Minnesota Vikings: Ranking the Upgrades Made This Offseason

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IJuly 23, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Ranking the Upgrades Made This Offseason

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    As training camps open across the NFL, spirits couldn't be higher for the coming season. Every team has its new shiny toys, whether it be draft picks, free-agent signings or both.

    Summer is the season of optimism among NFL fanbases. Everybody is 0-0 and can look toward the 2014 schedule with high hopes that things will be better than ever this fall. 

    Of course, that's not always the case, as once they start playing games that count, things will start going sideways for a lot of teams.

    If you would have told fans of Super Bowl hopefuls in Atlanta, Houston and Washington at this time last year that their three teams would go a combined 9-39 in the 2013 season, they would have told you that you were insane.

    Fans of the Minnesota Vikings are no different than anywhere else, and there is every reason to be optimistic as training camp opens. Upgrades have been made at several key positions and the team looks to have far more depth heading into the 2014 season.

    Here, we'll take a look at several areas where the Vikings made upgrades in the offseason and rank them in importance. The ranking will include how each upgrade will impact the 2014 season and those beyond, and we'll put value into how much impact the upgrade will have on the team's success during the coming season.

1. New Head Coach Mike Zimmer

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    The best upgrade the Minnesota Vikings made this offseason was hiring defensive guru Mike Zimmer to be their new head coach on January 15. 

    Zimmer has spent 19 years coaching in the NFL and the last 14 as a defensive coordinator. At 58 years old and after interviewing for several different head coaching jobs, Zimmer, as was widely reported in June, nearly pulled his name out of contention for the job because he didn't want to be disappointed again.

    The Vikings are certainly glad he had a change of heart.

    While no one will ever question the character of former head coach Leslie Frazier, his record of 18-29-1 over the last three seasons just wasn't good enough. It didn't help Frazier's cause that he was hired five days before the San Francisco 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh.

    Both teams were coming off of disappointing 6-10 seasons. Harbaugh immediately turned the 49ers organization around and won twice as many games as Frazier in the same span.

    Frazier's approach was mild-mannered and stoic. That only plays well when your team is winning. Frazier's was not.

    Enter Zimmer, who has come off like a firecracker since the day he was hired. An old-school football guy who won't put up with much nonsense, Zimmer seems to be exactly the kick-in-the-butt kind of hire the Vikings were in desperate need of.

    As a leader, Zimmer brings a much more fiery approach than his predecessor, and while that on its own doesn't win you any football games, it's a step in the right direction for a team that seemed to be mired in muck for the past four seasons.

    As far as coaching goes, Zimmer's defensive acumen should pay immediate dividends for a unit that ranked 31st in the league last year.

    Zimmer's defenses in Cincinnati were ranked in the top 10 in four of the last five seasons.

    Zimmer's impact on the Vikings should be massive. He'll create a culture of accountability, not only off the field but on it as well. He has a very good history of getting the most out of his players, and in Minnesota he inherits a roster that has more talent than its recent record would suggest.

    Expect Zimmer to have the Vikings contending for division titles for years to come. As far as all the new additions and upgrades in Minnesota go, Zimmer tops the list.

2. New Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner

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    Having two coaches atop the rankings for a team's upgrades might lead one to think that the personnel improvements weren't that great. 

    That's not the case with Minnesota; it just so happens that Minnesota added two coaches who can have huge and immediate impacts on both the offense and defense.

    As much NFL experience as Zimmer has, he's nearly a novice when compared to Turner. Turner began coaching in the NFL in 1985 and has spent 24 seasons as either a head coach or an offensive coordinator. 

    It may sound like overkill to say that Minnesota has added gurus on both sides of the ball, but it's also pretty accurate. Before last season, Joe Fortenbaugh of National Football Post wrote a detailed account of Turner's impact on teams that he's taken over as coordinator.

    Turner is an ideal fit for the Minnesota offense in that he's an expert at figuring out how to utilize talent to its maximum effect. The Vikings have very good skill position players in running back Adrian Peterson, receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph. 

    Turner's offenses have almost always had a running back pile up yards, which bodes very well for Peterson. However, it's the receivers who could most benefit from the addition of Turner. According to Chase Stewart of FootballPerspective.com, a Turner-coached receiver has led the NFL in yards per catch an amazing six times. That, of course, turned to seven times when the Browns' Josh Gordon led the league last season.

    While the Vikings have said that the competition is wide open for who will start at quarterback in 2014, it's no secret that the future of the position is rookie Teddy Bridgewater. As Chris Wesseling wrote on NFL.com, Turner is quite impressed with Bridgewater so far.

    It's obviously up to the players to get it done on the field, but having Turner as their offensive guide is a huge upgrade for Minnesota. While the quarterback competition will be a giant topic of discussion during training camp, Vikings fans can take solace in knowing that somebody with as much experience as Turner will make the decision that's best for the team.

