Vikings Preview: The AD Conundrum

Adrian Peterson is one of the greatest runners of all time, but the Vikings have gotten nowhere while relying on him. With a new coach and a new home, can they finally find the supporting cast they need to break through?

By
Andy Benoit
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Even with Peterson's historically great play, the Vikings have gone nowhere in recent years. (Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated)
Even with Peterson’s historically great play, the Vikings have gone nowhere in recent years. (Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated)

OFFENSE

You might have heard the question floated: Should the Vikings trade Adrian Peterson? The answer, in theory, is yes. Peterson is far and away the best running back in football… and look what it has gotten the Vikings. In 2012 he had maybe the most impressive season by any running back in history—2,097 yards, 1,598 of them after Week 6—and his Vikings merely went a soft 10-6 and were one-and-done in the playoffs. That was the Vikings’ most successful season with Peterson carrying the bulk of the load. Their only substantial playoff run, in 2009, came with Brett Favre, not Peterson, as the headliner.

When your top skill player is an all time great and clearly the current best at his position, yet you still don’t win, then your formula needs to change.

For the longest time, teams that finished near the top of the NFL in passing offense would be on the fringe of the playoffs while teams ranked high in rushing almost always made the postseason. That’s flipped now. So has the way teams must treat personnel. A back like Peterson was meant to play in the 90s.

With amorphous defensive fronts, better defensive athletes and the proliferation of edge-setting 3-4 outside linebackers and 5-2 defensive ends, it’s hard to run the ball these days. This gets to the heart of the running back problem. The nature of the sport makes it almost impossible for a defense to nullify a great quarterback. But with a strong commitment to eight-and nine-man boxes, a defense, if it really wants to, can almost always nullify a great running back.

It's unclear whether Matt Cassel should be managing the offense again, rather than rookie Teddy Bridgewater. (Carlos M. Saavedra /Sports Illustrated)
It’s unclear whether Matt Cassel should be managing the offense again, rather than rookie Teddy Bridgewater. (Carlos M. Saavedra /Sports Illustrated)

Most teams have capable quarterbacks who can discourage defenses from consistently cramming the box. The Vikings have not. And, unlike elite run-first teams like the 49ers and Seahawks, they haven’t had a stingy defense to support their superstar back, either.

In short, a great running back in and of himself cannot control a game. And right now, the Vikings have a great running back who, given their roster, is counted on to control the game.

The only thing that should give GM Rick Spielman pause over trading Peterson—and it’s not a small thing—is the age factor. At 29, Peterson’s actual value far outweighs his market value; a fair trade is not obtainable. Hence the Vikings should trade Peterson only in theory. In reality, they’re “stuck” with the future Hall of Famer, which obviously isn’t the worst thing.

The counter to the “trade Peterson” argument is that, in simple terms, the Vikings have not been mediocre because Peterson is their best player. They’ve been mediocre because their quarterbacks have been mediocre. In the early years it was Tarvaris Jackson. More recently, it’s been Christian Ponder, their 2011 first-rounder who has not panned out. Matt Cassel captured Ponder’s job last season and looked okay, but only okay. This year, the Vikings gambled a first-round pick on Teddy Bridgewater, which feels an awful lot like the Ponder case: taking a quarterback in the first round only because of a need at the position.

Bridgewater, by some accounts, has the type of meek personality that doesn’t win over NFL locker rooms and huddles. Skill-wise, he has some developing to do, which is why first-time head coach Mike Zimmer will likely tap Cassel in Week 1.

Zimmer’s top coordinator, venerated offensive architect Norv Turner, has expressed optimism about Cassel, even saying that he wanted him in Cleveland last year. Cassel has the pocket-passing wherewithal to succeed in Turner’s system because he’s willing to take shots at the deep-intermediate levels. What Cassel doesn’t have, though, is a particularly strong arm, or an innate ability to make throws with bodies around him.

Cassel will need outstanding pass protection, which he probably won’t get. Left tackle Matt Kalil is coming off a disappointing sophomore season and does not consistently play up to his raw talent. Left guard Charlie Johnson’s limited athleticism shows in his pass-blocking. Same with right guard Brandon Fusco, though the fourth-year pro did make some much-needed improvements last season. Right tackle Phil Loadholt no longer plays below his 6’8”, 345-pound size, but he’s not exactly an All-Pro, either. Speed rushers give him trouble. A small saving grace for this line is that it has a stable fulcrum in center John Sullivan. And when you factor in fullback Jerome Felton, it can be a decent run-blocking unit.

