Now that we know the Vikings roster as they made the last of their preseason cuts, let's analyze the Vikings team as it prepares to start the 2016 season.
I'm going to start, oddly, with the injured players list.
Teddy Bridgewater, BJ Dubose, Antone Exum Jr., Michael Griffin, Jabari Price
I think it's fair to say that only Bridgewater has a meaningful future with the Vikings. The rest are further down the depth charts, to the point where I don't see them ever becoming starters, although Exum could continue as a backup. Price is buried behind Munnerlyn and Alexander now as a nickel back, Dubose is behind Trattou and Hunter on the DE depth chart, and Griffin I believe has been officially released.
With Teddy, having Bradford allows the Vikings the luxury of not starting Bridgewater before he is fully healed and recovered- which will likely be into next year. That was a more important reason for signing Bradford (and paying the price) than is generally recognized.
Reserve Non-Football Injury/Illness
Mike Harris (G/OL), and Taylor Heinicke (QB)
Both of these two will likely be added to the roster when they return to health. Not sure what Harris' illness is, but I suspect when he returns he may challenge Fusco for the RG spot- and likely win it. Harris was one of the Vikings best linemen last year (after Berger), and the highest ranked pass blocker- Fusco was worst, albeit at LG.
Heinicke looks set to be 3rd string QB when he comes back, really based on practice performance and last pre-season it seems. Apparently Stave did not do enough to surpass him, although he's now on the practice squad. My hope is that Heinicke can come back strong and allow the Vikings to trade Shaun Hill to some desperate, QB-needy team before the trade deadline, and gain another draft pick next year.
Shaun Hill, Sam Bradford.
Hill is still listed as the starter, and I expect he will be for at least week one. But the Vikings need to do all they can to have Bradford start at home against the Packers and against Carolina on the road. Those are big early games, and the Vikings need Bradford's downfield throwing threat to help balance the offense and keep those defenses honest.
While I expect Hill to remain the backup this year, I hope Heinicke will overtake him by next year, allowing the Vikings to move on from Hill- and I expect they will. If the Vikings are as high on Heinicke as it seems they are, they need to commit to him and make him the eventual backup to Bradford/Bridgewater next year. I don't like the idea of having a has-been as a backup. It sounds comforting to have a guy that's been around the block, but too often these guys don't have the physical skills anymore to keep defenses honest. Hill and Cassel are both good examples. I think of it in banana terms. If you're gonna put a QB on the shelf, make it a green one in hopes he will ripen to yellow before he's needed, rather than a yellow one that's turning black.
Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata
This is a good combination, but hopefully we'll see improvement on 3rd down from AP and McKinnon- both could improve their blocking skills over last year, and AP as a receiver. My hope is that AP is has about 20 touches a game- and at least a few of them as a receiver, and let McKinnon have a few more touches each game. The other issue here is Peterson and his contract, which is not feasible next year at $18 million. I'm not opposed to extending Peterson, and continuing to manage his touches, but it has to be for a lot less money, as long as he continues to perform at a high level. But his base should be around $10 million, and declining each year, with escalators and de-escalators like his current contract, based on his rushing production and/or yards-per-carry, and post-season success.
The Vikings have to be prepared to part ways with AP as well, if he is not agreeable to terms that are much more inline with his value than his current contact starting next year. I suspect the Vikings offense could be just as effective with McKinnon taking a lead role, with a bigger, much less expensive, back in the mix.
Starters: Matt Kalil (LT), Alex Boone (LG), Joe Berger (C), Brandon Fusco (RG), Andre Smith Jr. (RT)
Backups: Jeremiah Sirles (LT), Zac Kerin (LG), Nick Easton (C), TJ Clemmings (RT)
While I am starting to feel better about the interior line compared to last year, I don't feel much better about the tackles. I don't feel good about the backups generally. My guess is that when Mike Harris returns, Zac Kerin will be cut, and Harris will eventually displace Fusco at RG, leaving Fusco to be the backup guard- and a potential contract restructure.
I do like the Boone-Berger-Harris interior line combo, if it ends up working out that way. I also think Nick Easton being groomed to replace Berger at center in a year or two makes sense.
I take reports of Kalil doing well in preseason with a grain of salt. I do think Boone has made a positive impact on him in terms of both attitude and communication on the left side. Obviously a big year for Kalil to prove himself worthy of an extension, but also have zero confidence in Sirles, who is listed as his backup. I'm really surprised he made the team ahead of Austin Shepherd, who I saw as a backup RT, and Clemmings the backup LT.
Be that as it may, I think RT may be the weakest link on the Vikings offensive line going into the season. Andre Smith has not been inspiring in pre-season, and I thought Loadholt hanging it up was a real loss for the Vikings. Smith had a horrible year last year with the Bengals (46.6 overall PFF rating) and he got beat cleanly too many times in preseason to think he's turned things around. TJ Clemmings is effectively a swing-tackle I think, and would probably come in to replace either Smith or Kalil. Not sure how much progress he's made this off-season, but at least he has starting experience as a backup.
