The 2012 Vikings finished with a 10-6 record in head coach Leslie Frazier's second season, leading to encouragement for the 2013 campaign. That faded quickly when the team ended the first half of the season with a 1-7 record, and had to rally to finish 5-10-1. A disappointing season cost Frazier his job, a decision that did not go over well with his players. Safety Jamarca Sanford cried when Frazier gave the team the news on Dec. 31, and end Jared Allen said that Frazier was "very genuine with us. I will always love him."
That said, Frazier was the third head coach fired by the franchise since 2005, when current owner Zygi Wilf took over. The Vikings have had four winning seasons in those nine years, and only one since 2009, when Brett Favre took the Vikings to within a couple plays of the Super Bowl. To try and establish some much-needed stability, general manager Rick Speilman decided that the team's new head coach would be Mike Zimmer, a long-time defensive coordinator and one of the most respected assistant coaches in the NFL. Zimmer has turned defenses around in Dallas and Cincinnati, but he's got a bigger challenge here. Not only do the Vikings have the same quarterback problems they've had since Favre lost his fastball in 2010, their defense fell off the map in 2013. It was a surprise given the team's talent and Frazier's background as a defensive mind, but Minnesota finished 27th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics on defense last year, and 30th against the pass. That will be Zimmer's mess to clean up, and he's more than qualified to do so.
"It’s all about getting the right players [who] fit the system we’re looking for, guys that share the same vision that I have for this football team and putting that all together," Zimmer said at the scouting combine about that particular repair job. The Vikings lost Allen in free agency to the Bears, but they have as formidable a front seven as you'll see in the league. Zimmer and Speilman replaced Allen with UCLA pass-rush terror Anthony Barr in the first round of the draft, and traded back up into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick.
That's the other long-term fix for this team. At least, that's what Zimmer hopes. Speilman is on the hook for taking Christian Ponder in the first round of the 2011 draft, and Ponder has rarely come close to resembling a franchise quarterback since. He's on his last year, and stopgap starter Matt Cassel signed a two-year, $10 million deal in March. In the long term, it will be up to Bridgewater and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner to bring the passing game back to a team in desperate need of some firepower.
Zimmer has promised no quick fixes. He's smart enough to know the Vikings have some holes still to fill, and that the NFC North is a brutal division. But if everything clicks right, his team could come closer to the success of the 2012 season, without the free-fall that followed. Making smart moves in the draft and free agency? That's a good start.
Best acquisition: Linval Joseph, DT
When you talk about the post-Allen front seven in Minnesota, there's a lot to like. Ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison got lucrative extensions in the last year, Barr should be a great hybrid rusher from the strong-side linebacker spot, second-year tackle Sharrif Floyd will bloom under Zimmer's tutelage, and third-round pick Scott Crichton from Oregon has what it takes to be a hybrid end/tackle on passing downs. But the most underrated deal this team made in the offseason (and one of the more underrated free-agent signings overall) came when Minnesota stole Joseph from the Giants with a five-year, $31.5 million deal. Pro Football Focus' 21st-ranked defensive tackle regardless of scheme in 2013, Joseph put up 26 run stops, eight quarterback hits and 11 quarterback hurries in addition to 3.0 sacks and 34 solo tackles. The 6-4, 323-pound Joseph will be Zimmer's primary run-plugger and inside double team target, but he can also disrupt quarterbacks at an estimable level for his size and position.
Biggest loss: Jared Allen, DE
If anyone can beat the age curve that seems to befall 99 out of 100 pass-rushers when they hit the wrong side of 30, it would be Allen, who has amassed 55.5 sacks in the last four seasons, and 23.5 since he hit the big 3-0. Of course, the Vikings have enough talent to replace Allen on the field, but the larger point is what they'll do without his leadership by word and deed, and his constant example as a superstar player who seems to always give maximum effort. We sports hacks tend to overvalue intangibles to an annoying degree, but Allen's intangibles are worth noting, and their absence will be felt on this defense.
Underrated draft pick: OG David Yankey, Stanford (Fifth round, 14th overall pick)
Going into the 2014 draft, it was thought by many that Yankey was on the same basic level as UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo; we had Yankey 31st overall in our SI 64 pre-draft rankings. But he fell all the way to the fifth round, while the freakishly talented Su'a-Filo went 33rd overall to the Texans. That nine other guards were drafted between Su'a-Filo and Yankey was perhaps the draft's biggest surprise, and it could be a long-term epic win for the Vikings. Yankey is more a run-blocker than a pure pass-protector, which works nicely in an offense that will have Adrian Peterson as its epicenter as long as Peterson is there. Yes, Yankey needs to get lower at times, and he will get popped back on occasion. He also benefited from Stanford's multiple tight end sets, but there are a few NFL teams with graphic needs at the guard position that potentially blew it by passing on Yankey. He's got the potential to be a starter in his first NFL season.
Looming question for training camp: Can this secondary cover anybody?
Last season, the Vikings' starting cornerbacks allowed opponent passer ratings of 140.3 (Chris Cook), 127.0 (Josh Robinson), 86.1 (Marcus Sherels), and 78.3 (Xavier Rhodes). Cook had perhaps the worst season of any cornerback in the NFL last year, allowing nine touchdowns and grabbing no picks on 59 targets. He gave up 42 receptions for 557 yards, and he got a one-way trip to San Francisco for his trouble. Rhodes was one of Minnesota's three first-round picks in 2013, and the Vikings are desperately hoping he can stay healthy in the new season (he missed three games last year) and develop into a true number-one pass defender. He's got the size and talent to eventually become a lockdown press cornerback, and Zimmer has developed enough of those players to bring some hope.
Safety Harrison Smith had his own injury issues in 2013 (he missed eight games with turf toe), but he's got Pro Bowl potential when he's on the field. The Vikings will put Smith and Sanford at safety this season, with Rhodes and free-agent pickup Captain Munnerlyn (who allowed an 85.5 opponent rating for the Panthers in 2013) as the starting cornerbacks. One thing's for sure: there's nowhere to go but up, and reforming secondaries is one of Zimmer's strong points.