Now that the Vikings have cut down their roster to 53 players, let’s have a look at what their new depth chart may look like as we head into the regular season. I’ve also included notes on each player and position group.
The quarterback position is looking exceptionally deep for the Vikings. Bradford is returning from his best year, Keenum looked very good in pre-season, Teddy looks like he’ll come off the PUP list at some point this year, and the Vikings just nabbed a promising 3rd string QB from Denver after looking very good in pre-season.
Starter: Sam Bradford.
Bradford is coming off the best season of his career, leading the league in accuracy and earned the 6th highest passer rating, 12th best PFF rating, and is now reunited with Pat Shumur as Offensive Coordinator and his West Coast Offensive scheme. Bradford will have increased familiarity with this system, and players, over last year and will be given more freedom to audible and change plays at the line of scrimmage.
Backup: Case Keenum.
After a bit of a slow start in training camp, Keenum has looked very good in pre-season games, displaying a good arm and accuracy for the most part, along with good mobility. His play inspires some confidence he could fill-in and still give the Vikings a chance to win. He may be the best backup QB the Vikings have had in a number of years.
PUP: Teddy Bridgewater.
A year after suffering a devastating knee injury, Bridgewater looks to be getting ever closer to returning to play. Where there was once doubt about whether he would be able to play football again, now it looks like Bridgewater could be activated at some point this season. Whether he plays or not remains somewhat doubtful this year, but next year he seems likely to challenge Bradford for the starting job.
Practice Squad: Kyle Sloter
Highly thought-of 3rd string QB the Vikings wanted enough to give him nearly triple the practice squad minimum salary. Sloter had a very good pre-season with Denver, but was the odd man out when the Broncos decided to re-sign Brock Osweiler. The Vikings seemingly wanting Sloter badly enough to pay him nearly active roster pay may also be a sign of their outlook for Teddy Bridgewater being activated and available to play this season.
Half-way through last season, the Vikings backfield was ranked last in the NFL by PFF. It wasn’t just the offensive line, it was also that Matt Asiata averaged only 1.8 yards after contact, and Jerick McKinnon only 3.6 yards per reception. McKinnon improved some as a rusher after Pat Shurmur took over, but clearly the Vikings’ backfield lacked talent and versatility after Adrian Peterson went down.
But the Vikings have definitely added talent, and versatility, to the running back position in the off-season. Both Cook and Murray are 3-down, receiving backs that can also pass protect, and McKinnon is an able backup. Cook has excellent big play-making ability, and they’re all a good fit in Pat Shurmur’s offense.
Starter: Dalvin Cook
Any doubt that Cook would be the starting running back over Latavius Murray seems to have been erased as training camp and pre-season progressed. Cook has looked good through practice and pre-season games, and expectations for the rookie are high. He led the nation in forced missed tackles during his career at FSU with 91, and also averaged 4.2 yards after contact. He is one of the leading contenders for Offensive Rookie of the Year, was PFF’s top offensive player in the draft, and looks to be an excellent fit and versatile weapon in Pat Shurmur’s offensive scheme.
Backup: Latavius Murray
Murray, now healthy, also provides versatility as a 3-down back along with a more power running style than Cook. Murray is one of the best pass-blocking running backs in the league, and can provide productive reps to spell Dalvin Cook, and has been an effective runner in short-yardage situations.
3rd String: Jerick McKinnon
McKinnon put on some extra muscle this off-season, and may benefit from the switch to more zone running. His reps will likely be limited, but he remains a quality backup who can fill-in as needed in the backfield, in addition to his new special teams role.
Fullback: C.J. Ham
The Vikings may not have as great a need for a blocking back as in the Adrian Peterson era, but the Vikings will still use some power running plays on occasion, and hopefully Ham can be productive as a lead blocker, and as a special team guy.
Last season, the Vikings receiver corps (including tight-ends) ranked 25th in the league after week 12, according to PFF (there is not a year-end 2016 ranking yet). The reason in part for the low ranking was a relatively thin group of viable targets. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs lead that group, but half of Diggs’ 903 receiving yards last year came in just 3 games, while in other games he seemed to disappear. Thielen was similar, getting 44% of his receiving yards in just 3 games last season. And other than Diggs and Thielen (sometimes) and Rudolph, there weren’t really any other good targets for Bradford, as Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson and the other TEs had little impact. Diggs and Thielen only played about 70% and 80% of the offensive snaps respectively last year.
