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Minnesota Vikings - TeamReport

NFL Team Report - Minnesota Vikings - INSIDE SLANT

One fewer loss.

Technically, that's all that separated the 5-10-1 Vikings team that got Leslie Frazier fired in 2013 and the 7-9 team that has gotten Mike Zimmer a universal pat on the back a year later.

Amazing how confidence in a head coach and a young quarterback can change a team's outlook entirely.

A year ago, general manager Rick Spielman headed into Black Monday knowing he would need to assemble and direct a couple of country-wide searches for a head coach and then a rookie quarterback to replace the swing and miss he made on Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in 2011.

After interviewing and/or showing interest in 10 coaching candidates, Spielman gave the then-57-year-old Zimmer his first head coaching opportunity.

Zimmer took control, vowing to fix a defense that ranked last in scoring (30.0) and 31st in yards allowed (397.6).

A year later, with a more aggressive and diverse approach, he gets high marks for a defense that ranked 11th in scoring (21.4) and 14th in yards allowed (344.7).

"Each game is a little bit different in the fact that you're trying to take away certain things," said Zimmer, who earned the Vikings job after successful stints as defensive coordinator in Dallas and Cincinnati.

"I don't believe defensively we were at the point where we could just kind of do whatever we wanted to do. We had to kind of pick our spots in a lot of different ways. I know that we finished 14th in the league in defense, but that's really not a big deal. It's really not a big deal to me. It's not anywhere close to where I want to be.

"Did we make some strides in some areas? Yeah, I think so. But it's not really what I'm looking for."

Zimmer's creative schemes and aggressive defensive calls have been a hit with young players and older ones who had played their entire careers in the team's more passive Tampa 2-based scheme.

"I think the sky is the limit for this defense," said left defensive end Brian Robison.

Once Zimmer was hired, he brought in Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. The two of them and Spielman scoured the country trying to figure out which quarterback to select in the first round.

When it was determined that Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville could be had at the bottom of the first round, Spielman went ahead and took linebacker Anthony Barr ninth overall and then crafted a plan to trade back into the first round and select Bridgewater 32nd overall.

Bridgewater didn't start until after Matt Cassel broke his foot in Week 3. But with the face of the franchise, Adrian Peterson, exiled from the team because of the injuries he caused his 4-year-old son when he beat him with a switch, Bridgewater developed steadily from week to week.

Bridgewater finished with a 6-6 record while throwing for 2,919 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He completed 70.4 percent of his passes or more in Weeks 13 to 16 and then 68 percent in Sunday's season finale. His 64.4 completion percentage is the third-highest by a rookie in NFL history, while his 85.2 passer rating is the seventh-best by a rookie in league history.

The offense ranked 27th in total yards and 28th in passing for the season. But in December, once the team had established a new identity around Bridgewater, the Vikings were 12th in net yards and seventh in passing yards.

As for Bridgewater's December performance, he ranked first in yards per attempt (9.18), second in completion percentage (72.3) and fourth in passer rating (99.8).

"The more that we can win, I think it gives everybody (hope)," Zimmer said after Sunday's game. "I think the way that Bridgewater played gives (fans) some hope. Hopefully they've liked how we compete. And we're definitely not perfect. We've got a long way to go, but there are some good positives to take out of this season."

Stability and good vibes about the quarterback and the head coach are the three most important by far.


NFL Team Report - Minnesota Vikings - NOTES, QUOTES

--2015 OPPONENTS: Home: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers. Away: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders.

--Hold off just a tad longer on those good-byes to Chad Greenway.

Considered a likely candidate to depart before his upcoming 32nd birthday, Greenway could be back for a 10th season based on the excitement level in coach Mike Zimmer's voice when asked if he thought Greenway could still be a starter at age 32. "I do," Zimmer said. "I love Chad. Chad's a good guy. You'd have to ask him, but I think even at his stage in his career he probably learned some things this year. And we asked him to do a lot of different things he probably hasn't done before. He's the kind of guy that we like to have." Greenway missed four games this season -- the first he had missed since an ACL tear cost him his entire rookie season. But he still finished second on the team in tackles, just five behind Harrison Smith. Greenway is due to make $7 million but knows he will be asked to accept less for the second time in two years. But he's open to finding a way to stay on the Vikings roster. "I don't feel like I've become injury prone or my age has caught up to me any way," Greenway said. "That can happen to anybody at any point. I feel like I can continue to play somewhere - hopefully here."

--Coach Mike Zimmer said two days after the season ended that he'll be in RB Adrian Peterson's "corner" if the running back gets his life together and gets reinstated from his suspension. "Well, as I've said many, many times, Adrian was always great with me," Zimmer said. "I think he's a good person. I think obviously he's a great running back and if it works out that way and things work out and he gets his life in order, that's the most important thing, he gets his life in order, he gets the opportunity to come back, then I will be in his corner whenever the decision is made."

