At the end of the 2013 season, the Vikings had a lot more headed in the wrong direction than they did headed in the right direction. Most importantly, work on the new stadium had begun, and hey there Vikings stadium...youuuu loooook mahvelous. But for the rest of the organization, from the general manager on down, uncertain times lay ahead. A 5-10-1 season exposed the Vikings as an old team with a coaching staff in flux, and a general manager who seemed to be on the hotseat due to the selection of a first round quarterback that had been a failure.
The general manager survived, to the consternation of more than a few fans, but everything else began to change. It started the Monday after the final game of the season, as head coach Leslie Frazier was fired. The Vikings brought in a new coach, Mike Zimmer, and it was the first of several personnel moves that began to right the longboat.
Hopefully, the Vikings, with the new stadium as the backdrop, are movin' on up...isn't that right, Mr. Jefferson?
Man, you wonder how the world might have been different if Corporal Hitler had pursued a singing career instead of politics. Your off-season SMR follows.
Blue Chip Stocks:
The Mike Zimmer hire: At the end of 2010, former coach Leslie Frazier had done enough during the course of a six game interim head coach status to earn the opportunity to remove the word 'interim'. There were a few moments of excitement, but for the most part, the Vikings were mediocre to bad under Frazier's watch. Enter Zimmer, the man picked to succeed Frazier. Zimmer has been considered one of the best coordinators in the NFL in recent years, and his hiring was universally praised. He's struck all the right chords so far, from his attendance at the Arctic Blast, to getting on the good side of Bud Grant, to the Vikings early approach in free agency. Mike Zimmer will ultimately be decided on wins and losses, but I'm having a tough time thinking of a scenario where Zimmer could have made a more positive first impression than he already has.
Linval Joseph: You know, heading into most free agency periods, you kind of get a good idea who is and who isn't interested in the team you cheer for. Your team gets some of those guys, your team loses some of those guys. Linval Joseph was on the wish list of a lot of fans, but his signing, at least to me, was a pleasant surprise. And Joseph is a huge need for a defensive line that has become a sieve as opposed to a stone wall. Joseph is a big, prototypical NT who will play the one technique, and he's also only 26 years old. This was a great move for the Vikings, and they now have three guys 26 or younger starting on their defensive line.
Captain Munnerlyn: If you weren't in the 'defensive tackle was the biggest need' camp heading into free agency, then you were probably on 'team cornerback', because that position was as much of a mess as the defensive line. The Munnerlyn signing goes a long way to bring that unit back to respectability, and all of a sudden the Vikings secondary isn't terrible along the starting four. Xavier Rhodes came on strong towards the end of last year, and safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford have flashed some decent talent. There's still depth issues, and that can be addressed in the draft, but Munnerlyn shores up a starting position, and like Joseph on the line, he's a young guy (27) just entering his prime, and will be around for a long time.
Everson Griffen: The Vikings had one of two choices in terms of personnel and defensive end--re-sign fan favorite Jared Allen, who has more sacks in the NFL since 2008 (the year the Vikings traded for him) than anyone else, or let him walk and pursue Griffen, who is younger, but also less accomplished. The Vikings chose to retain Griffen and let Allen walk. Although that's the tough side of the NFL, it was the right decision, as Griffen is a guy the Vikings (along with Joseph and 3 technique DT Shariff Floyd) can build a solid defensive line around. Watching Griffen in a Mike Zimmer defense is going to be fun to watch.
The New Minnesota Vikings Stadium: Of all the developments with the Vikings this off-season, the new stadium, at least for me, is the most exciting thing happening. The Vikings have opened a stadium preview center, released new pictures and renderings, and each time, I get as excited as a kid at Christmas. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when someone starts giving me crap about the 'L.A. Vikings' (because a lot of people are stupid and don't know the stadium has been approved outside of Minnesota) and I get to reply 'no, don't think so. A new one is being built as we speak.'
Yeah, that's pretty awesome.
Matt Cassel: I don't think anyone is under any illusions about Matt Cassel being a long term answer at quarterback, an All Pro, or even a winning quarterback for the Vikings. Well, the last part is doable, but the other two? Probably not. But for 2014, that's okay. What Cassel brings to the position is something the Vikings haven't had, in many respects, since 2009. And that's stability. 2009 was the last season one quarterback started all 16 games for the Vikes, and since 2010, they've started the following people: Brett Favre, Joe Webb, Tarvaris Jackson, Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder, Joe Webb again, Ponder again, Webb yet again for the playoffs, back to Ponder, Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Ponder again, then Cassel again. That's like eleventy quarterback changes in four seasons, making that a position slightly less stable than nitro glycerine.
Barring injury, Cassel should be the starting QB for the 2014 season. Unless, you know, the Vikings draft a kid at #8 and he wins the starting job. And if that's the case, Cassel will be there to provide a calming hand in case the kid implodes.
