It's late June on the calendar, officially just a couple of days into the summer of 2014. For NFL teams, it's the one month of the year where a little rest and relaxation are in order before training camp begins near the end of July.
Hopes are high for every team across the league; they always are at this time of the year. Teams have trotted out their new draft picks, and some have gotten their first taste of a new coaching staff at OTAs and minicamps.
For the Minnesota Vikings, it's a little bit of all of those things. Expectations are high for a quick turnaround from last year's disappointing 5-10-1 campaign—just a year removed from a playoff appearance. With new head coach Mike Zimmer at the helm, there's a feeling of optimism radiating out of Winter Park that's been missing Brett Favre first arrived in 2009.
Zimmer has long been a highly respected defensive mind and brings offensive guru Norv Turner with him—giving the Vikings a coaching staff that will leave no stone unturned in trying to get the most out of their roster.
It's a roster that got a big boost in the offseason, adding defensive stoppers Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn in free agency and several draft picks that could have an immediate impact.
So what will this all add up to in the 2014 season? How good can the Vikings be? Based on the new coaching staff and the infusion of new blood, what is the ceiling for Minnesota this year?
Along the same vein, what is the worst-case scenario? What could cause the bottom to fall out during the 2014 season, and how bad could it be if all the worst possibilities played out?
We'll take a look at both scenarios and give some predictions on how things will play out, considering the additions to—and subtractions from—the roster and the 2014 schedule.
New Coaching Staff
Leslie Frazier is a very likable man, but it's clear that he's better suited to be a defensive coordinator or position coach than a head coach. Frazier was hired five days before Jim Harbaugh got the San Francisco 49ers job, with both teams coming off of 6-10 seasons.
Harbaugh won twice as many games as Frazier over the next three seasons, and the Vikings went out and hired Zimmer, a head coach more in the mold of Harbaugh than Frazier.
The Vikings defense bottomed out in 2013 and desperately needed fixing. Zimmer was the architect of the Bengals defense, one of the best in the league over the last five years. He also brings a no-nonsense, old-school approach that should be very refreshing after Frazier's more laid-back approach.
Along with Zimmer comes new offensive coordinator Norv Turner—who's clearly an upgrade over Bill Musgrave, both in experience and schematically. 2014 will be Turner's 24th season in the NFL as either an offensive coordinator or a head coach. His offenses have always been successful and always put plenty of points on the board.
No matter what happens during the 2014 season, Vikings fans should feel like they're in better hands as far as the coaching staff goes. Zimmer has put in the time as a successful coordinator and earned his shot at a head job. At 58 years old, he isn't going to take this opportunity for granted and will put everything he has into making the Vikings a winner.
The Vikings offense heads toward the 2014 season above average at almost every position but quarterback. As every NFL fan knows, your offense, with very few exceptions—like the 2012 Vikings—goes about as far as your quarterback takes you.
Adrian Peterson remains the best running back in the game, and at 29 years old, he could still have a monster year or two left in him. Under Turner's watch, Peterson should finally become a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield, which should open things up for the rest of the offense as well.
At receiver, Minnesota is in the best shape they've been since the Randy Moss/Cris Carter era. In Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings have a plethora of great options for whoever is throwing the ball.
Patterson, who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season as a kick returner, is the X-factor who could make a very good offense an unstoppable one. NFL writer Chris Wesseling tweeted out Mike Singletary's thoughts on Patterson's future:
Up front, the Vikings should have one of the best offensive lines in football. Every NFL coach dreams of continuity in the trenches; Minnesota will have that. For the third straight season, John Sullivan will start at center, and Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt hold down the tackle spots. Brandon Fusco will return at right guard, and a training-camp battle will decide if Charlie Johnson holds on to his starting spot at left guard.
This is all well and good, but, as mentioned above, an NFL offense is usually only as good as its quarterback. As reported by Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, the Vikings are presenting their quarterback battle as a three-man affair—but the truth is that the starter will be either Matt Cassel or rookie Teddy Bridgewater.