Peterson used to prefer running out of a single-man backfield, but the previous coaching staff forced him to develop the patience to work behind a lead blocker. He’s built a prosperous rapport with Felton, something Turner, who isn’t a huge fan of multi-receiver spread sets anyway, won’t get away from.

That said, any drastic improvements for this offense will come through the air. The plan is for Peterson to have some of his carries converted to less-punishing touches on catches out of the backfield. But plans always sound great in summer; we’ll see how long this one holds up when chips are down in fall. Almost certainly, Peterson will remain a between-the-tackles battering ram, while either Matt Asiata or third-round rookie Jerick McKinnon will contribute in the passing game (if either back contributes significantly at all).

2014 Team Previews

Andy Benoit dives deep with breakdowns of all 32 teams during the preseason. 
PREVIEWS

Meaningful improvements through the air will come via the wide receivers. Greg Jennings is paid like the No. 1, but Cordarrelle Patterson will be the guy defenses fear most. The explosive 2013 first-round playmaker is still raw, and part of him might remain that way forever—like a super version of Az-Zahir Hakim. But any time Patterson touches the ball, he’s a legitimate threat to score. Expect Turner, like previous play-caller Bill Musgrave, to feature Patterson on quick screens and even some backfield touches in order to get the ball in his hands early on plays. But also expect Turner to focus more on expanding the downfield route running ability that Patterson started to show last December.

Rounding out the receiving corps, Jerome Simpson could capture a starting job if Patterson isn’t quite ready. Simpson is a 28-year-old veteran but doesn’t bring much wisdom to the table. He’ll botch a few routes, but he’ll also burn a few defenders. Third-year pro Jarius Wright can burn, too, though he’s an unfinished product.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who will inevitably become Cassel’s (or Bridgewater’s) safety blanket, is fully recovered from the foot fracture that truncated his 2013 season. Rudolph isn’t a mismatch-creating athlete like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but he moves well enough for his size and can high-point balls in the red zone. Backing him up will either be the blocking-oriented Rhett Ellison (an H-back type) or undrafted third-year pro Chase Ford, who shows upside as a run-after-catch weapon.

Chad Greenway (52) and the Vikings D is well-equipped to handle Mike Zimmer's scheme. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Chad Greenway (52) and the Vikings D is well-equipped to handle Mike Zimmer’s scheme. (Julio Cortez/AP)

DEFENSE

Zimmer’s hiring means a departure from the vanilla zone-based scheme that Leslie Frazier ran before him. The nice thing about Zimmer’s scheme is that, aside from athletic defensive linemen, it does not demand many specific types of personnel. And, the defensive line demand is one the Vikings fulfill.

Utility defensive lineman Everson Griffen was re-signed for $19.8 million guaranteed—a shocking sum for a player with just 17.5 sacks over his first four seasons. But Griffen is better than his numbers (which, by the way, should inflate soon). His versatility is off the charts, and he amplifies it by playing with tremendous all-around velocity. Zimmer will use him as a moveable chess piece even more so than he did with Michael Johnson in Cincinnati.

Joining Griffen, 31-year-old Brian Robison was re-signed last year over the more prolific 32-year-old Jared Allen. Robison is a sturdy run-pass player who should be able to keep his job ahead of free agent pickup Corey Wootton. He’ll likely one day be pushed by third-round pick Scott Crichton, but that day won’t come in 2014.
Inside, 2013 first-round defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was very up-and-down as a rookie. Floyd has good movement in gaps but must improve his core strength if he’s to be an every-down force. Accompanying him is Linval Joseph, signed to play ahead of Fred Evans, who has a very good first step but can’t always be counted on to show it.

Quarterbacks will see a lot more of Everson Griffen this fall. (Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Quarterbacks will see a lot more of Everson Griffen this fall. (Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)

Zimmer’s scheme will aim to put these D-linemen in favorable one-on-one matchups. A way he does that is by sugaring the A gaps with his nickel linebackers. Chad Greenway, a sound-moving cover linebacker who also stops the run, should be excellent in this role. But who joins him?

The hope is it can be first-round rookie Anthony Barr. In addition to sheer athletic explosiveness, Barr would give Zimmer another movable chess piece. However, he’s expected to be a project. If he’s unable to play heavy snaps right away, the Vikings will have to roll some very unfavorable dice with Jasper Brinkley or Audie Cole.