Peterson was suspended by the NFL after he pleaded no contest to recklessly injuring his 4-year-old son while disciplining him with a switch last May. If he stays out of further legal trouble and completes the terms of his suspension set by the league, he will be eligible for reinstatement on April 15. But Peterson will carry a cap number of $15.4 million in 2015 if he does not restructure his contract with the Vikings. The Vikings probably will ask him to renegotiate. Zimmer sounded like a guy who wants to make every effort to pair Peterson with Teddy Bridgewater for the quarterback's second NFL season.

"I think (Peterson) would add value to any team, to be honest with you," Zimmer said. "I think the kid's a heck of a football player. I just was watching our offensive tape, I was starting to go back right now with evaluating our players and I was starting with the offense in St. Louis, so it was a good recollection on my mind right now of him."


NFL Team Report - Minnesota Vikings - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL


--Players expected to be unrestricted free agents: G Joe Berger, MLB Jasper Brinkley, G Vladimir Ducasse, DT Tom Johnson, LS Cullen Loeffler, QB Christian Ponder, DE Corey Wootton.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Teddy Bridgewater. Backups -- Matt Cassel.

Bridgewater started 12 games, going 6-6 and proving he has the poise, pocket presence, intelligence, vision and accuracy to play the position at higher levels as he gets more comfortable with Norv Turner's offense. Cassel broke a foot in Week 3, making room for Bridgewater to make his starting debut earlier than expected. Cassel will return as a better and more proven veteran backup than Christian Ponder, who is an unrestricted free agent and won't return. Devlin has a chance to return as the No. 3, although he probably would stay on the practice squad because the Vikings like to keep only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Adrian Peterson, FB Zach Line. Backups -- Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, Joe Banyard.

Obviously, this makes a huge and potentially wrong assumption that Peterson will return after missing 15 games this season as part of his exile/suspension stemming from the injuries he caused his 4-year-old son while beating him with a switch. Coach Mike Zimmer and the football side of the operation want Peterson back. The business side and ownership will have to get on board and have the courage to weather another potential backlash similar to the one that occurred when the team tried to bring him back before Week 3. Also up in the air is an unwieldy salary cap figure of $15.4 million. Peterson can force his way out of town by blocking the Vikings' likely request to renegotiate that sum. If Peterson returns, the combination of him and Bridgewater would make the Vikings a dangerous attack. Asiata is an admirable player because he knows his limitations and runs as hard as he can straight ahead. He's a good pass protector and has good hands. Line backed up Jerome Felton this season and was on the roster for only one reason: his $585,000 salary for 2015. For this reason, Felton has announced that he'll exercise his opt-out clause because, frankly, he knows the team would cut him because of a 2015 salary of $2.5 million. Line is a little bigger and potentially more powerful than Felton. But he's a raw kid who was an undrafted rookie a year ago. Like Bridgewater, McKinnon would be an intriguing player to watch play alongside Peterson. McKinnon is a third-down, change-of-pace back who would be a perfect complement to Peterson, assuming McKinnon can stay healthy. Banyard would be the odd man out if Peterson returns. He runs extremely hard and has deceptive speed and moves.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kyle Rudolph. Backups -- Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford.

For the past two years, everyone has been talking about Rudolph as one of the league's elite tight ends. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Rudolph hasn't lived up to the hype because injuries cost him eight games in 2013 and seven this season. He needs to make it through a season before the hype cranks up again. But, when healthy, his catch radius and hands are phenomenal. He also had increased his speed by losing weight last offseason. Ellison is one of the worker bees that all NFL teams need to be tougher. He's a solid blocker who can line up tight or in the backfield. Ford is one of the more underrated players on the roster. His receiving skills shined when Rudolph was out. Unfortunately, he disappears when Rudolph is back in the lineup. Turner should look for ways to get Ford on the field even when Rudolph is healthy.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Greg Jennings, Charles Johnson. Backups -- Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen.

