a broken rib last year.
The best bet is that the Vikings continue to develop Treadwell and end up with three receivers somewhere between 500 and 900 yards – Johnson, Diggs and Treadwell, with Jarius Wright and Adam Thielen and, to a lesser degree, Patterson pitching in.
INJURIES AT THIN POSITIONS
While Bridgewater might not have an elite receiver in his 2016 cache, there is depth. If one goes down to injury, there are others capable of filling the role.
Last year, injuries on the offensive line and a lack of experienced depth put the Vikings in dire straits. This year, that position is shored up with the acquisition of Alex Boone and Andre Smith and the return of Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan.
But what positions could be vulnerable to injuries?
Kyle Rudolph played in all 16 games last year after missing seven in 2014 and eight in 2013. But the Vikings will likely enter training camp with Rhett Ellison slowly working back from his knee injury last year. The Vikings added a little depth at the position with the drafting of David Morgan and free-agent signing of Brian Leonhardt, but Rudolph’s health is of primary importance in 2016.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have proven they have depth on the defensive line this offseason with Shamar Stephen working for Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson for Sharrif Floyd, with Danielle Hunter an underrated depth guy at end.
In the defensive backfield, there is uncertainty about the strong safety, but plenty of depth there and at cornerback.
But sandwiched between the defensive line and backfield is some uncertainty after the starting linebackers. That’s one reason the Vikings signed Emmanuel Lamur as a weakside backup and drafted Kentrell Brothers as a developmental middle linebacker. After them, however, is a familiar group of Audie Cole, Edmond Robinson and Brandon Watts, among others. The backups are capable, but they would be a dropoff from Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Chad Greenway.
The truth of the matter is that the Vikings appear to be in a promising position – now and into the future – to contend in the playoffs, not just to make them. But if they get derailed from a deep run, it could be a breakdown in one of the aforementioned areas that caused it.