In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC North, continuing with the Minnesota Vikings.
Recap of 2015:The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2015 season as a very trendy sleeper team. Most Vegas bookmakers had the Vikings over/under win total at 7.5 and if you bet the over you were very happy by seasons end. The Vikings formula for success was a simple one; run the ball, limit turnovers and play good defense. Led by future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, Minnesota finished eighth in rushing DVOA and second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater helped fulfill the limiting turnovers part of the equation as the Vikings finished tied for the fourth fewest turnovers in the league with just 17. It was a collective effort on the defensive side of the ball for Minnesota as they allowed the fifth fewest amount of points in the NFL, finished 11th in defensive passing DVOA and despite being fairly average against the run (allowed 4.3 yards per carry), the Vikings only allowed seven rushing touchdowns all season long. Peterson, Bridgewater and company found themselves going into Lambeau field Week 17 with the division title on the line against hated rival Green Bay. The defense played one of their best games of the season, holding Aaron Rodgers and his pals to just three points through the third quarter. Captain Munnerlyn returned a Rodgers fumble 55 yards to the house late in the third quarter for what ended up being the game deciding touchdown. The guys in purple won their first division title since 2009 and just their fourth since 2000. Up next was a playoff matchup against the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks and wow was it cold that day. Down 10-9 with under two minutes left Bridgewater hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for a long gain to get the Vikings down into the red zone, a few plays later kicker Blair Walsh who had already hit three field goals in pretty awful kicking conditions that day lined up for a 27 yarder. If you are a Vikings fan you can go ahead and skip to the next section now. For those who didn’t have their hearts ripped out on that cold January day, Walsh missed the kick with 22 seconds left and the Vikings suffered another painful playoff loss at the hands of a missed field goal (Poor Gary Anderson). If you take out the painful playoff loss, 2015 was a very successful one for a young team that appears to have plenty to build on going forward.
Significant Additions: OT Andre Smith, OG Alex Boone, S Michael Griffin, LB Emmanuel Lamur, QB Sam Bradford
Significant Subtractions: QB Teddy Bridgewater (injury), WR Mike Wallace, OT Phil Loadholt, C John Sullivan
Potential Impact Rookies: WR Laquon Treadwell, CB Mackensie Alexander, OT Willie Beavers
Team Strengths: There is a lot to like about this Vikings roster. The offensive line, the secondary and that Adrian Peterson guy all come to mind specifically. My favorite unit on this team however is the defensive line. Led by star defensive tackle Linval Joseph, this group is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines. Defensive end Brian Robison earned the lowest grade (73) on Pro Football Focus among the starting defensive line, which is still an average grade and if a player like Robison is your “worst” starter you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd looks poised to break out heading into his fourth season and 2015 Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen lead the team with 10.5 sacks. Reserve defensive end Danielle Hunter proved to be a force in limited playing time last season (averaged just 28 snaps played per game) with six sacks and one forced fumble. Look for this unit to potentially improve in 2016 as the younger players such as Floyd and Hunter continue to develop.
Team Weaknesses: In terms of weaknesses for Minnesota, you really do not have to look much further than their wide receiving core. Stefon Diggs is a nice player and showed flashes last season, but his upside is limited (cue my H&H colleague Sean Demetrakis yelling at me for doubting Diggs and anyone else that ever went to Maryland). Charles Johnson appears to be just another guy and although I like rookie Laquon Treadwell’s upside, he is still a rookie. Cordarrelle Patterson’s lack of development as a receiver makes my head hurt and that’s really it for this group unless you are on the Adam Thielen train. Now some may argue that this isn’t a bad group and it is more a product of how the team operates from a football standpoint. Minnesota has a great defense and as I said earlier Adrian Peterson is still really good at running the football. I see where you can make that argument, but is Stefon Diggs and a rookie like Treadwell really striking fear in their opponents? I personally doubt it. I do see a path where Treadwell and Diggs become a nice duo maybe as soon as next season, but for 2016 I am not a believer in this group.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Adrian Peterson is still a first round pick and should still be either the first or second running back off the board depending on how much you love Todd Gurley. Peterson has double digit rushing touchdowns in every season of his career outside of 2014 when he was suspended for 15 games. Peterson is still a stud and he is probably not even human, do not overthink this. Outside of Peterson it gets a little shaky. Stefon Diggs will be drafted in most leagues but is probably no more than a flex play or a bye week fill in. There is upside for Diggs to become an every week starter, but I personally need to see it happen first. Dynasty players should invest heavily in Treadwell, but in redraft leagues I’m passing on him. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has never really been able to put it all together outside of his Pro Bowl 2012 season, he is just a bye week fill in at this point in his career. If you own Adrian Peterson, you must own Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon has shown in limited time during his career he can make plays if something were to happen to Peterson. The defense should be a starter most weeks, but outside of that you won’t be using many Vikings in your fantasy leagues. What about the quarterback position you might ask? Don’t worry I have a lot to say about that here very shortly.
