The 8 Biggest Decisions the Minnesota Vikings Will Have to Make This Offseason
With the introduction on Friday of Mike Zimmer as the next head coach for the Minnesota Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman can cross the top item off his to-do list. Now the offseason can really get cranked up for the Vikings.
The Vikings and their rookie head coach have plenty of work in front of them if they are going to turn around a team that only won five games last season.
The good news for Vikings fans is that in today's NFL, a turnaround can occur very quickly. Looking back to last season, there were four teams that improved by at least five wins—Kansas City (+9), Philadelphia (+6), Carolina (+5) and Arizona (+5).
The Vikings themselves made a big jump from their 3-13 season in 2011 to a 10-6 mark in 2012; the seven-game improvement was the largest in franchise history.
During his introduction on Friday, Zimmer was already talking about winning a Super Bowl. If that's going to happen, then he really needs to get busy.
Here are some tough decisions the team needs to address this offseason.
What to Do at Right Defensive End?
Since the Minnesota Vikings gave up three draft picks in 2008 to acquire defensive end Jared Allen, no one else has led the team in sacks.
In his six seasons with the Vikings, Allen has 85.5 sacks, placing him third all-time in Vikings history—at least since the stat has been recorded. He set the Vikings single-season record for sacks with 22 in 2011.
Allen is set to become a free agent on March 11 unless the Vikings can negotiate his return before that.
As reported by Ben Goessling of ESPN, the Vikings have signed George Edwards as their defensive coordinator. Edwards and new head coach Mike Zimmer need to come up with a plan for what to do at right defensive end.
Their options are to work with general manager Rick Spielman and re-sign Allen, promote Everson Griffen, who has finished third on the team in sacks the past two seasons, woo another free agent to Minnesota, or find a starter in the draft.
The problem with the second option is that Griffen is also a pending free agent.
If the Vikings don't retain Allen's services, they will need to find between 11 and 14 sacks from other sources.
Does the Team Retain Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer?
No doubt every member of the current coaching staff of the Minnesota Vikings will be assessed by new head coach Mike Zimmer to determine whether or not there is a place for them on his 2014 staff.
One coach in particular will face plenty of scrutiny—special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Priefer has been the special teams coordinator since 2011.
Two days after the team announced the firing of head coach Leslie Frazier, an article written by former punter Chris Kluwe was published by Deadspin. Within the story, Kluwe accused Priefer of being a bigot and making gay slurs.
Since then, according to the Star Tribune, the Minnesota Vikings have retained an independent counsel to investigate the situation.
No matter what the investigation uncovers, what to do with Priefer will be a tough decision. No matter what the team decides, there will be someone, somewhere who disagrees with it.
Setting the controversy aside for a moment and looking at the results of the Vikings' special teams, there are plenty of reasons that Priefer should be kept.
Last season, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson led the NFL with an average of 32.4 yards per kick return and two touchdowns. In 2012, rookie kicker Blair Walsh was perfect from beyond 50 yards and finished fourth in the league in scoring with 141 points—the second-highest single-season mark in franchise history.
In only three seasons as the primary punt returner, Marcus Sherels has risen to third all-time in punt return yards for the Vikings. He has 899 yards on 87 returns, and his two touchdowns are tied for the franchise lead.
Of course, in today's NFL, it's not that easy to ignore the accusations made by Kluwe.
What About the Rest of the Coaching Staff?
Just because the Minnesota Vikings have hired a new head coach, and in turn he has selected his offensive and defensive coordinators, doesn't mean they're ready to start moving forward.
New head coach Mike Zimmer was introduced by the team on Friday. He wasted no time getting Norv Turner in place as his offensive coordinator and George Edwards as his defensive coordinator.
That's just the beginning.
According to Vikings.com, there are 20 other coaches on the staff. That's almost as many coaches as positions on the field.
There appears to be some redundancy; the team has three strength and conditioning coaches. The Vikings have three coaches taking care of the linebackers: Fred Pagac, linebackers coach; Jeff Imamura, defensive assistant/linebackers; and Mike Singletary, assistant head coach/linebackers.
For all the good it did, the Vikings also had a pair of coaches just for the quarterbacks. Craig Johnson is the quarterbacks coach, and Kevin Stefanski is the assistant quarterback coach. I'm just surprised there wasn't a clipboard coach as well to assist the third-string quarterback. The Vikings' passing game only averaged 214.2 passing yards per game.
No doubt with the 31st-ranked passing defense, defensive backs coach Joe Woods is a long shot to remain with the team.
With the end of the 2013 NFL calendar year coming in March and the start of free agency, it would be good to have as much of this nailed down before then as possible. That way, the coaching staff can focus on making this team better.
What to Do at Linebacker?
The Minnesota Vikings started the 2013 season looking for a replacement for middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent. In 2012, Brinkley finished fourth on the team in tackles, making 15 starts.
One of their first attempts was signing former Green Bay Packer Desmond Bishop, who missed the 2012 season with a torn hamstring. Just as Bishop was set to take over as the starter, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, ending his season.
The Vikings then moved Erin Henderson from the weak side to take over at middle linebacker. After missing the Week 12 game in Green Bay for a personal reason, Henderson lost his starting spot to Audie Cole.
