How Vikings can win NFC North in 2017
The Vikings took their fans through a rollercoaster of a season, with the high hopes of an emerging defense and a promising quarterback momentarily dashed by a non-contact injury to Teddy Bridgewater during a late-August practice. A surprising trade for former first-overall pick Sam Bradford resulted in skeptical hope that quickly emerged into discussions of a Super Bowl berth after a 5-0 start. Their defense was arguably one of the league’s best, their special teams special, and Bradford was, by many of our measures, playing outstanding football. Eight losses in 10 tries later—and void of the first-round pick with which they parted ways to make room for Bradford—and the Vikings have an offseason full of angst and intrigue, to say the least, ahead of them.
Talent-wise, there are still substantial pieces with which the Vikings can build. Their defense boasts one of the league’s best safeties in Harrison Smith (85.4 overall grade this season), an emerging inside linebacker in Eric Kendricks (80.6), and a strong front-four anchored by nose tackle Linval Joseph (83.1) and edge defender Everson Griffen (81.5). The play of fourth-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes (who’s surrendered just a 53.7 passer rating into his coverage so far this year) and second-year edge defender Danielle Hunter (who is currently sixth among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity and first in run-stop percentage) were probably the highlights of the season personnel-wise. The decline of linebacker and former top-10 pick Anthony Barr (whose overall grade dropped from 91.8 to 44.2 this season) registers as the most troubling development. With only nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (77.3) and aging (but uber-impressive) veteran outside cornerback Terence Newman (86.5) likely to test free agency, the Vikings’ defense appears to be a formidable bunch for the foreseeable future.
After averaging just 19.3 points per game and earning the 23rd-highest cumulative PFF grade offensively through 16 weeks, most of the Vikings’ needs are on the offensive side of the ball, and the list below reflects this. If they are able to address these sufficiently, their second NFC North crown in three years should be within reach:
1. Build a serviceable offensive line.
This was the top need a year ago for the Vikings, and to say they didn’t try to address it this past offseason is a bit hyperbolic. However, the acquisition of Andre Smith (39.3), who was poor in his last season in Cincinnati, was a disaster even before he was placed on injured reserve after Week 4. His replacement, 2015 trade acquisition Jeremiah Sirles, has struggled mightily as a pass blocker, yielding the 10th-worst pass blocking efficiency out of all qualifying tackles this season, while grading positively overall as a run blocker. Free-agent acquisition Alex Boone (76.8) was better than his predecessor Brandon Fusco (52.0) at left guard, but a non-football injury to 2015 surprise stalwart Mike Harris forced said predecessor to start at right guard with no competition, and he subsequently failed to regain the high standard of play he set at that position in 2013. Joe Berger (85.8), a PFF Pro Bowl pick a year ago, maintained his solid play at center (and eventually as an injury replacement at right guard).
The inadequacies above pale in comparison to what the Vikings put up with at left tackle, where Matt Kalil (36.8) was playing as poorly as he did during the 2014 and 2015 campaigns before he landed on injured reserve after Week 2. T.J. Clemmings (28.4; beaten by Clay Matthews for a strip sack in clip below) performed as one of the worst tackles in PFF era (since the 2006 season) after he took over for Kalil, forcing Minnesota to sign veteran Jake Long (63.9) off the street to give them replacement-level play at the position.
Long eventually assimilated himself to (at least) that level, until he also landed on IR with a torn Achilles against Washington, moving Clemmings back into that spot for the remainder of the season. Clemmings has the fourth-worst pass blocking efficiency of all tackles, and graded positively in the run game in just five of his 13 starts. The Vikings’ offensive line, as a whole, ranked 23rd in pass-blocking efficiency this season, despite Bradford’s seventh-quickest 2.44 seconds to throw being used as a method to hide the above deficiencies.
