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Will They, Or Won’t They?

The Minnesota Vikings might be on the verge of a breakout. Unless, of course, they aren’t.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Every year about this time, I think I have a pretty decent idea on how the Vikings will be. I’m not saying I’m some sort of Nostradamus, but I have a solid feeling on whether or not the Vikings can compete for the division and go to the playoffs.

This year, I have no clue. Granted, I’ve pretty much meandered through life this way, so it’s not like I’m revealing some ancient prophecy here. But it’s hard to get a feel for this team early on, and I’m not sure what to make of things.

In a lot of recent seasons, I’ve had to do sort of an ‘if/then’ exercise to find a way for Minnesota to get to the post season, in an ‘If Adrian Peterson has 2,500 yards rushing and 20 TD, then the Vikings can score a wildcard’ kind of exercise. With the exception of a few years, there’s been some bad football in Minnesota in the 21st century, but that’s changed since Mike Zimmer came along. I thought they would be in contention for a playoff spot in 2014, and they were until almost the last week of the season, even with a rookie quarterback and Peterson missing 15 games. I thought they would be a playoff team in 2015, and they were. I thought they’d be one of the NFL’s best teams last year...and then terrorists planted a bomb in Teddy Bridgewater’s knee right before the season started, setting off a chain of events that reverberated all the way through the 2017 NFL Draft.

This year? I don’t know. I think the Vikes are anywhere from 5-11* to 11-5 team, and to me, it all hinges on three things: The secondary, the offensive line, and the running game. Now that we’re halfway through the preseason, let’s figure out what those things are.

*5-11 isn’t happening, but ‘5-11 or 11-5’ looks good from a literary perspective, much more aesthetically pleasing than ‘7-9 or 11-5’, which just looks ugly and disjointed. Like Mike McCarthy’s beard. I really think, even if the absolute worst case things happen, 7-9 is about the floor here. But just go with me on this, folks.

The Secondary

The Vikings will be 11-5 if:

Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander can transition into legitimate NFL-caliber cornerbacks. I think Waynes is already a legit corner, and got better as the year went on last season. However, it’s still a big step up to full time starter, and how Waynes holds up over the course of 16 games remains to be seen. For Alexander, the success of the secondary hinges largely on him. Replacing Captain Munnerlyn in the slot is the big question that this defense needs to answer. If he can step up and play close to the level we saw with Munnerlyn, the defense will be fierce.


The Vikings will be 5-11 if:

Alexander fails as a nickel back. You’re only as good as your weakest link, and if Alexander can’t get it done, teams will find him early and often, and no matter how good the defensive line is, the Vikings defense will falter. You can scheme for a lot of things, but cornerbacks are alone and on an island, and it will be hard to mask a slot corner that can’t cover.

Think back to Josh Robinson, for example. He was a decent corner who had a lot of upside after his rookie season in 2012. But in 2013 the Vikings forced him in to the slot position, he had never played it before, and it ruined him in Minnesota as far as I’m concerned. He gave up more big plays than any corner in the NFL, and the Vikings defense couldn’t stop anyone. It wasn’t all Robinson’s fault, not even close, but it felt like that anytime an opponent needed to convert a third down, they picked on him. We could see a repeat of that if Alexander fails in the slot, and there won’t be a whole lot that could be done, unless you think Terence Newman could still do the job. And if any one of the starters or Newman get hurt? It’s going to get real ugly, real fast.

Offensive Line:

The Vikings will be 11-5 if:

They are just okay. I don’t want to replay the Litany of Death that was the 2016 offensive line, but there were more injuries on that unit than there was in Torpedo Squadron Eight at the Battle of Midway. But so far, the 2017 offensive line has been encouraging, for the most part. LT Riley Reiff looks to play in the third preseason game, but his backup, Rashod Hill, has been decent to good in Reiff’s absence. Let’s just say if Reiff goes down, I won’t have a panic attack if Hill’s name comes over the TV. The interior line looks solid, as Nick Easton and Pat Elflein have waged a fierce battle to win the center job. Who ever doesn’t win it will be a really good backup to the center, LG Alex Boone, or RG Joe Berger. And Mike Remmers, who everyone was freaking out about last week, held his own against a solid Seattle defense. This unit doesn’t have to be five Hall of Famers, but just league average. They do that, and the offense will be in business.

The Vikings will be 5-11 if:

The offensive line play sinks to 2015 and 2016 levels. 2016 was really bad play, but also a bit of an outlier due to the amount of injuries. If you want a more concerning set of linemen, 2015 is where you need to be looking. Yes, they lost John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt during the preseason, but T.J. Clemmings replaced Loadholt, Joe Berger replaced Sully, and the re-formed line of Matt Kalil, Brandon Fusco, Berger, Mike Harris, and Clemmings started all 16 games...and were still pretty bad. If the offensive line cannot protect Sam Bradford or open up holes for the running backs, the Vikings offense will struggle to consistently move the ball and score, and it’s going to put even more pressure on a slightly re-tooled defense.

The Running Game

The Vikings will be 11-5 if:

Dalvin Cook and company can average more than four yards a carry. There were a lot of reasons as to why the Vikings couldn’t run the ball last year. The main one was, of course, the offensive line. Another one was the injury to Adrian Peterson that limited him to just three games in what would be his final season in Minnesota. But there were also times when Peterson’s replacements—Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, primarily—left a lot of yards on the table because they didn’t see running lanes opened for them. And scoring via the run down on the goal line became an almost mythical thing—we had heard about it from by reading the scrolls the elders left us from ancient times, but it was hard to imagine that it was actually possible.

Enter Dalvin Cook, who I get more and more excited about every time I see him play. Cook has a chance to be a really special back, and he’s a guy that can both run and catch the ball. When you add Cook to a re-tooled offensive line, I like the potential the offense brings to the table.

The Vikings will be 5-11 if:

The running game stinks. It’s pretty cut and dried, actually. I think the Vikings passing attack will hold up and be fine; with no running game or o-line, Sam Bradford had a good season in 2016. Barring injury, there’s no reason to think his numbers won’t be as good as or better than last year. But the Vikings can’t be so one dimensional this year, either, because Bradford isn’t Tom Brady or Drew Brees. The Vikings offense relies on balance, and a running game that can barely get three yards a carry will doom this season.

So what happens?

I honestly wish I knew. I really like this team, but like most of you, a few areas concern me. If those areas can at least tread water, we might have something special here.