The Vikings endured plenty of off-field drama surrounding Adrian Peterson last season, but with the star back's return, Mike Zimmer's emergence as a solid head coach and a promising showing from Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota now appears to be on the rise.
For years, many were under the impression that Mike Zimmer was one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators, but his no-nonsense way of dealing with everyone—no matter their situation—was going to impede his potential as a head coach. Zimmer is about as apolitical as anyone in the league, and he's not going to say something if he doesn't believe it.
It took far too long for him to get a head coaching opportunity, but the Vikings took a chance, hiring Zimmer for that position in January 2014. He plowed through quite a bit of drama in his first year in Minnesota, dealing with a rookie quarterback, a suspended running back, an offensive line in flux (to put it kindly) and a defense under construction, and Zimmer squeezed a 7–9 finish out of his team in 2014, with a great deal of potential going forward. But if anyone still questioned his validity as a head coach, Zimmer answered them all with the way he handled Adrian Peterson's situation.
While the Vikings' front office was feuding with Peterson's camp regarding the running back's future with the team, seemingly putting Peterson's future with the franchise in doubt, Zimmer was the voice of calm. He didn't interrogate Peterson about his child abuse incident. He didn't kowtow to management and blast Peterson in the media. He showed unrelenting support behind the idea of Peterson returning to the backfield, but also made it clear that whether Peterson held out or not to improve his contract situation, it would be business as usual for the team. It was the balm everyone needed.
“When you have a guy like that, who's gonna stick up for his players and support his players as much as he did in that situation, as another guy in the locker room who sees that, you can't help but wanna do everything to come out here and do everything you can,” TE Kyle Rudolph said in early June. “He'll be our head coach for a long time.”
That was after Peterson returned to OTAs, and everyone now seems happy with the situation. That's thanks to, more than anything else, the way Zimmer handled it.
Now, with Peterson in the fold, it's time to improve on last year's mark, and there are many reasons the Vikings are a chic pick to ascend to possible contention in 2015. Teddy Bridgewater has all the potential you'd want in a second-year quarterback, and he proved his cool under fire in several in-game situations last season. He'll have a new primary target in Mike Wallace, acquired from the Dolphins in a March 13 trade. Peterson is obviously a huge addition to the offense if he can regain his old form on the field and keep the distractions to a minimum everywhere else. First-round pick Trae Waynes from Michigan State gives Zimmer another potential lockdown cornerback to pair with Xavier Rhodes. Second-round linebacker Eric Kendricks will play alongside former UCLA teammate Anthony Barr, who's one of the more intriguing young pass-rushers in the league.
There are still some legitimate questions about Minnesota's offensive line (especially about left tackle Matt Kalil, who had an awful 2014 season), but this is a team on the rise, and 2015 should see some major gains for the franchise in the ultra-competitive NFC North. One thing's for sure: The Vikings picked the right head coach, and that's a big part of the battle.
Best acquisition: Mike Wallace, WR
In 2014, Bridgewater tied for 11th in the league with 16 completions that went 20 yards in the air or more. That's not bad for a rookie who was still finding his way, but in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system, the expectation is that there will be more vertical gains. Wallace, who caught six such passes for 199 yards and a touchdown from Ryan Tannehill in Miami last season, will undoubtedly see the majority of Bridgewater's deep balls in the near future.
“I like Mike Wallace, he’s got some fire and he comes up to me all of the time and says, ‘You can’t stop me today,’ and stuff like that,” Zimmer said in June. “Hey, I like those guys that are competitors. He works extremely hard. I think he’s developing a good relationship with everybody on the football team and not just Teddy.”
As for Wallace, moving from the West Coast offense paradigm in Miami to a three-digit vertical system in Minnesota is right up his alley, and he couldn't be happier.
“I think it's more so [like] my first four years,” Wallace said in late May, referring to his early career in Pittsburgh. “It's a vertical offense, [rather] than a short, West Coast offense. You go down the field a lot more here, more what I'm accustomed to.”
