The Minnesota Vikings are hoping 2016 isn’t a repeat of six years earlier, and it shouldn’t be.
Back in 2010, expectations were high upon Brett Favre’s return and the return of the other 21 starters from the 2009 season that ended when Adrian Peterson fumbled repeatedly and Favre was crushed by the bounty-incentivized Saints and threw away his last chance to win the Super Bowl.
Circumstances this year are much different than in 2010. Hopes aren’t mostly reliant on a Hall of Fame quarterback that appeared somewhere between disinterested and done when he returned in 2010. And the 2016 Vikings aren’t relying on a mostly aging roster to rekindle creaky old bones.
Sure, Peterson is one of 10 Vikings on the roster that is 30 years or older (about half of them are expected to be starters). But even behind those “old” starters is a roster better equipped to handle injury replacements.
What makes training camp and the preseason one of the most anticipated times for hard-core fans are the roster battles, and this year might include some culling of the old fish in favor of the younger variety. So who are some of the older players, or even just those more familiar to the casual fan, that could be in a battle for their jobs this year?
Assuming Andrew Sendejo is the starting strong safety, and Andre Smith is the starting right tackle, and John Sullivan’s surgically repaired back holds up and he regains his starting spot, all 22 starting spots should be accounted for, but even there we have three “ifs.”
So why not take an early accounting of some of the battles and which (formerly) established players could be fighting for their next paycheck.
QUARTERBACK: While Teddy Bridgewater is the easy answer as the starter, Shaun Hill’s job could be challenged by Taylor Heinicke, depending on their preseason performances. Even Norv Turner admitted that Hill was at a point in his career last year that he needed a little extra oil in his aging elbow, and Hill is now 36, the second-oldest player on the roster. He finished with a 97.2 rating in the 2015 preseason, but two of those three games he played combined to average less than 6 yards per attempt. Heinicke looked overmatched early in his rookie offseason and training camp, but progressed with a 98.1 rating and 101.6 rating in his last two preseason outings. Yes, it was preseason and going against mostly second- and third-string defenses, but with a year of seasoning in Turner’s system, would the Vikings feel comfortable promoting Heinicke to the No. 2 spot?
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TIGHT END: As far as experienced players, Kyle Rudolph is the easy answer as the starter with MyCole Pruitt contributing. The compelling storyline to watch is Rhett Ellison’s progression from offseason knee surgery and rookie David Morgan’s development. If Morgan shows well and Ellison isn’t ready to go for the preseason, the Vikings will have a decision on their hands.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Of all the positions, this one has the most different possibilities and the most aging players. If Phil Loadholt is unable to regain his starting position – Andre Smith looked solid in offseason work – his roster spot might be in peril because of several younger, developmental guys behind him. The saving grace for Loadholt (and a wise move by his agent) is that the renegotiation he underwent earlier this year called for a $1.75 million signing bonus, meaning he would keep that as a parting gift if the team opts for youth over experience. Loadholt is a good locker room presence, too, so that would have to weigh into the decision.
Additionally on the offensive line is the battle of Sullivan and Joe Berger. While Berger started offseason practices with the first-team offense, Sullivan finished them in that role. How many times have we seen the phrase “backs are tricky” when it comes to Sullivan recovering from two surgeries on his back last year? It holds true, and he has to hope his back holds true during preseason work. Berger proved last year he is a solid replacement for Sullivan and proved the year before he is a legitimate option at guard, as well. Most likely, both Sullivan and Berger remain if Sullivan is healthy because they are both valuable interior forces, but those two and Loadholt are three members of the 30-and-over club on the roster.
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DEFENSIVE LINE: Although Brian Robison is 33, he continues to play at a starting level and clearly still has the drive to continue his career. Danielle Hunter is a great option, giving the Vikings some impressive depth. The same holds true with Tom Johnson, who will turn 32 before the regular season. Sharrif Floyd is the starter, but Johnson is a capable replacement for Floyd, who sat out offseason workouts with injury. It doesn’t look like the end of the line just yet for either Robison or Johnson.
LINEBACKERS: Take out Chad Greenway and the oldest member of the linebacker corps is backup Audie Cole, who is 28. With Eric Kendricks entering his second season and Anthony Barr his third, having Greenway’s experience and leadership is still valuable and Vikings coaches know it. It’s likely his last year, but the son of a South Dakota farmer shouldn’t be put out to pasture yet.
SECONDARY: The logical assumption is that Terence Newman, who turns 38 before the regular season, is slowing down. Yet in an informal survey of Vikings last year, Newman came up often as one of the fastest players on the team. Another win for red wine! At $3 million, Newman is a bargain for an accomplished starter. Although that may not be his designation for the full season – Trae Waynes is getting close to ready for that role – Newman is too valuable to release. The more likely candidate from the “over 30” club in the secondary could be safety Michael Griffin. With younger players like Anthony Barr, Antone Exum and Jayron Kearse waiting in the developmental wings and Andrew Sendejo spending the offseason practices as the starting strong safety, Griffin could be looking at a scenario where he either beats out Sendejo or may have seen his last snaps in the NFL.
Like Mike Zimmer, we aren’t ready to proclaim anyone on or off the roster without seeing them practice in pads and play in some preseason action, but roster churn is a natural part of the life cycle in the NFL and Father Time, as they say, is undefeated. It’s a matter of when, not if, for the Vikings’ over-30 club, making the promise of this season as important to them as anyone.