Everything from the coaching staff, the offense, the defense, to the building they'll play in is changing for the Vikings in 2014.
Gone is head coach Leslie Frazier, an offense that struggled beyond running the ball, a defense that could never gel despite a solid pass rush and several good players, and a stadium that stood in Minneapolis for 31 years. Arriving to the Twin Cities is defensive-minded coach Mike Zimmer, new offensive guru Norv Turner, rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, rookie edge rusher Scott Crichton, veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and coming soon -- a new stadium that will host Super Bowl LII.
Suffice to say, optimism is running high for the Vikings. The question is, will it translate into immediate success? That's where things get a little dicey. The new coaching staff will need time to get its playbooks and schemes to a functional level. To that end, Bridgewater's development is crucial. While he could end up beginning the year as the starter, there's no guarantee he will or that he'll be effective when he does play. Similarly, the defense is not only tweaking its system to fit what Zimmer wants, but the Vikings gave up on Jared Allen, who left to play in Chicago. The team didn't spend for a replacement other than bringing back Everson Griffen (Barr and Crichton should get in the mix). Otherwise, you're looking at Brian Robison as the top pass rusher for the Vikes. That's not a confidence booster. Additionally, the secondary is a polarizing mix of qualified defensive backs who have to adjust quickly in order to play at a high level. In the NFC North there isn't an easy matchup of receivers, so they could get torched right off the bat.
But perhaps the most stomach-churning decision coming for the team is how to handle Adrian Peterson in the coming years. The legendary running back turned 29 in March, has 2,126 career carries and 210 career catches, and is due $11.75 million this year and $12.75 million next year -- and it only gets higher from there in 2016 and 2017. Those are steep prices for an older rusher, even if it's Peterson. There's already been one report that the Vikings are aiming to part with AP sooner than later and that a rival general manager thinks 2014 will be his last year in Minnesota. Problem is, Peterson's been nothing but productive throughout his career, delivering 10-plus touchdowns and anywhere from 1,100 to 2,300 total yards in each of his seven seasons.
For now, Fantasy owners are still willing to sink their eggs into Peterson's basket, particularly because of what he should be able to accomplish in an offense with Norv Turner. Remember, we've seen Turner take guys like Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams and even Stephen Davis, Terry Allen and LaMont Jordan and make them Fantasy heroes. Peterson should follow suit, which is why there's zero hesitation to take him with a Top 5 pick. He's even a consideration for the first pick if you don't think Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy can repeat their work from a year ago.
It's just too bad he's going to hit the age where teams fear a breakdown from their backs right when the team really begins to trend in the right direction everywhere else.
Breakout ... Cordarrelle Patterson
Bank on Patterson being one of the trendy breakout picks -- and No. 2 Fantasy receiver choices -- in drafts this summer. That's to be expected after the light went on for him late last season and he scored six times in his last five games, totaling 375 yards along the way.
Patterson has drawn the attention of Turner, who has a very good track record of utilizing big, strong receivers and turning them into Fantasy heroes. Josh Gordon was an example last year, Vincent Jackson with the Chargers is another less recent case study and Michael Irvin came long before him. Patterson isn't quite the same type of receiver as those guys but does plenty of other things and definitely has the rare size/speed combo that coaches crave to make up for it.
Turner has already expressed an interest in running more of a no-huddle, spread formation and that should only help a receiver like Patterson put up numbers. He's a gamble worth taking starting in Round 5.
Sleeper ... Kyle Rudolph
We're going to go to the Turner well again with Rudolph, who has shown an ability to be a threat in the red zone but not a whole lot else.
Turner's acumen and track record with how to utilize tight ends should pay off for Rudolph. A key point: Rudolph had 313 yards and three touchdowns in eight games until a broken foot sidelined him for the season. Had he stayed healthy he was on-pace to post career highs in catches and yardage while coming close to the nine scores he had in 2012. Keep in mind he played in an offense that had a merry-go-round at quarterback and wasn't used as often as he might have preferred.
We know Turner loves using the tight end, we know Turner has an eye for passing and we know that eventually the Vikings will hand the offense over to Teddy Bridgewater, who should be better than the quarterbacks the team had last year. Rudolph is a great value-add in drafts for those owners uninterested (or unable) to splurge for a tight end with a pick in the first eight rounds. He'll go before Round 10.