What looks better about this position group this year is first of all Stefon Diggs is healthy. We know now that he was slowed by injury a lot of last season (which may explain, in part, the odd nature of his production), and Thielen will start week one, not week 5. and a third who looks better than Charles Johnson or Cordarrelle Patterson this time last year in Laquon Treadwell. Michael Floyd may also be a contributor when he returns from his suspension. Even the back-end of the depth chart looks better, but that won’t likely matter much on Sunday’s this season.
Starter: Stefon Diggs
Diggs is coming off a near 1,000-yard receiving season and has developed a nice rapport with Sam Bradford. Diggs is the favorite to lead the Vikings in receiving yards this year, and looks to do most of his work outside. He was bothered by some nagging injuries last season that may have impacted his production to some degree, particularly his yards-after-catch and yards per reception average. Remaining healthy this year could help him eclipse 1,000 yards receiving this year, and help challenge opposing defenses more often.
Starter: Adam Thielen
Thielen had a breakout season last year, also with nearly 1,000 yards receiving. It looks like the Vikings will use Thielen more in the slot this year, where they feel he is best. Unlike last season, beginning the year as a starter should also help Thielen’s production this year, allowing him a better opportunity to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving total as well as testing defenses more often.
3rd WR: Laquon Treadwell
After a largely inactive rookie season due to injury, Treadwell looks ready to become a significant contributor in the Vikings passing game this season. He has blossomed in off-season practices and had a few nice receptions in pre-season action. The big-bodied receiver looks to play mostly outside, and could become more of a downfield threat than his 40-time suggests. Xavier Rhodes, who covered him often in practice, is looking for Treadwell to have a big year. How well Treadwell does could really have an impact on the Vikings passing game, as few defenses have three good cornerbacks on their roster, which should create more passing opportunities.
Backup: Michael Floyd
Floyd will serve his suspension the first four games of the season. How much he plays after that probably depends a lot on how well Treadwell does as the 3rd wide receiver. Another big bodied receiver, Floyd could also be used when a good blocking receiver is needed, or perhaps in red zone situations. But he needs to improve over last year. After 12 weeks last season, Floyd had caught only 28 of the 57 balls thrown his way, and didn’t break a single tackle. If he is going get targets from Bradford, he needs to catch more balls thrown to him.
Backup: Jarius Wright
Wright could get some reps as a backup slot receiver, but I expect those to be more limited. He has been productive in limited use, and barring injury he seems likely to continue in that role.
Backup: Stacy Coley
Coley was the most productive receiver for the Vikings in pre-season, but may not see many reps in the regular season, barring injury. If he continues to progress, he could climb the depth chart and possibly be the main backup at some point.
Backup: Rodney Adams
Adams looks to be a development guy mainly at this point, but could get a few reps in special situations. Improving ball security will be key for him, as well as his route running. He may get cut when Michael Floyd returns from suspension.
Probably not much change overall at the tight-end position heading into the regular season, with Rudolph and Morgan at the top of the depth chart. But the backend of the depth chart just go thrown for a loop as the Vikings waived Bucky Hodges, who was going through concussion protocol, in favor of Blake Bell who was waived from the 49ers after being a 4th round pick in 2015. Bell is more of a receiving TE than Morgan, and a better blocker than Hodges at this point, but Hodges has more upside as a receiving threat. Be that as it may, the Vikings had to do something with Hodges and his injury, so now the ‘Belldozer’ is on the roster. We’ll see what happens.
Starter: Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph was Sam Bradford’s most targeted receiver last year, which gave a big boost to his production. I don’t expect him to get quite as many targets this year, as the quality of the rest of the receiver corps has improved, along with the receiving ability of the running backs. But Rudolph should be solid at TE, as both a better blocker and big red-zone target.
Backup: David Morgan
Morgan looks to be primarily a blocking TE for the Vikings, getting his reps primarily in double-TE formations- short yardage and jumbo packages. He may get a few receptions as a check-down on occasion as well.
