Minnesota Vikings: 4 Bold Predictions (And 4 Slightly Less Bold) for 2014 Season
Things have to get better for the Minnesota Vikings.
It's been a rough last few years for Minnesota. Since losing in the NFC Championship game after the 2009 season, the Vikings are just 24-39-1 over the last four seasons.
That record might be a lot worse if it weren't for running back Adrian Peterson, who's rushed for 5,631 yards and 46 touchdowns in those four years.
Beyond Peterson, the cumulative stats haven't been very kind to the Vikings.
Over the last four seasons, Vikings quarterbacks have thrown for 70 touchdowns while tossing 74 interceptions. For comparison's sake, the Green Bay Packers quarterbacks have thrown for 138 touchdowns and just 35 interceptions in the same time span.
It's no better on the other side of the ball. Vikings defensive backs have intercepted just 30 passes in the last four seasons. The Chicago Bears secondary has picked off 68 passes in the same span. The Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman has 20 interceptions by himself in just three seasons in the league.
That's all in the rearview mirror now, as the Vikings head toward the 2014 season with a renewed spirit and swagger. New head coach Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff bring a fiery passion to the club that's been missing for far too long.
Zimmer brings an infectious, old-school attitude that will rub off on his football team. With that in mind, we bring you four bold predictions (and four slightly less bold) for the Vikings' 2014 season.
Bold: Quarterback Matt Cassel Will Start Every Game in 2014
Matt Cassel is the only modern-day quarterback to ever start a game in the NFL without starting one in college. He's only played in all 16 games in an NFL season once, in 2008, the year he took over the New England Patriots when Tom Brady was injured in the first game.
Suffice to say that predicting that Cassel, at 32 years old, will start every game in 2014 is a slightly bold prediction.
First things first, this prediction is in no way an indictment of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. It isn't to say that Bridgewater couldn't handle the role, it's that he won't be asked to. That's a good thing.
With nine NFL seasons under his belt, Cassel is the best equipped of the three quarterbacks on the roster to assimilate quickly to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense. He'll be given the first opportunity to be the starting quarterback, he's earned it and he'll keep it for the entire 2014 season.
Cassel is a far better suited to succeed in Turner's offense, which stretches the field, than in former coordinator Bill Musgrave's, which relied more on quick-hitters and timing.
Cassel has a big arm and a veteran's presence in the pocket. He'll have the luxury of having a veteran offensive line in front of him, with probably only one guard spot up for grabs in training camp.
Cassel isn't the long-term answer at quarterback for the Vikings. But he is the answer for the 2014 season, and he'll respond with a very nice campaign, throwing for over 3,000 yards and at least 20 touchdowns.
Not so Bold: Teddy Bridgewater Will Be the No. 2 Quarterback
Look, there's nothing wrong with not immediately starting at quarterback in the NFL.
The landscape has certainly been skewed over the last couple of seasons, with high-profile quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all starting from day one. Luck and Griffin were drafted to start. Wilson simply made it clear in training camp that he was the best man for the job.
Teddy Bridgewater will certainly be given plenty of opportunities in training camp. The Vikings coaches won't have blinders on, so if Bridgewater is clearly the best quarterback they have, he'll get the job. The difference in Minnesota is that Matt Cassel has proved he can be a very good starter in the NFL.
What Bridgewater will prove is that he's a better quarterback than Christian Ponder, and he'll be given the backup position. Bridgewater has a high football IQ and has always been a quick study. He's started for three years at a powerhouse high school in Miami and took over the starting job early in his freshman year at Louisville.
Bridgewater is an accomplished passer who's proved he's capable of making any throw. He might not test out of the park on all the quarterback measurables like size and arm strength, but neither does Russell Wilson or Drew Brees.
Bridgewater is the quarterback of the future for the Minnesota Vikings. His future may have to wait a season or two, but there's nothing wrong with learning and picking up the nuances of quarterbacking at the highest level behind a veteran starter and an offensive guru like Norv Turner.
Bold: The Vikings Will Have Two 1,000 Yard Receivers
It's been four seasons since the Vikings had a receiver amass 1,000 receiving yards. It's been 13 seasons since they had two do it in the same year.