Long-term keeper ... Teddy Bridgewater
|Adrian Peterson||308 (279 car., 29 rec.)||41.2%|
|Greg Jennings||68 rec.||9.1%|
|Cordarrelle Patterson||57 (45 rec., 12 car.)||7.6%|
|Toby Gerhart||49 (36 car., 13 rec.)||6.5%|
|Matt Asiata||49 (44 rec., 5 rec.)||6.5%|
|Jerome Simpson||48 rec.||6.4%|
First Zimmer opened up the quarterback competition to kick off mini-camp in June. The next day, Turner crowed about how great Bridgewater's arm was after there was pre-draft concern that he couldn't consistently make long completions.
The writing is on the wall that Bridgewater will start for the Vikings sooner than later -- perhaps even Week 1 if he looks great in training camp and outperforms Matt Cassel in the preseason. Bridgewater was the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft and should be fairly effective, but it's not like he'll come into the league putting up tons of stats like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III did in their rookie seasons.
Even with a good receiving corps around him and a heck of a back in Peterson, Bridgewater isn't expected to be anything better than a one-week replacement quarterback you'll find off the waiver wire heap in Weeks 4, 6, 7 or 9 (hint hint).
The first three games are tough on the Vikings, playing at the Rams and home to the Patriots before taking on the Saints in New Orleans. That looks a lot like 0-3 with two really difficult matchups right off the bat for Peterson. Things lighten up after that as they take on the Falcons, Packers, Lions, Bills, Buccaneers, Redskins, Bears and Packers again with a bye mixed in (half of those games are at home). Weeks 13 and 14 look a lot like Weeks 1 and 2 when they host the Panthers and Jets as part of a three-game homestand that includes their second meeting with the Pack. Playing at Miami in Week 16 should help out owners looking for a Fantasy crown. And when's the last time we could say the Vikings will play less than eight games indoors? With the team playing home games at outdoor TCF Bank stadium, they'll be indoors just three times all season.
Training camp battles
Who's the quarterback? It's beginning to look like Bridgewater will have an easy path to the starting job, but the Vikings didn't bring back Cassel for nothing. It's worth remembering that the Vikes had to pony up more dough for Cassel after he exercised the option to enter free agency. That along with not rushing Bridgewater might sway the coaching staff's decision, especially considering their tough early-season schedule. We would bank on Bridgewater starting most of the games this season but Cassel would have to really get outplayed in camp to lose the starting role for Week 1.
Will Adrian Peterson really lose third-down work? The depth behind Peterson includes a heavy-footed, slow, burly back in Matt Asiata who fell into three touchdowns in one game last season and rookie Jerick McKinnon, a phenomenal athlete who played running back and dabbled at quarterback at Georgia Southern. If anyone's going to unseat Peterson and give him a bit of a rest from week to week it'll be McKinnon, but it will mean him looking good through training camp. He's the guy to draft late if you take Peterson in Round 1, by the way.
Is Greg Jennings slipping out of a prominent role? Aside from Patterson, the Vikings don't really have a receiver primed to replace Jennings, who is older and slower but still good enough to play regularly for the team. The issue here is that aside from some flashes last season, he's really doing nothing to scare defenses. That could put a cramp into how the whole offense operates. Jerome Simpson might begin the year on the suspended list and Jarius Wright would need an amazing camp in order to unseat Jennings. Jennings is bye-week material as there are a slew of other receivers on other teams with way more upside and thus are worth a draft choice ahead of him.
The last time the Vikings had a running back in the Top 10, a tight end in the Top 10 and a wide receiver in the Top 20 all in the same season was 2009 (Peterson, Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe). It's going to happen again in 2014.
Everyone pretty much believes that Peterson will finish as a Top 10 back. No qualms there. Rudolph isn't a lock but we're predicting a lot of involvement and a lot of catches. Maybe in another offense, like the one he played in at Louisville, Bridgewater wouldn't find his tight end often enough to help Fantasy owners. But he'll be forced to recognize the giant 6-foot-6 tight end as a rookie and he should hit him often. Plus, the position is top heavy but not deep, meaning it might take just 700 yards and seven scores for Rudolph to hit the Top 10. Patterson's position is deep and it'll take work for him to get into the Top 20, but we think he's a phenomenal enough talent to get there. Besides, who else is going to make plays downfield for the Vikings? Jennings? Wright? They'll have to get creative and find ways to put the ball in Patterson's hands.
Here's the other part of the bold prediction: It's also going to be the last huge year for Peterson. By the time the 2014 season ends, Peterson will have over 2,500 career touches and eight full years of service. This is when backs start to wear down, even the great ones. Peterson will probably have enough left in the tank for a good 2015, but it might not even be in Minnesota. Fantasy owners who have Peterson in seasonal leagues should enjoy him. Those in dynasty leagues should consider taking offers for him since the expiration date is coming up on all of us.
Kyle Rudolph (foot), probable for start of training camp.