If part one of the Vikings off-season evaluation represented the good news, then part two- the offense- represents the bad news. Despite having a new and promising QB, new coaching, the return of Adrian Peterson, the emergence of Stefon Diggs... the Vikings offense has shown little improvement from the Christian Ponder era.
The Vikings offense, particularly passing, did not have much to write home about this season, in terms of league rankings:
- 16th in the league in points per game
- 29th in yards per game
- 31st in the league in passing
- 4th in rushing
- 22nd in 3rd down conversion %
- 28th in red zone TD %
It is particularly disappointing that despite replacing Christian Ponder with Teddy Bridgewater, replacing Greg Jennings with Mike Wallace, and the emergence of Stefon Diggs, the passing game has not improved.
Moreover, several teams with offensive lines ranked worse than the Viking's this year in pass blocking managed much better passing games. Seattle has the worst-ranked offensive line according to PFF, while Washington, Kansas City, New England, Arizona and Denver are all worse-ranked than the Vikings offense line this season, yet they all managed to be much more productive passing than the Vikings.
Overall, the return of Adrian Peterson netted the Vikings offense a grand total of 4.5 additional yards per game than last season. Considering that the offensive line was banged up last year too, the emergence of Stefon Diggs, the addition of Mike Wallace, and a healthy Kyle Rudolph all year, that really is not much at all.
In terms of yards per rushing attempt, the return of Adrian Peterson led the Vikings to go from an average of 4.4 yards per rush to.... wait for it... 4.5 yards per rush.
Third down conversions and red zone efficiency continue to be problems on offense, as is the offensive line. Despite all these areas in need of improvement, the Vikings have talent at the skill positions worthy of mention:
QB Teddy Bridgewater - poised and full of promise, he was the most accurate QB in the league.
WR Stefon Diggs - Pro-Football Writer's All-Rookie team, Diggs was 2nd only to Amari Cooper in receiving yards for a rookie WR, despite not playing the first 3 games.
RB Jerick McKinnon - despite limited use, McKinnon showed he could both run and catch the ball well, and remains an explosive threat with the ball in his hands.
RB Adrian Peterson - still the best power back in the league, rushing title winner, All-Pro
TE Kyle Rudolph - Quietly had his best year in terms of receiving yards, while also doing more as a blocker.
WR Jarius Wright - He's converted many key 3rd downs, while remaining a YAC threat as a slot receiver
Additionally, it must be said that Mike Wallace, while clearly an expensive disappointment this year, still has the ability to be much more productive. His receptions, receiving yards, and yards/catch were all the lowest of his career, particularly receiving yards by a wide margin. His ability has not gone down as his stats suggest, since becoming a Viking, although he did not more than his share of drops.
Tough Decisions and Inconvenient Truths
I'm skipping to this section of the evaluation earlier than I did on the defensive side, as it effects other aspects of the evaluation later on.
OFFENSIVE COACHING STAFF AND SCHEME
The Vikings have a coaching deficit on offense, and really a strategic scheme problem as well.
The strategic scheme problem is centered around Adrian Peterson, and the commitment to the battering ram offensive model. By that I mean the commitment to pound the ball enough times with Adrian Peterson until he eventually breaks through. That has been the focus of the Vikings offense for several years now, and through a couple of offensive coordinators. It's great when it works as part of a siege-warfare strategy of hold and hammer 'em, but it is also very inefficient, limiting, and at times problematic when the 'hold' part of the strategy isn't working.
By inefficient, I mean it results in a lot of easily identified rushing plays that result in no-gain, creating more difficult 3rd down situations- hence the problems the Vikings offense has on 3rd down conversions. The return of Adrian Peterson had the Vikings regressing on 3rd down conversions- going from 39% last year to 37% this year. While that stat is not entirely attributable to AP or the battering ram offensive model, it clearly is a big factor.
It is also limiting. Christopher Gates had an excellent piece on the trade-off between Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater in the shot-gun vs. under center. Bridgewater is better in shot-gun, while AP is better when the QB is under center. That's a problem. It's also a problem as it limits formations for running the ball with AP, and presents little disguise to keep defenses off-balance. It also takes away from passing attempts and can lead to more difficult passing situations.
Lastly, this model is problematic when the opposing team gets off to an early lead. Playing from behind, this forces the offense to move the ball and score quicker, which takes the offense out of its game plan and into adjustments that can be difficult for the offensive line, and a less polished passing game.
