Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s camp progress will help shape the kind of offense new coach Mike Zimmer runs. But the D also needs a lift

By Mark Mravic
August 11, 2014

Zimmer has his task cut out in fixing a defense that yielded the most points inthe league last year. (Jerry Holt/Zuma Press/Icon SMI) Zimmer has his task cut out in fixing a defense that yielded the most points inthe league last year. (Jerry Holt/Zuma Press/Icon SMI)



MANKATO, MINN. — I’m in the home not only of MMQB tour staple Jake’s Stadium Pizza but also of Vikings training camp, which is hosted by Minnesota State University. Today’s practice was an odd one, as a thunderstorm suspended things after roughly an hour and ultimately moved the second hour into the nearby fieldhouse. Beneath a truss-crossed ceiling and surrounded by banners touting MSU’s track-and-field All-Americans, the Vikings finished out the day in a walkthrough at one-third speed, limiting the amount of insight anyone could glean from the proceedings. But the session was not without its charms, such as the backwards-upside-down visor atop Cordarrelle Patterson’s half-bleached dreads, or the way the scrimmage beanies looked like showercaps atop helmetless heads.

One vivid memory from watching practice

Teddy Bridgewater repeatedly rolling to his left and crisply hitting his receivers in stride, then later dropping straight back to connect with Jarius Wright and Rodney Smith on perfectly timed throws released before the receivers made their breaks. Sure, none of this came with any defensive pressure or even any defenders at all, and Bridgewater wasn’t perfect on the day. But his talent is clear, and when you combine that with the way coaches and players have raved about his immersive work ethic, it’s hard not to feel good about his prospects.

How this team can go 12–4

Is there anything more alluring than a first-round rookie quarterback? Through them, all things seem possible. So let’s begin with that most enticing of 12-4 scenarios: Bridgewater wins the job and kicks down the doors on his way into the league. Even simply being pretty good would do wonders for a Minnesota offense that has a solid line and talented playmakers (the explosive Patterson, the dependable Greg Jennings, red-zone artist Kyle Rudolph at tight end, and that tailback guy) but spent last year running its quarterback job through a rather uninspiring revolving door. Matt Cassel suddenly turning the clock back to 2008 or ’10 could make for a significant turnaround too.

Griffen (97) needs to be take the lead on the pass-rush front. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP) Griffen (97) needs to be take the lead on the pass-rush front. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

Yet more work would be required on the other side of the ball, where the Vikings allowed the most points in the league last season. A true breakout from Everson Griffen at right end, where he takes over for departed stalwart Jared Allen, would be a good place to start, as would the speedy recovery of nose tackle Linval Joseph, a signee from the Giants who suffered a “minor injury” to his calf after he was hit by a stray bullet in a nightclub shooting this past weekend. But the most important piece may be new head coach and secondary whiz Mike Zimmer. If this team is going to suddenly vault into the playoffs, he will need to quickly catalyze the development of young corners Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson and sort out the strong safety position.

How this team can go 4–12

If the defense is more project than quick-fix or if the quarterback is a recent-vintage Cassel or a not-quite-ready Bridgewater, the Vikings will struggle again. Zimmer doesn’t want to throw the rookie to the wolves if the defense is porous and digging holes for the offense, which could mean that defensive struggles end up sinking both units. An opening month featuring the Patriots, Falcons, Saints and Packers is also a recipe for the kind of slow start that can send a season south quickly.

Now, from fantasyland …

1. Adrian Peterson needs no boost in value, but new offensive coordinator Norv Turner appears to be serious about increasing Peterson’s role in the passing game. Peterson hasn’t had more than 217 receiving yards since 2010 and has never had more than 43 receptions, which is why it was interesting to see him being split out wide during the indoor portion of Sunday’s practice. He won’t suddenly become Darren Sproles, but that change in usage could be a nice treat in PPR leagues.


2. Speaking of Turner’s impact, be bullish on Kyle Rudolph. Now, Turner’s history emphasizing tight ends as pass-catchers—from Jay Novacek to Antonio Gates to Jordan Cameron—is well-documented enough that it’s been built into Rudolph’s average draft price. But don’t balk at taking him as a starter when you see he had just 249 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games last season. Those numbers are headed for a sharp increase. Don’t believe the hype? The Vikings just made Rudolph the sixth-highest paid tight end in the league. He’s clearly key to their plans.