Repairing the Vikings’ offensive line is not going to be simple or easy. Smith wouldn’t be a solid option even if he were to return 100 percent healthy, and Harris probably will never play football again. Kalil is a pending free agent, joining a class of available players that includes only one plausible alternative: Andrew Whitworth (89.1) of the Bengals. We’ve been high on Whitworth for years, as he has earned an overall grade above 85.0 for eight consecutive seasons. In this, his age-34 season, he’s allowed just 14 QB pressures, with a pass-blocking efficiency that’s tied for the best among all offensive tackles. He’ll cost the Vikings some money, but with Adrian Peterson’s $18 million and Fusco’s $4.8 million available if they were to be released, adding Whitworth is a possibility if they make it a priority. Right tackle is similarly scarce, with a low-quality crop of Sebastian Vollmer (injured all of 2016), Ricky Wagner (83.7), Austin Pasztor (79.7), Cameron Flemming (71.7), Marshall Newhouse (66.7), Riley Reiff (66.5), Mike Remmers (65.9), Eric Winston (59.6), Gosder Cherilus (41.8), Gary Gilliam (36.9), and Byron Bell (injured all of 2016). Wagner is having somewhat of a bounce-back season after a poor 2015, surrendering roughly half the quarterback pressures he did a year ago, while grading significantly better in the run game. He would be cheaper than Whitworth, but certainly riskier. Save the immediate development of a 2017 draft pick, it’s likely the Vikings will need someone from the group of Sirles, Clemmings, 2016 fourth-rounder Willie Beavers, and Rashod Hill (recently signed off the Jaguars’ practice squad) to develop into a starter next season at one tackle spot—a speculative proposition at best.
Even if Minnesota can cobble together five NFL-caliber offensive line starters next season, they will need to address the position in the draft if they don’t want this group to be their top need every offseason. Since 2010, the Vikings have spent exactly one pick in the top three rounds on offensive linemen, and they’ve paid dearly the past two seasons. As we said above, they do not have a first-round pick, but do have multiple picks in the third and fourth rounds. Possible targets for them include Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame) or Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin) should they fall into the second round, or Forrest Lamp (Western Kentucky) and/or Dan Feeney (Indiana), who should probably be available for one of their second- or third-day picks.
2. Sort out the quarterback situation.
A big set of decisions looms for the Vikings at the most important position on their team. Sam Bradford, signed through 2017, was able to stay upright throughout this season, missing just two snaps because of injury, despite the horrible offensive line play documented above. He will have a cap number of $17 million next season, and has had traditional numbers (71.2 completion percentage, 3,627 yards, 7.0 yards per attempt, and a 17:4 TD:INT ratio) and PFF overall grades (81.9 in 2016) that are similar to what Minnesota received from Teddy Bridgewater in 2015 (65.6 completion percentage, 3,377 yards, 7.2 yards per attempt, 14:9 TD:INT ratio and an 82.6 overall grade). There are questions as to whether Bridgewater will play again, and this uncertainty clouds the Vikings’ decision this offseason regarding his fifth-year option.
Despite the similar production levels, the two quarterbacks generally went about it in different ways during their tenures as the Vikings’ starter. While both quarterbacks where among the league’s most accurate, Bridgewater did so by hanging onto the ball for an average of 3.03 seconds per throw (second-highest in the league) in 2015, while Bradford was much quicker to throw in 2016. The average depth of target for these two were 7.5 and 6.7 the last two years, respectively, near or at the bottom of the league in both seasons. As such, neither quarterback has shown the willingness (especially Bradford) or the arm talent (especially Bridgewater) to stretch the defense vertically, meaning that a Minnesota offense with either of these two at quarterback will be somewhat limited.
Be that as it may, slightly-above-average quarterback play, coupled with an improved offensive supporting cast and an already formidable defense, is enough for the Vikings to challenge for the NFC North crown again next year. The question the Vikings have to answer, if Bridgewater is healthy enough to play, is whether or not his upside is such that he can move into the upper third of quarterbacks in the league and help the team challenge for a championship. We have more data on Bradford, and the answer to that query, with respect to him, is probably no.
3. Find a replacement at running back—at least for 2017.
The end of an era has commenced in Minnesota, as Adrian Peterson and his aforementioned $18 million cap number will probably be shown the door before the 2017 league year begins. It wasn’t a bad run for Peterson, although his deficiencies as a pass blocker and a receiver will always haunt some Vikings fans, and in 2015, they certainly slowed the growth of Bridgewater by restricting the team’s options offensively.
