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 DAN GREENE
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.
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.
MANKATO, Minn.-Adrian Peterson, amateur quarterback. Vikes at work this afternoon. pic.twitter.com/taXSWjMF8C
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 10, 2014
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.
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
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.
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.