In the secondary, Zimmer has a cornerbacking group that can range from average to good depending on how last year’s first-round pick, Xavier Rhodes, performs in a fulltime starting role. Rhodes has excellent strength in his press-jams, but he needs to have a boundary to play to (sort of like Nnamdi Asomugha). That’s fine. The Vikings won’t ask Rhodes to fill the slot. Those duties will be handled by free agent acquisition Captain Munnerlyn, who, along with being a serviceable cover guy is also a keen blitzer. Zimmer will make regular use of that. Munnerlyn’s arrival allows potential playmaker Josh Robinson to play outside in nickel.

At safety, Harrison Smith can be the new Reggie Nelson, only with better range. The problem is Zimmer may not be able to play his best defensive back in the box because that would leave his weakest starter in centerfield. Vying to be that starter: Jamarca Sanford, who is not bad in traffic but can be susceptible to pump fakes in deep coverage; Andrew Sendejo, a high-energy fighter with a ceiling; Robert Blanton, a shaky slot defender in last year’s dime package; Mistral Raymond, an unremarkable 2011 sixth-round pick, or Kurt Coleman, who couldn’t even get to the top of a bad safety rotation in Philadelphia.

This defense was vulnerable to big plays last season, and that might be the case again. Zimmer will likely have to take some chances in order to have the kind of defense that maximizes the benefit of having a world-class running back.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Blair Walsh was 2 of 5 from 50-yard range last season after being true on all 10 of his long attempts as a rookie in 2012. Punter Jeff Locke ranked in the middle of the pack of most statistical categories, which is where his predecessor Chris Kluwe usually ranked. In the return game, opponents should never allow Cordarrelle Patterson to touch the ball on kickoffs. He led the league in return average last year (32.4). On punt returns, backup cornerback Marcus Sherels ranked second in the league (15.2).

BOTTOM LINE

New coach, new venue (frigid TCF Bank Stadium) but same old Vikings. They have a decent roster that, unfortunately, is highly questionable at the most important position.

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47 comments
adam99x
adam99x

It seems that a lot of people just push the blame on the players.  I look at it different.  To me, after watching the Vikings play for a few decades now, I blame the offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, and head coach for allowing such mundane play calling.  The Tampa 2 Cover 2 system is flat out a joke and Musgrave's West Coast offense was as easy as it gets by throwing either behind the line of scrimmage or 5 yard passes on 3rd and long.  There was nothing to fear on either side of the ball unless your last name was Peterson.  I bet I could call a better game of offense then Musgrave....actually, the more I think about it, so could about 90% of the fans out there could as well.  

Now that the Vikings have some new coaches, schemes, and better overall feel of what a team should do under Norv Turner and Zimmer, this should be an exciting year for the Vikings.  The same team from last is present outside with a few new rookies (Barr starting and Bridgewater growing), this team is looking pretty sharp.  Granted, they have just played one pre-season game and I agree, I shouldn't look at the game and think I have all the answers.  3 more to go until the season starts and when that does, expect the worse.... but fear the horns from the North!!!  Going to be one hell of a season! :D  Can't wait for week 1!  GO VIKES!!!

lmviking63
lmviking63

If the Vikings split their first 4 games, they will win at least 10 games and challenge for the division.

Kalzy
Kalzy

Vikings will Roll the North this year.

Kalzy
Kalzy

Sure dump him, If hadn't put the ball on the ground a few years ago in N.O ,we would have rolled the Colts in the Super Bowl

TonyPatton
TonyPatton

Yeah, it's a sad story. The best RB in the league and one of the most dominant in a long, long time, being traded. All because of his age, injury history and historical data on RB longevity.

If it happens, I hope he gets to go to a solid contender so he has a chance to add a ring to his spot as a future HOF player.

He was great at Oklahoma, and made an impact early in the NFL. He deserves respect, but it IS a business.

Heck, send him to the Cowboys, where all good players go to play out their careers these days. I'm sure he would LOVE to play so close to him hometown of Palestine, Texas.

I wish him nothing but the best, as he deserves.

Francisco Bernal
Francisco Bernal

A running team has no future in this league. The type of play and even the rules mean in order to be champions you need a great defense, and a very good passing offense. Teh problem with the Vikings is they have a mediocre offense (despite having peterson) and a very bad defense. The team will improve with the arrival of coach Zimmer, but only when they get a franchise QB they will have a chance to win. Peterson has been the best Viking player the last 5 seasons, but he is not a factor turning this team  into a winning unit.

