Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up? The Vikings, who finished 11–5 and earned a playoff berth, yet still need to connect a few dots to become a Super Bowl contender. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse draft order over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
OLB Chad Greenway, CB Terence Newman, CB Josh Robinson, CB Marcus Sherels, SS Andrew Sendejo, RB Matt Asiata
Players that must be re-signed
Newman, Greenway, Asiata, Sendejo. The good news for the Vikings is that all their key and potential priority free agents are either older players with fairly clear contract expectations, or young players with unrealized potential. Newman, who will be 38 in September, had a renaissance season for Mike Zimmer and held a young secondary together. He played 1,014 total snaps in 2015, the most he’d had since breaking the 1,000-snap mark for the Cowboys in 2009, and he used his tremendous knowledge of the game to make up for any physical downturn. Expecting Newman to perform at the same level in 2016 is risky, but he’d be great to re-sign on a one-year veteran deal. The same is true for Greenway, whose run defense skills have eroded, but he’s still a mainstay in some coverage situations.
Asiata provides depth along with Jerick McKinnon behind Adrian Peterson, and he proved that he can handle a limited starting role by rushing for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, when Peterson lost most of that season to a suspension. Those totals dropped to 112 and zero in 2015, but he’s worth another reasonable contract. Sendejo was a decent strong safety last year and would be a good depth option if the team looks to improve at that position.
Most important position to improve
Receiver. Fifth-round rookie Stefon Diggs led the Vikings with 84 targets, 52 receptions and 720 yards—pretty backward numbers for any top receiver in today’s pass-happy NFL. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is a relative bastion of consistency, but after that are a lot of questions. Mike Wallace, signed to a five-year, $60 million contract with $30 million guaranteed in 2013, caught just 39 of the 72 balls thrown his way. He also wasn’t the deep threat the team hoped he would be at all last season, grabbing just two of the 11 passes over 20 yards in the air thrown to him. Wallace has a team-leading cap hit of $11.5 million in the new league year, so his release seems like a probability at worst; there’s no dead money cost to the Vikings if they cut him.
The standout embarrassment of this group remains Cordarrelle Patterson, selected 29th overall in the 2013 draft. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has not found a way for Patterson to excel outside of special teams, and he caught just two passes in the 2015 season. Patterson caught 45 passes in his rookie season under Bill Musgrave, so it may not all be Patterson’s fault. The need is clear: For this offense to improve, the Vikings must either do more with what they have or reboot and find more targets for Teddy Bridgewater.
Other positions to improve
Offensive line, linebacker, safety. “Sporadic, I would say. We’ve got to do better.” That’s how Mike Zimmer described the work of his offensive line during the team’s season-ending press conference in January, and it’s a generous assessment from the head coach. Left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle T.J. Clemmings gave up 14 sacks as a duo in the regular season, and while Clemmings’s performance could be chalked up to inexperience to a degree, Kalil has run out of excuses. The No. 4 pick in 2012, Kalil has suffered through injuries that have limited his effectiveness, but also regressed pretty mightily from a technique perspective—there were times last season when he seemed overwhelmed by the demands put upon him by speed ends.
Guards Michael Harris and Brandon Fusco were decent, and center Joe Berger was a relatively pleasant surprise, but this offense needs help at the edge protection positions, and it needs it now.
Minnesota is pretty stacked at linebacker with former UCLA teammates Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, but Greenway’s decline will have to be addressed sooner than later. With free safety Harrison Smith entering his contract season and the strong safety position undefined, that’s another point of emphasis for a defense that seems ready to join the league’s elite in other areas.
Overall priority this off-season
Take Teddy Bridgewater over the top. Bridgewater threw for 3,231 yards and made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season, but consistency was not his strong suit. He threw for under 200 yards in 10 of 17 games last season, including just 99 yards against the Packers in the regular-season finale. That was a 20–13 win for the Vikings, which seems to validate the theory held by Zimmer and Turner that Bridgewater is to be a gatekeeper and game manager at this point. His coaches would rather Bridgewater stay mistake-proof, and if that reduces the number of explosive plays, that’s an acceptable compromise.
The team could lean on the fact that the Vikings went 8–2 in those 10 games, but if they are to ascend to the next level, they’ll have to do one of two things: Follow the model of the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers and the 2015 Broncos with a decent-at-best quarterback and a historically great defense, or let Bridgewater open it up and enjoy a more balanced attack. The latter plan is more historically probable—as good as Zimmer is at creating defenses, waiting around for an all-time unit is a bit much. Zimmer said in January that the main thing his quarterback needs to correct is a tendency to throw the ball low and have passes batted down. It seems that over the long haul, the Vikings have no excuse outside of personnel missteps and coaching philosophies for not putting a more game-breaking offense on the field.