Jennings will be 32 with an $11 million cap figure next season. But the Vikings have to be careful not to unload him too soon. He's not the star some anticipated he would become. Most of that is because of the quarterbacks he has played with. They've either been bad or, in the case of Bridgewater, young and developing. Jennings also isn't big enough to be the kind of receiver that a quarterback can just throw the ball up to. But Jennings is the team's best route runner and did develop some chemistry with Bridgewater late in the season. Johnson came out of nowhere to unseat former first-round draft pick Patterson as a starter. That's a credit to Johnson, whom the Vikings signed off the Browns' practice squad in September, and an indictment of Patterson, a potential star who fell behind because of poor study habits and a work ethic that suggested Patterson didn't think playing receiver in the NFL would be that difficult. This offseason is a make-or-break time for Patterson's career as a receiver. Johnson is deceptively fast for a big receiver, but, just as importantly, he works hard at his route running and has gained trust from Bridgewater by being where he's supposed to be, when he's supposed to be there. Wright is one of the most underrated players on the team. Defenders underestimate him because he's smaller. But he has a double move that turns heads and a fearless approach when it comes to catching balls inside the numbers. Thielen is a local success story of an overachiever who caught on from Division II Minnesota State Mankato. He was on the practice squad last year and then took advantage of opportunities when Patterson, his best friend on the team, faltered. If the team were to upgrade by adding a player at receiver, Thielen would likely be the odd man out. But he wouldn't go quietly because he has been the hardest working player in the offseason the past two years.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups -- C-G Joe Berger, T Carter Bykowski, G Vladimir Ducasse, T Mike Harris, G Austin Wentworth, G David Yankee, T Antonio Richardson.

Only two starters, Kalil and Sullivan, played all 16 games. And Kalil had by far his worst season since he was selected fourth overall in 2012. Kalil played on a bad knee that never healed properly from offseason arthroscopic surgery. He lost his handle on his techniques, which led to lost confidence, which led to too many sacks and penalties. But the 2012 Pro Bowler has all the skills he needs to play at a winning level, when healthy. So the team needs to ride out this poor season, get his knee straight and get him back to who he was. Johnson has another year on his contract, but won't be back. He is overpowered too easily and will be 31 next season. Sullivan had perhaps his best season, but it went unnoticed because of the record. He sets the front of the pocket well and uses his intelligence to relay protection adjustments. Fusco started only three games before tearing a pectoral muscle and being placed on Injured Reserve. The Vikings had just given him a contract extension and remains high on his future. Loadholt also ended up on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Bykowski is a raw project the Vikings picked up late in the season. Berger will be 33 next season and is at the end of his contract, but the team will make him a priority. He can back up all three interior positions, specializing at center. He performed well as the starting right guard in the final nine games of the season. Ducasse is a disappointment and just doesn't appear able to get in good enough shape to live up to where he was drafted years ago with the Jets. He could be dispatched this offseason. Harris is a fighter who had to step in as the starter for Loadholt. He's not a bad backup, but certainly could be the victim of an upgrade. Wentworth has some promise as an extra tackle in goal line situations and as a backup guard/tackle. Yankey, a fifth-round pick this year, has been labeled the heir apparent to Johnson at left guard. But he didn't prove anything this season. Even with multiple injuries at guard, the Vikings didn't trust Yankey to play in even one game. They said he needed a year to improve his strength. Richardson is a project. He's a mammoth left tackle prospect who went undrafted as a rookie this year. He spent the year on Injured Reserve after having ACL surgery.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RE Everson Griffen, NT Linval Joseph, DT Sharrif Floyd, LE Brian Robison. Backups -- LE Corey Wootton, DT Tom Johnson, NT Shamar Stephen, E Justin Trattou, E Scott Crichton.

Griffen lived up to his longtime potential and the big contract the Vikings trusted him with when they decided to start him and let Jared Allen move on. Griffen had a career-high 12 sacks and was equally impressive in playing the run, which is partly why coach Mike Zimmer liked him better than Allen. Joseph was the team's No. 1 target in free agency and he, too, paid off. It took a few games to adjust to a completely different technique than the Giants played, but once that happened, Joseph became an active presence inside. Floyd showed glimpses of the rare interior speed, quickness and explosion that the Vikings liked when the selected him in the first round in 2013. But he needs to stay healthy. He dealt with a knee injury for far too long this year. Robison's sack numbers dropped to 4 1/2, but he still provided enough pressure and run stopping on that side to warrant a ninth season with the team. Wootton and Johnson are unrestricted free agents the Vikings would like to have back. Johnson, with a career-high 6 1/2 sacks was particularly effective in his limited role on what became a solid D-line rotation. Stephen was a real find in the seventh round and will get a lot better when he grows into his large frame and adds NFL-caliber strength. Trattou is a young journeyman with a strong work ethic, but could be upgraded. Crichton had a disappointing rookie season considering he was a third-round pick who got lapped by Trattou, who was on the practice squad at one point. Crichton is too young to write off, but he needs to step it up this offseason. He played in only eight games and rarely saw time on defense.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Anthony Barr, MLB Jasper Brinkley, WLB Chad Greenway. Backups -- OLB/ILB Audie Cole, WLB Gerald Hodges, OLB Brandon Watts, MLB Michael Mauti.