Backup: Blake Bell
The Vikings just acquired ‘the Belldozer’ off of waivers from San Francisco, waiving an injured (concussion?) Bucky Hodges in the process. A former 4th round draft pick in 2015, Bell is a former QB in college who only played the TE position for a year before entering the draft. Bell seems to have some receiving/YAC and special teams ability as well, and has improved as a blocker. Niners Nation did a profile of him here. Here is his nfl.com draft profile. He seems like a tough offensive football player in search of a position, having played as a quarterback, fullback/h-back in goal-line situations, and most recently as a tight-end. Seems tougher than Hodges as a blocker, but Hodges has more athletic ability. At 6’6”, 252 lbs., a 4.8” 40 and a 33” vertical jump, doesn’t measure up as well as Hodges. But with Hodges going on IR if he goes unclaimed on waivers, the Vikings need a receiving TE similar to Hodges on the roster.
Practice Squad: Kyle Carter
Carter had a decent pre-season/training camp, but apparently not good enough, as the Vikings picked up Blake Bell for the 53-man roster while moving Carter to the practice squad.
IR: Bucky Hodges
Hodges didn’t see a lot of action in pre-season, but he looked good in the reps he got. He was the only Vikings player to make the PFF All-Preseason team, meaning he was the highest graded player at his position in the pre-season, with a 79.9 overall grade.
“Hodges caught all four catchable balls thrown his way, amassing 72 yards and a score. The rookie also earned a solid 72.9 run blocking grade, and it was this balance to his game that secured him the highest tight end grade this preseason.”
Sadly, Hodges suffered what may have been a concussion in the last game against Miami, apparently forcing the Vikings to waive him and put him on IR. Not sure what all is going on with that, but I don’t think the Vikings wanted to release Hodges, and placing him on IR means he’s out for at least 8 weeks, which seems rather severe if he could clear concussion protocol in a few days or so.
Last year the Vikings offensive line was ranked 29th in the league overall by PFF. The best performing lineman last season was Joe Berger, both in pass protection, run blocking, and overall rating with an 89.6, 77.5, and 83.2 respectively. All very good. He is also the only starting lineman at the beginning of last year returning as a starter this year. All the other week one starters last season are gone. Nick Easton is the only other lineman to see any action last year (5 starts at center) for the Vikings who is now a starter this season. Overall that represents about a 77% turnover, in terms of combined snaps, for the offensive line from a year ago. This is a good thing, given how bad the offensive linemen replaced this year were for the Vikings last season.
The offensive line has improved in two ways over last year. First, the quality of the starting unit has improved. It’s not top-notch, but it looks to have gone from poor to average, which is a big step up. I suspect as a run-blocking unit it has improved even more. The other way it has improved is with better quality depth. Having guys like Rashod Hill, Jeremiah Sirles and Danny Isidora as backups leaves less of a drop-off in performance if one of the starters goes down. Overall it’s not likely to be an elite unit, but it looks to be much better than last year.
Starting Left Tackle: Riley Reiff
It’s been two years since Reiff played left-tackle with the Lions, having been moved to right-tackle last season, and Reiff has seen only limited action in pre-season and training camp due to a back issue. So, just how well he settles back into his old left-tackle position remains to be seen. At both tackle spots, Reiff has been an average performer according to PFF, and equally so between pass protection and run blocking. But assuming Reiff will continue his average performance, the Vikings will have a vastly improved left-tackle from that of not only last year, but the past several as well.
Starting Left Guard: Nick Easton
Easton has proven a pleasant surprise for the Vikings this off/pre-season, starting as center over Pat Elflein before ultimately being tried at left guard and beating out incumbant veteran Alex Boone for the job. Easton has looked solid in run blocking and pass protection in more extended reps in pre-season, and seems to work better as a unit with fellow ‘low center of gravity guy’ Pat Elflein at center. While still unproven in regular season action, Easton looks to be a more complete left guard than Boone, particularly when it comes to run blocking, and should be the upgrade the Vikings coaching staff felt he was in releasing Boone.
Starting Center: Pat Elflein
Third-round draft pick Pat Elflein may have gotten off to a slower start immediately after being drafted by the Vikings out of Ohio State, but he looks to have climbed the learning curve substantially in recent weeks, becoming more comfortable making the calls and improving his blocking technique and snaps. Similarly, he continued to improve in pre-season action, ultimately getting the starting nod in combination with Easton at left guard. Elflein will need to continue to improve to reach his potential, but his familiarity with zone blocking along with his toughness and leadership ability should make him a fixture at center for many years.
Starting Right Guard: Joe Berger
This may be Berger’s last season at age 35, but he has been the best offensive lineman on the team the past couple years, and really the only good one in both pass pro and run blocking. Berger returns to his old right-guard position, where he has looked very good in pre-season.
