Breaking Down the Minnesota Vikings' Roster After the 2014 Draft
The Minnesota Vikings have let some aging veterans walk in recent months and filled the resulting roster holes with a draft class full of talent and free agents still in their prime years.
That youth will get the chance to compete for spots with incumbent veterans. Competition will be rampant going into the 2014 season.
From a large scale view, the offense is the strongest part of the team. The defense is younger and has had much more turnover in the last year. That could mean shootouts in 2014.
The important thing to remember is that all depth charts are fluid, especially in entirely new offensive and defensive schemes. The ordering of players will change based on performances in camp and preseason as well. That said, this is how I view the roster as a starting point.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Matt Cassel
2. Teddy Bridgewater
3. Christian Ponder
The quarterback position will get the bulk of headlines, which is par for the course. This position has been a tricky one for Minnesota, dating back to Daunte Culpepper, with the Brett Favre era being only a short-term fix.
Matt Cassel is penciled in as the current starter. Teddy Bridgewater is unquestionably the long-term starter. Christian Ponder's future is much more foggy and probably doesn't involve playing time in the regular season.
I expect Cassel to start Week 1 and to relinquish that job through no fault of his own. As soon as Bridgewater displays a complete understanding of the offense in terms of reads, calls, protections and progressions, he will take over.
Projected Depth Chart:
2a. Matt Asiata
2b. Jerick McKinnon
4. Joe Banyard
5. Bradley Randle
6. Dominique Williams
If any player on the roster has his starting position already cemented, it's obviously Adrian Peterson. He will be expected to carry just as big a load as ever before, especially if the passing attack gets off to a rocky start.
Matt Asiata did a commendable job in spot duty at the end of the 2013 season. He has earned a roster spot in the backfield. At the same time, he's not the optimal No. 2 back behind Peterson. Asiata just doesn't offer any dynamic athleticism or any ability to pick up big yardage in space.
That's where rookie Jerick McKinnon comes in. The only question mark with McKinnon is preparation. He didn't catch passes or play in a pro-style system in college, so he's an unknown commodity to a degree.
Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle, and Dominique Williams will all have uphill battles toward making the team.
Projected Depth Chart:
2. Cordarrelle Patterson
3. Jerome Simpson
4. Jarius Wright
5. Lestar Jean
6. Rodney Smith
7. Adam Thielen
8. Kamar Jorden
9. Kain Colter
10. Erik Lora
11. Donte Foster
The receiver position may have been a higher priority for the Vikings had they not had such dire needs elsewhere. The top four are in a tier of their own and should stay there barring injury.
Greg Jennings is the No. 1 receiver. He played far better than box-score statistics would leave one to believe last season. Jennings just gets open.
Cordarrelle Patterson has the big-play ability. There are few receivers in the entire league as dangerous with the ball in space. He put that on display in the second half of his rookie season. Minnesota still needs him to develop into a more reliable receiver in a traditional sense. That means sharper routes, better position and fewer drops.
Both Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright were factors in 2013 and figure to be factors again in 2014. Norv Turner's offense may use even more three- or four-wide receiver sets than the Vikings used in previous seasons.
The entire group after that is wide-open. A race for the fifth and maybe sixth receiver spots will involve numerous candidates.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Kyle Rudolph
2. Rhett Ellison
3. Chase Ford
4. Allen Reisner
5. A.C. Leonard
Turner's offense has heightened the production of tight ends historically. Kyle Rudolph should be the benefactor of that. Rudolph had his 2013 season cut short and has yet to fully blossom. If it's possible for him to take that next step, 2014 is the year for it.
After Rudolph, there is no consensus No. 2. Rhett Ellison will see plenty of the field but is best-utilized as an H-back-type player than a downfield receiver. Ford, Reisner and Leonard will all stake their claims as worthwhile pass-catchers in order to see meaningful snaps in 2014.
Fullback—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Jerome Felton
2. Zach Line
Minnesota has one of the best fullbacks in the league in Jerome Felton. Zach Line could be a bigger factor in 2014 as well. The way Turner will use these fullbacks is something to keep an eye on.
Left Tackle—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Matt Kalil
2. Mike Remmers
3. Antonio Richardson
Matt Kalil will have the starting job on the blind side. He still hasn't taken a step in the right direction after a phenomenal freshman season. His development stagnated in 2013.
Remmers and Richardson are there for depth purposes only. If either has to be rushed into duty, that's bad news for the Vikings.
Left Guard—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Charlie Johnson
2. David Yankey
3. Joe Berger
4. Austin Wentworth
The left guard position is the least stable up front for Minnesota. Charlie Johnson is nothing more than a holdover, despite the fact he's held a job on the offensive line for a few years now. He's probably the weakest spot on the offense as it stands.
