Despite many serious injuries and a QB rushed into the starting job, the Minnesota Vikings started 2016 5-0 and looked like one of the league powerhouses in the process. But injuries across the offensive line, disagreements among coaching philosophies and the league catching up to the Vikings’ deficiencies caught up to them and the team nosedived to an 8-8 finish.
But optimism remains relatively high heading into 2017, with a pair of new tackles on offense, Sam Bradford heading to a full training camp and a roster refreshed with some young talent.
Can Minnesota put it together for a postseason run or was the second half of 2016 a sign that this team is headed in the wrong direction? Jon Merckle, a contributing writer with the Viking Age, shares his thoughts.
Zoneblitz: Injuries and a bad offensive line knocked this team from 11-5 and the playoffs to 8-8. How would you assess the season overall?
Merckle: In one word, dramatic. Who’s to blame? Nobody really. The season took its first major hit when Teddy Bridgewater’s knee exploded on a non-contact drill the last week of August and it was the tale of injuries. The majority of them were on the offensive line with Andre Smith, Matt Kalil, Jake Long, Mike Harris, Alex Boone and Brandon Fusco all missing games at one point. Oh, and Phil Loadholt decided to retire before training camp began. Then there was offensive coordinator resigning in the middle of the season and Mike Zimmer also missing a game because of his eye (more on that later). All things considered 8-8 was done because of Sam Bradford picking up the offense immediately after being acquired, but 8-8 is also football purgatory not making the playoffs or getting an enviable draft position.
Zoneblitz: How would you assess the work of GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer?
Merckle: If you look at the most stable teams across the league they tend to have two things in common – a franchise QB and a coach/GM that are on the same page thinking like an old married couple that doesn’t really even need to talk to one another to know what’s going on. Toward the latter of the two, Zimmer and Spielman have mostly been on the same page building a sound roster.
If I’m to have one complaint on how they’ve worked, it’s that when Zimmer took over as the head coach in 2014 so much of his past successes as the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals was building a rag tag defense that was compiled of a lot of mid-to-late round draft picks and last chance veterans. In example, Geno Atkins was a fourth-round pick, Vontaze Burfict wasn’t drafted and Adam Jones was on his third team mostly due to off-the-field issues.
So, what do the Vikings do the first couple of years with Spielman and Zimmer working together? Spend a lot of early round picks on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, Anthony Barr has flashed superstar potential, Eric Kendricks is a wonderful linebacker and Danielle Hunter honestly looks like a young Jason Pierre Paul. But Trae Waynes hasn’t lived up to his draft pedigree and Scott Crichton was a bust. It would have been nice to mix in some earlier picks on the offensive line, but hindsight is always 20/20.
Zoneblitz: Teddy Bridgewater suffered a horrific knee injury and Sam Bradford was mostly solid when he could stay upright in 2016. What is the future of the QB position here?
Merckle: That question right there is easily the biggest one amongst the Vikings team and we’ll have to watch that play out. Rhetoric right now coming from the Vikings is that Bridgewater “has a long way to go” (Mike Zimmer’s words, not mine) before being able to play again, although he was taking snaps and doing short passes in OTAs. If Bradford plays at a high level throughout the season and leads the team on a playoff run it may be hard for the team to turn away from the fact that Bridgewater would then be two years removed as a starter, but let’s talk in the middle of season as to how things are going and where Teddy’s health is at.
Zoneblitz: This team had a historically bad offensive line that could not get a push for the run or protect Sam Bradford. With the signings of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, and the selection of Pat Elflein, has the team done enough to address this issue?
Merckle: What’s incredible about the offensive line now is how expensive it was through free agency to go from awful to at least average on-paper going into 2017. Reiff is now the second highest paid player on the team. But bear in mind that Detroit replaced him at left tackle with rookie Taylor Decker and kicked Reiff to the right side of the line, given he’s a much better run blocker than a pass blocker. Remmers was put in a rocky spot for 2016 being forced to play left tackle for the Panthers, but did okay on the right side before that, which is what he’ll play on the Vikings. You just have to overpay in free agency if you want anything adequate.
Toward Elflein, he was an All-American at Ohio St, but had a meh combine and fell to the third round. But how much improvement can you legitimately expect can you expect in one offseason not having a first round pick from the Bradford trade and knowing you have to overpay in free agency? It will most definitely be better, but overhauling an entire unit is not a quick fix.