Starting Right Tackle: Mike Remmers
Assuming all the Vikings offensive linemen live up to expectations and previous performance levels, Remmers may very well prove to be the weak link- at least in pass protection. Remmers has been below-average in pass protection and slightly above-average in run blocking virtually his entire career. However, this masks often up-and-down performance for Remmers- particularly in pass protection- where he struggles against better defensive ends. Some game planning may be necessary to help out Remmers if he proves to be a liability in pass protection.
Swing Tackle: Rashod Hill
Hill has done well filling-in primarily at left-tackle during training camp and pre-season for the injured Riley Reiff, after having a good performance in his one start at left tackle in the finale last season against the Bears. Most recently he’s also got some work at right tackle, and after the roster cut-down looks to be the primary backup at both tackle spots. There is a case to be made for Hill over Remmers at right tackle, but for now he looks like a capable swing tackle.
Backup Right Guard: Danny Isidora
Isidora looks to be a nice pick-up as a 5th round draft pick, as he has earned praise for several coaches since being drafted by the Vikings. He’s also done well in pre-season action. He’s still a work-in-progress, however, who will hopefully continue to improve and become more consistent. I’m not sure if he’ll be the primary interior-back-up on game days, but for any extended duty in replacement of Joe Berger will probably go to Isidora.
Backup Left Guard: Jeremiah Sirles
The decision to cut Alex Boone rather than keep him as a backup may have been more about money than anything else, but Sirles did not show much drop-off in performance compared to Boone, according to PFF, and was more balanced between run and pass blocking. Sirles, playing both right tackle and left guard last year (he was better at left guard), earned a 68.1 (below average) rating, including a 77.0 (above average) run blocking grade and a 63.3 (below average) pass protection grade. Boone, by contrast, had a 79.9 (good) pass protection grade but a 49.3 run blocking grade, resulting in a 72.8 overall PFF grade last season - which wasn’t much better than Sirles. Given that Sirles is both younger, with more upside, and much less expensive, it makes sense that the Vikings were willing to move on from Boone- even as a backup. Overall Sirles looks to be a serviceable backup, with some potential to improve, particularly at left guard where he is better suited than right tackle.
Backup Swing Tackle: Aviante Collins
Collins was a bit of a surprise to make the 53-man roster, but may have played his way on in the last couple pre-season games, particularly the last one, where he received extended reps at left tackle. He may offer more upside for the Vikings than Willie Beavers who, after two years the Vikings gave up on. Collins has the arm strength (34 benchpress reps at Combine), decent length (6’4”, 33 3/8” arms), but is a bit undersized (295 lbs) and looks like he could use to develop more core strength to provide a better anchor. He’ll also need to continue to improve his technique, but he could eventually become a swing tackle if Rashod Hill is promoted at some point.
This is among the deepest position group on the team, and also with one with the most high-end talent among the starters. Last season the Vikings front seven (including linebackers) were ranked 6th overall in the league by Pro Football Focus (PFF). Griffen, Joseph and Hunter are among the best in the league at their positions. 3-tech remains a relative weak spot, but if Jaleel Johnson is able to overtake Tom Johnson at some point for the starting job, he could prove a valuable upgrade to an already formidable front four. Depth is also improving as Tashawn Bower shined in pre-season, and both Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigdo showed some flashes as well. I like Dylan Bradley as the eventual replacement of Tom Johnson.
But overall if Hunter proves more productive at left end, and/or the Vikings get more production from 3-technique this year, this year’s defensive line roster looks better than a year ago.
Starting Right Defensive End: Everson Griffen
Griffen was recently given a hefty contract extension as a core player of the Vikings defense. This year he may also play some left defensive end, switching off with Danielle Hunter to create matchup advantages.
Backup Right Defensive End: Tashawn Bower
The undrafted free agent recruited in part by fellow LSU alum Danielle Hunter proved to be an excellent UFA find, making the 53-man roster and impressing in pre-season action. Still a work in progress, Bower may not see a lot of action this year, but as he improves he may see more reps to spell Griffen and keep him fresh.