Barr was having an amazing season before a knee injury ended it after 12 starts. He had played linebacker for only two seasons, but his physical gifts and instincts allowed him to be an every-down playmaker from Day 1. Brinkley was brought back after a year with Arizona and given a one-year deal. He wasn't terrible, but he played about 30 percent of the snaps because of his limitations against the pass. Greenway has another year left on his contract, but will have to take a significant pay cut from $7 million. He's willing to do so, but the question then becomes whether he can hold off younger players when he's going to be 32 next season. Zimmer is a fan of Greenway's, so don't be surprised if Greenway bucks the general consensus and plays another season with the Vikings. Hodges is a fast, active and increasingly more astute second-year player who can play the Will and Sam positions. If Greenway doesn't return, Hodges will start there. Cole is one of the more fascinating defenders. He's tall, agile, fast and plays 100 mph. He took advantage when given a chance to start in the middle last year at Green Bay. He opened that game with a sack and went on to make 18 tackles. In this year's season finale, he stepped in for Greenway and had five tackles in the first seven snaps. He finished with a game-high 14, covered Matt Forte pretty well and also made the defensive calls and adjustments. Cole has a place on the team as a special teamer who also can play any one of the three linebacker positions. Watts could lose his roster spot because chronic hamstring issues kept sidetracking him as a little-used late-round rookie draft pick. Mauti ended up on injured reserve with minor knee surgery. He's a solid special teamer who will be given a chance to win the MLB job next summer.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Captain Munnerlyn, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Robert Blanton. Backups -- CB Josh Robinson, CB Jabari Price, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Shaun Prater, S Andrew Sendejo, S Ahmad Dixon, S Antone Exum.

Munnerlyn was acquired as a free agent last offseason and was an upgrade over Chris Cook, whose disappointing stint finally ended after last season. But Munneryln wasn't nearly as consistent as advertised. He can't be beaten as often as he was this season. Rhodes, on the other hand, lived up to his 2013 first-round selection and then some. Flourishing under Zimmer's expertise at coaching defensive backs and the coach's more aggressive philosophy, the 6-1, 190-pound Rhodes took a step toward Pro Bowl and possibly All-Pro status. By the end of the season, Rhodes was shadowing top receivers, including an impressive effort and result against Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Smith had five interceptions, the first time a Viking has reached that total since Darren Sharper had nine in 2005. Smith continues to be a force in the secondary or near the line of scrimmage, where his edge rushing skills resulted in three sacks. His 121 tackles ended Greenway's six-year run of leading the team in tackles. Strong safety is a priority this offseason. Blanton won the job and played every snap for 13 games. He got hurt for one game and lost his job to Sendejo, a special teams overachiever. Zimmer hasn't been overly impressed with the production at strong safety since he arrived. Blanton won the job by default and hasn't shown consistency in coverage or tackling. Robinson improved a lot under Zimmer, but still has lapses in technique and confidence. He was abused in Chicago when the Bears kept matching his 5-10 lack of height with the 6-3 Alshon Jeffery and 6-4 Brandon Marshall. That beating caused the Vikings to start using Rhodes to shadow top receivers. Price, a seventh-round pick, showed toughness and a strong willingness to fight for passes. That earned him a backup spot to Munnerlyn as the slot corner in the nickel. Sherels is the team's punt returner, but he's also a scrappy reserve corner with reliable durability. Prater rarely saw the field, but has an intriguing skill set that Zimmer might explore in Year 2. Prater is kind of a tweener safety/corner. Zimmer has expressed a desire to play more three-safety looks. He has used Prater in that situation a few times. Exum could become a special teams leader and a solid backup safety for a few years at least.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, LS Cullen Loeffler, PR Marcus Sherels, KR Cordarrelle Patterson.

Walsh missed a career-high nine field goal attempts, including two that were blocked, one of which was returned for a touchdown that essentially buried the Vikings right before the half against the New England Patriots at home in Week 2. Locke had a second consecutive inconsistent season and will be looking at a make-or-break year in 2015. Playing outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium this season and next isn't doing his career any favors. Loeffler, the longest-tenured Viking at 11 seasons, has always been regarded as one of the league's steadiest long snappers. That perception took a hit in the Dolphins game when his one-hopper snap led to a blocked punt for the game-losing safety with 41 seconds left. A year after setting the team record for punt return average (15.2), Sherels averaged 11.0 with a long of 35. It wasn't as flashy as last season, but the Vikings love the comfort of knowing Sherels isn't going to muff a punt when he camps under it with defenders circling him. A year ago, Patterson averaged 32.4 yards with two touchdowns, including an NFL-record 109-yarder. This year, it was a much quieter 25.6-yard average with no touchdowns and a long of 51.

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