With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Next up: The Minnesota Vikings.
A season after winning its final four regular-season games to make the playoffs, the Vikings stumbled to a 5-10-1 record in 2013 and the ineptitude ended up costing coach Leslie Frazier his job. And while Christian Ponder is still technically with the team, it's reasonable to think that the former 2011 first-round pick could either begin 2014 on the bench in Minnesota.
On the other side of the ball, there could be plenty of turnover on a unit that ranked worse than the Vikings' offense, according to Football Outsiders. Luckily, former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was hired to replace Frazier and he's very serious about fielding an aggressive defense that helps take pressure off the offense. It worked well in Cincy, where the young, inconsistent Andy Dalton was often the beneficiary.
Whether the Vikings have the offensive weapons behind Adrian Peterson are another matter, and something Zimmer and his staff will have to figure out in the coming months.
What went right
Not a whole hell of a lot. Running back Adrian Peterson followed up a 2,097 yard rushing effort in 2012 with 1,266 rushing yards last season (4.5 YPC, 10 TDs). He missed two games with an ankle injury, but the nine-man defensive fronts he faced was a bigger hindrance. Ponder struggled for most of his nine starts before a shoulder injury ended his season in Week 13. His replacement, Matt Cassel, was a serviceable backup, but he opted out of the final year of his contract and his now a free agent.
Rookie wide receiver and return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson was a pleasant surprise. In addition to the 45 receptions for 469 yards and 4 touchdowns, he also averaged 32.4 yards as a kick returner, including two touchdowns, one that covered 109 yards.
Kicker Blair Walsh was also a special teams bright spot, ranking eighth among all kickers by PFF's metrics. He converted 87 percent of his field-goal attempts (including 5-of-6 from 40-49 yards), and boomed 51 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
The offensive line was a strength, too. The unit ranked 10th in Football Outsiders' run-blocking metric (yes, Peterson had something to do with that), and center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt all graded out well, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Oh, and Ponder's wife, Sam, will blast you on Twitter if you mock her husband. It's a little thing, but when you're a five-win outfit, the bright spots are hard to come by. This was definitely one of them.
What went wrong
The defense couldn't stop anybody. Ponder struggled before he was injured. Cassel was adequate but he prefers free agency to returning to Minnesota. Josh Freeman, signed after the Buccaneers dumped him, started one forgettable game against the Giants and then spent the rest of the season on the sidelines. Peterson's a year older and remains the team's only legit scoring threat. Patterson has gobs of potential but he can't throw the ball to himself.
Put another way: Zimmer is a great hire and will shore up a shoddy defense, but without a franchise quarterback don't expect much to change.
Veteran defensive end Jared Allen destroyed the Steelers and left tackle Mike Adams in a Week 4 victory, but beyond that he wasn't quite the dynamic pass rusher we've seen in recent years. The free agent isn't expected back next season.
Chad Greenway, the team's first-round pick back in 2006, started 16 games and had 83 tackles, 3 sacks and 3 interceptions, but only the Dolphins' Philip Wheeler was ranked lower among 4-3 outside linebackers, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The secondary also struggled. Football Outsiders ranked the Vikes' pass defense 29th in the league, and cornerbacks Chris Cook and Josh Robinson grading out poorly by PFF's metrics. Cook is headed to free agency while Robinson, entering his third year, will benefit from playing for Zimmer.
Adrian Peterson is the easy answer. Without him, the Vikings' offense would've been almost nonexistent. The challenge going forward is to find something approaching a balanced attack. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has an impressive track record when it comes to getting the most out of young quarterbacks but the man's not a miracle worker. Minnesota will seriously consider upgrading the position in the offseason.
The upside to finding consistency at quarterback means that defense can't have all 11 players hovering around the line of scrimmage focused solely on Peterson. That means the running game becomes more effective in the short term, and fewer hits and a lighter workload means Peterson's career won't mirror Shaun Alexander's and just fall off a cliff one day.
MVP honorable mention: Phil Loadholt, who was critical to Peterson's success and even found his way onto PFF's All-Pro team.
The quarterbacks. Ponder hasn't come close to living up to his first-round pedigree. And while Cassel is a competent backup, he doesn't instill much confidence as a full-time starter. And that's no knock on him (even though that's exactly what it sounds like), just that some guys are better suited to come off the bench. Meanwhile, The Freeman experiment was an unmitigated disaster and he'll be headed for free agency next month along with plenty of questions about his NFL future.
What's happened since the end of the season
There's a new coaching staff, led by Mike Zimmer, a no-nonsense former defensive coordinator who has a knack for getting the most out of his players. Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who was once known more for making it rain than for anything he accomplished on the field, rediscovered his game in Cincy thanks to Zimmer. Jones went so far as to call him "a father figure" and attributed his turnaround to Zimmer's guidance.
At Zimmer's introductory press conference in January, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman spoke of how the coach made everyone around him better, something this team desperately needs.
"He's done such a great job taking guys that are young and developing them or taking guys that are adequate players and making them very good players," Spielman said at the time. "He's got whatever that innate ability is to get that out of players. I think that's why those players respect him so much, because he brings out the best in everyone."
In related news, Spielman said last week that Ponder "will be here" next season. Where he will be on the depth chart is another matter, however.
Zimmer hired Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator and George Edwards as the defensive coordinator. But Zimmer could still call defensive plays.
"If need be, I will," he said in January. "That'll be a little bit of a transition, and I'll have to work through that. I think part of that for me will be the preseason games -- how I feel about the things we're doing defensively and how I feel about the game management, communicating with offense."
As for transactions, the Vikings released troubled linebacker Erin Henderson earlier this month.
Impending free agents
Jared Allen, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel are the biggest names. Other notables include wideouts Jerome Simpson and Joe Webb, running backs Toby Gerhart and Matt Asiata, tackle J'Marcus Webb, guard Charlie Johnson, cornerback Chris Cook, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Desmond Bishop.
Free agency gameplan
If the Vikings choose to address the quarterback position (and they will), it will be via the draft. Or at least it should; it's slim pickings in free agency with Michael Vick and Josh McCown as the marquee names in a decidedly uninspiring group that includes Cassel and Freeman among the best options.
It's more likely that Zimmer will use free agency to go about rebuilding the defense. There are needs at cornerback (even if Cook returns, depth is an issue), middle linebacker (Henderson was just released) and defensive end (Allen's as good as gone and Griffen's a free agent).
Despite the offensive line's relative success, guard Charlie Johnson probably won't be back. And with running backs Gerhart and Asiata headed for free agency, the Vikings will need someone to spell Peterson. Depth, in general, can be found on the cheap, so this probably isn't at the top of the team's to-do list.
Find a franchise quarterback. The problem is that the Vikings have the No. 8 pick, and depending on whom they like and what the teams in front of them do, their guy could be off the board. Of the seven teams in front of them, four have legitimate needs at QB: the Texans (No. 1), Jaguars (No. 3), Browns (No. 4) and Raiders (No. 5). That means the three best QBs -- Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater -- could all be off the board when the Vikings go on the clock. It also means that if the organization falls in love with one of them trading up could be a distinct possibility. Because the alternative -- going into the season with Ponder ... again -- isn't an attractive one.
According to the latest NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSSports.com mock draft, the Vikngs will select QB Derek Carr (Rob Rang), DE Kony Ealy (Dane Brugler), OLB Khalil Mack (Pete Prisco) or OLB Anthony Barr (Pat Kirwan).
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014
This will be largely dependant on a) finding a franchise quarterback and b) whether Zimmer can revamp this defense in the next six months. From the perspective of February, we're not particularly optimistic.
Predicted record: 6-10