Minnesota is taking the smart approach and leaning toward the veteran Cassel being the starter, but leaving room for the possibility that Bridgewater can flat-out win the job in training camp. There is the outside possibility that Christian Ponder could win the job, but as the third-stringer, he'll get less reps than the other two—and my guess is that he'll remain the third-stringer.
There is really nowhere to go but up for a unit that finished near the bottom of the league in nearly every meaningful statistic. There are many reasons for Vikings fans to be happy about the hiring of head coach Mike Zimmer—but first and foremost, it's that he can fix the defense.
|Vikings 2013 Defensive Woes|
|Total Defense||397.6 yds per game||31st in NFL|
|Points Allowed||30.0 pts per game||32nd in NFL|
|Passing Yards Allowed||287.2 yds per game||31st in NFL|
|Third Down Conversion Against||102 of 231||31st in NFL|
During Zimmer's six seasons as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, the Bengals defense never ranked in the second half of the league and finished in the top seven in total defense four times.
Minnesota hasn't had a big man in the middle of its defensive line since Pat Williams' last season in 2010, when the Vikings finished eighth overall in total defense. Since then, the defense hasn't finished in the top 15 and bottomed out last season—finishing 31st in the league.
The Vikings wasted no time in free agency this offseason, signing the massive Linval Joseph to a five-year contract on March 11. Joseph will combine with Sharrif Floyd to give the Vikings a pair of young, athletic tackles to anchor the middle of their defense.
Minnesota then addressed their need at cornerback by signing Captain Munnerlyn to pair with Xavier Rhodes at cornerback. Munnerlyn will move into the slot in nickel packages, a position the Vikings had no success with last year.
First-round draft pick Anthony Barr gives the unit a dynamic playmaker at linebacker, a position where Minnesota has been too slow for years. At 6'5", 255 pounds, Barr should be a dynamic edge rusher who is also able to drop into coverage.
With third-year man Harrison Smith back from injury and ready to step into a leadership role, and second-year man Rhodes looking like he can become an elite cornerback, the Vikings secondary should be vastly improved.
Ceiling for the 2014 Season
The Vikings are a pretty tough team to gauge heading toward 2014 because there is so much uncertainty at the most important position. As mentioned above, the team has stated that the starting quarterback job is up for grabs.
We'll work under the assumption that Cassel wins the starting job. Nobody has seen enough of Bridgewater yet to determine if he's capable of playing at a high level right out of the gate as a rookie. This obviously might change if he is clearly the best quarterback during training camp.
So how good can Cassel be? Looking at his career stats, he's usually as good as the people around him.
|Matt Cassel's Up and Down Career|
|2008||11-5||21 TDs, 11 Ints||Moss, Welker over 1,000 yds|
|2009||4-11||16 TDs, 16 Ints||Bowe missed 7 games|
|2010||10-5||27 TDs, 7 Ints||Charles, Bowe both over 1,000 yds|
|2011||4-5||10 TDs, 9 Ints||Charles hurt most of the year|
When he took over the Patriots in 2008 after Tom Brady's injury, he had a fantastic year throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. His first year with the Chiefs was a struggle; Kansas City lost its first five games and quickly realized that star running back Larry Johnson was no longer a starter and transitioned to Jamaal Charles. Making things even tougher, leading receiver Dwayne Bowe missed seven games with an injury.
Things changed quickly for Cassel in his Pro Bowl season of 2010. The Chiefs had a dynamic running attack, with Charles and Thomas Jones combining for 2,363 yards. Bowe returned from injury and also had a Pro Bowl season.
2011 had a little bit of everything for Cassel and the Chiefs. They lost their first three games, and Cassel played poorly in all of them. Then they rolled off four straight wins, with Cassel playing brilliantly. Things were derailed from there; Charles was injured for the season, and Cassel soon joined him on the sidelines—a hand injury put him on the shelf after nine weeks.
Cassel was disastrous with the Chiefs in 2012, throwing just six touchdowns to go with 12 interceptions in his eight games for a terrible team that finished 2-14.
In sum, Cassel probably isn't a huge difference-maker. He's not going to make a bad team good, but he's certainly shown that he can play well and perform when he has good players around him.
