Minnesota Vikings: 6 Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2015
So, how will year two under head coach Mike Zimmer go for the Minnesota Vikings?
Zimmer guided the Vikings to a 7-9 record last season, which was probably as good as could be expected, considering all of the potholes the team encountered during the season.
Star running back Adrian Peterson played just one game before losing his season to the exempt list. Tight end Kyle Rudolph missed half of the season after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was forced into action in the third week of the season after Matt Cassel broke his foot.
Like we said, all things considered, Minnesota got about all it could out of Zimmer's first season.
Year two? The progress the Vikings make in 2015 will hinge on a handful of factors. Will Peterson return to being the best back in football? Will Bridgewater continue to improve as he did for most of 2014? Will the revamped defense continue to show improvement?
And the biggest question of all: Who will step up? Which players on the roster will have breakout seasons that take the team to the next level?
We will look at five players who are poised to have breakout campaigns in 2015 and whose development will go a long way toward making the Vikings into division contenders.
Jerick McKinnon, Running Back
If Peterson is in the lineup for the Vikings in 2015, then second-year man Jerick McKinnon can play the role he was drafted to play when Minnesota selected him in the third round in 2014.
The 5'9", 208-pound McKinnon had to take on a much bigger role during his rookie season after Peterson played in only one game before landing on the exempt list. Perhaps the bright side to Peterson's lost season is the fact that McKinnon got to dive head first into the deep end and get up to speed on the NFL game.
McKinnon acquitted himself pretty nicely in his first season, averaging 4.8 yards on 113 carries. McKinnon had 673 combined yards rushing and receiving on the season and flashed plenty of big-play potential.
He had two 100-yard rushing games and a team-high four rushes for over 20 yards.
While McKinnon would love a shot to be the main man in the backfield, as detailed by Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in March, that's not going to happen with Peterson around, and McKinnon is probably better suited to be Minnesota's version of Darren Sproles.
Matt Asiata has probably earned any carries inside the five-yard line that don't go to Peterson, but beyond that, it will be McKinnon who's on the field as a third-down back and the guy to get carries when Peterson is getting a blow.
Look for McKinnon to thrive in his more defined role. He can be lightning in a bottle for the Vikings and should be a perfect complement to Peterson in the backfield.
Antone Exum, Safety
Safety Robert Blanton led the Vikings with 106 tackles in 2014. It was his first season as a starter, and while he certainly had some plays he'd like back (getting run over by Eddie Lacy), he actually had a pretty solid season.
What he didn't do is lock down a starting job heading toward 2015.
While Blanton has proved to be better in pass coverage than Andrew Sendejo and was actually pretty decent in that respect last season, his one interception and three passes defensed aren't eye-popping numbers.
All of this is to say that there will be some competition during the training camp for the starting safety spot next to Harrison Smith. Look for second-year man Antone Exum to be right in the thick of things.
Exum, like Blanton, played some cornerback in college, but the Vikings drafted him out of the Virginia Tech Hokies in the sixth round in 2014 with an eye on turning him into a safety. With a year of learning under his belt, the muscular Exum should arrive to training camp in 2015 with every intent to earn the starting job.
Exum missed most of his senior season with the Hokies with an injury, but he was a force at safety in his first three seasons, totaling 35 pass breakups and six interceptions.
Minnesota is looking for a playmaker to line up next to Smith at safety, and Exum is a player who should be poised to have a breakout season in 2015.
Brandon Fusco, Guard
The Vikings released starting left guard Charlie Johnson after the 2014 season, fueling expectations that the team might choose a guard early in the 2015 draft.
They didn't do that, and Zimmer recently told Sid Hartman, via Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, the team might slide right guard Brandon Fusco over to the left side and open up competition at the right guard spot.
The move would make some sense, considering Fusco was perhaps Minnesota's best offensive lineman before tearing a pectoral muscle in the third week of the season and missing the rest of the year. While he's established at right guard, the move to the left side would surely help left tackle Matt Kalil, who's struggled the past two seasons.
Fusco has improved every season in the league, and the fourth-year man has turned himself into one of the best sixth-round picks the Vikings have ever made. He's fully healed from last season's injury and is poised to become one of the best guards in the league in 2015.
