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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.