Marcus Sherels: You know, I'm probably never going to be sold on Marcus Sherels as a starting cornerback in the NFL. But that said, if there was a guy I would have selected as 'comeback player of the year' for the Vikings in 2013, Sherels would have been on the short list. He became downright respectable in the secondary, and got even better as a punt returner, finishing the 2013 season 2nd in the NFL in punt return average.
Doug Mann and the Wilfare Crowd: They wouldn't go down without one last hissy fit temper tantrum, but in the end, they finally lost. They lost bad, and ended up being bad losers about the whole thing. Am I spiking the football on their grave? Maybe, but at this point, I don't care. I think it's a reasonable and honorable position to oppose public funding of sports stadiums. In this age of tight budgets and out of control government spending, it's not unreasonable to ask for stadiums to be privately financed. But once the issue was settled, guys like Doug Mann did everything to try an undo what was, in the end, settled. And to say I experienced more than my fair share of schadenfreude watching Mann and his ilk fail again and again would be an accurate...and unapologetic...statement.
Christian Ponder: Christian Ponder will be tied to Leslie Frazier much like Tarvaris Jackson is tied to Brad Childress. Neither pairs are legacies that will be fondly remembered in Minnesota, and in a lot of ways, that's a shame. Although both Jackson and Ponder failed as a quarterback here, they both handled themselves as professionals, and never exacerbated the issue by making things worse in the press. I like Ponder, and I wish he had worked out, but barring a near miraculous turnaround, his time here is over.
Chris Cook: In many ways, the Vikings find themselves near the bottom of the NFL because of the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Come 2014, those two drafts--combined--will more than likely have only two players remaining on the Vikings roster, Griffen and TE Kyle Rudolph. Cook, the first player selected by the Vikings (second round, 34th overall) in 2010, had off the field issues and multiple injuries that prevented him from becoming a front line starter in the NFL. Because of those issues, Cook is now in San Francisco, and will compete for a roster spot with the 49ers.
Buy: Drafting Johnny Manziel. So why Manziel? I'll be the first to admit I don't have the slightest clue in Hell which QB would be successful in the NFL and which one won't. And the fact of the matter is most personnel guys don't know, either. For every scout that loves player A, there's another one that doesn't like him and promotes player B. Who's panned by another scout, and so on and so on.
So for me, when it comes to the draft, I want players on the Vikings who I know about, and who were good in college, were exciting to watch, and yes, Ohio State guys. Because I'm a fan, first and foremost, and I want guys on my team I want to cheer for.
And Manziel is a guy I love to watch play, he's a guy that makes the game exciting for me, and it's easy for me to cheer for him. Can he be a success in the NFL? Sure. Could he be a colossal bust? Sure. But as a fan, if they take him I'll hope for the best and deal with the bust stuff if and when it comes. Same goes for Teddy Bridgewater.
Sell: Drafting any other QB in the first round who isn't named Teddy Bridgewater. See above reasons why. But if they do draft one of those 'other' guys, make no mistake, I'm going to cheer for him.
Buy: Revamping the defensive line: I really like the direction the Vikings are moving with the defensive line. The Vikings went from one of the oldest defensive lines in 2013 to one of the youngest. Shariff Floyd will be 22, Joseph 26, and Everson Griffen 27. The old man on the defensive line, Brian Robison, is 30. Entering last season, he was the second youngest, behind only Fred Evans. But with guys like Evans still around, and a lot of experience in the youthful Joseph and Griffen, it's a mature line that should be able to do a lot of good things in the coming seasons.
Sell: Saying goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams as part of that revamping: Unfortunately, Sir Isaac Newton was right, and his third law of motion can be applied here: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. With the addition of the young but talented kids on the defensive line, that means somebody has to go. In this case, those somebodies are long time veterans and fan favorites Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. As members of the Vikings, Allen and Williams have combined for almost 150 sacks, and absolutely staggering number. They were the anchors of what was one of the most dominant lines in Vikings history, and they will be missed.
Buy: Signing Simoni Lawrence. Sort of lost in all the off-season hoopla of the stadium, the new coaching staff, and the new free agents, was a the Lawrence signing early February. He was a quality player at the U of M, and will be in the mix to compete for one of the linebacker positions. I'm not saying he is some kind of wunderkind steal, but he produced in the CFL. We'll see.
Sell: Cutting Greg Childs. I mentioned this last week, but I was bummed out to see the news of Childs getting cut. Making an NFL roster was always going to be a longshot for him, as no one with two torn patellas has ever played in the NFL. But damn it, I really wanted Childs to be the first one to do it. I know that this is probably the best football move for the Vikings, but I really wanted Childs to be the feel good story for the NFL in 2014. Hopefully, he'll catch on with someone and will still be that story.
So far, this has been one of the more productive seasons in Vikings history. they've addressed some major needs on defense, they have a new coach, and a new stadium on the way...and the draft is still over a month away.