When I was a kid (hoo boy, heeeere we go) building an NFL franchise was easier, in some respects. Well, maybe not easier, because free agency didn't exist for a 'quick fix solution', but if you made some smart trades and drafted well, you could keep the best players on your team around for a decade or more. And so it was with former Vikings GM Jim Finks, who built the mythical Purple People Eaters, starting in the mid to late 1960's. And they stayed together, for the most part, for over a decade, until age finally caught up to all of them.
As the NFL evolved and free agency became such a big part of roster build ups and tear downs, building through the draft became even more important than ever before. Sure, an occasional trade or free agent signing can plug a gap here or a hole there, but you can't build a roster on free agency year in and year out, or you become the Washington Redskins.
And no one wants that. (seriously, it's cool to be 2-4 and still be able to make fun of other teams who suck worse than our team, am I right or AMIRITE?)
Even though the Vikings have had some marquee free agent signings or trades in the last decade or so (Steve Hutchinson, Jared Allen, Greg Jennings), the core group of players the Vikings are going to have to build around have come to the team through the draft. For the longest time, the team was built around a core group of veterans, like Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Chad Greenway. Those players are either gone, or will be gone in the next season or two, and the team is now building around a new set of guys on both sides of the ball.
Who are those guys, and should we be encouraged or discouraged with this foundation?
Teddy Bridgewater, QB: You could make the argument that Bridgewater shouldn't even be on this team, as the Vikings spent a first round pick on Christian Ponder in 2011. Because of that, we can make two arguments here. On one hand, the Vikings had to go get another 'franchise' quarterback three years after getting the first one. On the other hand, at least the Vikings pulled the plug on Ponder early enough to get a guy most of us think will be an actual franchise QB for a long time. Bridgewater seems to have all the tools necessary to be the answer at a position that has far too often been a black hole in terms of talent. Finally.
Brandon Fusco, RG: Fusco has been a pleasant surprise. A sixth round pick out of Slippery Rock in 2011, Fusco quickly morphed from a project to arguably the Vikings best offensive lineman in 2013. The Vikings rewarded him with a contract extension this season, and although he's currently on IR with a torn pectoral muscle, he looks to be a fixture on the line for the foreseeable future.
Matt Kalil, LT: At this point, I'm not sure what to think about Matt Kalil. His 2012 season is far enough in the rear view mirror to be more than equally balanced by almost a year and a half of really bad play, at least for the most part. He's currently the worst ranked LT in all of pro football, according to Pro Football Focus (obligatory Zim grain of salt reference goes here), and unless he can turn things around in the second half of 2014, there are legitimate questions moving forward about him as a long term option at LT. I think he definitely can be, as he has proven his ability, but at some point you have to cut bait and move on. Is Kalil on a 10 game audition? I don't know, but if he has to be replaced, it would set back the rebuild, that's for sure.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/KR: Patterson's been kind of an enigma this year, too. To say he's regressed would be a stretch, although I do think it's completely fair to say he isn't producing at the level most people thought he would be six games into the season, and he's also been battling a hip injury. Still, the long term prognosis as a legitimate game breaking threat at either wide receiver or kick returner is good.
Jerick McKinnon, RB: I liked this kid the minute I saw him practicing in Mankato, and if he can continue to develop the way he has through the first six weeks of the season, the transition away from the Adrian Peterson era will be much smoother than we all thought it would be. I'm not saying that McKinnon will ever get to the level Peterson achieved; that's just silly right now. But McKinnon can become a very good dual threat running back in the NFL, and that would be just fine.
Jarius Wright, WR: I thought Wright might make a big leap forward in 2013 after his 2012 semi-breakout game against Green Bay in the season finale, but not so much. His reception totals only increased by four, from 22 to 26, and had only 120 more receiving yards. But this year, he seems to have taken that step, at least through six games. He's already at 18 receptions, and barring injury, will end up with career highs in receptions, yards, and (hopefully) TD's. He seems to be one of Teddy Bridgewater's favorite targets, and has legit NFL ability.