Starting Defensive Tackle (3-technique): Tom Johnson
TJ has long been a backup that was moved in as a starter last year with the injury to Shariff Floyd. He has been a decent pass rusher in his career, but never good against the run. He showed the same in pre-season action this year, and at age 33, there isn’t much likelihood that will change. In honesty, the hope is that Jaleel Johnson is able to take over the starting role sooner rather than later, and Johnson used in pass rush sub-packages on occasion.
Backup Defensive Tackle (3-technique): Jaleel Johnson
Another in what looks to be a strong draft class for the Vikings this year, Jaleel was easily the best performing defensive tackle in pre-season, beating out veterans Datone Jones and Will Sutton, while also making a strong challenge to Tom Johnson for the starting role. Jaleel was more productive as a pass rusher at Iowa, but has the size and ability to be a good run stopper with improved technique. He had a couple nice TFLs during the pre-season that underscore his progress.
Practice Squad Defensive Tackle (3-technique): Dylan Bradley
Bradley didn’t get many reps in either practice or in pre-season games, but he did well with what he was given, particularly the last game pre-season game against Miami. He’s still learning, but he’s got John Randle size, strength and motor to work with, and a low center of gravity to gain leverage. Bradley could take over the backup 3-technique spot at some point behind Jaleel Johnson.
Starting Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph
Joseph is a beast in the middle, and with a fresh contract extension in hand, will continue to be so for the next few years. He has been one of the best 4-3 nose tackles in the league the past couple years, taking on double-teams to help fellow defensive lineman and linebackers do their jobs more effectively, while occasionally breaking through for a TFL or sack.
Backup Nose Tackle: Shamar Stephen
Stephen managed to keep his backup NT job, and some say he looked better this year in pre-season/training camp. Not sure that was the case, but only he and Jaleel Johnson have the size to play NT, and Jaleel looks better at 3-technique. So, Stephen holds on to his backup job, although he’s never achieved PFF ratings higher than ‘poor’ in his three seasons to date.
Starting Left Defensive End: Danielle Hunter
Hunter takes over the staring LDE position this year, after a break-out season last year in which he eclipsed the declining Brian Robison. As good as Hunter was last year as a pass rusher with 12.5 sacks as a backup, he was even better against the run. He looks poised to become a superstar defensive end, and may get some reps at right end as well, to exploit matchups and keep offenses off-balance.
Backup Left Defensive End: Brian Robison
As mentioned, Robison is at the tail-end of his career, and looks to be used more as a situational interior pass rusher than actually playing defensive end. Robison has not been good against the run for a number of years, so limiting him to passing downs makes sense.
Backup Left Defensive End: Stephen Weatherly
Weatherly may get some limited reps to spell Danielle Hunter at left end, and looks likely to eventually replace Robison as a primary backup and potentially interior pass rusher as well. Weatherly looked OK in pre-season, but didn’t stand out much either. He is more developed than Ifeadi Odenigdo at this point, which is why he beat him out for the roster spot.
Practice Squad Defensive End: Ifeadi Odenigbo
The 7th round draft pick showed flashes several times in pre-season action, but also a little more raw than Weatherly or Bower. He looks like a good developmental DE that will likely challenge for a roster spot at some point.
This group has high-end talent at the two 3-down starting spots in Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, and what looks like an up-and-coming base linebacker in Ben Gedeon, but beyond that depth looks a little more sketchy. Kentrell Brothers is another solid base linebacker, if not terribly athletic, but both veteran Emmanuel Lamur and UFA Eric Wilson had spotty performances in pre-season. Wilson had more good plays that stood out, but both were inconsistent.
Starting Strong-Side Linebacker: Anthony Barr
There is no question Anthony Barr has the talent to be a top linebacker in the NFL. He already has been in 2015 after a promising rookie year. But last year his performance went from top to bottom of the league, as he was dealing with injuries and apparently some lack of effort. Barr is healthy now, and with a potentially lucrative contract extension on the horizon, you’d think he’d have plenty of motivation. In any case, there is no excuse for lack of effort, and coaches should be on him until he shows 110% on every play and is able to do so consistently on his own.
Backup Strong-Side Linebacker: Eric Wilson
Wilson had a strong enough pre-season to beat out Edmond Robinson for this spot, which was a little surprising. Wilson is an undersized (225 lbs) linebacker and former safety, but in this spot he’ll be called upon for his coverage responsibilities more often than his run defense. Hopefully he will continue to develop, and iron out his inconsistencies while improving his technique and awareness. Wilson also looks like a key contributor on special teams.
