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Rolling with the Punches- the Vikings' Future is Now

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It's the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In three weeks, the future of the Vikings offense has been re-made.

No one likes injuries, but overcoming them is critical to a team's success.  Very talented players that are fun to watch can suddenly be lost, and that's not good for anyone.  But making it through the season relatively injury-free, or having the depth to deal with key injuries- can have a huge impact on a franchise winning and losing, making a playoff run or going home.

Going into training camp, Teddy Bridgewater was the most irreplaceable player on the team.  Then he was replaced first by Shaun Hill, then Sam Bradford.  Hill played well but got the win thanks to the defense.  Bradford won making plays that didn't make you miss Bridgewater, truth be told.

Adrian Peterson has been the face of the Vikings franchise since Favre.  He's not anymore.  He may even have played his last down as a Minnesota Viking.  But even if he hasn't, he's not going be the focus point anymore.  Those days are over.

And just when you thought the Vikings injuries were about over, Matt Kalil is put on IR.  So, the two highest paid players on the Vikings roster this year are done.  $23 million.  See ya.

And still the list of Vikings' injured first-round draft picks is not complete.  Add Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.  That makes 5 in all.  Floyd, to be honest, hasn't been missed thanks to Tom Johnson.  Rhodes should be back on Sunday.

But there is the distinct possibility that the four other players- Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil and Sharrif Floyd -  may not be back as starters next year- or at all.  Teddy may have to earn his starting job back when he's healthy, AP will need to take a huge pay-cut or be let go, and Matt Kalil may not be re-signed at any price.  And the way Mike Zimmer talks, and/or avoids talking, about Sharrif Floyd doesn't look good for his future as a Viking.

And so things have transformed for this Vikings team- in only a few weeks.  But it's not all bad.  It may even be better, cold and heartless as that is.

However you want to look at it, when the Vikings take the field on Sunday, they will be without last year's leading rusher.  But they will have this year's leading receiver.   Top receivers are hard to come by, and not easily replaced.  Top running backs can be.  Let's take a look.

Adrian Peterson vs. Asiata & McKinnon

In 2014, the year AP was suspended after the first game, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata combined to fill-in for AP.  Last year AP returned.  Let's compare the results.

Running Back / Year Carries 1-10 Carries 11-20 Carries 1-20 Carries 21-30 Total Total Stuff Stuff
Avg. Yards Avg. Yards Avg. Yards Avg. Yards Carries Stuffs Rate League Rank
Adrian Peterson / 2015 3.5 4.8 4.15 6.3 327 47 14.4% 5th Highest
McKinnon & Asiata / 2014 4.25 3.8 4 n/a 277 20 7.2% 2nd Lowest
Vikings 1st 2 Games 2016 13 26% Worst

Looking at these statistics, it becomes clear that Adrian Peterson does best late in the game.  Defenders of Smashmouth football would argue rushing wears down the defense, leading to big gains on the ground late, when the game is on the line.  Others would say that late in the game, especially when the Vikings are trailing, the opposing defense is happy to give up a 10 yard run up the middle that runs down the clock, and is defending against the deep pass in a bend-but-don't-break type defense.  You could also argue that McKinnon and/or Asiata would do just as well rushing late in the game too.

On the other hand, early in the game, Adrian Peterson does noticeably worse, and is much more prone to get stuffed (no gain or loss) than McKinnon and Asiata.  So, early in the game when the Vikings are trying to establish the run, AP does more harm than good, as opposing defenses tend to key on him.

Clearly opposing defenses have mapped the Vikings play calling tendencies when Adrian Peterson is on the field, and they know what formations he runs most effectively.  They game plan to key on Adrian Peterson when he lines up at tail back on 1st or 2nd down early in the game, with interior linemen shooting the gaps and linebackers stepping up to fill.  This makes run blocking much more difficult for the offensive line, and leads to a high rate of stuffs.

Stuffs are important because they often result in difficult 3rd down conversions, which end drives.  Getting stuffed on 1st down for a 1 yard loss, followed by an average 4 yard gain on 2nd down leads to a difficult 3rd & 7 (i.e. 3rd & long) conversion- which have much lower conversion rates and result in more stalled drives.

Given all that, it may be that defenses have solved Adrian Peterson- at least for 3 quarters when stopping the run is more important- and AP is unable to adapt his game in response.  It may also be that McKinnon and Asiata, as more versatile receiving backs and with different running styles, make it more difficult for opposing defenses to key on them in particular game situations and identify tendencies, etc.

Bucky Brooks over at nfl.com thinks the Vikings offense may actually improve without Adrian Peterson, and gives some data to back it up.

In any case, the Vikings are currently the worst rushing team in the league this year after two games, so the only direction the running game can go is up.

That leaves the passing game, and QB comparison

Bradford vs. Bridgewater

Sam Bradford had the 3rd best game of his career in terms of passer rating against the Packers last week.  His passer rating also bested all but one of Teddy Bridgewater's games too.  But let's get a bigger sample size, and compare Bradford's last 22 starts (going back to the start of the 2013 season) with Bridgewater's last two years (28 starts):

QB Comp % TD % INT % QB Rating ANY/A Sack %
Sam Bradford - last 22 Games 63.9 4.20% 2.20% 89.1 6.03 5.40%
Teddy Bridgewater 28 Games 64.9 3.30% 2.50% 87.0 5.59 8.90%

As you can see, Bradford has the edge in all these key stats except completion %, where Teddy has the edge.   Of course they were playing for different teams (Bradford 3 different ones), and the question remains which QB had the better team around them.  Be that as it may, the two QBs are comparable, but Bradford has been a little better overall.