Rookie David Yankey might just give Johnson a run for his money. It's more likely that Johnson retains his job than loses it, though. At least Minnesota now has a plan in place to see Johnson out as soon as Yankey is ready to roll.
Center—Projected Depth Chart:
1. John Sullivan
2. Josh Samuda
3. Zac Kerin
John Sullivan never got back to his old self in 2013. Sullivan had microfracture surgery last February, which has a slow healing process. He should round back into the form of a Pro Bowl center in 2014.
Right Guard—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Brandon Fusco
2. Vladimir Ducasse
3. Jeff Baca
4. Conor Boffeli
Brandon Fusco took his lumps in his first season as a starter in 2012. The coaching staff's patience with him was well worth it. Fusco took a big step forward in 2013, becoming an above-average offensive guard at the very least.
The recently signed Vladimir Ducasse and second-year guard Jeff Baca factor in as quality depth but nothing more.
Right Tackle—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Phil Loadholt
2. Kevin Murphy
3. Pierce Burton
4. Matt Hall
Mainstay Phil Loadholt has become the go-to comparison for any tackle prospect who does what is neither spectacular nor a liability. Loadholt does more than hold his own for Minnesota; he's one of the league's better right tackles.
Right Defensive End—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Everson Griffen
2. Corey Wootton
3. Justin Trattou
4. Rakim Cox
Expectations for Everson Griffen will rise exponentially with his big contract. He has the talent to live up to his salary. Griffen should also benefit from a more consistent usage. Rushing the passer is a chess match, but it's tough to anticipate your opponent when you exit the game too often. Staying on the edge should help Griffen as well.
Corey Wootton factors in as solid depth at defensive end. He will play a solid number of snaps as Mike Zimmer keeps his rotations going.
Left Defensive End—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Brian Robison
2. Scott Crichton
3. Spencer Nealy
4. Jake Snyder
5. Tyler Scott
It has flown under the radar that Brian Robison has been one of Minnesota's better players since he took over for Ray Edwards on the left side. His play is a boon to the run defense and pass rush. If the rookie behind him lives up to his billing, Robison may even play a lower snap count to stay fresh.
That's where Scott Crichton comes in. He plundered the backfields of his opponents while at Oregon State and has the ability to do the same in the NFL. He's especially effective against the run. Crichton could be an end that gets moved inside on passing downs.
3-Technique Tackle—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Sharrif Floyd
2. Tom Johnson
3. Chase Baker
4. Kheeston Randall
This is one of the most important positions for the Vikings to have immediate success under Zimmer. Sharrif Floyd will be the starter and figures to play a big snap count. After a disappointing rookie season, he has a big task ahead. He may not be as impactful as he needs to be in terms of making plays in the backfield and pressuring from the interior as a rusher.
The problem is that there's little else behind him. Tom Johnson, Chase Baker and Kheeston Randall could all state their case for playing time, but none of them offers anything that Floyd doesn't.
Nose Tackle—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Linval Joseph
2. Fred Evans
3. Shamar Stephen
4. Isame Faciane
If Linval Joseph offers any kind of value as a pass-rusher, he will prove to be one of the best free-agent signings in the league. Nose tackles aren't easy to find, so getting him for a cheap price was a coup. Joseph will prove to be an upgrade over Letroy Guion.
Depth isn't bad at the nose tackle spot. Fred Evans has been a serviceable Viking for a few years now. He's good for a flash of brilliance once or twice a game and isn't a liability for the rest of it.
Even as a seventh-round pick, Shamar Stephen could be in the equation right away. He'll be worth having around if injuries strike.
Strong-Side Linebacker—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Anthony Barr
2. Chad Greenway
3. Larry Dean
The linebacker positions are the most fluid at this point. These are the positions with the least clarity as it relates to Zimmer's scheme.
Rookie Anthony Barr could win the starting job at strong-side linebacker, a role that would have him playing at depth or on the line of scrimmage with similar regularity. He provides the most impact as a pass-rusher, so that will factor into his positional fit.
A lot depends on Chad Greenway, who played on the strong side under Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams. He could be moved to middle linebacker to make way for Barr. Either way, Greenway is one of the most dependable defensive players on the roster and figures to take a bigger leadership role in 2014.
Larry Dean's biggest contributions come through special teams. His roster spot looks safe.
Middle Linebacker—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Chad Greenway
2. Jasper Brinkley
3. Audie Cole
4. Michael Mauti
5. Terrell Manning
If Greenway isn't moved to the middle, there will be multiple players vying for that position.
