by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
What an odd season for the boys in purple. It started with being on both sides of blowouts in Weeks 1 and 2. Then the Adrian Peterson issues caused a lot of confusion, speculation, and attitude polarization. In addition, should Bridgewater learn on the job or on the bench? Can the back end of the defense stop anyone?
Considering these issues, finishing 7-9 may seem like a bit of a miracle. It is apparent, though, that the team expected more in terms of wins and individual player development and performance. So where should the Vikings turn next season to try and create that success?
Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder (UFA), Pat Devlin
After Christian Ponder confirmed many draft pundits’ expectations and did not make a good professional quarterback, Minnesota decided to draft Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville in the 1st round. The goal was to sit him behind Matt Cassel and learn, but Cassel was injured in Week 3 and it was Teddy Time. As it turns out, he was a little better than league average as a rookie. If he continues to improve, the Vikings will have a Top 10 QB in a year or two.
Now needing a veteran behind Bridgewater, Cassel would be a good backup if he wasn’t due $4.8 million in 2015. He should be a cap casualty. Ponder, who is a UFA, may be re-signed for the #2 spot if he chooses to make himself affordable, because the free agent market is terrible and he may find himself out of football if he gets greedy. Currently, the athletic Pat Devlin is the project in line for the #3 spot.
Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata (UFA), Joe Banyard, FB Zach Line
The uncertainty caused by Adrian Peterson last season spills into the off-season, as no one knows if the Vikings will retain him, even though he’s still under contract. His guaranteed money is done, so cutting him would save $45 million in cash over 3 years and only count $2.4 million against the 2015 cap. Even if Peterson is still a top RB, they may cut/trade him for financial reasons. The Vikings might want to just start over from this headache.
If not, he’s the top dog on the team, regardless of the PR headache. If he’s gone, then 2014 draftee Jerick McKinnon will probably get the next shot, assuming he’s healthy. Matt Asiata, the workhorse part of the post-Peterson timeshare with McKinnon, is a RFA and may not be back unless Peterson is cut. Joe Banyard, who is quite underrated, was also in the mix at different times. McKinnon is the best runner, but he has a lot to learn in pass protection and risks benching if he allows Teddy to get pummeled. The best idea would be to keep McKinnon, Asiata, and Banyard and teach McKinnon to pass-block. If he can’t, RB may have to be upgraded.
Fullback Jerome Felton has voided his option, so Zach Line is currently next up for this position.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
WR: Greg Jennings, Charles Johnson, Jarius Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, Adam Thielen
TE: Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Ryan Otten
Is it possible the best WR on the team is Adam Thielen? I don’t think I’m ready to go that far, but he is the only WR that PFF graded to be above average, even it is mostly for his run blocking. Greg Jennings, and Jarius Wright are both middling wideouts. As is well-documented, Cordarrelle Patterson needs to learn a thing or ten about being a professional. Charles Johnson was surprising, but not stellar. This group could use someone to scare opposing defenses and must be upgraded. I doubt the team actually cuts Greg Jennings and his crazy, unwarranted contract, because someone has to catch passes for this team. However, cutting him would save $5 million, if it becomes necessary.
Starting TE Kyle Rudolph was hurt quite a bit this year and didn’t impress when healthy. He didn’t do much in 2013, either. Backups Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford are both decent run blockers and pass catchers. Since Ellison’s pass blocking is miserable, it seems Ford may be the best TE on the roster. It stands to reason, then, that Rudolph will start when healthy due to his large contract signed last summer. That contract also ensures there won’t be much competition. They will all play, but Rudolph will get the Benjamin Franklin-sized share of snaps.
L to R: Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt
Top Backups: G/C Joe Berger (UFA), G Vladimir Ducasse (UFA), T Michael Harris (RFA)
Each starting lineup except Matt Kalil missed at least one game due to injury in 2014. As a result, the Vikings could have up to 8 linemen on the roster with starting experience.
It may be that Kalil was abducted by aliens after his 2012 rookie season and some other guy who can’t block replaced him. He was rated the NFL’s 3rd worst LT in 2014. Phil Loadholt and Michael Harris on the other side didn’t pass block well, either, but they were less damaging. In fact, the only linemen who could pass block, Brandon Fusco, was injured for 13 games. The right side of the line (John Sullivan, Joe Berger, and Loadholt) can run block, so I guess they can plant their flag on that.
In 2015, the three backups receiving the most seasoning from being thrust into the starting lineup are UFA’s: Vladimir Ducasse, Harris, and Berger. The Vikings should re-sign Berger because of his abilities and versatility at guard and center. Ducasse and Harris, while inexpensive, are not particularly good at either pass- or run-blocking and are not essential. I can see Harris getting resigned because he’s young, cheap, and has logged a few snaps. They can use Berger and 5th round pick David Yankey in the middle, and they need to get a mid-range veteran tackle for security, in case Kalil is this bad again. It also wouldn’t hurt to draft a tackle as insurance if Kalil is not re-signed after 2015.