3. Cordarrelle Patterson is downright dangerous with the ball in his hands and had a strong finish to his rookie season, which could portend a sophomore leap. But don’t forget to factor Minnesota’s quarterbacking uncertainties into Patterson's price. He could be boom-or-bust on a weekly basis.

The starters

How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:

WR1 Cordarrelle Patterson LDE Brian Robison
LT Matt Kalil DT Sharrif Floyd
LG Charlie Johnson NT Linval Joseph
C John Sullivan RDE Everson Griffen
RG Brandon Fusco OLB Anthony Barr
RT Phil Loadholt MLB Jasper Brinkley/Audie Cole
TE Kyle Rudolph OLB Chad Greenway
WR2 Greg Jennings CB Xavier Rhodes
WR3 Jerome Simpson CB Josh Robinson
QB Matt Cassel/Teddy Bridgewater Nickel Captain Munnerlyn
RB Adrian Peterson FS Harrison Smith
FB Jerome Felton SS Robert Blanton/Kurt Coleman/Chris Crocker
K Blair Walsh P Jeff Locke


As alluded to earlier, the quarterback battle is also related to what shape the rest of the team takes. Bridgewater has earned praise for his preparation and willingness to learn, but he wasn’t quite himself in his preseason debut. The competition appears fluid for now, with no sense of urgency to rush Bridgewater … Jennings will play the slot when the Vikings go three-wide … Similarly, Munnerlyn is the team’s second corner but will cover the slot in nickel packages, which Zimmer’s Cincinnati defenses used on well over half their snaps in recent seasons … Brinkley, who spent his first four years with Minnesota before going to Arizona last season, is locked in a battle with Cole, who took over for Erin Henderson late last season. Brinkley was working with the first team … Blanton’s strained hamstring has complicated the strong safety competition. Zimmer likes Crocker, a former Bengal signed last week, while Coleman had a strong preseason debut, including an interception. The position is wide open.

Best new player in camp

Newcomer Munnerlyn (left) has looked sharp, but he will be happy he doesn’t have to lock up with Patterson when the real games start. (Charlie Neibergall/AP) Newcomer Munnerlyn (left) has looked sharp, but he will be happy he doesn’t have to lock up with Patterson when the real games start. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Munnerlyn, a slot extraordinaire and free agent signee from the Panthers who will be an important veteran presence between two young corners. With Robinson and Marcus Sherels covering the slot last season, the position was a significant weak spot; according to Pro Football Focus the pair ranked 45th and 46th, respectively among 46 qualified slot corners in yards per coverage snap. That won’t be a problem this year.

Strong opinion that I may regret by November

With his first starting gig, Griffen will more than double last year’s sack total of 5½.

MORE VIKINGS: THE PETERSON CONUNDRUM. Read Andy Benoit’s Deep Dive on Minnesota

Something I’ve never seen before

A U.S. senator taking in a special teams walkthrough from the sideline. There was Minnesota’s own Al Franken in Mankato on Sunday, not only for the weather-shortened afternoon practice but also for the morning kick and coverage work. A purple Vikings ballcap pulled over his head and plain navy polo tucked into his jeans, the SNL alumnus and annual training camp spectator posed for requested photos with constituents and chit-chatted about politics and Air America in the afternoon, but otherwise seemed most interested in watching his beloved team go through drills.

Also a new sight for me: an NFL mascot aimlessly twirling in circles on a Segway.

What I thought when I walked out of camp

While it’s hard to read too much into such an unusual practice as the one I saw, the Vikings appear to be set up in the right direction on both sides of the ball thanks to the arrivals of Bridgewater (and Turner) and Zimmer. This should be a year of progress toward bigger-picture goals, even if growing pains seem inevitable and upward mobility in the NFC North appears limited at the moment. Brighter days should be coming, even if some more storms are ahead.

WALL-TO-WALL CAMP COVERAGE: The MMQB’s Complete Training Camp Hub


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