Minnesota Vikings: Envisioning Vikings Starting Lineup for 2015

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IMay 7, 2015

Minnesota Vikings: Envisioning Vikings Starting Lineup for 2015

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    Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

    Sports fans in the Twin Cities haven't had much to cheer about recently, but only the biggest pessimists would argue that the Minnesota Vikings aren't trending in the right direction as of late.

    Football "experts" across the internet have given the Vikings overwhelmingly good grades for the 2015 draft and, on paper, there's certainly reason to be bullish about Minnesota's new crop of rookies.

    Need met value for three of the Vikings' first four picks, and Minnesota added prospects at nearly every position where it lacked depth. 

    Another positive over draft weekend for Vikings fans is that their best player, Adrian Peterson, wasn't traded away. After initially botching the Peterson situation, Minnesota has held firm in their desire to keep Peterson on the roster. 

    The Peterson situation has sort of festered like an itch that you just can't quite reach to scratch, but rather than making a trade where they almost certainly would have been taking roughly 70 cents on the dollar, the Vikings opted to retain Peterson's services.

    There will be a lot of new faces at Winter Park next season and the likely return of Peterson's familiar one. 

    With the influx of new talent, it's time to take a look at what the Vikings starting lineup might look like when they open the season on Monday night, September 14 against the San Francisco 49ers.

     

Quarterback

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    While Adrian Peterson will more than likely return to his status as the Vikings' best player, there's no doubt that second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is now the face of the franchise.

    Bridgewater is a young, charismatic player with high character and he plays quarterback, so it essentially comes with the territory.

    Bridgewater's rookie year fell short of being spectacular but, considering the team around him and the situation he inherited, he's earned every benefit of the doubt heading toward his second season.

    He completed 64.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,919 yards and an 85.2 quarterback rating for the season. Even more compelling than those numbers is the fact that he performed well behind a mediocre offensive line, a non-threatening running game and a receiving corps full of question marks.

    Bridgewater began his rookie campaign as the backup, not knowing when he might get a chance to play, but Matt Cassel's broken ankle in Week 3 forced Bridgewater into action.

    He played with poise and a quiet confidence right from the get-go and made the Vikings and their fans feel that they may have gotten a huge steal with the last pick of the first round in the 2014 draft.

    He enters 2015 knowing that he's the starter. He'll have the best running back in football behind him, an improved offensive line and a more confident group of receivers to throw to.

    Veteran Shaun Hill was signed in the offseason to be the backup, with the third spot up for grabs in training camp.

     

Running Back

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Vikings fans have seen far too many pictures of Adrian Peterson in a suit rather than a football uniform over the last nine months. 

    Everyone who follows Minnesota has heard enough of the babbling drivel that comes out of the mouth of his agent, Ben Dogra. 

    It's the job of every agent to get the best possible deal for his or her client, but Dogra has taken the role of buffoonish mouthpiece to the hilt. In the end, the Vikings hold all of the cards with Peterson, as he's under contract and has to be dying to get back on the football field.

    Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon split the running back duties in 2014 while Peterson languished on the commissioner's exempt list. Asiata is a plodder with a good nose for the end zone and McKinnon showed plenty of promise, averaging 4.8 yards per rush.

    Neither of them are in the same stratosphere as Peterson. What's most exciting for Vikings fans heading toward 2015 is how much the presence of Peterson will aid Bridgewater's development.

    The Vikings have to hope that, come the regular season, all of the Peterson angst will be behind them and that Adrian will be ready to prove that he's still the best running back in the sport.

    The fullback role has been greatly diminished under Norv Turner, but it's expected that Zach Line will get the opportunity to see the field in 2015.

Wide Receiver

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Third-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson will likely enter training camp as the third wide receiver behind Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson, but it would be very good news for the Vikings and all of their fans if Patterson had played his way into the starting lineup by the time the regular season begins.

    Simply put, Patterson has by far the highest ceiling of any Minnesota receiver. Knowing that he was a bit raw after playing only one season of Division I football, the Vikings were still intrigued enough with Patterson's skill set that they traded into the first round two years ago to use the 29th overall pick on him.

    Patterson's rookie season was a success by any measure. He scored nine touchdowns, four as a receiver, three as a runner and two more as a kick returner. He broke as many long, electrifying plays as any player in the league. When he had the football in his hands, he was nearly unstoppable.

    2014? Not so much. Norv Turner and the Vikings' new coaching staff couldn't figure out how to get the ball in his hands enough. Patterson finished his second season seemingly no more polished as a wide receiver than the raw rookie drafted in 2013.

    That's troubling for a Vikings team that simply needs Patterson to play up to his God-given gifts. There was much talk among pundits of the Vikings taking a receiver high in the 2015 draft and it was hard to argue with the logic when looking at Minnesota's woeful receiving numbers from last season.

    It didn't happen, though, and one would hope that it is in part because the coaching staff believes that Patterson can become the big-time receiver the team lacks. Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an encouraging article detailing Patterson's grueling offseason workout program and the young receiver is saying all of the right things:

    I feel like this year is going to be the year. It will make me or break me. This whole off-season, I spent a lot of time just thinking to myself, ‘How can I get better?’ I feel like everything he is doing is going to help me with my game. Working out with him helped me mentally and physically. I can’t wait to get back.