Jasper Brinkley returns to Minnesota after a quick stay in Arizona. He was nothing more than an average player in the Tampa 2 defense but could be a better fit under Zimmer. He offers strength and big-hitting ability against the run that others do not.
Audie Cole and Michael Mauti could factor into a competition for the middle linebacker spot. Neither has much experience as an NFL starter. They do offer more in coverage than Brinkley does.
Weak-Side Linebacker—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Gerald Hodges
2. Anthony Barr
3. Michael Mauti
4. Lawrence Simoni
5. Brandon Watts
If Gerald Hodges ends up the starter on the weak side, it will be the weak spot in the group. Hodges failed to make significant impact as a rookie and wouldn't factor into a starting position if the roster was stronger on the defensive side of the ball.
Anthony Barr could end up on the weak side. It all depends on how Zimmer plans to use him, which could be ever-changing. Wherever they put him, he'll be on the field often.
Left Cornerback—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Xavier Rhodes
2. Derek Cox
3. Kendall James
4. Robert Steeples
Xavier Rhodes looked like a shutdown-cornerback-in-the-making as a rookie in 2013. This left cornerback position is one the coaching staff will not have to worry about. Rhodes has the ability to get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage and throw off the timing of routes. His size, speed and quickness are uncommon for a cornerback and make him highly effective in man coverage.
Derek Cox is a total reclamation project for Zimmer after he was torn apart in his only season in San Diego. The cornerback position is one that can see players quickly bounce back in the right direction, so all hope is not lost with Cox.
Right Cornerback—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Captain Munnerlyn
2. Josh Robinson
3. Shaun Prater
4. Kip Edwards
5. Jabari Price
The amount of time spent in nickel and dime sets will affect the right cornerback position and how the playing time shakes out.
Captain Munnerlyn was brought in over the offseason from Carolina and will see the field often. His best position may be in the slot. If the coaching staff sees it that way, he will bump inside in nickel sets, and Josh Robinson will play on the outside. Munnerlyn should bring the ability to create turnovers to the mix, which Minnesota sorely needs.
Robinson got torched in every way in 2013. He wasn't cut out for life in the slot, so expect him to return to the outside if at all possible. Robinson has all the athletic ability needed for the position. He just plays slower than he times due to hesitation, slow reactions and an inability to locate the football.
Shaun Prater did a commendable job in spot duty at the end of the 2013 season and will have a part to play in 2014.
Free Safety—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Harrison Smith
2. Andrew Sendejo
3. Robert Blanton
4. Brandan Bishop
A healthy Harrison Smith is of the utmost importance to the Minnesota secondary. When on the field, he has the instincts and range to flow over the top from deep coverage and break on the football. Smith has shown the ability to change a game with a timely interception over and over. He's one of the most valuable pieces to Zimmer's defense.
Both Sendejo and Blanton saw the field in Smith's stead in 2013, but both are better served to be deeper on the depth chart and contributing on special teams.
Strong Safety—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Jamarca Sanford
2. Mistral Raymond
3. Antone Exum
4. Kurt Coleman
Jamarca Sanford should hold his starting job into the 2014 season. He's been a solid player for some time now, but he would be one of the first to slide down the depth chart if the Vikings roster had more talent on this side of the ball. Sanford just doesn't have much to offer in pass coverage and isn't likely to intercept a pass any time soon.
Mistral Raymond has had a rocky NFL career. His flashes of brilliance are always offset by mistakes in coverage. As a No. 2 safety, the Vikings could do worse.
The wild card of the bunch is rookie Antone Exum. He was limited as a senior at Virginia Tech after tearing his ACL before his final season. When healthy, he's an instinctive, physical and playmaking talent on the defensive side of the ball. He may be viewed as the long-term strong safety next to Harrison Smith.
Kicker—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Blair Walsh
Blair Walsh is one of the best place-kickers in the NFL. He'll keep his job for as long as his play stays anywhere near where it is now.
Punter—Projected Depth Chart:
2. Jeff Locke
The sophomore punter Jeff Locke won't be challenged for his job. His rookie season was up-and-down, but he should be able to raise his play in 2014.
Kick Returner—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Cordarrelle Patterson
2. Marcus Sherels
Cordarrelle Patterson electrified crowds with his return ability in 2013. When he's standing in the end zone, opposing kickoff units have to change their strategies. Patterson is a valuable piece as a returner.
Punt Returner—Projected Depth Chart:
1. Marcus Sherels
2. Jarius Wright
Marcus Sherels is good for a punt-return touchdown or two every season it seems. More importantly, he seems to catch every single punt. No ball hits the ground to bounce for extra yards. No ball bounces off his hands and into those of the opponent. His reliability shouldn't be understated.