    Look for the Vikings' offensive statistics to be dramatically improved in 2014. They have many talented players on that side of the football, and now they have, in Turner, a coach that can get the most out of that talent.

    Turner's impact on the 2014 Vikings will be as big as anyone's not named Zimmer.

3. Linval Joseph, Defensive Tackle

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    Ever since the "Williams Wall" era ended in Minnesota after the 2010 season, the Vikings defense has been soft in the middle.

    With Kevin and Pat Williams manning the inside, Minnesota had the league's best run defense for three straight seasons, from 2006-2008, and the second-best unit in the league in 2009. 

    Things have gotten progressively worse since Pat Williams left, with Minnesota ranking in the bottom half of the league in total defense for three straight seasons, including 31st in 2013.

    The Vikings began the reconstruction of the middle of their defense last year when they used their first choice in the 2013 draft on athletic defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Floyd spent his rookie season as a rotational player and soaking up all he could from possible Hall of Famer Kevin Williams.

    Williams wasn't retained in the offseason, and Floyd will move over to take Williams' role at the under tackle position.

    What Minnesota still needed to do was find a massive body to anchor the defense at nose tackle. They took care of that on March 11 when they signed the 6'4", 323-pound Linval Joseph.

    Joseph, just 25 years old, has four seasons under his belt with the New York Giants, where he's piled up nine sacks and 167 tackles over the last three seasons.

    ESPN.com's Dan Graziano detailed many of Joseph's plusses in a March article, in which he postulated that the Giants would sorely miss him. Graziano wrote the following of Joseph:

    He's a solid, well-liked teammate who carries himself like a pro and doesn't do anything to embarrass your franchise on or off the field. He's missed one game in the past three years. He's a Super Bowl champion. He was a second-round draft pick who really panned out.

    The Minnesota defense had bottomed out in 2013. They needed to get bigger, faster and tougher. Joseph brings all three attributes to the Vikings, and he and Floyd should provide a tackle combination that could be the best Minnesota has seen since the Williams Wall.

    Not only is Joseph a space eater in the middle who will excel in stopping the run, he's also athletic enough to be a disruptive force against the pass.

    Defensive success begins up front, and the Vikings made a huge upgrade when they signed Joseph.

4. Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback

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    There is a very real chance that rookie Teddy Bridgewater will win the starting quarterback job in training camp, and if he does, you can move this slide all the way to the top.

    We're hedging our bet a bit here because Bridgewater will have to prove without a doubt that he's the team's best option at quarterback to win the job, and that might be hard to do over the course of one training camp.

    However, if he does pull that off, it will mean that he's had an amazing camp and is probably closer to being the player who was ranked near the top of most draft boards for the better part of a year.

    Having said that, Bridgewater is certainly the quarterback of the future for the Vikings, it's just a matter of when that future begins.

    Leaving Cassel out of this, we'll simply say that Bridgewater is a huge upgrade over Christian Ponder, who the Vikings drafted with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft. 

    Bridgewater was a much better college quarterback than Ponder, winning more games and putting up far better numbers at Louisville than Ponder did at Florida State. Bridgewater passed the eyeball test better than Ponder as well. 

    He looks the part of starting quarterback. He moves with a confidence and an assuredness that you want to see out of your most important player. He makes authoritative decisions in the pocket and delivers the ball with accuracy. 

    At 6'2" and 210 pounds, Bridgewater is undersized, but he has played big his entire career. While there is obviously a learning curve for quarterbacks at the highest level, Bridgewater has never needed much time to figure things out. He started as a sophomore at a powerhouse high school in Miami and took over the starting quarterback job just three games into his college career at Louisville.

    As reported by Tom Pelissero of USA TodayBridgewater isn't concerning himself with the speculation swirling around who may start—he's too busy immersing himself in the playbook. 

    While the coaches might say otherwise for the time being, the Ponder era in Minnesota is over. They gambled when they reached for Ponder in 2011 and lost. Bridgewater is much less of a gamble and will be the Vikings quarterback for years to come.

5. Captain Munnerlyn, Cornerback

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    Perhaps the Vikings just never understood how valuable former cornerback Antoine Winfield was. 

    One of the best tackling cornerbacks of all time, Winfield ranked in the top three on the team in tackles for all six of his fully healthy seasons in Minnesota. He also picked off 21 passes in his nine years with the club.

    So while it certainly raised some eyebrows when the Vikings decided not to bring him back for 2013, nobody in Minnesota could have realized how big of a void Winfield would leave.

    It was in the slot corner position where Winfield was at his best, and it was there where he was missed the most last season. Second-year man Josh Robinson played at the position, and suffice it to say he was no Winfield.

    So it was no surprise that Minnesota was in the market for a cornerback when March and free agency rolled around. That they signed the player who most resembled Winfield was probably no surprise either.