Overall, it would be nice to see the Vikings trade to continue to bolster this group, particularly at tackle- right tackle in particular.
Tight End / Fullback
TE: Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, Mycole Pruitt, David Morgan. FB: Zach Line
I put these two together as they have some overlap in how they're used, and skill sets. Basically there are three blockers here- Ellison, Morgan and Line. Both Line and Ellison are good lead blockers, but I suppose having this many blocking-types allows the Vikings to use sort of a run-blocking package if they have Line, Ellison and Morgan on the field. As a blocking unit, this group is pretty strong. As receivers, not so much.
I continue to look at Kyle Rudolph as a good guy, but very over-rated as a tight-end- and overpaid. I didn't think he had a great preseason, having continued his more recent trend of dropping very catchable balls. He's never had good production, even in an offense that looks to utilize a pass-catching TE, and generally good rapport with the QBs he's worked with since being drafted.
I don't see a big drop-off in TE production if suddenly Rudolph wasn't there. He also isn't a particularly good blocker, despite his many years in the league now. And at $7 million/year, Rudolph isn't carrying his salary-cap weight in my view. If the Vikings had an opportunity to trade Rudolph to upgrade RT, I would be all for it.
Stefon Diggs, Charles Johnson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Laquon Treadwell, Adam Theilan, Jarius Wright
This group really has the widest range of possibilities this year. Could be very good, could be very mediocre. I'm confident in Diggs, who proved himself last year and looked good in preseason. I also think he's better in the slot than outside. In any case, I'd be surprised if he didn't lead the group in receiving yards this year- hopefully hitting 1,000.
Beyond Diggs, everything gets more speculative. Charles Johnson looked improved last year in preseason and before he got hurt, and did OK in preseason. I've seen him get loose deep a couple times- remember he's got the same measurables as CP84- but I haven't seen him gain separation consistently, nor make the kind of contested catches on the sideline that you'd like to see- and which builds a lot of trust from QBs. He's a big receiver, and he's become more aggressive in attacking the ball, but he remains unproven in this area.
It's hard to imagine Cordarrelle Patterson as a real threat as a downfield receiver. I think he had one grab on a shorter curl route, but its hard to imagine him as anything other than an ancillary role player in this group- working as a decoy in the backfield or the occasional bubble screen or reverse- which tend to be well covered. I don't think he's got a wide catch radius, nor is he that effective in beating press-man, nor has his route-running improved much as far as I can see. It seems the coaching staff feel he made progress, but I'd be surprised if he added meaningful production to this group. Hope I'm wrong.
I do think that Laquon Treadwell has the opportunity to move up the depth chart as the season progresses. He was underwhelming in preseason and training camp, but he does have a skill set that the Vikings need outside- particularly his catch radius and ability to come down with the contested ball. His reception of a Shaun Hill pass for a two-point conversion in the third preseason game was an example of how he can help the Vikings improve in the red zone this year, and be more effective on sideline routes. I wouldn't be surprised if Treadwell surpassed Patterson on the depth chart and/or sees more playing time by mid-season, if not sooner. Depending on how Johnson fares, he could potentially surpass him too by season's end.
But on 3 WR passing downs, I see Diggs, Johnson and Treadwell as the best combination, assuming Treadwell gets up to speed, with Diggs playing the slot.
I like Jarius Wright, and I think he's under-rated, but I also understand why the Vikings are rumored to be shopping him, if they think Diggs is best in the slot. I wouldn't be disappointed if Wright were traded for the pick(s) or an upgrade to the offensive line, but I think he's ahead of at least Thielen and Patterson as a receiver.
Thielen is part of this group, and can fill an ancillary role as a WR, but is really a special teams ace, which is fine I guess. Thielen may actually be more of a threat as a downfield receiver than CP84, which is sad and hopefully proven false this year.
Eventually I would hope/expect Diggs, Treadwell and Johnson (or less likely Patterson) to be the mainstays of this unit.
As was the case with Kyle Rudolph, I wouldn't mind seeing Jarius Wright traded for an upgrade to the OL, or potentially a mid-round pick next year.
Overall, the weak group on offense continues to be the offensive line, with weakness in particular at the tackles, and also really lacking depth. Tight end is strong on the blocking side, but weak on the receiving side. The receiver corps looks to be the real question mark on offense this year, with potential to be much improved, but also unchanged. Charles Johnson and Laquon Treadwell are the ones to watch to see how this group will fare.
Now that Sam Bradford will assume the starting QB job at some point- perhaps week two- I look for the QB spot to be roughly unchanged from last year, but with a higher degree of uncertainty. With Bridgewater healthy I would expect it to have improved noticeably. It may with Bradford, but a decline is also possible.
I expect the offensive line to improve- primarily the interior line, but I expect the tackles will continue to struggle and not be much better than last year- especially right tackle. Perhaps better blocking TEs will help, but it will remain a weak spot.
