By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings exceeded the national expectations with seven wins.That, however, is not satisfactory to the team. Two wins below .500 and missing out on making the playoffs is not what they sought out to do before the season began.
“This year, I think, the thing that is a good sign going into the offseason is nobody is satisfied where were are at,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “A lot of people think that we had a good year comparatively to where we were a year ago, but none of us are satisfied where we are at. It still wasn’t good enough for us, so that’s a good thing when you can get a win and still not be satisfied and go into an offseason and be able to build on this and hopefully be better next year.”
One year after going into the offseason with a lot of uncertainty, the Vikings prepare for free agency and the draft anchored at two of the most important jobs on the team. Head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater are going nowhere for a long time.
“I definitely feel that same vibe,” safety Harrison Smith said about the positivity. “I think there’s a lot of confidence moving forward; not that we’re happy with where we’re at, but I think there’s a positive mindset of where we can go.”
Zimmer managed the team very well in his first season as a head coach in the NFL. He had to deal with losing his best offensive player, Adrian Peterson, to legal issues following the Week 1 win. Then he had the distraction of his legal case followed by a wealth of injuries. Zimmer was not perfect, but handled a lot of the issues as well as possible.
Bridgewater proved to be the most NFL-ready rookie quarterback. His ceiling looks to be extremely high. He showed that he has the mental tools and intangibles as well as the physical tools to succeed.
The Vikings believe they have a very bright future with several young players continuing their development. The Vikings have young stars several layers of each side of the ball.
On offense, the Vikings have the skill players in place. Along with Bridgewater, running back Jerick McKinnon, wide receivers Charles Johnson and Adam Thielen, and tight end Chase Ford showed potential to be very successful for the Vikings in the future. Along the offensive line, only Brandon Fusco was playing really well before he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3. As the season wore on, the offensive line was hit with injuries and some reserves stepped in and did all right.
Johnson, Thielen and Ford were pleasant surprises. Johnson came out of nowhere after the Vikings claimed him off wavers from the Cleveland Browns. He became one of Bridgewater’s favorite targets and one of the team’s top two wide receivers. Thielen spent last season on the practice squad and earned the final wide receiver spot on the roster going into the season. He was a special teams standout, which included a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. He was superb in coverage with several open field tackles on punt and kick returners. Ford filled in for injured starter Kyle Rudolph and became a valuable receiver over the middle of the field.
On defense, they had several guys stand out at each level. Along the line, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd solidified their spots in the starting lineup. Griffen recorded a career-high 12 sacks. Floyd was good in run support and as a pass rusher, but injuries slowed his production down a bit.
Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr has superstar written all over him. He is big and athletic. He just needs to improve his tackling and awareness as a linebacker. In college, Barr was a running back before switching to defensive end.
In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes emerged as one of the top shutdown corners in the league. The interceptions have not come, but the second-year cornerback is quickly earning the reputation that he cannot be thrown at. His play forced Zimmer to abandon his usual style of playing corners exclusively on one side and had Rhodes shadow the top other team’s top receiver.
Along with Rhodes, Smith is one of the top safeties in the league. He was the only player in the league to have at least three interceptions and three sacks.
While several young players showed to have super star upside, some others took some steps back. Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Kalil, Robert Blanton, Josh Robinson, Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke all need to have very good offseasons to secure their place on the team for the future.
Patterson and Kalil were the most disappointing players on the team. Both were expected to be big parts of helping the team develop Bridgewater and build the foundation of the future. Patterson looked lost as a route runner and looked like a player who didn’t care at times. Zimmer said he has a plan for the second-year wide receiver, and from there, it is up to him. Kalil improved over the last few weeks, but overall had an abysmal season. He said after the game Sunday that he knows what the issues were and that he is going to be better in 2015.
Blanton looked like a functional safety to play opposite Smith when the season began. However, in his first season as a full-time starter, he was injured and ineffective. He really struggled to cover tight ends in the passing game and had trouble tackling power running backs in the ground game.
Robinson played better in Year 3 than he did in Year 2, but still needs to take the step to become a reliable cornerback option. He was often got himself into position to make a play, but just could not make a play on the ball. Last season, he struggled as a slot cornerback. This season, he could not stop bigger wide receivers.
Walsh and Locke were both inconsistent as kickers. Walsh has missed 16 field goals in his three-year NFL career — nine of them came last season. His inconsistency is not all that alarming. Locke has not developed into a field position weapon. He was better down the stretch, but often did not help the team turn field position. He hasn’t been able to do that at so far in two seasons. Neither figures to be a big problem going forward, but both need to have better years in 2015.
Free agents to be
The Vikings have 12 free agents this offseason, but just one that started in the Week 1 opener at St. Louis. In addition, fullback Jerome Felton has the ability to opt out of the final year of his contract and likely will do so.
The Vikings will likely re-sign running back Matt Asiata, safety Ahmad Dixon, offensive lineman Mike Harris, defensive tackle Tom Johnson, linebacker Josh Kaddu and defensive end Justin Trattou. Those that could be re-signed are offensive lineman Joe Berger, offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, long snapper Cullen Loeffler and defensive end Corey Wootton. Those likely headed elsewhere this offseason are linebacker Jasper Brinkley, Felton and quarterback Christian Ponder.
The NFL released their list of opponents and locations for all 32 teams Monday. The Vikings will host the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers in Year 2 at TCF Bank Stadium. They will face the Bears, Lions, Packers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders on the road in 2015.
For more Vikings news and updates, visit Vikings Central.
Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. Joseph is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.