Over at NFL.com, they're doing a series on players that are forecast to make "The Leap" in the 2014 NFL season. The Vikings have had two players on that list, and they both certainly have high expectations from fans of the Minnesota Vikings this season.
The first was cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who appeared at #24 on the list. Already being tabbed as the best player in the Vikings' secondary, Rhodes garnered plenty of praise for his improvement as the season went on.
The game film wasn't all pretty when we turned on the Game Rewind to dissect Rhodes' season, but there was an undeniable arc. Rhodes played his best late in the year. He was all over the field in Green Bay in Week 12, breaking up four passes. He did a commendable job against Chicago the following week slowing down Brandon Marshall. Rhodes forced a fumble the next week against Baltimore, and kept up with Torrey Smith on deep routes before suffering a high ankle sprain that ended his season.
I'd say that he more than "kept up" with Smith in that Baltimore game, as Smith only caught one pass on the afternoon for 11 yards, and it came after Rhodes had already departed. With the addition of Captain Munnerlyn and the return of Harrison Smith to the Minnesota secondary, there's every reason to believe that the pass defense will be much improved in 2014.
The other player on the list is defensive lineman Everson Griffen, whose name pops up at #13. We already know that expectations for Griffen are going to be high, given the monster contract he signed this off-season. The NFL.com folks like a lot of what the fifth-year man from USC brings to the table.
After seeing him excel down the stretch in 2012 replacing an injured Robison, the Vikings knew they needed to get Griffen on the field more, hence his abundance of plays on the inside of the line in passing situations.
However, Griffen was mostly miscast as an inside rusher in Leslie Frazier's defense and while productive from there at times, it's not where he will excel. He's much better suited outside in the defense Mike Zimmer imported to Eden Prairie.
You don't have to take my word for it.
"We attack now. Our coach lets us attack now," Griffen said recently, per KSTP-AM. "We make plays. I feel like we're go-getters. We're not waiting for them to strike. We're going to strike them before they strike us."
That last paragraph says a lot to me about the way the Minnesota defense will act in 2014 as compared to past seasons. With the departure of Jared Allen, the placing of Griffen in the starting lineup, and the selection of rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, it appears that we're going to see a lot more aggression from the Vikings up front in order to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The "expectations" portion of Griffen's profile from NFL.com says it would be "disappointing" if he didn't at least match Jared Allen's sack total of 11.5 from last season. It's fair to point out again, however, that in Mike Zimmer's defense last year in Cincinnati, no individual player had more than 7.5 sacks (a number reached by both Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry). Defensive tackle Geno Atkins had six, and managed that in just nine games before a knee injury ended his season.
If both Griffen and Rhodes can make "The Leap" as NFL.com has suggested that they will, the Minnesota Vikings' defense could be one of the most improved units in the NFL in 2014. Pair that with an offense that's already a bit underrated, and it should be a more interesting year for this team than a lot of folks seem to be projecting.