There are many around the league who are quietly optimistic about the Vikings this year. OK, so they’re not quiet at all. They’re actually quite annoyingly loud. It’s kind of weird considering that, in terms of DVOA, they were better than just Jacksonville, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Washington, New York Jets and, of course, the Bears. But they went 7-9 last year with a young roster and the expectation is that they will improve in their second year under Mike Zimmer.
Why They’ll Win The North:
There’s no question that Zimmer immediately changed the culture in Minnesota. Leslie Frazier seems like a nice guy, but there was no personality to him or any of his teams and he has a girls name. The players liked Frazier, but they accepted losing rather easily. Zimmer doesn’t put up with any bull shit. He’s a psychotic competitor and the Vikings seemed to take on that personality at times last season.
With rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for most of the season, Minnesota’s offense was 20th in scoring and 22nd in DVOA. That is expected to improve with the returns of Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph and addition of Mike Wallace. The development of receiver Charles Johnson is also something to watch for. If the parts develop around Bridgewater, he’s capable of being an efficient quarterback who makes enough plays for them to win.
Their defense finished 11th in scoring last year, a huge step up from 2013 when they were dead last in the league. In their last seven games, they only gave up more than 24 points once and held seven opponents under 20 points last season. Zimmer is known as one of the best defensive minds in the league and the expectation is that they’ll end up with one of the best defenses.
Why They Won’t:
While that defense was 11th in scoring, it was 23rd in DVOA as most of their good performances came against teams who were already having a hard time scoring. The fact that they’ll start 37-year-old Terance Newman at one of the corner spots is something both Detroit and Green Bay are licking their chops about.
Part of the reason Bridgewater dropped in the draft was because he lacked high upside. He was “pro-ready” as a rookie and is both intelligent and accurate, but he struggled to throw the ball down the field. He’s a younger version of Alex Smith, which is fine, but he’s not the franchise QB so many are anointing him as.
It’s worth questioning exactly how much Peterson will improve the Vikings run game. It isn’t as if they were bad last year, finishing 14th in rushing with the box stacked. Peterson averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2013, while the combination of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon averaged 4.0. McKinnon averaged 4.8 and Asiata ran mostly in short-yardage situations, bringing the average down. Peterson is 30 and hasn’t played in a year, we don’t know what he will be.
While Zimmer changed the culture, you have to wonder if he’s going to start wearing on players. I’m not worried about the defensive players, but I’m thinking Peterson, Wallace and most of the rest of the offensive players don’t like being yelled at. If Zimmer comes down hard on Peterson, is he going to go south on them and take other players with him?
It’s easy to see why people like the Vikings, but they still have a lot to do. Their 7-9 record was a bit overblown last year, they had overtime wins against the Bucs and the Jets and beat Washington by three. They were better at the end of the year with competitive losses against Green Bay, Detroit and Miami and wins over Carolina, the Jets and the Bears, but there’s a big step between being a competitive team and being a good team.
The bust factor seems high with the Vikings. If Peterson has hit a wall and Bridgewater hasn’t improved, they might be the exact same team they were a year ago, a team that was fortunate to finish 7-9.
Zimmer appears to be building something good, but it’s hard to see them taking a big enough step to be competitive in the division. Everything would have to go right for them and wrong for both Detroit and Green Bay.