DE: Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Corey Wootton (UFA), Justin Trattou, Scott Crichton
DT: Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson (UFA), Shamar Stephen
Everson Griffen and Brian Robison at RDE and LDE, respectively, were the mainstays on the line in 2014. The middle was usually manned by Linval Joseph and some combination of Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson (UFA), and Shamar Stephen.
Griffen earned his large contract last 0ff-season by rating as the 8th best 4-3 DE in the league. Not bad for someone in Jared Allen’s shadow for a few years. The 32 year old Robison, however, is in decline and had a bad year. He often disappeared during the game both against the run and the pass. Since top backup Corey Wootton had a worse year, though, Robison remained the starter. He will probably continue to do so because he has a cap number between $5-7 million through 2017. We may see a bit more of 3rd round draftee Scott Crichton than we did in 2014, though.
Shamar Stephen had his problems on the line this year, but as a 7th round pick in April, not much was expected. It turns out the free agents acquired in the off-season, Joseph and Johnson, coupled with 2013 draftee Floyd was enough. Floyd, in particular, had a great year, rating as the 5th best DT. Johnson was an above average pass rusher, and Joseph was an above average run defender. There is enough here for the Vikes to feel confident in the upcoming season.
OLB: Chad Greenway, Anthony Barr, Gerald Hodges, Brandon Watts
ILB: Jasper Brinkley (UFA), Audie Cole, Michael Mauti, Justin Anderson
Let’s just get this out of the way — Chad Greenway is not that good. He has deteriorated against the run and has also been poor in pass coverage. Minnesota really needs to go a different direction on the weak side; cutting Greenway would save $7.1 against the cap. Currently, he’s the only chink in the armor of the front 7.
2014 1st round pick Anthony Barr turned out to be worth it. While he picks up the nuances of pass coverage from the strong side, he contributed a lot to the pass rush and was decent against the run. Gerald Hodges (2013 4th rd pick) covered for both Greenway and Barr during their injuries and did well, especially against the run. Jasper Brinkley, the starting MLB, doesn’t get a lot of snaps because the Vikings remove him for the frequent nickel package. However, he’s a good run defender and should be re-signed this offseason. Underrated Audie Cole didn’t play much until the last week, but he graded out very well and may be their best pass coverage LB.
CB: Captain Munnerlyn, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Jabari Price, Shaun Prater
S: Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Antone Exum
Minnesota’s defensive backfield was consistent, if anything. The roster stayed fairly unchanged, with the exception of adding Captain Munnerlyn and a couple of DB’s late in the draft. Injuries didn’t really bite them much. Tuning in from week to week, you would see the same guys. Comforting, actually, considering the group had a great turnaround from 2013. Safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton are one of the best tandems in the league, and Xavier Rhodes continued his positive development at LCB. Munnerlyn was not especially great this year, but he did defend the run well and didn’t embarrass anyone. Nickel corner Josh Robinson improved a lot over 2013, and backup safety Andrew Sendejo is decent in both run and pass coverage. They could probably do better than Munnerlyn, but he’s signed for two more years and could rebound; he was better in 2013. They are a solid unit overall.
There is quite a dichotomy in this unit. Kicker Blair Walsh had a bit of a down year and was still in the top 11 of the league. He’s accurate, powerful, and kicks off well. Punter Jeff Locke, on the other hand, rated dead last in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler, not to be outdone, is dead last at his position, especially on the punt team. While Loeffler is a UFA and can be easily replaced, cutting Locke while under contract would cost a little less than $100K. I would never consider a punter or long snapper to be high on the biggest team needs list, but both need to be replaced yesterday.
Initial cap space: $16.1 million – net $2.5 million for draftees = $13.6 million
Re-sign: Ponder ($745K), Asiata ($660K), Berger ($1.3 mil), Harris ($585K), T. Johnson ($1.2 mil), Brinkley ($2 mil) – approximately $6.5 million
Let walk: Felton, Ducasse, Samuda, Wootton, DeCicco, Loeffler
Best cap cuts to clear up room, if desired: Cassel ($4.8 mil), Peterson ($13 mil), Jennings ($5 mil), Greenway ($7.1 mil)
The Vikings may be players in free agency if they choose. There is currently cap space and they have the ability to create much more by shedding some dead weight. It would also be a great time to extend a few players that factor into the team’s future, like Jarius Wright, Audie Cole, Robert Blanton, and Harrison Smith.
Biggest Team Needs: WR, OLB, RB, OT
Please read our other offseason roster analysis articles in our archive.