Starting Middle Linebacker: Eric Kendricks
Kendricks is coming off an improved 2016 season, particularly in coverage, and could become one of the top middle linebackers in the league. He’s a bit undersized, so it’s important the defensive interior line keeps him clean, but Kendricks has excellent range and quickness and is gaining experience to help him in all facets of his game. He is a 3-down linebacker in Mike Zimmer’s system.
Backup Middle Linebacker: Kentrell Brothers
Brothers is more of a traditional, two-down thumper-type linebacker. He doesn’t have great speed or quickness, but he has great instincts to be around the ball, and can get off blocks, but is not so good in coverage. He is a key contributor on special teams as well.
Starting Weak-Side Linebacker: Ben Gedeon
Gedeon looks to have won this position battle as the base linebacker who comes out in nickel situations. He is also more of a two-down thumper, very good at getting off blocks and getting to the ball. He also is not the most athletic in space, and not so good in coverage. But he does well as a run stopper with good size.
Backup Weak-Side Linebacker: Emmanuel Lamur
Lamur has had poor PFF ratings the last three years. He has been injured at times during his career and that has appeared to slow him down, and is also inconsistent in both run defense and in coverage. As a backup here he isn’t likely to see too much playing time, but that may be just as well.
This group was one of the best in the league last year. Overall the Vikings’ secondary (CBs and Safeties combined) ranked 8th in the league overall by PFF. It has also been of some concern this pre-season as 2nd year, 2nd round draft pick MacKenzie Alexander didn’t look ready to start as the slot corner, Trae Waynes looking a little inconsistent, but set to take over the outside corner job opposite Xavier Rhodes, and Terence Newman’s status a little more uncertain. However, the Vikings recently acquired Tramaine Brock from Seattle, who was one of the better performing cornerbacks in the league last year in San Francisco. It’s a little uncertain at the moment how the depth chart will break down as the regular season starts, but Brock’s addition should help allay fears of a drop-off in performance in this group. If Waynes continues to be better than last year, Newman is able to do as well or better than Munnerlyn last year in the slot, and Brock is able to rotate in and provide similar performance as last year, this group could be even better than last year’s excellent CB group.
Starting Right Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes
Rhodes was the best cornerback in the league last year in passer rating allowed when targeted (47.0). He also had 5 interceptions, which may have QBs looking elsewhere this year. And, having recently signed a big contract extension, looks to anchor this group for some years to come.
Starting Left Cornerback: Trae Waynes
Waynes played about 60% of the snaps outside last year, rotating and in relief for injured starters at times. He started the season weak, but improved gradually over the course of the year. He was one of the most targeted cornerbacks in the league when he was on the field. This year that is likely to continue until Waynes is more consistent in shutting them down. This pre-season, Waynes allowed a passer rating over 100 when his receiver was targeted, so there is still improvement needed there. Waynes does look improved over last year, but just how much remains to be seen.
Primary Backup Outside Cornerback: Tramaine Brock
It’s a little uncertain where Brock will be plugged in initially, but I suspect at this point it may be as the primary backup to the outside cornerbacks. Brock played extensively as a starter outside last season in San Francisco, and earned an 81.7 overall PFF rating, which was 21st overall among all cornerbacks in the league. As Brock gets up-to-speed with the Vikings defense, and/or should Waynes falter, Brock could take over the starting job opposite Rhodes. I expect him to be rotated in any case. It’s also possible Brock could play in the slot.
Starting Slot Cornerback: Terence Newman
With MacKenzie Alexander proving still not ready for prime-time, I expect Terence Newman will get the start as slot corner, replacing the departed Captain Munnerlyn, who had his worst year as a Viking last year- earning a 74.5 overall PFF rating, including a poor run defense grade of 46.8. Newman was a top 10 rated corner in the league last year, according to PFF, with an 86.3 rating, ranking high in both coverage and run defense. He also allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of any CB in the league at 0.57. As an expert in Zimmer’s defense, Newman can play any position in the secondary, but looks most needed to play in the slot right now. This could also be helpful for the 39-year old, as he will be on the field less than last year, giving him a little more rest and recovery time during the course of the game. It’s also possible Newman serves as the primary backup outside, or even plays at safety on occasion.
