'Tis the season, once again, for the release of the annual Football Outsiders Almanac. It really is a great resource for any football junkie or fantasy football aficionado, and comes in two forms. You can either get it in PDF form, right in your inbox, for $12.95, or you can get the old-school print version for $19.95. However you receive it, I can pretty much promise you that you'll like it.
I'll have a more in-depth look at what the FOA has to say about the Minnesota Vikings over the next day or two, but today I want to give you this feature that we've done for the past couple of seasons. I was given the opportunity to send some questions into the folks at Football Outsiders, and they were answered by Mike Tanier, who also handled the Vikings' section of the FOA. My questions for Mr. Tanier are in bold, while his answers are in italics.
1. This season, the team is making the transition from Leslie Frazier to a slightly more animated leader in Mike Zimmer. Is a new coaching staff something that the folks at Football Outsiders take into account in their projections? If so (or if not), how (or why not)?
There are variables in the FO projections for coaching changes and coordinator changes. They are not necessarily the most overpowering variables in the equation. Here's why: teams changing head coaches are generally pretty bad, and they do poorly in many categories that have a central tendency pull. So a coaching change gets swamped by not just a quarterback change, but expected improvements like 2nd-and-short offense, a weird little category the Vikings were terrible in last year.
There is also no specific variable for coaching personalities and philosophies, because how do you measure that? When a crazy person like Greg Schiano gets replaced by Lovie Smith, most of the variables in our spreadsheet that point upward are ones that Schiano artificially suppressed, so to speak. When exchanging a Fraizer for a Zimmer, it's more of a toggle switch in the matrix.
2. The secondary has been a problem for the Vikings for a significant length of time. We know that Xavier Rhodes has shown promise and Captain Munnerlyn should help a bit. Behind those two, however, are a lot of question marks. Of the rest of the Vikings' corners, who is the "least bad" in the event that this team ends up playing a lot of nickel and/or has to deal with injuries?
I think you are going to see one of the late-round picks push their way forward. Derek Cox is a stopgap, a get-you-by nickel defender at best. But Captain and Rhodes give the Vikings two better cornerbacks than they had last year (factoring in Rhodes' rookie-ness, of course).
The secondary is one of the places where the Vikings are clearly a rebuilding team. Good competition among guys like Kendall James and Josh Robinson this year will pay dividends next year.
3. Everson Griffen has been on the Football Outsiders' "top prospects" list for a couple of seasons now. He now has an opportunity to be the guy with Jared Allen heading to Chicago. How do you think he'll fare compared to Allen's final couple of seasons in purple?
The Allen comparison is a little unfair. I think Griffen and Zimmer will complement each other well. Griffen's combination of freak talent and slow-developing overall game makes him the kind of player who can look ordinary in a vanilla 4-3, then terrify you as soon as you start bringing pressure off his edge. I am eager to see what Griffen does when defensive fronts are sliding around more and guys like Anthony Barr are blitzing from his side.
4. The biggest buzz since the draft has surrounded quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who is in a battle with Matt Cassel for the starting quarterback job. Do you think it would be best for Bridgewater to start from Day 1, or should he sit behind Cassel for a while first? Does the current state of the team affect your feelings on that one way or the other?
The Vikings have a better support network for a rookie quarterback than most teams that would be in the position to start a rookie quarterback. Most teams starting over at quarterback do not have Adrian Peterson, a solid-and-stable line, or a receiving corps this good. So the potential is there to start Bridgewater.
I have been asked the "start the rookie or the journeyman" question about 1000 times. There are even people who try to statistically study it by going through the archives and lumping Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson with Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Leaf, creating a rookie quarterback statistical gumbo. The answer is always a case-by-case situation. The Vikings start the season with the Rams (insane pass rush), Patriots (Belichick smothers rookies) and Saints (Rob Ryan). Sparing Bridgewater such a baptism under fire could be the best long-term course of action.
5. The Vikings fielded one of the worst defenses in the league in 2013. Do you think they will improve in 2014? If so, how significantly, and what will be the biggest thing that drives that improvement?
You touched on several points of improvement already: upgrading from CFL-caliber to half-decent at cornerback, a more 21st-century scheme. The losses along the D-line will be offset by Linval Joseph and Floyd. Linebacker is still an issue, so we are not talking about a top-10 defense or anything.
A more functional offense will also help the defense. Vikings fans know just how futile that offense was last year. It gave opponents extra possessions and good field position. When your defense is already thin (and old at several positions), that's a recipe for a complete breakdown. The Vikings did not completely solve many problems this season, but they addressed a lot of them, and all boats can start floating upward together if the offense does not keep going three-and-out, while the secondary keeps making the offense play from behind.
A big thanks to Mike Tanier for taking the time to answer the questions I sent his way. By the way, if you're not already following him on Twitter, you should be. (Oh, and there's also A Good Walkthrough Spoiled, which is pretty much the best of Mike Tanier's writing.)
As I mentioned at the top of the post, I will have more on what he had to say about the Vikings' in that section of the 2014 Football Outsiders Almanac over the course of the next couple of days or so.