LeonEngelun
LeonEngelun

It don't matter what the Vikings do.  They have never won a super bowl and never will.  

DanaBunner
DanaBunner

Out of the top 150 rushing yards in a single season leaders, only 1 was over 31 years old.  Walter Payton is at #62 with his season at 32yo. Out of the top 250, Payton is there twice, at 32 & 33, with John Riggins cracking the list when he was 34.   This is why you don't make a big investment on aging running backs.  Peterson may well have another 2-3 great seasons and maybe another couple solid seasons left in him.  But his value is only going to go down from here.  It does make sense for the Vikings to trade him now, to get maximum value from him, to free salary cap.  To build toward the future.  They don't look like a playoff team this year and it appears that they will be starting over with a young QB soon.  He's also had 3 surgeries in the past 3 years.  I suspect that if the Vikings keep him past 2014, they will seek to restructure his contract, they can't keep absorbing a salary that high for a running back.

xring47
xring47

"The nature of the sport makes it almost impossible for a defense to nullify a great quarterback".  Not true.  Seattle made Peyton Manning look like a 3rd grader in the SB.  And it emphasizes the point that defense win championships.  The Vikings (or any other team) can win with a mediocre QB, as long as the defense is top shelf.

RalphSpew
RalphSpew

Trading Peterson would be pointless even if he was younger.  The only way it improves the team is if they trade him for a difference-making QB.  And no team is ever going to trade a difference-making QB for a running back, not even one of the best ever.

owls93
owls93

"Peterson is far and away the best running back in football"  really?   far and away?   I think a RB from Philly might still be suiting up last time I check and who won rushing title last year and who pretty much every defensive player in the NFL has been quoted as saying that can't tackle him.

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

This article is accurate and the Vikes suck. It's funny seeing all the butthurt fans shooting the messenger. 

Redtheidiot
Redtheidiot

Second thing.  If I have to repeat this again I am going explode.  OFFENSE WAS NOT THE PROBLEM.  Would you wake up and stop looking at passing numbers.  DEFENSE WAS THE PROBLEM!! TOO MANY POINTS ALLOWED.

Redtheidiot
Redtheidiot

Laughable.  We are a running team and no options behind him.  We have a great coaching staff in place.  We probably wont make the playoffs this year but stranger things have happened. The Lions don't scare me.  They got worse with their new hire.  All these columnist want is to have AP somewhere on the east coast because that's all they write about.  Trade AP.  Ok.  Starting price is 2 number 1's at a minimum. 

Otherwise, he isn't go anywhere.

Marchoir
Marchoir

What's the problem with this column? The guy made some accurate observations. If anything, it's too kind. Doesn't matter how much of a Viking fan you may be, it doesn't matter. The Vikes will finish last in the division because they are the worst team in the division. It's a fact. Who are they going to finish ahead of? The Packers? No. The Bears? No. The Lions? No. The Minnesota Vikings will NOT make the playoffs this season. Write it down, and etch it in stone. And making matters even worse, the Vikes will play home games outdoors the next two seasons. It's hard to see much hope in Minnesota, even for the most diehard and optimistic fans.

WarrenLudford
WarrenLudford

This guy doesn't know much about the Vikings, that is sure.  Cursory look from 100,000 feet with plenty of mistakes, misreads, and misunderstandings. 

Norskie45
Norskie45

This reporter has not done much research on things this year with this drivel...Vikings will be one of the sleeper teams...The Vikings D will bee a hug improvement over last year and the O is gonna be explosive!

Kirke Long
Kirke Long

ive read better well almost everYwhere.

Steve Abriro
Steve Abriro

It's pretty obvious that Benoit does not follow the Vikings very closely. But trading AP is a bad idea and not a conundrum at all. He's worth far more to the franchise both on the field and off than what they could get in a trade.

ptlrg1
ptlrg1

This homer is just another moron on the national media bandwagon.  I really hope the vikings win at 2 more games than the 4-6 that every media know it all thinks they will.  Notice these bozos are not in the "predict tonight's lottery numbers business"

Kalzy
Kalzy

This Benoit is on pills, strong pills.