Backup Slot Cornerback: MacKenzie Alexander
It looks like Alexander will have another season to figure things out as a slot corner in the NFL, working as a backup again this season. He looked inconsistent at best during the pre-season, and occasionally just plain lost. I imagine he’ll get some limited reps in the slot during the course of the season if he shows up better in practice, but he really needs to show much more focus, understanding, technique and fundamentals before he gets more than limited reps.
Additional Backup Cornerback: Marcus Sherels
Sherels has improved some as a cornerback over the years, and can do ok in a pinch, but he’s not who you want out there for extended playing time. He only had 4 snaps at CB last year, but did well with those. Obviously Sherels is primarily a special teams player.
This group was a bit of a mixed bag of performance last year. Harrison Smith, the captain of the Vikings secondary, had a bit of decline in performance, primarily due to injury, but still came in as the 12th rated safety. Andrew Sendejo rebounded nicely from a poor 2015 season, going from a 42.4 overall PFF rating to a more typical (for him) 72.8 last season. Sendejo continues to struggle in coverage, however, earning a ‘poor’ 52.2 PFF grade last season, to go along with a good 79.5 grade in run defense.
Starting Free Safety: Harrison Smith
Smith was the 12th highest rated safety in the league last year, which was a slight decline in overall ranking for him- as he was hampered some at times by injury. He had a ‘very good’ 85.6 overall rating, including 21 run stops. Smith has already been locked down as a core defensive player and defensive captain for the foreseeable future.
Starting Strong Safety: Andrew Sendejo
Although Sendejo was able to rebound last year overall, his coverage grade is a weak link in the Vikings secondary. Sendejo turns 30 this month, and with no dead cap to release him next year, every year is a prove-it year for Sendejo. It’s unlikely Sendejo will improve much at this point in his career when he’s always struggled in coverage, so the question becomes how to mitigate Sendejo as a weak link in coverage. It’s always possible that the Vikings may rotate Sendejo out more in coverage situations, or otherwise try to limit his exposure in that area, by rotating in possible replacements like Terence Newman, Antone Exum, or Jayron Kearse, or giving Harrison Smith more coverage responsibilities and Sendejo more in run defense. It’s also possible to adjust scheme in some ways to minimize Sendejo as a liability in coverage.
Primary Backup Safety: Jayron Kearse
Kearse has improved over last season, and looks to be the primary backup at both safety positions. But Kearse has also been inconsistent, both last year and in pre-season this year, even as he has improved overall. I expect the Vikings may give Kearse some limited rotational reps this season and see how he does with them, with the chance to earn more.
Secondary Backup Safety: Antone Exum / Anthony Harris
Both Exum and Anthony Harris are possibilities here at the moment, but I’ll give Exum the nod here as perhaps having had the better pre-season and perhaps slightly better in coverage than Harris. This is the point where depth at safety becomes more questionable, as Harris did not do well last season as an injury replacement and hasn’t looked much better in pre-season this year. Exum didn’t play last year due to injury, and so just how well he would do if called upon remains to be seen.
Let’s not leave out special teams in the roster discussion. Normally when you think of special teams, you think of the specialists- kickers, punters, and returners as the key players. But here’s an interesting question: who was the only special teams player named to two All-PFF special teams units last season?
Answer: Kentrell Brothers. He was named to both the kick return team as a return blocker playing along the front wall, and the punt coverage team as a left and right wing. He had a key block on this Cordarrelle Patterson kick return last year against Arizona, which goes mostly unnoticed by fans as they watch CP84 sprint down the field for a TD. But just like in the running game on offense, good blocking up-front on special teams is often the key to big plays.
Another Vikings to make an All-PFF special teams unit was David Morgan, also on the kick return team, as a blocker on the back and middle walls.
Having both of these guys back, along with other good special teams players like Marcus Sherels and Jayron Kearse, could be key to having continued good production from the punt and kick return teams, while limiting the same with the Vikings coverage units.
Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Vikings were ranked 10th in special teams using their un-weighted DVOA metric. Their weighted DVOA metric includes basically a ‘luck’ factor, which they describe as factors out of the team’s control- presumably a good bounce on a punt, opposing teams making field goals at a higher rate than average- stuff like that- which doesn’t make sense to include when evaluating the actual special teams players. Apparently the Vikings weren’t that lucky either- ranking 25th in the league in the special teams ‘luck’ stat.
