The Minnesota Vikings are 5-3 and it seems to be a matter of timing for whether you want to view that favorably or not.
In the preseason, I would have considered it a decent start, figuring they could come out of the first five games with two or three wins and the next three with two or three wins.
So I, like everyone else, had it wrong. The five-game stretch to start the season adjusted perceptions on a couple of fronts – about the Vikings themselves and the teams they were playing.
But if you had figured they were going to lose Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, both starting offensive tackles and their coordinator – all in a 10-week stretch – and still be 5-3, well, that changes things. Each time we heard “next man up” in the locker room, it meant “next opinion up” as predictions and expectations mutated with the times.
No matter how you viewed Bridgewater and Peterson, one of them was considered by most people the past, present or future “face of the franchise.” Now it’s possible they may both just simply be in the past.
To get to 5-3 isn’t bad considering all the built-in excuses the injuries have caused, but to get to there on a three-game losing streak has raised some questions. Here are my top “midseason mysteries” for which I still don’t have confident answers.
WHERE HAS WRIGHT BEEN? I completely understand the thinking that Jarius Wright is pigeonholed as a slot receiver. Because of his size, that’s what he is. But you know what else he is? A very good slot receiver, so I don’t agree with the thinking that he has sent to the inactive list for much of the season. Fans can clamor for more playing time for first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, but if the quick passing game is a thing, few on the roster do it better than Wright taking a short pass and turning it into a 15-yard gain. If Treadwell isn’t going to be used much, it’s time for Wright to get involved in three- and four-receiver sets.
WHEN/IF ADRIAN RETURNS THIS YEAR: I have no real answers and I don’t think the Vikings are sure, either. Peterson has been around the locker room, but no one is willing to say that he will be ready in the next month. He’s one of the many players on injured reserve, but he appears to be the leading candidate among to be the one player they can bring off injured reserve. Of course, we’ve seen how a “leading candidate” has performed well in other theaters of life recently.
WILL TEDDY RETURNS AT ALL? It’s so early in the Bridgewater recovery process that it is impossible to know whether he will be able to play again and be healthy enough to “protect himself.” Even the earliest estimates don’t have him ready for action by the start of the 2017 season. He has been around Winter Park and walking without a brace on his surgically repaired knee, but atrophy is apparent and walking is far different than being able to escape from a collapsing pocket in the NFL.
ELLISON UNDER THE RADAR: There are invariably several players that evoke fans to clamor they should get more playing time. Treadwell is among them. Cordarrelle Patterson has been in the past, as has Jerick McKinnon. My biggest confusion with the Norv Turner offense has centered on a different, much more under-the-radar players. With the offensive line struggles of late – and they played MUCH better against Detroit last week – I’m left confused as to why Rhett Ellison and his in-line blocking prowess haven’t been used more. His 26 snaps against Detroit were more than any other game this season, so maybe new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur sees things the same way I do, at least on that front.
“He’s smart. He’s tough. He blocks. He does a lot of dirty work, but when he gets the ball he can do some things with it,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s very, very reliable. He’s always going to show up every Sunday. He’s always going to show during practice. He does his job. He’s quiet. I think it means a lot to him.”
He should mean a lot to them, too, especially with the tackle inconsistencies the Vikings have experienced.
WHAT’S UP WITH FLOYD? Sharrif Floyd appears to be on the road to recovery, finally running on a side field during practices. But, clearly, Zimmer’s patience with Floyd’s recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery is wearing thin. Teammate Linval Joseph says Floyd is working hard on his comeback, but the Vikings could need him soon if injuries work their way from the offensive line to the defensive line.
“Sharrif is doing the best he can do. From what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard, he’s trying to do the best he can do, trying to bounce back and we can’t wait to get him back,” Joseph said.
DID PATTERSON REVIVE HIS CAREER? At the very least, Patterson has taken it off life support. The Vikings figured out how to use him best with quick passes near the line of scrimmage and letting him use his well-framed body to muscle through defenders. He still hasn’t proven much of a threat out in patterns, dropping a pass in the end zone last week, so exactly how much value he will have once his contract expires after this season remains to be seen. The Vikings didn’t pick up his fifth-year option so all options are open to him.
IS LONG EARNING A FULL-TIME SPOT? Vikings fans vilified Matt Kalil’s performance in recent years, but with him on injured reserve after hip surgery, it emphasizes just how hard it is to find qualified left tackles. He is on the option year of his rookie contract right now, meaning a decision will have to be made. This was supposed to be his “prove it” year, but instead it could turn out to be Jake Long’s career revival season. Long was outmatched in his first (limited) appearance, but he has improved each of his last two outings as the starting left tackle. If that continues, he could be the one receiving a multi-year contract from the Vikings and not Kalil. Either way, their plights underscore the need to draft a tackle early next year.
WHO IS THE BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER? This has been an occasional point of debate on our Viking Update podcasts this year. What started with four possibilities – Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Joseph and Everson Griffen – has been narrowed. If forced to pick one at midseason, my vote would go to Joseph, who has been an absolute beast in the middle and improved his pass rush. He goes largely unnoticed because of the position he plays, but not by his teammates, who have said for a while he might be their best defender because of his freakish strength.
- Joseph has played in the offensive backfield on occasion in college and in high school, but one of the wrinkles Shurmur added for the Vikings was using Joseph as a decoy lead blocker in goal-line situations on Sunday. Turned out to be good eye candy that drew the attention of defenders on both Ellison’s touchdown run and Kyle Rudolph’s touchdown reception. “It’s football, and offense, defense, you’ve got to rise to the occasion,” he said. “That’s what I did, trying to help the team win.” Imagine the poor high school defenders who had to see him with the ball in his hands a decade ago. “It was close to the goal line. Hopped over everybody, got a touchdown,” he said of his high school experience there. “Pretty good. Had a lot more success in high school. Ran the ball a lot more in high school. Played tight end as well, but that’s irrelevant right now.”
- Terence Newman is usually a starting outside cornerback. Last year, he played safety in an injury pinch. Last week, he played nickel cornerback and is likely to do the same again this week with Captain Munnerlyn ruled out. Is there any spot in the defensive backfield the 38-year-old Newman can’t play? “I hope I don’t have to find out,” Zimmer said.
- Taylor Heinicke isn’t likely to be active on Sunday, his first game back since severing a tendon in July, but he could be auditioning for a backup role sometime in the future, whether it is later this year or next year. Heinicke was added to the 53-man roster off the non-football-injury list last week, and the 36-year-old Shaun Hill could be in his final NFL season.