The problem the Vikings face is that a viable replacement for Peterson is probably not on the roster right now. When Peterson missed most of 2014 with a suspension, the combination of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata showed some promise, with McKinnon generating a positive grade as a runner and Asiata a positive grade as a pass protector. After playing bit roles in 2015, they were thrust into more playing time again this season, with largely awful results. Out of 54 qualifying running backs, Asiata and McKinnon ranked 43rd and 50th in yards per carry, and 46th and 48th in yards per carry after contact, respectively. After being second among running backs with a 2.25 yards per route run as a change-of-pace back in 2015, McKinnon regressed to one of the lower marks (1.00) when shouldering the bigger load in 2016. Asiata has regressed as a pass protector since 2014, with a pass-blocking efficiency that has dropped from 95.8 to 90.8 in 2016. His 2016 mark was one of the worst in the league.
While McKinnon and Asiata may have value, their ceilings are probably as second- and third-string backs, respectively. Without Peterson, the Vikings will need to look to the draft or free agency for their top back in 2017. With a concerted effort likely applied more to the offensive line during the draft, free agency may be where they get the best value this offseason. Le’Veon Bell will almost certainly either be re-signed or franchise tagged, but his backup, DeAngelo Williams (71.9), has had something of a re-birth since being one of the better free-agent signings a year ago. He’s dealt with injuries for most of this season, and is likely a reach as a stopgap starter in 2017, though. Question marks abound for LeGarrette Blount (69.7) and Eddie Lacy (77.3), but the right circumstances could elicit substantial value in a one-year situation for those two. Unheralded backs like Latavius Murray (71.7), Jacquizz Rodgers (76.2), Tim Hightower (56.0), Benny Cunningham (60.2), and Shaun Draughn (64.8) have had their moments in the past carrying the load, and could be low-cost options to bridge the gap for Minnesota.
Cordarrelle Patterson, currently an upcoming free-agent wide receiver, has carried the ball 31 times for 333 yards (10.7 yards per carry) during his career, spent a fair share of snaps in the backfield, and should register as a Ty Montgomery-like option for the club at the running back position, as well. His 10 missed tackles forced this season were tied for the most among receivers with fewer than 55 catches, and he currently ranks second in the history of the league in kickoff-return average (behind Gale Sayers), which speaks to his abilities as a runner in the open field.
4. Salvage the 2016 draft class.
In addition to lacking a 2017 first-round pick, the Vikings have received a pathetic level of production from their 2016 draft class, with draft picks playing only 1.28 percent of the possible offensive snaps and 1.31 percent of the possible defensive snaps (second-lowest in the league). While Kentrell Brothers’ special teams acumen has been something to behold this year, the fact that he has been Minnesota’s most-impactful rookie is a classic example of damning with faint praise. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell has played just 79 snaps and, while he’s graded positively as a blocker and on special teams, he’s caught just one of the three passes thrown his way, and has repeatedly failed to crack the lineup at receiver. With Stefon Diggs (82.6) and Adam Thielen (82.8) emerging as the Vikings’ first pair of 900-yard receivers since Randy Moss and Cris Carter, Treadwell will need to improve substantially this offseason to gain the playing time necessary to fulfill the promise (and quell our pre-draft doubts) he had coming out of Ole Miss. The Vikings at some point envision cornerback Mackensie Alexander (67 snaps, 131.9 passer rating allowed) and linebacker Brothers (one snap) as pieces of their top-end defense, as both graded quite well their last year in college. Until then, the 2016 draft class will go down as one of the most disappointing in team history.
Competing for the NFC North in 2017
2016 was a year of seemingly-unprecedented setbacks for a Vikings team that was a 27-yard field goal away from advancing to round two of the 2015 NFC Playoffs. While the offensive line and running back situations were and are a complete mess, the upcoming quarterback situation is a tricky one, and the 2016 draft class has given them largely nothing to this point, a defense capable of playing among the league’s best will make the process of patching the necessary offensive holes a more palatable one, however. If the Vikings can address the above concerns sufficiently this offseason, a return to the top of the NFC North is possible in 2017.