Anyway, the Vikings have ranked relatively high in the league on special teams the past few seasons. Certainly having Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels as returners helped in that regard, but don’t leave out good coaching as well. Mike Preifer has done a good job selecting and coaching the non-specialists as well to do a good job blocking and covering on the various special teams units. That good coaching may help carry-over the production the kick return team had last year with Cordarrelle Patterson, as Jerick McKinnon’s kick return for a TD demonstrated in pre-season.
Okay, with that, let’s look at the special teams specialists.
Kicker: Kai Forbath
Forbath won a close competition with Marshall Koehn for the kicker job, but he also did a good job overall for the Vikings last year after he took over for Blair Walsh. In choosing Forbath, I think the Vikings chose Forbath’s slightly greater accuracy over Koehn’s stronger leg. He didn’t miss a field goal all of last season, but missed 3 extra-point attempts- one of which was blocked. The one area where Forbath could be better (other than making all his extra-points too) is with touchbacks. Only half of his kickoffs last season were touchbacks, which puts more pressure on the coverage unit. Sometimes that works out to a worse field position for the opposing offense, but occasionally it leads to a big play.
Punter: Ryan Quigley
Quigley also narrowly won a close competition with Taylor Symmank for punting duties. Again I suspect the Vikings went with the slightly better accuracy, so to speak, of Quigley vs. the slightly stronger leg of Symmank. Quigley did a little better job of getting punts inside the 20, but also had fewer bad punts, even if Symmank had some longer ones. Overall, Quigley looks like an average punter in terms of gross and net yards- averaging a little over 44 yards gross, and just under 39 yards net- for his career. He could improve some in having fewer of his punts returned, and a few more inside the 20, but overall the big thing is simply not having bad punts- short ones, touchbacks, and line drives that can be returned for big yards. Quigley seems fine in that regard. Hopefully no surprises.
Kick Returner: Jerick McKinnon
After losing Cordarrelle Patterson, and not seeing much most of pre-season from his potential replacements, it certainly was nice to see McKinnon take one to the house. McKinnon has all the traits to be a good kickoff returner- speed, some elusiveness/cutback ability, his ball security has been good, vision is good- if not as good as Patterson’s. But what struck me about his TD return was that he seemed to ‘get-it’ about running north and south as a returner. His previous kick return attempt had him running east-west across the field and tackled at the 10 yard line. But on the TD return, he focused on going north-south and just looking to exploit a little seam, which is usually the best way to a good return. If he is able to continue with that approach, he looks like he could be a very capable kick returner, and with some good blocking could provide some nice bonus points and field position for the Vikings over the course of the season.
Punt Returner: Marcus Sherels
Sherels is back as punt returner, where he has been pretty good for a number of years. He had a muffed punt last year, but that has not been typical or a concern with him over the years, as generally he’s been reliable in that regard, while also doing well at times to get something out of what looked like decent punt coverage, and on occasion threading his way for a big punt return or even a touchdown. I expect more of the same from Sherels this year.
Overall, while there has been some turnover this season in non-specialists on special teams- as there is every year, and a new kick returner in Jerick McKinnon, Kai Forbath looks reliable as a kicker, as does Quigley as a punter, and with continued good coaching, the Vikings’ special teams units could again be one of the top 10 in the league.
This Vikings roster is better than the one they had this time last year, and even more so than the one they had after a few games last season. The offensive line looks improved, as does the backfield, receivers, and defensive line. Depth has also improved in all those position groups and at QB. The linebacker group looks about the same overall, as does the safeties, tight-ends, and special teams units. The cornerback group was looking a little more of a question mark, as Trae Waynes hasn’t shown enough in pre-season, and Alexander showed he wasn’t ready to be a starter. But the addition of Tramaine Brock should help this group a lot over the course of the season, adding both quality depth with solid starter ability should Waynes falter, or injuries happen. It also allows Terence Newman to potentially start at slot corner, leaving Brock to rotate and backup the outside corners.
Overall the defense remains a very talented group, and coming off two straight seasons as a top 5 unit, looks likely to repeat that achievement.
But the offense is where the most of the roster improvement has taken place, particularly the backfield and offensive line, but also the receiver group. All that bodes well for the offense to improve over last year, perhaps even significantly, if the offensive line can do enough to allow the increased talent at the skill positions to make more plays.
Which unit will improve the most in points scored (offense) or points allowed (defense) for the Vikings this season?
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Other than the offense, which unit will score the most points for the Vikings this season?
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