From a scheme standpoint, the Vikings have gone from a west coast offense under Bill Musgrave, to an Air Coryell scheme under Norv Turner. And yet little has changed. Both schemes and coaches focused on the battering ram approach, perhaps for the same reasons- to mitigate lack of talent or youth at QB and a weak pass blocking offensive line. Bill Musgrave was roundly derided for his little play sheet and conservative scheme, but that seems to have changed since he moved to Oakland. Norv Turner has also coached much more aggressive and explosive offenses in San Diego and Dallas. But in both cases they felt compelled to the battering ram strategy here in Minnesota. Why is that?
I suspect first off that from an organizational level, there was pressure to give the ball to the superstar face-of-the-franchise. The same was true when Randy Moss was here, and led to diminishing returns as they went to the well too often. Secondly, and to a lesser degree, having a defensive head coach may lead to a more conservative approach on offense, or an inclination to maintain a commitment to the run, particularly with some questions at QB.
Whatever the reasons, anyway you slice it, the AP battering ram strategy should be replaced: Whether you consider the minimal effects of AP's return to the team this year, the fact that different OCs and schemes- but the same battering ram focus- have produced the same poor results; or the wasted talent and opportunities in the passing game- Bridgewater, McKinnon, Diggs among them; or the limits and inefficiency the strategy compared to a more versatile game plan; the conclusion remains the same.
Secondly, there is also a coaching deficit on offense. The offensive line has under-performed for at least a few years now, and Jeff Davidson has been let go. That was a good move. As I write this, the Vikings are interviewing Pat Shurmur, which I cannot see as anything other than an interview for the OC position, given the fact that he's held that position for some time and there are at least two other teams interested in him for that position now.
But before considering new coaching, it makes sense to evaluate the old or current coaching.
In evaluating Jeff Davidson, I can't help but compare him to his opposite number on the defensive line, Andre Patterson. Both have talent to work with, but Patterson has done a much better job developing his than Davidson did. Consider the difference between TJ Clemmings and Danielle Hunter this year. Both were great mid-round picks with all the measureables you could ask for, but needed coaching and development. Both have been hard working, smart guys. Yet the difference in the results of their rookie years speak to the quality of the respective position coaches.
Similarly, both Davidson and Patterson had some veteran talent that needed development and improvement, and I think both coaches did a great job with Berger and Joseph this year.
But Davidson struggled to get much improvement out of a healthy Matt Kalil, while Brandon Fusco floundered in his move to left guard, while Harris did OK at right guard, after a slow start, and other backups have not showed much. Patterson, by contrast, has been able to get solid performances from guys like Robison, Johnson and Griffen. Anecdotally, when I was watching training camp last August, Davidson always seemed pissed off and burnt out, and less engaged when taking players through drills. Patterson was more comfortable and engaged. Perhaps that is a function of different personalities, but in any case the difference was very noticeable- as it was undoubtedly to the players.
Beyond Davidson, there is also something of a deficit or misfit at the offensive coordinator position. I don't fault Norv Turner as much with his play-calling as some others, but his strategic focus, whether his own doing or influenced from above, is not right, nor is Norv's scheme for these Vikings players. Moreover, Norv seems less engaged and hands-on than he was early in his tenure with the Vikings.
I've evaluated already the AP battering-ram model as a focus, but beyond that Norv's Air Coryell scheme has proven to be a poor fit for this Vikings team, as I outlined during the season. The need for a really solid offensive line and tall receivers who can win jump balls on the outside are not strengths of the Vikings offense, and at least at WR, are not likely to be anytime soon. For Norv's offense to be at its best, there needs to be Vincent Jacksons, Michael Irvins, or Charlie Joiners out there to make it work. The Vikings receivers are all better suited to short and intermediate routes over the middle that allow them to gain YAC, and the occasional deep ball opportunity with their speed. But they're not as well suited to Bridgewater throwing up a deep ball on the outside hoping to high point the ball over the defender and bring it down.
Added to that the need for an offensive line skilled in pass-blocking to allow for the deeper routes to develop, and there is a real mismatch between scheme and players.
Bridgewater himself is better suited to a west-coast or Erhardt-Perkins scheme, where his accuracy would be an excellent fit. Overall, I have argued that an Erhardt-Perkins scheme may be the best fit for both the Vikings personnel on offense while being more difficult to defend than a west coast offense. 8 of the last 13 Super Bowl winners have used the E-P scheme, and 3 of the 4 remaining playoff teams use it too (Patriots, Broncos, Panthers in case you were wondering). The problem with adopting an E-P system is finding an available coach who uses it to implement the scheme. None to be had at the moment.