With a solid offensive line, Adrian Peterson behind him and a group of solid receivers—including two who have star potential in Patterson and Rudolph—there is no reason to think that Cassel can't have a really big season.
Norv Turner offenses have always seen players put up big numbers, so if things go according to plan, expect Peterson, Jennings, Patterson and Rudolph to all have banner years.
Huge improvements are also conceivable on the defensive side of the ball.
With the aforementioned tackles in the middle, the run defense should be more stout, and both defensive ends—Brian Robison and Everson Griffen—should hit double digits in sacks.
The linebacking corps will be better as well. Barr brings size, speed and versatility that should free up Chad Greenway to play a slightly different role. The middle linebacker job is up for grabs, and the winner will have to beat out two pretty good players and play at a high level to keep the starting job.
All of that aside, the secondary will be the key to getting this defense back among the best in the league. Rhodes showed dramatic improvement in the second half of his rookie season and should be a dominant player in 2014. Munnerlyn brings a physical edge with him—and a propensity to cause turnovers.
Smith will be the leader of the secondary, and if he continues to improve, he should be a Pro Bowl player this season. With Derek Cox, Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton, Josh Robinson and Antone Exum all battling for playing time, the secondary simply has to generate more turnovers than they have over the last few years.
If everything goes right for the Vikings? If Cassel plays well and the defense takes huge strides forward? They'll probably still drop road games to the Saints, Packers and Bears and perhaps a home contest to the Patriots, but it's not inconceivable for Minnesota to go 12-4 in 2014. That's the ceiling.
Momentum can be huge, and a good start to the season will be crucial to a team that is looking for its identity. The schedule isn't easy during the first five weeks, with road games at St. Louis, New Orleans and Green Bay and home tilts with New England and Atlanta. Winning at St. Louis and at home against Atlanta could be huge tone-setter games for the rest of the schedule.
Floor for the 2014 Season
Any Vikings fan knows that the team has lost too many games that were in its grasp over the last three seasons. A new coaching staff and a reliance on a few too many young players could cause the Vikings to suffer their share of growing pains.
As stated above, Cassel has usually been a guy who plays well when things are going good for the team and poorly otherwise. If things start poorly in 2014 and Cassel struggles, there will be plenty of clamoring for rookie Teddy Bridgewater to take over.
Minnesota has certainly upgraded their depth during the last three years, but injuries to the likes of Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil or Cordarrelle Patterson could alter the landscape for 2014 dramatically.
|Vikings Brutal Start to 2014 Schedule|
|Sept. 7 @ St. Louis||5-3 at home in 2013||Oct. 2 @ Green Bay||7-1-1 vs MN since 2010|
|Sept. 14 vs. New England||12-4 in 2013|
|Sept. 21 @ New Orleans||8-0 at home in 2013|
|Sept. 28 vs. Atlanta||36-12 from 2010-2012|
The Vikings have a brutal stretch of games to begin the season, and it's not far-fetched to see them losing their first five games in a worst-case scenario. The Rams are vastly improved and will be at home in Week 1. Games against the Patriots at home and against the Saints and Packers on the road will be tough contests. The Week 4 home game against the Falcons could be pivotal to keep things from derailing early. The Falcons were dismal last year, but they are just a year removed from a 13-win season.
The wickedly rough start to the schedule could be tough to regain momentum from. It's not unfair to say that the Vikings could improve drastically on both sides of the ball but still only finish with five or six victories.
In the end, parts of both the ceiling and the floor scenarios will probably come to fruition during the 2014 season. Zimmer has a lot of young talent on his team, and he'll be tasked with keeping them upbeat when things don't go according to plan.
The NFC North is shaping up to be a dogfight from start to finish in 2014. No team in the division won more than half its games last year, but all are expecting much bigger things this season.
There's a new attitude out at Winter Park that starts with their new head coach. Minnesota has patched many of the holes on the roster that plagued it the last few seasons. There is depth at nearly every position, so the team should be able to adjust to the inevitable injuries that pop up over the course of a season.
It's June and there's no reason not to be supremely optimistic. The Vikings go 12-4 and win their first division title since 2009.