    Minnesota tried to bolster the firepower in its passing game by trading for speedster Mike Wallace in March. To make room for Wallace, the Vikings cut veteran Greg Jennings, who'd been a big disappointment in his two years with the team.

    Wallace recently boasted of being the fastest player in the NFL, according to Chris Tomasson of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, but the Vikings just want him to be a productive wide receiver.

    Minnesota is also hoping that Charles Johnson can continue his rise from obscurity to a legitimate NFL receiver. Plucked from the Cleveland Browns' practice squad last September, Johnson played his way into the Vikings starting lineup by the end of the season.

    Jarius Wright continues to be a an effective extra receiver, as he tied Johnson and Jennings for the team lead with nine receptions of over 20 yards last year.

    Fifth receiver and special teams ace Adam Thielen will have to hold off fifth-round draft pick Stefon Diggs of Maryland for the last receiver spot on the roster.

Tight End

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    When it comes to their tight ends in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings have one hope that overrides everything else: Let Kyle Rudolph make it through the season without getting injured.

    Rudolph, the team's second-round pick in 2011, has only been on the field for 17 games over the last two seasons. A broken foot sidelined him halfway though the 2013 season, and a sports hernia injury and subsequent surgery curtailed him last year.

    At 6'6", 258 pounds, Rudolph has the size, athleticism and hands to be a dominant player. He had what looked like a breakout season in 2012, his second season in the league, when he caught 53 passes for 493 yards and nine touchdowns. 

    He finished that season by winning the MVP award at the Pro Bowl, causing expectations to rise dramatically.

    He hasn't yet met those expectations, primarily because he hasn't been able to stay on the field.

    Rudolph, as reported by Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, is as eager as anybody to prove that he's not injury prone

    I'd like to think no one in the league works harder than I do to stay healthy and take care of my body, but the bottom line is I haven't been, and the only way to get rid of those questions is to play 16 games.

    There's a lot to do before September to go out and have the year I expect to have. But when you sit at home in January, watching teams win playoff games and the Super Bowl, and see guys making big plays in big games, you can't wait for the process to begin.

     

    When healthy, Rudolph is the unquestioned starter for the Vikings at tight end. Rhett Ellison is the backup and he provides all of the little things you look for in a backup. He's a great blocker, catches anything thrown his way and can run a little bit after the catch.

    Chase Ford is the third tight end, but he'll be challenged in training camp by fifth-round draft pick MyCole Pruitt, who put up impressive college numbers at Southern Illinois.

Offensive Line

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    John Sullivan is the Vikings starting center and might be the only sure thing Minnesota has on its offensive line heading toward the summer of 2015.

    Left tackle Matt Kalil is coming off of two rocky seasons in a row. He recently had arthroscopic surgery on both knees to do some cleanup work, according to Tom Pelissero of USA Today. 

    The Vikings are hoping that Kalil can build on the last five games of 2014, when he played as well as he had since his rookie season. As the fourth-overall pick in 2012, Minnesota was expecting for much bigger things out of Kalil, especially after his excellent rookie season.

    On the right side of Minnesota's line, both Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt are starters who are returning from torn pectoral muscles that ended their seasons in 2014. 

    2014 starting left guard Charlie Johnson wasn't re-signed, leaving veteran backup Joe Berger as the starter for now. As Mark Craig writes, that probably isn't as bad as it sounds for Vikings fans.

    Whether or not Berger is simply a placeholder will depend on how second-year man David Yankey and a trio of 2015 draft picks perform over the summer.

    The Vikings nabbed what many are calling one of the best picks of the draft in tackle T.J. Clemmings out of Pittsburgh in the fourth round. Clemmings is raw, having played just two years on the offensive line in college after transitioning from the defensive line. 

    At 6'5", 309 pounds, Clemmings projects as an NFL tackle, but being so new to the offensive line, moving him to guard may not be a stretch. He has the speed and strength to become a Pro Bowl-quality player down the line.

    In the sixth and seventh rounds the Vikings chose a pair of players who will battle for jobs on the roster. 

    Sixth-round pick Tyrus Thompson is a 6'5", 324 giant who showed flashes of excellence in college but lacked the consistency to be a dominant player. Seventh-round pick Austin Shepherd was a very good right tackle at Alabama, but he'll move to guard in his quest to make the Vikings.

Defensive Line

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    The odds are very high that the Vikings will start the 2015 season with the same four starters on the defensive line that began the year there last season.

    Sharrif Floyd showed marked improvement during his second season and should be even better at defensive tackle in year three. Linval Joseph didn't have the impact the Vikings had hoped for after signing him to a big, free-agent deal last year, but he was still an upgrade for Minnesota.

    Everson Griffen proved to be worth every penny the Vikings paid him last season, notching 12 sacks and 55 tackles and always being a nuisance for opposing quarterbacks.