That leaves the west coast offense- and Pat Shurmur. We'll see what happens. Shurmur does have a reputation as a hands-on coach, which is what Mike Zimmer prefers, given he's the same way. Shurmur also has a good track record developing young QBs, which is important.
In any case, if Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman, or possibly Norv Turner himself feel the need for change, Pat Shurmur and his west coast offense could be the best available option right now. If that change happens, it will have some impact on some personnel decisions and draft picks on offense as well.
More than a particular offensive coordinator, the Vikings current scheme is tied to Adrian Peterson. Doing something else on offense necessarily will reduce APs importance and effectiveness as a running back. Virtually any shift in offensive focus, including any meaningful attempt to improve the passing game, makes AP a white elephant in the Vikings offense. More than that, I find it difficult to see a scheme that wouldn't value Jerick McKinnon's versatility as a runner and pass catcher over Adrian Peterson's limits as a an effective power back (ie QB under center, etc.)
All of this suggests that if the Vikings are looking to move in a different direction offensively, they should do so without Adrian Peterson. Trading him is the best option, and he is probably easier to move now that he has the rushing title in hand and the scandal behind him. But even so, his contract and age will limit the compensation. I suspect Dallas would be interested in acquiring AP, for the right price, as I think they discovered the value of a good back by his absence this season, and they need to have a running back to maximize their top offensive line and keep Romo on the field. I doubt they would give up a top draft pick to get him though. More likely, they may switch picks with the Vikings in a round or two (Dallas picks 4th, the Vikings 23rd), and/or give a later round pick, or potentially offering some other player(s) as compensation.
Mike Wallace, Matt Kalil, and Adrian Peterson are the three highest paid players on the Vikings 2016 payroll, each at about $11 million. Ouch. That is not good value for cap space. Terrible really, when you think of the value they brought to the team offensively vs. last year. I've already suggested the Vikings trade AP, which would free up cap space, but then there is Mike Wallace. The Vikings could release Wallace without a cap hit, and that certainly is an option. They could also tell him he needs to restructure his deal or be released, which in all likelihood would result in the same thing for Wallace, but with another team. Wallace has more potential and ability than his numbers suggested this year, and he could prove well worthwhile keeping at about half his current salary. Zimmer seemed to want to keep him, praised him, and had reached out to him, but he also knows his contract does not reflect his value or production to the team. Still, I don't see Wallace as hugely committed to Minnesota, and he may well decline to restructure out of a desire to hit the open market, and have a greater choice in where he plays.
Beyond the question of scheme and coaching, and some key players, there is also the question of free agents and acquisitions for the offense during the off-season.
OFFENSIVE FREE AGENTS
Here is a list of free agents on the offensive side, along with some thoughts and recommendations:
RB Matt Asiata - Re-sign to a team-friendly deal. Asiata can play as a power back, and has some ability as both a pass catcher and pass blocker, although he could improve on both scores. But as a cheap, versatile backup RB he has value.
TE Rhett Ellison - Re-sign if healthy. Ellison is a very good blocking TE who can work well as an outlet pass catching TE and lead blocker as well. Again, a team-friendly deal, provided he returns to form, would fill a need here.
FB Zach Line - Not essential. It makes sense to sign Line on a contingent, minimal deal, but Line's value is mainly as a blocking back, which he does reasonably well as a lead blocker, but not so much in pass blocking. It's possible to bring in a guy with more versatility here, for the same price but adding more value.
G Mike Harris - Re-sign to a back-up OL deal. Harris did alright as a guard this year, after a slow start, but at 338 pounds and not particularly light on his feet, he's not the ideal for the position, and as a tackle he didn't do particularly well. If the offensive line is to get better, there needs to be an upgrade over the Mike Harris types, but he does have some value as an experienced backup.
DRAFT AND/OR FREE AGENT NEEDS
While Stefon Diggs has proven a pleasant surprise, and Jarius Wright has held his own, Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace turned in disappointing performances this season, and then there's Cordarrelle Patterson....
The Vikings have already taken one (minor) shot at upgrading the WR position outside of Diggs by signing Terrell Sinkfield- a super-fast receiver from the CFL who's not been able to hold a spot on an NFL roster despite his 4.19" 40 speed.
Beyond this minor move, I could see the Vikings using one of their higher draft picks on a WR this April. Kenny Lawler, Cal, could be more of a #1 WR at 6' 2" and a nice complement to Diggs on the outside, or possibly create mix-and-match opportunities with opposing DBs.