While it would be crazy to think that Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson could match, or even come close to Randy Moss and Cris Carter's absurd total of 2,711 yards in 2000, it's not a stretch at all to think the pair could both go over 1,000 yards in 2014.
Jennings has gone over 1,000 yards every year he's played 16 games, and he averaged over 14 yards a catch every season in Green Bay, except during his injury-plagued 2012 year.
The much bigger leap in yardage would have to come from second-year man Patterson, who'd have to more than double the total from his rookie season. Patterson averaged just 10.4 yards per catch last year, simply because a ton of his receptions were quick hitters, the equivalent of a long handoff.
One of the biggest differences Vikings fans will see in 2014 is the number of deeper downfield balls attempted in Norv Turner's offense than in Bill Musgrave's.
Turner's offenses have always liked to stretch the field, which obviously leads to more deep attempts, but also opens things up short for delay patterns and safety valves to the running backs.
Seven different times a Turner-coached receiver has led the NFL in yards per reception. Turner coached probably the most nondescript pair of 1,000 yard receivers ever in 1999 with the Redskins, when Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell both turned the trick. Neither one of them ever came close to 1,000 yards before or after that.
As for what Turner's offense will do for Patterson?
Well, in 2013 Turner got his hands on a 6'3", 225-pound burner of a second-year man who caught 50 passes for 805 yards as a rookie. Under Turner, Josh Gordon caught 87 passes for an NFL-high 1,646 yards. Patterson is a 6'2", 220-pound burner of a second-year man, who is every bit the athlete that Gordon is.
Not so Bold: Adrian Peterson Will Score Double-Digit Touchdowns (Again)
Certainly not a very bold prediction considering Peterson has averaged 12.3 touchdowns a season in his seven seasons in the league.
Where we'll approach bold is by saying that not only will Peterson have two receiving touchdowns for the first time, but that he might also might match his career total of five during the 2014 season.
Peterson is now 29 years old and is already an NFL outlier in that he's had seven years as a well-above average running back. How long can he continue to be this productive? Who wants to bet against him?
Peterson has never been a prolific receiver out of the backfield, but he's never played in a Norv Turner offense either. The last time the Vikings had a superior passing offense, with Brett Favre in 2009, Peterson caught a respectable 43 passes for 436 yards.
Couple Turner's propensity to stretch the field, and Peterson's running ability in space, and he could very easily have his best receiving year ever.
The guess here is that Peterson will see his rushing attempts drop, but his receptions will rise. Turner took over the San Diego Chargers in LaDainian Tomlinson's seventh season, and Tomlinson saw a drop in his rushing attempts, but he remained quite productive.
Bold: 12 Rookies Will Make the Team
It's a new regime in Minnesota under head coach Mike Zimmer. Out with the old and in with the new.
While 12 rookies probably won't make the 53-man roster, we're going to predict that including the practice squad, every drafted rookie and two undrafted rookie signees will be on the team.
It's very clear looking at the Vikings' 2014 draft crop that the team was looking for speed, smarts and athleticism. The Vikings defense definitely needs to be faster, and rookies Anthony Barr, Scott Crichton, Antone Exum, Kendall James, Brandon Watts and Jabari Price all bring plenty of speed.
Several of those guys will be contributors right off the bat on defense and especially on special teams. Exum, Watts and Price all spent time as punt-gunners in college and will all get a shot to show what they can do on special teams with the Vikings.
All three offensive draft picks are virtual locks to make the team. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Jerick McKinnon and guard David Yankey all will see plenty of reps in training camp. The early guess here is that two undrafted rookies will also make at least the practice squad in mammoth tackle Antonio Richardson and tight end A.C. Leonard.
Richardson might have the most potential of any player not drafted in May. The 6'6", 330-pound tackle was an all-SEC performer, and many thought he'd go as high as the second round. Though he never missed a game in three years at Tennessee, it seems many NFL teams were scared off by knee concerns, as reported by Brian Hall at FOXSports.com.
Richardson excelled at Tennessee and his 36 reps in the bench press were the second-highest of any player at the combine.
The 6'2", 250-pound Leonard was highly recruited out of high school and played his freshman year at Florida before transferring to Tennessee State. His 4.43 40-yard dash time raised plenty of eyebrows at the combine, and Minnesota could have found a real steal in Leonard, who's a far better pass catcher than blocker at this point in his career.
