Minnesota Vikings: Looking Ahead to 2016
The season came to a heartbreaking end for the 2015 Minnesota Vikings, but 11 wins and a division title makes it a strong season to build on for next year. Here are five things we learned this year, and five questions heading into next season for the Minnesota Vikings:
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED IN 2015
1. The Vikings Have the Right Head Coach
Arguably, the most prevailing theme of the 2015 Minnesota Vikings is that Head Coach Mike Zimmer is "the right guy" to lead this team. Things we heard when Zimmer was hired: one, he got the most out of his players, and two, he was a defensive wizard. Well, he does get the most out of his players, and he is a defensive wizard. In just two seasons, the Vikings have gone from ranking dead-last in points allowed in 2013, to ranking 5th in points allowed per game at 18.9 in 2015. After embarrassing losses to the Seahawks and Packers at home this season, Zimmer showed the ability to gameplan in the rematches that led to a win at Lambeau Field and a would-be win at home in the playoffs. The Vikings were also one of the least-penalized teams in the league in 2015. Discipline, preparation, and success are three qualities that Zimmer's teams have shown and three qualities that were lacking under previous head coaches Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, and Mike Tice.
2. We Have a Bright Future
In 2015, the Vikings improved by four wins -- going from a third place, 7-9 finish in 2014 to an 11-5 record and the first NFC North Division title since 2009. Zimmer gets a lot of the credit, but the young and talented core of the team really stands out. The Vikings began the season with one of the youngest rosters in terms of average age. The young talent stands out especially on defense, as starters Everson Griffen (28), Linval Joseph (27), Sharrif Floyd (25), Anthony Barr (24), Xavier Rhodes (26), and Harrison Smith (27) will all be under 30 by the time next season begins. Each of those budding stars had good-to-great seasons in 2015, and all but one (Joseph) were drafted by the Vikings. Speaking of the draft...
3. The New Crop Looks Good
General Manager Rick Spielman deserves a lot of credit for building through the draft and that again was the case in 2015. Seven out of the 10 rookies taken in the draft saw meaningful playing time at key positions and special teams. Second round pick Eric Kendricks started 11 games at middle linebacker, leading the team in tackles (92) and tallying four sacks. Fifth round pick Stefon Diggs led the Vikings in receptions (52) and receiving yards (720) despite only starting nine games. Fourth rounder T.J. Clemmings started all 16 games at right tackle and third round defensive end Danielle Hunter was second on the team in sacks (six) while being the league's youngest player. First round pick Trae Waynes was a disappointment as he started only one game, but Zimmer's scheme has been known for being a tough one to learn for young cornerbacks and Waynes recorded an interception and pass breakup in the playoff loss versus Seattle.
4. Adrian Peterson Is Not Slowing Down
While the Vikings have one of the youngest rosters in the league, Adrian Peterson defied the notion that running backs break down after turning 30. In his ninth season, Peterson posted the third-most yards (1,485) in his career, and joined Curtis Martin as the only running backs to lead the league in rushing after turning 30. Peterson showed no signs of rust after appearing in only one game in 2014 as he faced charges of child abuse. Now, contrary to popular opinion, Peterson is not an alien/superhero hybrid only a handful of running backs have had Pro Bowl seasons in their 30s (Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, et al.). Luckily, the Vikings seem to have found another back, Jerick McKinnon, to lighten Peterson's heavy workload which could (theoretically) stretch his Hall of Fame-worthy career out another year or two.
5. A Changing of the Guard in the North
For the first time in five years, a team NOT named the Green Bay Packers took home the NFC North Division crown. The Packers looked elite in the first half of the season -- starting 6-0 -- but the team faded to lose six of their final 10 games (including, of course, a loss to the Vikings in the final game of the year). Is it too soon to declare the Packers a team on the decline? Probably, considering they just handed the Redskins a 35-18 loss in the Wild Card round of the playoffs and Aaron Rodgers just turned 32 in December. But the fact is, the Vikings have at least caught up with the "mighty" green and gold. The Chicago Bears (6-10 in 2015) seem to be entering a rebuilding period and the Detroit Lions (7-9) are the Detroit Lions. Meanwhile, the Vikings are trending up while the rest of the division seems to be trending down.