Cole was by no means the Vikings' first or even second choice. Prior to starting at middle linebacker, Cole, the Vikings' seventh-round draft pick in 2012, was waived by the team just 17 days earlier. Cole finished the season, making five starts before missing the season finale with an injury.
After starting the final game of the season, things have only gotten worse for Henderson. Three days after their 14-13 win over the Detroit Lions, according to a report from USA Today, Henderson was arrested a second time for suspicion of driving under the influence after crashing his SUV on New Year's Day.
A tweet from Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press suggests that Henderson's days with the Vikings are numbered.
That means there will be at least one hole to be plugged at linebacker.
Who Backs Up Adrian Peterson?
Right now, the two players backing up running back Adrian Peterson are without contracts for 2014.
Toby Gerhart, who will become a free agent in March, will most likely wind up starting somewhere else in the NFL. Even though he finished 2013 with the fewest carries in his four years with the Vikings, he made the most of them.
Gerhart finished with 283 yards on only 36 carries for a career-high 7.9-yard average. He also rushed for two touchdowns.
In only his second NFL season, Gerhart's backup, Matt Asiata, proved that he is capable of filling in for the NFL's best running back.
Playing in place of Peterson, who suffered a hamstring injury in Week 14 against the Ravens, Asiata started against the Eagles. Despite only rushing for 51 yards on 30 carries, he scored three touchdowns in a 48-30 win. Two weeks later, in the final game of the season against the Lions, Asiata rushed for 115 yards on only 14 attempts—an average of 8.2 yards per carry.
Because of his limited service, Asiata is an exclusive-rights free agent. If the Vikings want to retain Asiata's services, they need to offer him a contract by March 11.
What to Do at Cornerback?
As pointed out previously, the Vikings' passing defense was near the bottom of several statistical categories. Minnesota finished 31st in passing yards allowed and last in touchdown passes given up.
It looks like Chris Cook's time with the team may be over. The Vikings' second-round draft pick in 2010 has been unable to play an entire season. In 2013, he played in a career-high 12 games.
A pending free agent, Cook failed to intercept a pass in 34 games.
On the bright side, the Vikings found a decent cornerback in rookie Xavier Rhodes, who started six games last season. According to Pro Football Reference, Rhodes led the Vikings with 10 passes defended.
The Vikings need to figure out what they can get from second-year cornerback Josh Robinson. After playing well in 2012 with six starts and two interceptions, Robinson only played in 10 games in 2013 with no interceptions. Moved to be the slot corner in place of Winfield, Robinson appeared to take a step back.
Along with Marcus Sherels, who joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2010, the Vikings have a young group of cornerbacks to build upon.
The team needs to upgrade the position. That can either come with the signing of a veteran who can bring some leadership to the team or with the addition of another high draft pick.
What Kind of Team Will the Vikings Be in 2014?
New head coach Mike Zimmer finds himself in a transitional period with the Minnesota Vikings.
They appear ready to move on from Christian Ponder as well as parting ways with the leading sack producer over the past six seasons. On top of that, the team will spend the next two seasons playing its home games outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, the home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
For the 2016 season, the Vikings will move back indoors to their new stadium.
At one time, the Vikings were known as a tough, cold-weather, hard-nosed football team. For 21 seasons, the Vikings played outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium. Then they moved to the Metrodome in 1982 and arguably lost some of their mystique.
Over the past 10 seasons, the Vikings are 64-43 when playing under a dome and only 15-43-1 when they venture outdoors.
If the Vikings are going to improve in 2014, they will have to play well outside. According to Vikings.com, the Vikings will play 14 of their 16 games outdoors. The only time they will play under a dome is at Detroit and New Orleans.
Should Zimmer build a team that can grind it out in the elements for the next couple of seasons by relying more on a power run game, or should he look to build a fast team that performs well under the controlled environmental conditions of a dome?
The ideal situation would be to build a team that can do both.
What to Do at Quarterback?
The easy answer to this question is to draft a franchise quarterback with the eighth pick.
The problem is, there might not be one available.
A scan of 2014 NFL mock drafts comes up with many different projections for the Minnesota Vikings. Depending on the site, the Vikings could wind up with any of the top four quarterbacks in the draft: Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles or Derek Carr.
According to Walter Football, Bortles and Carr are projected as late-first-round or second-round selections. B/R featured columnist Mike Nelson, in his latest mock draft, does not like the selection of Carr with the eighth pick.
There are a couple of mock drafts that have the Vikings passing on a quarterback and selecting a linebacker in the first round.
The Vikings find themselves in a similar situation to 2011, when they drafted quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th pick in the first round. At the time, some people felt the Vikings reached by selecting Ponder. His lack of success after three seasons might support that.
Through three seasons Ponder has a 14-20-1 as a starter, with a 77.3 passer rating.
The Vikings have plenty of needs to address this offseason. They cannot afford to make a mistake with their first-round draft pick and reach for a quarterback.
If the Vikings forgo a quarterback in the first round, then they'd better have a plan for who will be the quarterback heading into the season. They cannot repeat the revolving door that was used last season, when three different quarterbacks started.