Not so Bold: 3 Rookies Will Make the Starting Lineup
First-round draft pick Anthony Barr will start at one of Minnesota's outside linebacker spots.
The prediction here is that two other rookies, guard David Yankey and safety Antone Exum, will also win starting jobs out of training camp.
Yankey, the fifth-round pick out of Stanford, will probably be in a three-man duel for the starting left guard spot that's been held by Charlie Johnson for two seasons. Johnson will begin camp as the starter and second-year man Jeff Baca will also be given a look.
The guess is that Yankey, who many thought would be drafted as high as the second round, will prove to be the best option of the three and will gain the starting nod. At 6'6", 315 pounds and strong legs, Yankey has ideal size for the position and would fit in nicely between center John Sullivan and left tackle Matt Kalil.
It might be a surprise if Exum lands a starting job out of camp, simply because there are so many veterans ahead of him on the depth chart at strong safety. With returning starter Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Andrew Sendejo all ahead of him, Exum will have to stand out to get the nod.
The big advantage Exum will have over the veterans are his ball skills. The Vikings secondary simply hasn't forced enough turnovers over the last five seasons, and it needs players on the back end who can make plays on the ball once it's in the air.
Exum played cornerback as a junior at Virginia Tech in 2012 and racked up five interceptions and 16 pass breakups. Exum is a muscular 6'0", 213-pounder who plays with a swagger and won't be intimidated by his rookie status.
Bold: Harrison Smith Will Be an All-Pro
Losing either Jared Allen or Kevin Williams would set a defense back quite a bit in the leadership department. Losing them both in the same offseason could be catastrophic.
It won't be in Minnesota though, as there are other leaders on hand who are ready to take the reins. Linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive end Brian Robison are two of them. Third-year safety Harrison Smith is another, and Smith just might be the most important player when it comes to getting the Minnesota defense back on track.
At 6'2", 215 pounds, Smith has just about every quality you look for in a football player. He's smart, instinctive, talented and as tough as they come. Smith was a star running back and linebacker in high school in Tennessee and began his career at Notre Dame as a linebacker.
He plays that way at free safety, roaming the back end with bad intentions for any offensive player who crosses his path. Smith has five interceptions and 162 tackles in just 24 games played with the Vikings. He missed the second half of 2013 with a bad case of turf toe.
Smith is ready to have a monster 2014 season. Two years in the league have taught him the ropes, and he now knows the proper angles to take on pass routes and in attacking the run. It only takes two or three defensive series to see that Smith is a difference maker, and he's ready to be anointed as one of the best in the NFL at his position.
Not so Bold: The Vikings Defense Will Be in the Top Half of the NFL
While it might not go from worst to first like the Minnesota Twins famously did in 1991, the Minnesota Vikings defense will take huge strides forward in 2014.
The Vikings ranked 31st in total defense in 2013, but with new head coach Mike Zimmer overseeing things, there's no way they'll finish near the bottom of the league again this year.
Zimmer is an accomplished defensive guru, and his impact will be felt immediately in Minnesota. While the defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals for the last five seasons, Zimmer's defense ranked in the top seven in the league four different times. It was the third-ranked defense in 2013.
A coach can only be as good as the players around him though, and the Vikings took huge steps toward repairing a broken defense this offseason. And we mean huge literally—take a look at the picture above. Number 98 is Linval Joseph, the 6'4", 325-pounder who the Vikings signed to be the stop-gap in the middle of the defensive line.
Joseph, just 25 years old, will pair with Sharrif Floyd (pictured above), who is just 23 years old, to give the Vikings a dominant inside tandem on defense for years to come.
Everson Griffen, who's teased with his potential for four seasons, will finally get the chance at a starting role at defensive end, and Minnesota hopes he can take on the Tasmanian devil pass-rushing role vacated by Jared Allen.
Anthony Barr, the Vikings' top pick in this year's draft, will add speed and a bit of oomph to the linebacking corps. It remains to be seen who will be between Chad Greenway and Barr, but expect Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti to wage one of the fiercest training camp battles for the starting nod.
With the healthy return of Harrison Smith, the Vikings have certainly upgraded the talent level on the defense. It's a defense that will finish in the top half of the league. New head coach Mike Zimmer won't have it any other way.