Kyle Rudolph, TE: Rudolph is a guy that is close to getting the dreaded 'injury prone' label attached to him, fair or not. Coming in to 2014, most people expected Rudolph to have a big year, until he was sidelined with a hernia. He'll be out at least three or four more games minimum, but still, the long term potential for him is tantalizing. He's big, got good hands and speed, and seems like the prototype TE for a Norv Turner offense, which is probably why the Vikings signed him to a five year extension shortly after training camp began.
Overall: Kalil aside, the Vikings seem to have a solid core of players that can set them up for long term success. Granted, we won't know for sure whether this will be accurate for another two or three years, and even Kalil can come around. But it appears that the Vikings have good, young players at all the skill positions and on the line. And most importantly, at quarterback. Long term, the offense seems to be built on a very solid foundation.
Shariff Floyd, DT: Floyd is starting to have the kind of season we thought he would when he was one of three first round picks last year. In 2013, Floyd had a very uneven year, and didn't garner the playing time most people thought he would. That's changed this year, and although the Vikings still employ a healthy rotation along the defensive line, Floyd's play has improved substantially.
Gerald Hodges, LB: When Chad Greenway was deactivated for two games, Gerald Hodges was given an opportunity to showcase what he had and build upon an already impressive, if limited, 2014. I know Greenway will get the nod if he's healthy, but if Hodges were to supplant the long time vet, I'd have no problem with that. Hodges has everything you want in an outside LB--lateral speed, good tackler, and an ability to cover guys on short and intermediate routes, or running backs coming out of the backfield.
Anthony Barr, LB: Of all the players on this list Barr might end up being the best of all of them, Bridgewater included. He's gotten a bit of a raw deal in terms of being the most overlooked top 10 pick in recent memory, largely because of the hullabaloo of trading for Bridgewater on draft night. But Barr has flashed the most natural athletic ability of anyone on the football field, on either side of the ball, through the first six games. Once he fully understands the mental aspect of his position, and there's nothing to indicate that he won't, he might become the best linebacker in football.
Everson Griffen, DE: Griffen is the only guy on the defensive list who is under his second contract, which he got just before free agency opened. Even though he doesn't have the sack numbers a lot of people thought he would through six games, he's starting to get Zimmer's defensive schemes and has been applying more consistent pressure off the edge. I thought the VIkings made the right move in re-signing him and letting Jared Allen leave, and at 26, Griffen still has a lot of years of good football left in him.
Xavier Rhodes, CB: Rhodes is another guy that's really starting to come into his own under the Zimmer defense. His pass coverage skills have improved, and seem to be getting better every week. After some early season struggles with penalties, he's fast becoming a solid number one cornerback, and is consistently winning his matchups on a weekly basis.
Josh Robinson, CB: Say what you want about Josh Robinson's 2012 and 2013 seasons...and you could say plenty...but if you do, stand up and rave as much about his 2014 season so far. Right now, he's the best CB on the team, and the only one solidly 'in the green' per PFF. Robinson has done as dramatic of a one season turn around as I can remember, and depth at the CB position is never a bad thing.
Harrison Smith, S: Smith was kind of an afterthought on Draft Day in 2012, as the big prize was T Matt Kalil. When it's all said and done, Smith could very well end up being the best of the two, by miles. He definitely is right now, and has quickly ascended to become one of the top safeties in the NFL. He's a big hitter and good in coverage, and if he continues to develop at the current pace, I'll be stunned if he doesn't become a perennial All Pro.
Overall: Although I like how the offense seems to be set up for long term success a little bit more, the defense isn't in bad shape. They have good young players on the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, and both sides of the ball seem to be set up for long term success at key positions.
Another thing to note is that all of these contracts, even guys that were given extensions, are all very team friendly, and if one or more of these players don't pan out, they'll either play out their rookie contract and move along in a couple of season, or the team will only suffer a minimal cap hit and dead money if they have to let one of the guys on their second deal loose.