4 biggest offseason needs for the Minnesota Vikings
Despite finishing the season with a heartbreaking 10-9 loss at home to the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings’ 2015 season was one of progress and promise. Coach Mike Zimmer’s club finished with PFF’s eight-highest graded defense and 10th-highest graded offense, with a roster comprised of legitimate superstar talent at many positions.
For example, center Joe Berger (88.7 season grade), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (94.2), linebacker Anthony Barr (93.0) and safety Harrison Smith (94.2) all finished with a top-three PFF grade at their respective positions, with defensive end Everson Griffen (83.4), slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (83.3), wide receiver Stefon Diggs (82.5), and running back Adrian Peterson (81.9 run grade) all managing impressive campaigns, as well. With the hopes to compete for NFC supremacy in 2016 and beyond, the Vikings will look to build upon these strengths and tighten up some of their weak spots. In this article, we discuss how Minnesota can improve upon a roster that finished the season with the 10th-highest overall PFF grade.
Weaknesses along the offensive line
Offensive line is a big, complicated question mark heading into the offseason. While the Vikings were the only team to have all five starters along their offensive line start all 16 games, it was only after John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt were lost for the season before Week 1. And while the Vikings ranked 10th in the league in PFF’s run blocking grades as a unit, they finished 31st in the league in pass blocking efficiency (71.7).
While the aforementioned Berger played exceptionally well in Sullivan’s spot at center, Loadholt’s replacement, T.J. Clemmings (37.4), ranked 67th among tackles in 2015—posting the fourth-worst pass blocking efficiency (92.4). Drafted in the fourth round out of Pitt, Clemmings was PFF College’s second-highest graded tackle in 2014, so his rough rookie year alone shouldn’t be enough to exclude him entirely from the Minnesota’s long-term plans, especially given Loadholt’s age (29), price ($7.75 million cap hit) and injury history (22 missed games in 2014 and 2015). Loadholt was PFF’s second-highest graded right tackle in 2013, and was grading positively before his injury in 2014, so if he can recoup some of his previous form, the Vikings can both regain competence at right tackle and develop Clemmings in a more palpable role.
Holdovers Brandon Fusco (61.6) and Mike Harris (77.8) both switched positions for 2016, with Fusco moving from right guard to left guard, and Harris moving from right tackle to right guard. The pending UFA Harris was a pleasant surprise, finishing with the 22nd-best grade among guards, with relatively equal effectiveness as a pass blocker (78.6) and run blocker (75.3). Fusco went from the 11th-highest graded guard in 2013 to the 43rd in 2015 (he missed all but three games in 2014). He allowed 54 total pressures in pass protection this season, which was tied for the most among guards.
Left tackle Matt Kalil (47.1) has been largely a disappointment since his wonderful rookie year of 2012, bottoming out in 2014, where his 55 pressures allowed were the second-most in the league among tackles. He improved slightly in 2015, where his 44 pressures allowed were just 18th in the league. Nonetheless, the Vikings are getting below-average production from their former top-five draft pick at a very important position in the development of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (77.4).
This leaves the Vikings with question marks at at least four positions along the offensive line. Assuming Sullivan and Loadholt return, the Vikings have to decide what to do with Berger, who has earned a starting position somewhere along the line with his play at center in 2015. If Fusco’s struggles are at least partially due to the switch to left guard, Berger could replace him there—with Fusco moving back to right guard and Harris (if he returns) moving to a utility position, for which he’d be very valuable. Possible contingency plans at tackle will remain if the struggles of Kalil and Clemmings, or the injuries to Loadholt, continue.
Some offseason targets for the Vikings could be Joe Barksdale (79.3) of the Chargers in free agency and/or Jack Conklin of Michigan State in the draft, whose strength as a run blocker would be suitable for the Vikings’ current offensive philosophy. Trade acquisitions Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles did not play any snaps for the Vikings in 2015, but may be a part of the team’s long-term depth in 2016 and beyond.
Productivity at wide receiver
The Vikings used a fifth-round pick to trade for Mike Wallace (55.7) in the offseason. Wallace responded by catching just 39-of-68 targets for 473 yards and two touchdowns, while dropping four passes and failing to catch a pass over 35 yards all season. He never appeared to strike the right chemistry with Bridgewater, and if for not the emergence of the fifth-round rookie Diggs and fourth-year pro Jarius Wright (70.3), the Vikings would have had practically nothing in terms of production at the receiver position, due to failures of Wallace, former first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson (61.5 in 61 snaps), and preseason darling Charles Johnson (66.1 in 218 snaps). Wallace and his $11.5 million cap hit are most likely gone season, and Patterson is likely going to be shown the door as well. The late-season benching of Johnson was a curious one, and he should be in the team’s future plans, but he lacks the ability to make contested catches downfield that would best compliment the underneath work of Diggs and Wright.
Adding a wide receiver in the draft seems like the most likely option to complete the group, with PFF’s initial mock draft having the Vikings taking Leonte Carroo (4.11 yards per route run) out of Rutgers in the first round.
Second safety spot
While Smith is the highest-graded safety in the league, the other safety position has been a revolving door during all of Smith’s four seasons in the league. Predominantly a special teams player since 2012, Andrew Sendejo (50.9) beat out 2014 starter Robert Blanton (58.8) in the preseason to start alongside Smith in 2015. While Sendejo (844 snaps) did post the best run stop percentage (14.3) within 8 yards of the LOS among safeties, he struggled mightily in pass coverage (48.7 PFF pass defense grade), failing to break up a pass all season, and sometimes failing to wrap when coming over to help on deep passes.
A solid, versatile, second safety to go along with Smith would free him up to make even more of the plays that have catapulted him amongst the league’s best safety. Potentially-expensive options exist in free agency, such as Eric Berry (87.9) of Kansas City, Eric Weddle (77.9) of San Diego, and Reggie Nelson (84.2) of Cincinnati. Also don’t forget undrafted free agent Anthony Harris (87.0) played well in his two starts in place of the injured Smith earlier in the year.
Less-expensive, but proven options may make more sense, however. For example, UFA George Iloka (82.6) of Cincinnati is well-rounded (81.2 in pass coverage and 79.2 in run defense), and has experience in Zimmer’s system. Another option is 37-year old CB Terence Newman (75.5 in 16 starts), who played well at times at both cornerback and safety, despite being initially considered as simply an insurance policy for Bengals rookie first-rounder Trae Waynes (69.9).
Since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, Jeff Locke has been the worst, worst, and second-worst graded punter in the league in his three seasons. His 41.6 gross average and 37.8 net average were the second- and fifth-worst in the league in 2015, and his 26 punts downed inside the 20 were just the 22nd-best in the league. Adding a solid punter, either through the draft or free agency, would compliment the team’s emerging defense in a nontrivial way moving forward.
The Vikings are moving in the right direction. Their punishing all-around defense, solid running game, and promising young quarterback give coach Zimmer some of the ingredients necessary to compete year-in and year-out for the NFC North, and the NFC in general. The act of addressing the concerns above has the potential to accelerate this process, trading in the heartbreak of the end of the 2015 season for the payoff agonizingly anticipated by Vikings fans for over five decades.