5 Minnesota Vikings Bound to Break Out in 2014
Armed with a fiery head coach named Mike Zimmer, it's safe to say that Zimmer's Vikings are going to look a lot different than the teams we've been accustomed to seeing in the past.
Despite recent struggles, thanks to general manager Rick Spielman's steady hand, this roster has a bevvy of talent the team can fall back on.
Young playmakers like Harrison Smith and Cordarrelle Patterson should be able to meld with some of the more established veterans and together create a dynamic football club in 2014.
But in order to achieve long-term success, you have to find players who can break out.
Analyzing the current roster using advanced NFL metrics and film study, it's time to check out five Vikings who will experience breakout campaigns in 2014.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com unless noted otherwise.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless noted otherwise.
FS Harrison Smith
Coming off a stellar rookie season where he racked up 74 solo tackles, three interceptions and scored two defensive touchdowns, free safety Harrison Smith was primed for a huge sophomore campaign in 2013.
Instead, stuck in the middle of the NFL's 31st-ranked defense, Smith struggled to get things going before being placed on short-term injured reserve.
Even after Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Smith would be activated in Week 15, the talented safety never really looked like himself out there on the field.
Injuries aside, there's no doubt that Smith is an important part of this football team. A hard-nosed tackler who boasts an impressive football IQ, when he's playing at a high level, Smith can help change the disposition of a defense.
Now, with Coach Zimmer running the show, look for the former Notre Dame captain to become one of the focal points of Minnesota's new-look defense.
Setting high expectations for Smith next season comes down to two major factors.
For starters, Smith is a prolific talent. His production alone during his rookie campaign is a testament to how dynamic of a football player he can be when he's healthy.
Influenced by Zimmer's defensive acumen and ferocious bravado, Smith's game will reach heights we never even imagined were possible before.
In professional sports, that impeccable combination of great coaching and natural talent is an unbeatable formula. For fans of the Purple and Gold, watching Smith patrol the secondary next season is going to be one of the biggest highlights of 2014.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson
You know that intangible feeling you get when you can just tell someone or something is special? Well, for Vikings fans, that's the feeling they get whenever wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson steps out on the field.
An inspiring Vegas-like magician with the ball in his hands, Patterson's scintillating speed and mesmerizing skill set makes him the most entertaining Vikings draft pick since Adrian Peterson back in 2007.
Racking up 1,393 kickoff return yards and two touchdowns, Patterson shined on special teams this past season. Because of his profound efforts, the former University of Tennessee standout ended up making it to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
From the wide receiver position, Patterson's impact was not nearly as significant. According to PFF, Patterson managed to register just 458 offensive snaps last season.
Whether you think he was grossly misused or was eased into the offense the right way, Patterson is a guy who possesses all of the physical tools needed to have a substantial season in 2014.
The arrival of offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Minnesota should really help this young man develop. As ESPN.com's Ben Goessling pointed out, Turner has always had a fascination with launching the football downfield.
Because of his top-end speed and the ability he displays on film to separate from opposing defenders, Turner's offensive scheme will help Patterson take a major step forward in 2014—just look at what happened last season to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon under Turner's influence.
WR Greg Jennings
Sticking with the wide receiver position, Vikings pass-catcher Greg Jennings is another player who should enjoy a breakout season in 2014.
Despite having to catch passes from a triad of underwhelming quarterbacks, Jennings still managed to finish his first season in Minnesota with 68 receptions for 804 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
We all know figuring out how to properly address the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position in Minnesota has to be priority No. 1 for Spielman and Zimmer. To make matters worse, when Darren Wolfson of KSTP-TV and 1500 ESPN tweeted that Matt Cassel was going to void the 2014 option on his contract, things got even more confusing.
Whether the team brings in a veteran QB to start next season or it goes after a young gunslinger in the upcoming draft, Jennings has always been the type of player who can make life easier for any signal-caller. To this day, his pristine route running and football smarts make him a quality target who brings immense value to any type of offense.
The silver lining encompassing Jennings' future in Minnesota is the team's new offensive coordinator. As Bleacher Report's Chris Trapasso notes, Turner has had a history of crafting successful aerial attacks.
Talking about his tenure as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Trapasso said, "The Chargers were annually one of the most prolific passing offenses in football, and quarterback Philip Rivers bordered on elite status running Turner's attack."
Needless to say, despite the team's issues at quarterback, Turner's offensive scheme should help Jennings get back to his usual productive self next season.
CB Xavier Rhodes
Part of the infamous trio of first-round picks from the Vikings' 2013 draft class, cornerback Xavier Rhodes flashed a ton of promise during his rookie season.
Going by PFF's metrics, Rhodes finished his 2013 campaign registering a positive-1.5 grade. While that isn't anything to write home about, it's easy to forget that Rhodes was adjusting to a new defensive scheme.
Coming out of Florida State, Rhodes excelled playing in man coverage. As B/R's Ryan Alfieri mentioned in his scouting report, "Measuring at 6'1", 210 pounds with 33 3/4" arms, he has the ideal build of an NFL-ready press-man corner."
Although the jury's still out on how Minnesota's defense will look next season, ESPN.com's Ben Goessling notes that Zimmer's defenses have traditionally always featured lots of man coverage.
Rhodes' size, physicality and ball skills should put him in a fantastic position to succeed under Zimmer and new Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards' philosophy.
Add in the NFL's recent fascination with bigger, more labor-intensive cornerbacks, and Rhodes instantly becomes a prime candidate for a breakout campaign.
LT Matt Kalil
Lost in the chaos that defined Minnesota's 2013 season was the struggles Matt Kalil endured at left tackle.
Going by PFF's mark, Kalil surrendered 33 quarterback pressures and 12 QB hits in 2013. Compare that to the 20 QB pressures and four QB hits he gave up in 2012, and you start to understand where things went wrong for the former USC Trojan.
Although advanced statistics are a great way to judge an individual's performance, when you turn on the tape, Kalil still flashed his supreme strength and savvy ability to handle opposing pass-rushers.
If Minnesota's offense wants to improve next season, the uber-talented Kalil needs to get back to his dominant ways.
The "glass half-full" perspective on Kalil's future comes down to the promise he showed during his rookie season. Blessed with the ability and smarts needed to be an elite left tackle, Kalil is another player who should benefit from the balance and stability Turner will bring to this offense.