I don't expect the RBs to be much different than last year, although I don't expect AP to have as much production- just a hunch really. Overall, however, I expect the Vikings to be better in the red zone last year, which should help their PPG production.
Starters: Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Brian Robison
Backups: Justin Trattou, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen, Danielle Hunter
This is easily the strongest and deepest group on the team. The only comment I have here is that Hunter could/should become the starter over Robison. Giving Hunter about 66% of the reps and Robison 33% sounds about right, maybe more toward Hunter. While very comparable in pass rush and in coverage, Hunter had a 79 PFF grade against the run last year, while Robison had only a 42. Run defense is a key focus of improvement for the Vikings this year, and having Hunter out there more should help. I would not be surprised to see Hunter surpass Robison in pass rush this year as well, and Robison to decline.
SLB: Anthony Barr, Edmond Robinson
MLB: Eric Kendricks, Audie Cole, Kentrell Brothers
WLB: Chad Greenway, Emmanuel Lamur
Also a strong group, although not as deep as the defensive front, but getting there. Overall, I like Kendricks better as a WLB than a MLB, and I'm not sure how many reps Greenway should have- but not more than half. I could see the linebacker corps evolve to having Kendricks as WLB, Barr at SLB, and Kentrell Brothers, an instinctive two-down thumper at MLB. This group has really improved over the past few years- since Zimmer took over- and I expect all the non-starters to play strong roles on special teams as well.
Overall, this is a group to continue to develop the talent on hand, rather than looking for key additions elsewhere.
LCB: Terence Newman, Trae Waynes
RCB: Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn, MacKensie Alexander, Marcus Sherels
This group continues to improve as well under Mike Zimmer. I hope Rhodes can continue to improve, as well as Trae Waynes. I don't expect Terence Newman to be as good as last year, and I hope Waynes can prove to be an upgrade sooner rather than later. I expect Captain Munnerlyn- who was the Vikings highest PFF rated CB last year- to stay in the slot where he is most effective. MacKensie Alexander has really improved depth in this group, and can come in either outside or in the slot as a backup. Sherels is really just special teams, and I don't see a need for him to ever play CB, barring injury at this point. It would be nice to see Rhodes/Waynes/Munnerlyn earn the starting roles here, with Newman or Alexander as backups- that would be a very solid group this year.
FS: Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris
SS: Andrew Sendejo, Jayron Kearse
This group has also gotten deeper this year, and perhaps stronger. Jayron Kearse has been a very pleasant surprise in training camp and preseason so far, and could make his way to be a starter opposite Smith. To be honest, I wasn't that big on Kearse as a draft pick- his draft profile was not generous when it came to work ethic and his aggressiveness on the field, which couldn't have been farther from the truth in watching him this preseason. Maybe he changed, maybe coaching helped, maybe both, maybe the scout just didn't like him. But whatever the reason(s), Kearse looks like he could be starting sooner rather than later if he shows a good grasp of the system and his responsibilities. But until that happens, I'd say this group is on par with last year, but poised to be better. I'd rather see Sendejo as a backup, and I think Harris has shown improvement, but I think there is flexibility among FS and SS so they are virtually interchangeable- as is Zimmer's preference for his safeties.
I could see the Vikings continue to explore alternatives as backups to Smith (and probably Kearse at some point), but beyond that this looks like a hard group for another player to crack the starting lineup.
Overall, the defense generally has few, if any, real holes- barring injury. And even then, most positions have at least capable backups. The emergence of Danielle Hunter has gone a long way to improve LDE, while I believe Waynes, Alexander and Kearse should help the combined DB group improve this year as well.
I don't anticipate any defensive group declining this year, and they may all improve- we'll see. I expect the defense to be every bit as good as it was last year, and even to improve on last year's impressive totals- particularly turnovers. I say that as the defense becomes more overpowering, as the Vikings defense is becoming, it creates more stress on offenses over the course of a game, and more opportunities for turnovers. The Vikings defense was only #20 last year in takeaways, at 1.4 average per game. I could see that moving up a lot closer to 2 this year, and in the top 10 overall.
K: Blair Walsh P: Jeff Locke LS: Kevin McDermott
KR: Cordarrelle Patterson PR: Marcus Sherels
I suspect largely the same from this group this year as last, although I hope Locke will improve some as punter- he better. I do expect Patterson's production as KR to decline this year, as I doubt he gets as many return opportunities indoors at US Bank stadium. Although some teams are kinda pooch kicking it in preseason rather than give up the new 25 yard line spot for a touchback, I don't see teams doing that with Patterson.
I'm hoping the coverage units continue to be good- and expect they will- but I don't expect as much offensive production from special teams- which puts more pressure on the Vikings' offense to deliver. We'll see.
As a team, I don't expect a lot of surprised from last year's team: the defense should keep them in ball games, and give the offense some good opportunities from time to time. But how far this team can go will depend on the production out of the offense- particularly in the key 3rd down and red zone situations. Variables at QB and WR will determine how far the team can go in it's quest for a Super Bowl.