FIVE QUESTIONS HEADING INTO 2016
1. Will Teddy and the Passing Game Take the Next Step?
After a record-setting rookie season and the prospects of being paired up with the best running back in the NFL, the expectations were at an all time high for Teddy Bridgewater heading into 2015. To say Teddy didn't perform up those expectations would be an understatement. Bridgewater threw the same number of touchdown passes as he did in his rookie season (14) and improved just slightly in the yardage department (from 2,919 to 3,231), but that was with four more starts, a perceived #1 target in speedster Mike Wallace, the return of Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph, and another year in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. That being said, many players struggle in their second NFL season (the often-cited "Sophomore Slump") and Teddy often didn't have requisite time to complete many downfield passes as he was the 6th most sacked quarterback in the league. Also, Teddy continued to show in his second year several promising (albeit cliched) qualities including "grit", "toughness", and "poise". Bridgewater also posted another strong December reminiscent of his rookie season -- completing almost 66% of his passes with six touchdowns to only two interceptions and winning three straight games to close out the year. However, many of those same questions we were asking before this past season have yet to be answered heading into 2016.
2. Who Will Be Blocking for Adrian, Teddy and the Rest of the Offense?
The old adage "it all starts up front" is an old adage for a reason -- it's true. The Vikings offensive line gave up 44 sacks in 2015 -- (as mentioned above) the 6th most in the league. The positives to take away from this year include Matt Kalil's return to competency after two nightmarish seasons and Joe Berger's adept fill-in job at center. Rookie T.J. Clemmings had an up-and-down season filling in for the injured Phil Loadholt at right tackle, impending free agent Mike Harris was little more than average at right guard, and Brandon Fusco regressed after the move to left guard. Veteran center John Sullivan, who missed the entire 2015 season, may be a question mark heading into the season as he recovers from back surgery -- which, this reporter has learned, is not easy to come back from. With uncertainty at possibly four of the five positions, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings fill their biggest need in the offseason.
3. Which, If Any, of the Veterans Will Be Back?
The contracts of three long-time Vikings stalwarts and one older contributor will need to be decided upon this offseason. Linebacker Chad Greenway, who just turned 32, will enter his 10th season in 2016 and is an unrestricted free agent. A leader on the field and in the locker room, Greenway took a pay cut and accepted what he was told would be a limited role this season. He then finished third on the team in tackles, registering 2.5 sacks and had a memorable pick-six against San Diego. Defensive end Brian Robison will also head into his 10th season, but may be in danger of being cut to save on the salary cap. In two seasons in Mike Zimmer's defense, Robison has tallied only 9.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Danielle Hunter progressed faster than expected in his rookie season. That being said, Robison provides valuable leadership and versatility, and he has expressed a strong desire to remain in purple -- meaning he may accept a pay cut. Right tackle Phil Loadholt suffered a season-ending injury for the second consecutive year, making him a likely salary cap casualty. The Vikings will save $8 million if they choose to cut the seven-year veteran. Finally, cornerback Terence Newman is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. A Zimmer favorite, the 37-year-old showed no signs of aging, making play after play and leading the team in interceptions with three. Newman will turn 38 in September, making him an affordable option to bring back.
4. How Active Will the Vikings Be in Free Agency?
The Vikings were not very active last offseason in terms of signing big free agents. Newman and backup quarterback Shaun Hill were the only meaningful free agents brought in to Minnesota. With over $20 million (possible $30 million) in open money this offseason, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings will target any big name free agents to fill needs heading into 2016. Tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Kelechi Osemele headline offensive linemen while safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Janoris Jenkins highlight the available defensive backs. Then there's wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Most if not all of these players may get the dreaded Franchise Tag, but those players who get to walk may view Minnesota (with a great coach, new stadium and playoff appearance) as an attractive destination. It's up to Vikings brass to decide how aggressive they want to be. With so many young players (Smith, Rhodes, Floyd, Kalil) coming up on contract years, however, it may be wise to be relatively frugal in 2016.
5. Can Blair Walsh Get Over The Miss?
After a very shaky preseason, kicker Blair Walsh went on to have a fantastic season in 2015. Walsh made 34 field goals, the most in the NFL and the second-most in franchise history, while only missing five (he missed four extra points as well, but we're focusing on the positives right now). These numbers, of course, mean little to Vikings fans after Walsh missed a 27-yard attempt in the closing seconds that would've given the Vikings a 12-10 lead and probable win over the Seahawks in Sunday's Wild Card playoff game. Given the extremely make-able distance (extra points are 32 yards), it was arguably the biggest choke job by a single player in Vikings history, if not the history of professional football. That may seem harsh, but it was 27 yards. Vikings fans will have to stomach that gut-punch all offseason, but it's nothing compared to what Walsh will endure this offseason. Can he rebound next season? Will the Vikings bring in competition? How will Vikings fans react to his next miss? Only time will tell.