David Pieper
David Pieper

This guy is an idiot! I've never heard of a 5-2 defense before. Also this offensive line finished the season as one of the best offensive line in football. Matt Cassel plays at a pro bowl level when he has a good offensive coordinator and he has that with Norv. And what the hell was that weird criticism about Bridgewater? He was one of the reasons Peterson wants to stay. Meek personality? That's worse than the skinny knees argument!

brokaw
brokaw

I might be willing to trade a decent amount for him actually.  If there's any player who's shown he's a freak of nature and can be an elite rb past 30 it's peterson.

optimisticVikingsfan
optimisticVikingsfan

I think you're pretty far off on a couple of points - the Vikings offensive line is actually arguably their strongest unit, with many anticipating it to be a top-10 unit this year, and secondly, the general consensus is that Teddy Bridgewater was a steal at #32, not a reach... Norv Turner has been gushing this week with optimism for both the offensive line and Teddy Bridgewater

HoppinBill
HoppinBill

There's questions, but there's hope!  Go Vikings!

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

I'm pretty sure a running team won the Super Bowl last season against the most prolific passing team in the history of the league.

But yeah, you're probably right.

DanaBunner
DanaBunner

Note that no running back over 31yo has cracked the top 250 list for yards in a single season since Payton did it at 33yo in 1986.  The current NFL is very cruel on running backs.  The odds of Peterson still being a "great" running back at 32 are very low.  Unless the Vikings believe they can become a 10-12 game winning team in the next 2 seasons, it is time to think about getting what they can for AD.

owls93
owls93

@Redtheidiot Offense was an issue and the QB is not a starting QB in this league so how can you say offense was not the problem?

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@Redtheidiot U mad? Nobody's giving up 2 number 1 picks for a 29-year-old player for a position that's now one of the least valuable in the league.  

And this article is pretty accurate in its assessment of the Vikes and the Peterson conundrum.

TonyDuLac
TonyDuLac

@Marchoir Are you serious or just trolling?  Honestly?  I just want to know.  Because I could easily see us splitting or sweeping the Bears, at least splitting the Packers series, and sweeping or splitting the Lions series.  They could easily finish ahead of the Lions and Bears, at least.  We have more talent than both of those teams.

TurribleTowel
TurribleTowel

@David Pieper "This guy is an idiot! I've never heard of a 5-2 defense before."

Uhhhh... three traditional linemen, two hybrid LB/DE types (Griffen and Barr) rushing the passer. 3+2=5. Two remaining linebackers in coverage. 2=2. Thus, 5-2. Wasn't a whole lot of calculus to be done. 

Lots of 3-4 teams have used 5-2 looks for a long, long time. (Maybe lean into your post with a little less name-calling next time.)

TonyDuLac
TonyDuLac

@owls93 @Redtheidiot For the reason he explained.  Can you read?  Apparently not.  We scored some decent points last year.  Had the defense been better, we'd have won many of those lost games.

DanaBunner
DanaBunner

@KristianColasacco @Redtheidiot I agree.  No way you could get two 1st round picks for Peterson.  His salary is too high and he's nearing the end of his productive years.  If Peterson were available as a free agent, with no compensation due to the Vikings, but you had to pay him $14M/yr, I wouldn't sign him.  He isn't worth that much money.

MadDoser
MadDoser

@TonyDuLac @Marchoir You keep accusing others of being "a troll" but you are obviously a vikings homer.  I could see the Vikings finishing ahead of the lions ONLY because the lions always implode.  The talent is FAR better over in detroit 

Kalzy
Kalzy

@TurribleTowel @David Pieper Turban, what of the Bridgewater slight? As I recall Wilson in Seattle was hardly a vocal presence. This writer is a jaded loon  

SirK
SirK

@TonyDuLac @owls93 @Redtheidiot I believe the Vikes lost like 5 games in the last minute last year. If even a couple of those go the other way, the narrative for the upcoming season would be completely different. 

TurribleTowel
TurribleTowel

@Kalzy @David Pieper Well, no reason to argue about a complete stranger's (Bridgewater's) personality, but I'm more inclined to take the word of someone like Benoit, who's pretty freaking connected in the NFL and is probably parroting what he's been told by coaches.


(Though my two cents: Wilson is anything but meek. He doesn't say outrageous things in the media, but always earned high marks as a take-command leader at N.C. State and Wisconsin. That's why Pete Carroll loved him. Bridgewater has been painted as more of an Aaron Brooks-type, an introvert. But yeah, no point in arguing it. Only time will well.)

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