Gerald Hodges, Linebacker
Rookie Anthony Barr was everything he was advertised to be in his rookie season with the Vikings. The 6'5", 255-pound demon has a combination of size and speed that few players in the league can match.
While Barr was the talk of the Vikings' linebacker corps last season, he wasn't the only Vikings linebacker to add speed and athleticism to the position.
Take a look at Barr's numbers as compared to those of second-year man Gerald Hodges:
While Barr's potential far outweighs that of Hodges, the play of the 6'2", 243-pound Hodges gave the Vikings hope that their linebacking corps might not be as far away from being dominant as many thought. The addition of rookie Eric Kendricks, along with veteran Chad Greenway and Audie Cole, gives the Vikings nice depth and versatility at the position.
For too many years, the Vikings were too slow and didn't get enough big plays from their linebackers. That changed in 2014 with the arrival of Barr and the emergence of Hodges.
Look for Hodges to take another step forward in 2015 and for the Minnesota linebackers to become a huge asset to the defense.
Xavier Rhodes, Cornerback
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was so much better during his second season in the league in 2014—he was barely recognizable from the player who often struggled during his rookie season in 2013.
Rhodes flourished under Zimmer and with a year of experience under his belt, and he became one of the top cover cornerbacks in the league last season.
While his tackling numbers were virtually the same, Rhodes improved tremendously as a pass defender. He got his first career interception last season and was among the league leaders with 18 passes defensed.
Rhodes' ascension to becoming one of the elite cornerbacks in the league should continue in 2015. If first-round draft pick Trae Waynes can develop quickly on the other side, the Vikings should be set at cornerback for years to come.
Rhodes was around too many passes in 2014 to come up with just one interception, so look for him to ratchet up that total in 2015. It would be a surprise if he didn't register at least four picks this season. While a known commodity in Minnesota, look for Rhodes to emerge as a cornerback to be reckoned with across the league this season.
Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver
We'd like to put a slide here for third-year man Cordarrelle Patterson, but his disappearing act in 2014 has us a little worried. Let's not kid ourselves: If you use a first-round draft pick on a wide receiver—like the Vikings did with Patterson in 2013—by year three, he better be pretty productive.
After a highlight-reel rookie season, Patterson languished in his first season under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Grantland's Robert Mays did a nice job summing up Patterson's mystifying second season:
When Bill Barnwell and I were mocking the first round of the draft, the possibility of DeVante Parker going to the Vikings came up. As I listed off the receivers on Minnesota's roster, I forgot Patterson. This is how far we've fallen in the span of one season: I went from thinking Patterson was the most exciting player in the league to forgetting he was a person.
Gulp. Let's certainly hope that Patterson's offseason has him on track to become a more productive wideout. The Vikings will certainly be a more explosive offense if Patterson can develop all of his athleticism into being an NFL-caliber wide receiver.
So, with that aside, our pick for the breakout receiver in 2015 is Stefon Diggs. Huh? A rookie who was drafted in the fifth round? Isn't that asking for a lot?
It certainly is, but the thought here is that the Vikings got a steal in Diggs, who was a highly touted, 5-star recruit coming out of high school. Diggs chose to stay home and play for the Maryland Terrapins.
Diggs missed chunks of his last two seasons in college, with a broken leg in 2013 and a lacerated kidney last season. Diggs was still productive enough to be named second-team All-Big Ten last year.
Diggs might not be the otherworldly athlete Patterson is, but he knows how to get himself open in the route tree. This paragraph by Lance Zierlein on Diggs' NFL.com draft profile should get Vikings fans excited about him:
Instinctive route runner. Does an outstanding job of sinking his hips and exploding out of breaks to create immediate separation. Natural ball-plucker. Excellent body control to adjust to throws, whether they're low, high or behind him. Can make contested catches. Dynamic and dangerous with the ball in his hands. Sudden once he's in space, using head fakes and impressive lateral change of direction to make multiple defenders miss. Instant acceleration is his differentiator from the slot.
There are a lot of great adjectives in that description, but historically, it's pretty tough for rookie wide receivers to make a big impact. Well, at least it was until last year's rookie crop of wideouts tore the league up.
The bottom line is that Diggs is a pretty high-potential player who could quickly find his niche with Minnesota as a slot receiver.