Biggest loss: Greg Jennings, WR
Yes, the addition of Wallace should add some downfield fire to Bridgewater's passing game, and his kind of vertical speed is a perfect match for the route combinations drawn up by Turner. But the cupboard is still relatively bare at the receiver position, and the Vikings didn't seem to see Jennings as a valued asset, despite the fact that he led the team in receptions in each of his two seasons there. Not that the 31-year-old Jennings is the player he once was during his peak with the Packers, but the Vikings could have been forgiven for adopting an “any port in a storm” strategy with the veteran possession receiver.
In the end, Jennings signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Dolphins, a low-risk contract that the Vikings could have easily matched. Jennings's old contract did prove to be too much of a salary cap hit, but the team hasn't really replaced him as an inside-outside receiver. Yes, Charles Johnson has shown potential, and yes, everyone hopes that Cordarrelle Patterson will turn things around, but the receiver position still is a pretty serious liability—and in a passing league, that's never a good thing.
Underrated draft pick: T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pitt (110th overall pick)
To call Clemmings underrated might be a bit of a stretch, given all the pre-draft buzz about the right tackle, who moved to that position in 2013 after three seasons on the defensive line. Clemmings is still learning the particulars of the position, but at 6'5" and 309 pounds, he's got all the athleticism and aggressiveness you'd want from a tackle. When I put together his SI 64 scouting report, I compared him to Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith, who might be the best in the business right now. Like Smith, Clemmings will face his share of technique fixes at the next level, but there's a lot to like here. And according to general manager Rick Spielman, the stress fracture in Clemmings's foot that may have caused his slide down draft boards isn't a big deal in the long term—Spielman said in May that it was an old injury discovered during exams at the scouting combine. Clemmings has participated in OTAs, and the immediate plan may be to plug him in at left guard.
“We’re very excited that we were able to get a guy of that caliber, of that talent, that we were able to get him in the fourth round,” Speilman said back then. “When you look at the junior tape on him and the jump that he made from his junior to senior year, it’s pretty remarkable for how quickly he picked that up. We went down to the Senior Bowl. It probably was not as great of a week as he probably anticipated; we moved him over to the left side a little bit, he’s basically been on the right side, but we’re very excited to get an opportunity to work with him. He has the athletic skill set to play both sides, and I know our coaches, offensive coaches and offensive line coaches were very excited to get an opportunity to work with this kid just because of the tremendous upside that he has.”
Upside is right, and if Clemmings is able to live up to his tremendous potential, the Vikings may have their future franchise pass-protector in the fold.
Looming question for training camp: Can Adrian Peterson beat the age curve?
Peterson turned 30 in March, and that's a dangerous age for running backs. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, There have been 43 seasons in which backs aged 30 or older have run for 1,000 yards or more. That sounds encouraging, right? Sure, until you look further out in the age curve. There have been 21 seasons for backs 31 or older, nine seasons for backs 32 or older, and from age 33 on? Well, good luck with that. John Riggins broke the 1,000-yard mark at 34 and 35, and Franco Harris did it at 33. That's it.
Peterson already proved that he's a physical freak by returning from a serious knee injury to rush for 2,097 yards in 2012, but the realities of age in football, especially at his position, are even tougher to overcome. To counter this seeming inevitability, the Vikings are planning some smart contingencies. They'll look to monitor his touches out of the backfield, and it's Turner's intention to get Peterson more involved in the offense in other ways, which would be a great help to Bridgewater.
“In Coach Turner's offense, there's so much he throws out there,” Peterson recently said. “I'll be more involved in the passing game, going out wide, presenting myself for a checkdown... making the defense play more balanced.”
It's a slippery slope with aging superstars in the NFL. Peterson has some fairly monstrous cap hits over the next three seasons if he's on the roster for all of them, but there are almost no penalties to the team if he's released after this season. This is a crucial year for Peterson—and the Vikings—in that regard.