Zoneblitz: Adrian Peterson is gone. Dalvin Cook was drafted and Latavius Murray was signed. How do the carries break out this season?
Merckle: Shortly after Murray signed with the team, Spielman said that the team would be moving on from Peterson, indicating that this was now Murray’s job. Then came drafting Cook and don’t forget that Jerick McKinnon is still on the team. It’s fair to assume that this year will look like a rich man’s version of what we had in Matt Asiata and McKinnon. Murray can fill the short yardage work and contribute more on passing downs, since a strength of his is blocking. Cook will have the opportunity to claim this backfield, being the most talented of the bunch, but that could be anything from flashing early in the season or being eased into the offense. I wouldn’t be surprised if McKinnon is partially moved to special teams as the kick returner and also plays some slot receiver. Something like 15 touches a game for Cook, 12 for Murray and 5 for McKinnon seems feasible.
Zoneblitz: Pat Shurmur now has the keys to the offense. What’s it going to look like in 2017?
Merckle: Something similar to what we saw toward the tail end of 2016 only with improved blocking and another year of continuity for Bradford with a similar set of receivers. Shurmur tends to incorporate a lot of West Coast plays with also some spread concepts with power running plays requiring guards to pull a lot. Bradford tends to be best in shotgun with three or four wide receiver sets when he gets the ball out in a hurry.
Zoneblitz: Captain Munnerlyn left as a free agent, Chad Greenway retired, Sharrif Floyd has a lingering knee issue. – Has the team done enough to fill the potential holes on this side of the ball?
Merckle: The defense doesn’t nearly have as many question marks as the offense, but of the three that you mentioned, the nickel corner is the biggest question mark. Second-year corner Mackensie Alexander needs to take a major leap forward replacing Munnerlyn. Alexander played less than 100 snaps as a rookie. He had a tough time with the quickness of slot receivers and also had the reputation of being a mediocre teammate, given the nickel corner is a key communicator being in the middle of the field.
Floyd’s knee injury is worrisome and may never play again. On Greenway’s retirement, he’ll mostly be missed for leadership more than for his on the field play of recent years.
Zoneblitz: This was a great defense the first half of the season, but it showed strain the second half. With youth needing to step up and some of the aforementioned turnover on this side of the ball, is there still potential for an elite defense?
Merckle: When you have the star power of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith you can absolutely be an elite level defense. That being said there were some major concerns with somethings that happened with this unit the second half of the season. Coaches started to catch up with some of their schemes. Anthony Barr’s play for unknown reasons fell off a cliff. There were multiple games they struggled with reading the offense and then there was the debacle with Terence Newman overriding Mike Zimmer’s request for Rhodes to cover Jordy Nelson that lasted for an entire half! Again, with the talent on that side of the ball there is no excuse for not having a solid defense, but that will back to Zimmer’s coaching and if most everyone can stay healthy.
Zoneblitz: What did you think of the team’s draft and its approach to free agency this offseason? And what holes remain to be filled heading into training camp?
Merckle: I touched a lot on the additions in free agency and what they did in the draft with the Dalvin Cook pick, but I also liked how Spielman traded back in the later rounds to stockpile more picks given the team didn’t have a first. If I’m allowed a late-round sleeper the team grabbed it would be OLB Elijah Lee of Kansas State. He should open the season on special teams and could find his way into competition as a replacement for Greenway. Toward what else needs to be done, I wouldn’t object to calling Nick Mangold to see if he wants to still play or bringing in additional competition for punting.
Zoneblitz: What’s your prognosis for the season? Is this team a contender or is it stuck in the middle of the pack again?
Merckle: The enthusiastic big old kid in me truly hopes that all the stars align with Bradford having a career year, Dalvin Cook winning rookie of the year, the offensive line proving it can be fixed in one year and the defense looking like some of the units the team had in the 70s. Just give me one Super Bowl before I die and may this be the year.
But I’m way too pragmatic for that. Most likely this team loses a few close games and gets hit with a nasty injury or two. Something like 9-7 while barely missing the playoffs is a sensible expectation.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Merckle: Thanks for chatting with me. Hope you guys at Zoneblitz have a great year and we’ll talk with you again down the road.
Follow Jon Merckle on Twitter at: @thevikingpig
Follow Viking Age on Twitter at: @TheVikingAge
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