NFL Preview 2014: Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Peterson (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Minnesota Vikings.

Last year’s record: 5-10-1

Coach: Mike Zimmer, replacing the fired Leslie Frazier

2014 is about… Finding a quarterback and implementing an effective passing game. The Vikings have gone as far as Adrian Peterson alone will ever carry them—and that’s not a knock to the incomparable running back, it’s a reality. To succeed in today’s NFL without a competent and effective passing attack is impossible.

Core players: Adrian Peterson (RB), Matt Kalil (LT), Cordarrelle Patterson (WR), Harrison Smith (S)

But they lost… Josh Freem—oh, wow. Sorry. I almost wrote that seriously. It’s true, technically, that the Vikes said goodbye to Josh Freeman (QB), but that was a happy day, and many hugs were exchanged among the loyal fans. A sadder day, however, was the departure of Jared Allen, the defensive face of the franchise and for many years one of the very best pass rushers in the NFL. Allen signed on with division rival Bears and while his overall skills have diminished with age (he graded out as Pro Football Focus’s 35th-best defensive end last season), he’s still effective at getting to the quarterback, and the intimidation he brought to the Minnesota defensive line won’t be easily replaced—especially with long-time tackle Kevin Williams also departing. The Vikings will also miss Toby Gerhart (RB), who provided a reliable backup for Peterson whenever the All-Pro needed a breather or suffered an injury.

Yeah, but they got… Linval Joseph (DT), who will bring some solidity to the middle of the D-line and help to replace Williams. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn should help stabilize the secondary, which was atrocious last season. The Vikings’ largest additions came in the draft, however, as they added Anthony Barr (LB/DE) with the ninth overall pick in the hopes of securing another franchise sack artist and then traded into the back end of the first round to secure the services of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Growing from within: Bridgewater is already challenging Matt Cassel for the starting gig—which is exactly what the Vikings hoped would happen when they made him their quarterback of the future at the draft. Christian Ponder is already a forgotten man at the position, which is sad for him but pretty great news for the team and its fans. (Seriously, there was a thought last year of a Freeman-Ponder QB duo. That might have set the game of football back decades.) No matter who wins the Bridgewater-Cassel competition, the Vikings will be better off. If you doubt that, please, watch this:

Did I mention Christian Ponder was the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft? So anyway…let’s never mention him again. Cassel will have to raise his game if he plans to hold off Bridgewater and, since he’s been around the NFL block a few times, there is much about the pro game that Bridgewater can learn from him. Cassel has both won and lost quarterback competitions in the past, and he’s always been a team player no matter the result. And if a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, the Vikings are well positioned to make a leap should they get consistent play under centre—Kyle Rudolph should be a favourite safety valve under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner (who helped Jordan Cameron become a stud last season in Cleveland) and Patterson is ready to explode if the Vikings can figure out how to get him the ball in space and let him make things happen. The Vikes also replaced Gerhart with Jerick McKinnon, an explosive former college QB who has been converted to a running back and is drawing rave reviews in training camp. There are a lot of pieces here for Turner and Zimmer to tinker with.

Why this team? Because they may not win much this year, but they’ll make some damn nice plays in losses. Peterson is always a joy to watch—there’s probably no better example of sheer talent winning out than what he’s managed to do against defences who knew exactly what was coming over the past few seasons. Patterson, meanwhile, proved as a rookie that he’s a threat to score any time he touches the football. Barr should make himself felt in the opposing backfield with some regularity if his hype is to be believed. And Harrison Smith is exactly the kind of safety a team like the Vikings needs—he’s well equipped to support sometimes leaky cornerback and linebacker groups but also has a little bit of a ball hawk in him, and as the Vikings try to rebuild on the fly they’ll need some game breakers on the defensive end, too. Oh—and you also get the chance to get in on the ground floor of the Teddy Bridgewater Era. For our money his will be the most successful QB career of any in the 2014 class.

Why not? Because the Vikings might not get that QB play they need this season, and if they don’t, the experience of cheering for Minnesota can quickly become similar to cheering for the Lions during the Barry Sanders Era: watching a once-in-a-generation talent attempt to put a 53-man team on his back and ultimately failing. If Cassel and Bridgewater can’t execute, opponents will stack the box against AP and the Vikings will need to win a lot of 17–14 games to compete. But the Vikings also play in the NFC North, and holding Calvin Johnson and his Lions, the Bears’ Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffery duo and the Aaron Rodgers–led Packers to those kind of scores will be all but impossible.

Perfect for fans of… The Seattle Mariners. If you’ve been an M’s fan in recent years, you’ve no doubt wanted to give Felix Hernandez a hug—because it’s got to suck being perhaps the best in the world at your job, but having your excellence squandered by less talented teammates. Now imagine the same thing for poor King Felix, but instead of throwing 100 pitches per game he’s absorbing 25 hits that are the equivalent of small automobile accidents. And…now you want to hug Adrian Peterson, don’t you?

How much hope? 3/10. The NFC North is full of teams that can score, and the Vikings are not likely to be able to keep up. It’s tough to see a team in the midst of revamping both its offence and defence winning nine games this season. But next season, you can likely take the number up a little bit—and if McKinnon can turn his training camp hype into a career as an actual successor to Peterson, the Vikings will be well positioned on offence for several years to come. There’s optimism, but it’s not quite time yet.

Will you be mocked for front-running? Nope. You get a truly great player to watch now. A few potentially great players to watch in the future and any success is a pleasant surprise. That’s not such a bad deal.

A Meme To Remember: “An orange peanut? For ME?”

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