While there is a need to bring in new players to compete along the offensive line, there is an even greater need to develop the players currently on the roster, most of which are languishing in mediocrity, but have the skills and measurables to be much better, and in some cases have been, only to regress while still early in their careers. Clearly this is a coaching issue at least, and letting Jeff Davidson go was a needed decision. This group also missed the leadership of John Sullivan, who was injured in pre-season and on IR the rest of the year. Sullivan also turns 30 this year, and along with Phil Loadholt, is a relatively expensive lineman and may be more of a durability concern going forward.
That said, with the return of Sullivan, Joe Berger could be promoted to a starting guard after really two good years as a backup, leaving the incoming Harvard man Nick Easton as a backup at center. Of course Berger's no spring chicken either, turning 33 this year. Brandon Fusco, who is signed through 2019, could be moved back to right guard potentially, making for an experienced interior line that has shown it is capable of playing at a high level.
At each tackle spot, there needs to be real competition. Tony Sparano, with Zimmer's blessing, should make it clear that it's a clean slate going into camp, and every starting position is up for grabs. At right tackle, there should be good competition among existing players- Loadholt, Clemmings, and Austin Shepherd. At left tackle, Kalil needs more than just Carter Bykowski to compete for the starting job.
Clearly there are other question marks about the potential of other depth players from David Yankey and Mike Harris, to Zac Kerin and Jerimiah Sirles.
But it makes sense to draft at least one guard and one left tackle to compete for starting positions, in addition to doing a much better job developing the players currently on the roster. I expect new offensive line coach Tony Sparano to do a better job, but equally there needs to be some new blood in the group to compete and replace aging or ineffective veterans at some point.
Joe Dahl, OG/T, Wash St., could be a guy that could compete on the left side, and has proven to be a very solid pass blocker, which would be very welcome. At left tackle, a home grown guy Joe Haeg, ND St., could make for some good competition to push Kalil or take over the starting position if he falters.
Outlook for the Offense
Unlike the defense, I expect more changes on offense, both in players and performance. This off-season provides an opportunity to move in another direction on offense, which performance statistics over the past two years confirm is needed.
At the moment, it is unclear how far Mike Zimmer and the Vikings front office are willing to go in making changes. But letting go Jeff Davidson, and interviewing Pat Shurmur are an indication they are looking for new coaching to help improve performance. But any real change in offensive mentality necessitates a very different role for Adrian Peterson, and one that may be better suited to Jerick McKinnon.
If changes are limited to coaching the offensive line, adding a receiver and a couple linemen, I doubt there will be much change next season. The AP battering ram strategy was never designed to put up a lot of points, nor has it been effective in setting up a better passing game. I fear that if more substantial scheme changes are not made, Teddy Bridgewater will languish in his development, and a lot of talent at skill positions from Bridgewater, Jerick McKinnon and Stefon Diggs will be under-utilized and wasted.
On the other hand, embracing a major scheme change to better suit the Vikings personnel, and centering it around Bridgewater, may harness more of the talent the Vikings have at skill positions, provide more versatility in game plan and play-calling, while taking some pressure off the offensive line in pass protection.
The challenge of a new scheme will likely fall first upon Bridgewater to master it and deliver the ball quickly and accurately (he's better at the latter), and secondly on the receivers to get off of press coverage and run good routes. Diggs, Wallace and Wright can do this, but they need to do so consistently to get the ball in their hands.
The other challenge that goes with a major scheme change is parting ways with Adrian Peterson, or changing his role in ways he won't like, nor perform as well. The problem with the latter is that at that point he is no longer an $11 million player in his value to the team, so keeping him on the roster doesn't make sense. Finding reasonable compensation in trade for Peterson may be difficult, given his age and contract, but if Rick Spielman made it be known that Peterson was on the market, I'm sure there would be offers. Maybe not great offers, but hopefully one that will allow the Vikings to move him.
Realistically, given a major scheme change, the Vikings offense could move from near the bottom in passing and total yards, to around the league average if it is well implemented in the first year. That should also help some in scoring and other key metrics. But putting together a top unit offensively around Bridgewater is likely to take a few years if all goes reasonably well. If key players take to it well, and the offensive line begins to gel sooner rather than later, then that time frame could shorten.
But an offense that can score points and move the ball more effectively than the current unit is essential for the Vikings to make deeper runs into the playoffs.