    Brian Robison is penciled in as the starter at the other defensive end spot, but he'll have to prove that last year's paltry sack and tackle numbers were more of a mirage than a sign of age.

    Minnesota has two solid backups at tackle in veteran Tom Johnson, who was second on the team with 6.5 sacks last year, and second-year man Shamar Stephen, who played well enough to deserve more reps in 2015.

    The Vikings don't really know what they have in 2014 third-round draft pick Scott Crichton. He wasn't active for most of his rookie season, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he wasn't impressing the coaches during the week. We'll know a lot more about him after training camp this summer.

    Minnesota used another third-round pick on a high-potential player this year, selecting 6'5", 252-pound Danielle Hunter out of LSU. Hunter, just 20 years old, was the youngest player selected in this year's draft. He's raw, but the Vikings are enamored with his size, athleticism and character. 

    His upside is tremendous and his career arc could mirror that of his new teammate and 2010 fourth-round pick Griffen.

Linebacker

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    The Vikings knocked it out of the park when they used the ninth overall pick in 2014 to select linebacker/edge rusher/all-around defensive menace Anthony Barr. Barr is a 6'5", 255-pound speedster who can line up all over the field and simply wreak havoc on offensive schemes.

    Minnesota is hoping that history repeats itself in 2015. With their second-round pick this year, the Vikings drafted Barr's former college roommate and fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks. Barr approved of the pick, according to this tweet from Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press:

    Anthony Barr on playing alongside former UCLAer Eric Kendricks: “Playing on the same FB team with 1 of your best friends is pretty special’’

    — Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) May 2, 2015

    While Kendricks might not be the disruptive force of nature that Barr can be, he's a tackling machine and it says here that he'll start at middle linebacker for the Vikings in 2015 and lead the team in tackles.

    At 6'0", 232 pounds, the knock on Kendricks is that he doesn't have ideal size for an NFL linebacker. Size doesn't matter so much when you have a nose for the football like Kendricks does. The leading tackler in UCLA history has fantastic football IQ and instincts and is one of those players who always seems to know where the ball is going.

    The third linebacker spot will begin with veteran Chad Greenway as the starter, but both Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole will be given good, long looks in training camp. Both Cole and Hodges have flashed excellence when they've been on the field for the Vikings and Zimmer won't feel uncomfortable with either of them on the field.

     

     

Secondary

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Two players in the Vikings secondary are assured of starting jobs in 2015: Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

    Smith was second on the team with 93 tackles and led the squad with five interceptions. He's a stud against the run and might be the Vikings' best player on defense.

    Rhodes improved greatly in 2014 and looked like he has the potential to become a star. He was among the league leaders with 18 passes defensed and, although he still needs to improve his ball skills, he's right there with Smith as two of the best players on the defensive side for Minnesota.

    Who will start opposite Rhodes? This is a guess that first-round draft pick Trae Waynes wins the job in training camp. Minnesota used the 11th-overall selection on Waynes and, although some, including Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, saw that as a reach, you'd certainly expect a player drafted that high to earn a starting job.

    Waynes won't be handed the job, though, and there are plenty of veterans who will be in the mix. Minnesota signed 36-year-old Terence Newman, who had some of his best years under Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati. Returning starter Captain Munnerlyn was a disappointment in his first year with the Vikings, and might be better suited to just playing the slot corner position.

    Josh Robinson wasn't awful in 2014, but he was on the wrong end of too many jump ball situations with bigger receivers. He did, however, have three interceptions and eight passes defensed. Along with Waynes, Robinson gives the Vikings two the fastest cornerbacks in the league.

    As for the safety spot opposite of Smith, Robert Blanton will probably begin as the starter and hold the job as long as he plays well. Blanton led the Vikings with 106 tackles on the season, but his deficiencies in defending the pass show up too often.

    The same goes for Andrew Sendejo, who took over the starting job near the end of 2014. Second-year man Antone Exum will also be vying for playing time.

Kicker

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    Kicking outdoors at home games for the first time in his professional career, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh saw his percentage dip considerably in 2014.

    Walsh missed nine field goals last season, after missing just seven during his first two years. That was to be expected moving outdoors, however, and Walsh remains one of the best kickers in the league.

    Walsh is a phenomenal 17-of-24 on field goals from beyond 50 yards in his three seasons, and gives the Vikings coaches the confidence to let him try from long range.

    Walsh also remained excellent on kickoffs and his huge leg usually gives the Vikings defense a field position advantage when it takes the field.

    Look for more big things from the Vikings kicker in 2015.

Punter

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    If nothing else, Vikings punter Jeff Locke has been remarkably consistent in his two years with the team.

    Locke has punted 75 times in each of his seasons with Minnesota and averaged 44.2 yards both seasons. 

    His numbers aren't spectacular by any stretch, but he hasn't been a glaring weakness either. Great punters can stand out, but most good punters remain fairly anonymous. Locke was only really noticed last season when he had a punt blocked out of his own end zone that cost the Vikings the game against the Miami Dolphins last December.

    Locke will be the Vikings punter in 2015. Whether or not he has any job security beyond this year will depend entirely on how he punts this year.