2016 Outlook: As of two weeks ago, I had the Vikings as a 10 win team with a return to the playoffs on the horizon, then a nightmare came to life in Minnesota. Vikings fans were left in despair when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season during practice with a dislocated kneecap and a torn ACL. Bridgewater was not asked to do a lot in terms of passing downfield last season, but what he was asked to do (mainly not turn the ball over) he did very well and I believe he has the talent to do more if and when he is asked to do so. As mentioned earlier, the Vikings all but had Seattle beaten in the first round of the playoffs last season and there was no reason to think the Vikings couldn’t get back to the playoffs again and even win a game or two this time. All of the sudden, 36 year old career backup Shaun Hill was the starter and I had the Vikings down as a 6 or 7 win team that was about to miss the playoffs. Just when I had read everything I could ever want to read about Hill for this preview, the Vikings got desperate and did the unthinkable. General manager Rick Spielman traded a first round pick in 2017 and a fourth rounder (could become a second or third rounder based on team performance) in 2018 for quarterback Sam Bradford (FYI I am an Eagles fan and I still cannot believe I just wrote that sentence). The Vikings front office truly believe their window is this season, Peterson could potentially be leaving in free agency this offseason and that would change the dynamic of this team. From that aspect, I see where suffering through a season with Shaun Hill at quarterback is not acceptable, but oh man is this a huge risk to take. As someone who watched every game Bradford played last season I saw the potential that has always had coaches and scouts enamored with him, but I also saw the reasons why he is now on his third team in three seasons and widely considered an average at best quarterback. This is the type of move that if it fails will get even a good general manager like Spielman fired in a heartbeat. It is also out of character for Spielman during his time as general manager in Minnesota, since 2012 the Vikings have built the core of their team through the draft mainly by accumulating nine first round picks (picks include Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Anthony Barr and Bridgewater) in that time. Outside of Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013, the success rate for Minnesota has been great under Spielman and company so it is odd to see them being the team giving up a high draft pick. Now Bradford is certainly capable of picking up on the offense fast enough to duplicate what Bridgewater did last season and lead Minnesota back to the playoffs, but who is to say he stays healthy enough for it to even matter? Bradford has played all 16 games just twice in his career and missed the entire 2014 season due to injury. For Vikings fans sake I hope it works out for them as I hate to see any team’s season ruined before it even starts. As for Eagles fans, well we are still lighting cigars and celebrating what a glorious trade this was for the franchise.
Record Prediction: The schedule for Minnesota in 2016 doesn’t appear to be all that forgiving. It is already rumored that Bradford might not play Week 1 against Tennessee as he takes time to learn the offense and they probably do not even need Bradford to win that game, but starting in Week 2 it could get very difficult on Bradford very quick. The Vikings are home for Green Bay, then at Carolina followed by hosting Houston in Week 5. That’s three playoff teams in four weeks for Bradford who will still be learning different aspects of the offense. The Vikings season could come down to a three week stretch in mid November when they are at Washington followed by games against Arizona then at Detroit on a short week for Thanksgiving. However, it is not all doom and gloom for the Vikings this season as the division rival Bears are still rebuilding. The Giants, Jaguars and a possible Cowboys team without Tony Romo are all on the schedule. Oh and I almost forgot, Sammy Sleeves returns to Philadelphia in Week 7 coming off a bye, which is another nice spot for the Vikings. When it is all said and done, I think the Vikings go 9-7 and are fighting for the second wild card spot in the NFC.
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