One stat where there is a big difference is sack %.  Teddy's was one of the highest in the league last year, in part because of the offensive line, but also because he had the 5th longest time to throw last year - something he was working on during the off-season.  Bradford's time to throw is shorter than Bridgewater's which may help him avoid some sacks this year - even though he had four against the Packers.

Bradford has also had higher passer ratings when using play-action, which Norv likes to use in his offense, but Bridgewater's passer rating was a little worse when using play-action, so in that sense- and a little better deep ball accuracy- Bradford may be a little better fit for Norv's offense.

However it's fair to say that Teddy Bridgewater, based on his off-season/pre-season performance, looked to be improved over last year before he was injured- both in getting the ball out quicker and in deep ball accuracy.  It's also fair to say that Bradford hasn't had much time to gel with Vikings receivers, and that he may improve as well as the year goes on and he develops that timing and rapport.  We'll see.

But at this point, Bradford appears to be an improvement over 2015 Bridgewater.  Whether he'll be better than Bridgewater would've been in 2016, we'll never know.  But if Bradford averages 80% of what he did last week against the Packers during the rest of the season, he'll have a strong claim to the starting job next year too.

Matt Kalil vs. TJ Clemmings

With Matt Kalil now on IR and done for the season, I doubt he'll ever play for the Vikings again.  I'm not sure he'll ever play football again.   I don't think enough people realize that Matt's NFL career has been such a disappointment because he's been injured and not 100% since about mid-way through his rookie year.  He's had a back injury, on-going knee injuries and now a hip injury.  His back injury has ebbed and flowed, as has his knee injuries, but he's hasn't been healthy for years- even though he started pretty much every game.  I can't help but think that has taken the mental toughness, the mean streak, and the confidence he once had from him as a player.  I did a write-up last year on Kalil, which detailed his injuries over the years and how they effected his performance, and how he could return to form if he got healthy.  Sadly, that never happened.   Given that, his future may have more to do with Pieology than playing professional football.

In any case, with Kalil out for the season, TJ Clemmings will step into the starting left tackle position.  As you know, Clemmings was called into start week one as a rookie last year at right tackle with the injury to Phil Loadholt.

Drafted in the 4th round in 2015, Clemmings was seen as a first-round talent in terms of his physical traits and ceiling, but because he'd only played RT for two years in college, and apparently had a foot injury diagnosed during the draft he was unaware of, he fell in the draft to the 4th round, and was considered one of the steals of the 2015 draft.

But last year was rough for Clemmings at RT.  I did a write-up on Clemmings this summer, when he was moved from RT to LT, outlining his brief 3-year career so far as an offensive tackle- 2 years in Pitt and 1 as a Viking.   But comparing him to Matt Kalil this year, the best way you could describe Clemmings' performance last year is equally bad.   His overall PFF grade for the season last year was 37.1.  Kalil's overall PFF rating this year is 36.9, with an even worse 32.8 rating in pass protection.

But while many may be skeptical on how well Clemmings will do at left-tackle, given his poor performance last year at right-tackle, I am more optimistic he'll at least be better than Kalil would've been.  Here's why:

First of all, Clemmings is healthy.  Kalil wasn't, and for him that goes beyond physical limitations- it also effected his mental toughness and competitiveness.  You could see it in his play.   Clemmings won't have either of those limitations, and has all the same or better physical attributes as Kalil when he was healthy.  What remains to be seen is Clemmings' technique.  To listen to his coaches, it sounds improved.  But just how improved we won't know until Sunday afternoon.  I'm not expecting Joe Thomas.  I'm not expecting above average either.  But I would expect him to play better than Kalil has this year, simply because he's healthy and has had a year to learn the system and the NFL game.  Still, he's never started an NFL game at left tackle, so I'm sure there will be a learning curve.  Even so, Clemmings has upside and may make up for inexperience in his technique with more physical and mental toughness than Kalil has demonstrated this year and last.

Stefon Diggs - the Next Antonio Brown?

While we may have lost last year's top RB, Stefon Diggs continues his emergence as a top WR in the NFL.  He's currently the #1 WR in the league, with 30 more receiving yards per game than the 2nd WR on the list.   Not bad especially considering his QB week one was career back-up Shaun Hill, and he'd only been catching balls from Sam Bradford for about 10 days before the week two game.

What that shows is no matter who the QB is, Diggs can get open and make the catch.   He has also shown some veteran savvy in his route running and ability to position himself to make the catch.

Diggs' former teammate, Mike Wallace, compared him early on to Antonio Brown, who he also played with in Pittsburgh.  The comparison is a good one.

Comparing these highlights, it's hard not to notice similarities between the two receivers- their run-after-the-catch style, route running, and how they position themselves for the catch.  Diggs is a little bigger than Brown- 2 inches taller and with a few more pounds.  Both have the same, 4.47ish speed.   It's interesting that they were both taken late in the draft- Diggs in the 5th round and Brown in the 6th.

Vikings Team of the Future?

And so, suddenly the Vikings offense has gone from more of a run threat to more of a passing threat with Bradford and Diggs.  It will be interesting to see how play calling unfolds, and how defenses react to a suddenly much different Vikings offense with so many changes to personnel.  My guess is it will much more difficult to game plan.

Together with the already stout and established Vikings defense, this Vikings team looks ready to make a run.

In any case, suddenly the Vikings future is now.  The team that takes the field in Carolina, with all the recent personnel changes,  may be the team we see for the next few years.