The clock is ticking down to the start of the 2016 season and, as more people are weighing in on the teams they like to make the big jump to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Minnesota Vikings are finding themselves firmly in that conversation.
Clearly, the 2015 Vikings had some holes that needed to be filled, but they have their share of stars already on the team – Adrian Peterson, Harrison Smith, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr to name a few.
But who are the players that haven’t already established themselves yet that will be the key as to whether the Vikings make the next move upward in the NFC power rankings?
We’ve picked out five players that there are expectations for. If these five players make the jump expected of them, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Minnesota could end its 40-year Super Bowl drought and represent the NFC in Houston.
1. Teddy Bridgewater – This one is too obvious, but it remains the consensus player who must improve if the Vikings are to take the next step. The organization has a world of confidence in Bridgewater. If he can keep defenses honest when they pack the box to stop Peterson to make them pay for it over the top, the extent to which he does that will help determine the Vikings’ 2016 fortunes.
2. Xavier Rhodes – In his second season in 2014, Rhodes looked ready to get a cool nickname that the elite cornerbacks in the league get – something like Dead End Rhodes or Rhodes Island. But, last year, while he had some spectacular moments, he didn’t fully take the anticipated step in his progression. In Mike Zimmer’s defense, cornerbacks are expected to make plays, which typically translates into interceptions. In two years as a full-time starter, Rhodes has just two interceptions. If he can become the playmaker Mike Zimmer and George Edwards are convinced he can be, the Vikings defense will become even more lethal.
3. Matt Kalil – In his fifth season with the Vikings, Kalil knows that this is a critical year for him. He wants to stay in Minnesota – he married a local girl, has a house here and has started businesses in Minnesota. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and one of two things will happen – either he will be re-signed to a long-term, mid-eight figure contract or he will leave via free agency and the Vikings will have to start over at left tackle. If there is any player facing a watershed year, it’s Kalil, who will be asked to stop some of the game’s elite pass rushers on a weekly basis all season long.
4. Eric Kendricks – He came into the season as a wide-eyed rookie and ended the season by leading the Vikings in tackles. However, there were plays that he left on the field that he likely won’t with another year of experience, like dropping potential interceptions, losing coverage at times across the middle and sliding off of potential tackles without wrapping players up. He doesn’t need to change much to be a dominating middle linebacker. He showed it in flashes throughout the season. But, if he adds the missing elements to his game, he will become the Mike Singletary of the aggressive Vikings defense.
5. Laquon Treadwell – It was thought the Vikings had all the pieces in place to be a division title contender and make a playoff run last year. It was hoped that the role of big-play receiver would be filled by Mike Wallace, but he flamed out and didn’t provide much all season. Treadwell is what the Vikings haven’t had in recent years – a big receiver who can make the tough catch over the middle, win contested balls down the field and being a big red zone presence. It’s tough to expect too much from rookie wide receivers, but it hasn’t seemed to hinder a lot of recent first-round blue-chip receivers to becoming elite in a hurry.
You could make a case for a lot of other players currently with lesser roles in the big picture of things, like Sharrif Floyd, Trae Waynes, Danielle Hunter, Michael Griffin, Terence Newman, Alex Boone, Andre Smith, Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs.
All of them will be key to the Vikings taking the next step to success. But these five are the ones that will likely be make-or-break. If two of them have big years, the Vikings don’t defend their NFC North title. If three or four of them do, they likely get a home game in their first playoff game. If all five live up to the hopes and expectations being placed on them in August, taking the 2016 season the distance isn’t out of the question.null