3 TO LIKE
1. Defensive line rotation
Last year, the Vikings had one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. They had speed rushers with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, with help from blitzing linebackers. They had strength in the middle with Linval Joseph and on the edge with Brian Robison. They seemed to have it all, but were they getting worn down?
After a 5-0 start and a 3-8 finish, some members of the defense admitted they might have gotten a bit worn down when the offense wasn’t able to sustain drives and thereby give the defense sufficient rest.
This year, defensive line coach Andre Patterson has liked what he has seen from a line that will accelerate Hunter’s status, rotate Robison and has plenty of options on the interior with Tom Johnson and Datone Jones at the three-technique, Shamar Stephen at nose, and Jaleel Johnson and Will Sutton able play either defensive tackle position.
Last year, Hunter emerged as the leading sacker on the team. This year, he could propel his stats into becoming a 15-sack edge rusher with more playing time and increased experience. Stephen Weatherly is also expected to see an increased role as Patterson’s continues to nurture prospects into producers.
2. Dalvin Cook
The Vikings thought they got a steal when Dalvin Cook dropped to the second round of the draft. He has done nothing to dissuade that notion in spring practices.
He is a different runner than Adrian Peterson, able to hide behind an offensive line and wait for an opening. His shiftiness in short areas should be a benefit with the line still needing to prove it can open holes, but Cook also has the burst to exploit a defensive containment mistake on the edge and has natural pass-catching ability.
The Vikings will have to figure out the proper timeshare between Cook, Latavius Murray, who seems willing to grind out the hard yards on short down and distances, and Jerick McKinnon, but for the first time in a decade the Vikings won’t be so reliant on one back, as they were with Peterson. When Peterson was on, no one was better, but over the last three years he off – as in, off on the sidelines – more than he was on.
Eventually, Cook is expected to get the bulk of the carries. When that happens, they should have a viable Peterson replacement.
3. Involving the alumni
The return of Ahmad Rashad and especially Randy Moss created a stir during minicamp when the Vikings announced their pending induction into the Ring of Honor. Moss was a hit with the team, as Alex Boone and others greeted and embraced him. Some were in awe; others simply were excited to see him.
But the Vikings, and Mike Zimmer especially, have done a great job of involving the alumni more and more. John Randle attended the final minicamp practice. Robert Smith and Randall McDaniel attended the team’s charity golf outing, along with a host of others.
Having the big names of the past return to the sidelines and post-practice huddles can only help build a respect for young players starting to learn what it means to be a professional.
3 TO LOVE
1. Teddy’s return (kind of)
When the Vikings released a video of Teddy Bridgewater throwing early in organized team activities, it was met with enthusiasm by fans and skepticism by media. Both vantage points were understandable. It showed the progress that Bridgewater had made since shredding his left knee during a preseason practice last Aug. 30, but it didn’t offer much context by the limited amount of throws shown.
What the media saw the following week was reason for optimism regarding his recovery. He is throwing with velocity and moving better than expected. The amateur video analysts have offered their opinions, ranging from impressed to skeptical about how much weight he is placing on the leg during his follow-through. But watching him take his drops, mimic the movements in a mythical pocket and even moving laterally offers hope that – at some point – he may be able to return to action. That “some point” is yet to be determined, but considering his uncertain future last fall, seeing his current movement skills is encouraging.
2. Zimmer returns, vision returning
Starting with Bridgewater’s injury and working through the season, last year might have been the most frustrating of Zimmer’s career. He lost a starting quarterback he admired, suffered the loss of three starting tackles and Adrian Peterson, endured eight different starting combinations on the offensive line, saw his offensive coordinator quit less than midway through the season and dealt with one surgery after another to repair a torn retina in his right eye that occurred just days before Norv Turner left him.
These days, Zimmer’s sense of humor has returned, just as his vision is returning. His offense has renewed hope and his coordinator is in place with a full offseason of work with his other starting quarterback.
Here’s hoping Zimmer can find his happy place and see it clearly in 2017.
3. Treadwell turning a corner
First-round picks always have high hopes and carry big expectations on their shoulders. Not all of them, however, have a lingering injury from college to add challenges to their immersion into the NFL. Laquon Treadwell had all of that in 2016, as well as a season that was somewhere between disappointing and bust.
Now he is looking to avoid the “bust” label from a greater perspective. Spring practices have brought into bloom his former explosiveness. He looks quicker, more sure of himself and therefore has greater confidence. He’s also been working as the No. 3 receiver and looking pretty sharp doing it.
Trae Waynes took time to develop. Treadwell needed time to heal. Now both of them should start living up to “first-round” expectations.
3 TO FRET
1. Will Michael Floyd provide depth?
Last year, the Vikings entered the season with Stefon Diggs and Charles Johnson as the starting receivers. But, as Johnson failed to provide much production, Adam Thielen took over his spot. Both Diggs and Thielen came close to reaching 1,000 yards, but neither did. Cordarrelle Patterson developed some, but with Patterson gone now, Treadwell is emerging. Still, the Vikings will need greater depth at the position.
They drafted two rookies, but Rodney Adams and Stacy Coley will need time to develop. Signing Michael Floyd came with some risk, and the possibility he will start the season suspended. His explanation to the court on June 26 after testing positive for alcohol a week ago will be an important day to see if Floyd even remains with the Vikings. If he doesn’t, it will put greater need on Treadwell to emerge this season and Diggs and Thielen to stay healthy.
2. Will Sharrif Floyd play again?
When healthy, Sharrif Floyd can live up to his first-round draft status, but in 2016 he played only one game and a surgery that damaged a nerve in his leg continues to keep him sidelined. The Vikings have wisely prepared an alternative plan that includes Tom Johnson, Jones, Sutton and Jaleel Johnson.
The issue has created a deeper appreciation in Floyd for how quickly a career path can be detoured. If he is ever able to get that nerve to fire as it should, he could return to provide a strong presence on the defensive line, but right now it’s looking like the Vikings will have to continue without his services for the foreseeable future.
3. Offensive line depth
The offensive line was the top priority for the Vikings in the offseason. They signed tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, both of them part of the top-10 available tackles in free agency. That should help after a terrible year for that unit.
However, behind them the Vikings have very little experienced, viable options. Jeremiah Sirles and T.J. Clemmings struggled in emergency roles last year and Rashod Hill has minimal experience. Willie Beavers is still raw and inconsistent and the other options aren’t ready for game-day duty.
Besides Boone, the interior three spots are unsettled. Offensive linemen often talk about how much time on task they need with each other to become an effective unit, but this year the Vikings could start the season with only Boone starting in the same spot he was at the beginning of last year.
Any progress the offense will make in 2016 has to start up front, but “up front” is still a big question mark that won’t provide any answers until the regular season starts.