    Captain Munnerlyn was signed to a three-year deal worth up to $15 million. According to Marc Sessler of NFL.com, Pro Football Focus had Munnerlyn ranked as the 11th-best cornerback in the league in 2013.

    At 5'8" and 195 pounds, Munnerlyn is a little undersized, but he certainly plays bigger than that. He's increased his tackles number in every one of his five seasons in the league and has seven career interceptions, five of which he returned for touchdowns.

    More than anything else, Munnerlyn brings a toughness to a defense that's lacked it for a couple of seasons. Munnerlyn is a vocal leader and plays with an enthusiasm that's infectious to those around him.

    Munnerlyn has a long way to go to be compared to Winfield, but he'll be a huge upgrade in the slot from 2013's porous defense.

6. Anthony Barr, Outside Linebacker

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    Quick, who started opposite of Chad Greenway for the Vikings at outside linebacker last season?

    Umm, yeah, me neither.

    It was a less than stellar combination of Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop and Audie Cole. The three of them combined for 50 tackles and one sack on the season.

    Greenway is a solid player at one outside position for Minnesota. The middle spot is up for grabs among Jasper Brinkley, Cole and Michael Mauti. That's a decent trio, and one that will produce a starter during training camp.

    So that's two of your linebacker spots. You have zero speed and nearly zero ability to get to the passer.

    While the Vikings haven't necessarily had brutal linebacker play in recent years, they've certainly lacked players with some "oomph" to their game.

    It was with all of that in mind that when the Vikings made their first overall pick, the ninth of the first round, they took Anthony Barr, an outside linebacker with a huge ceiling and the chance to be a game-breaker for the defense.

    At 6'5", 255 pounds, Barr has the potential to be the Vikings' best linebacker since Matt Blair. Zimmer will figure out a variety of ways to use Barr both against the run and the pass. Barr has the quickness and athletic ability to be a top-notch edge-rusher and should pile up a healthy number of sacks.

    A former running back who, as reported by Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, has football in his bloodlines, Barr moves effortlessly around the field and has a huge presence about him. His combination of size and speed is rare, and he could become a star in short order.

    Barr ranks behind Munnerlyn and Joseph on this list simply because he lacks experience. However, his 23.5 sacks in just two seasons of linebacker play at UCLA are worth getting excited about.

    The Vikings were in desperate need of several huge upgrades on defense, and they certainly got one in Barr. 

7. David Yankey, Offensive Tackle

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    Charlie Johnson has started every game but one in his three seasons with the Vikings. He is the returning starter at left guard, but he was unquestionably the weak link of the offensive line in 2013.

    The guess here is that Johnson will lose his job to rookie fifth-round pick David Yankey out of Stanford.

    At 6'6" and 315 pounds, Yankey is two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Johnson. He's also eight years younger and more talented.

    Yankey was projected by most to be a second- or third-round talent in the draft, and the Vikings were happy to get him early in the fifth round. Yankey was a three-year starter and a captain at Stanford. He has the smarts and the work ethic to help him succeed in the NFL. 

    He has the lower-body strength and quickness that should make him an excellent pull-blocker. Yankey will add needed size to a line that will have undersized players on either side of him in center John Sullivan and left tackle Matt Kalil. (While neither one is small, they aren't big for their positions.) 

    Yankey will certainly have to come into camp and take the job away from Johnson; nothing will be given to him. The guess is that Yankey's size and strength will be too attractive for the Vikings not to plug him into the starting lineup, where he will make for an excellent left side with Kalil for years to come.

8. Everson Griffen, Defensive End

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    While there's no arguing the Vikings' decision to cut ties with Jared Allen and hand the position over to Everson Griffen, there is plenty of arguing if you think that move will be an immediate upgrade.

    While Allen was definitely showing his age during parts of the 2013 season, he still managed 11.5 sacks and has put up double-digit sack numbers for seven straight seasons.

    However, at 32 years old, it was a no-brainer for the Vikings to say goodbye to Allen, who was seeking one more big contract in the NFL. 

    For the Vikings, the decision was made infinitely easier knowing they had Griffen on hand. The 6'3", 275-pound 26-year-old has been one of the best athletes on the Vikings for years, and it was high time they figured out if he could produce on a full-time basis given all of his potential.

    While Griffen is more athletic than Allen, he has a long way to go before being compared to the future Hall of Famer. Allen is simply relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback and learned a variety of ways to get to the quarterback over the years.

    Griffen is a wonderful combination of size, speed and strength. He has shown flashes of brilliance in a career that's seen him collect 17.5 sacks in part-time duty.

    Griffen will be a part-timer no more in 2014. His ceiling is very high, but he's now got to prove that he's worth the five-year, $42.5 million deal the Vikings signed him to this offseason.