We'll cut right to the chase: The Minnesota Vikings aren't good enough to be a playoff team with their current roster not getting any better. So how do they fix that? What can the Vikings do to ensure that they can make a push for the playoffs in 2015?
First, let's look back just a little bit. The immediate narrative following the finish of Minnesota's 7-9 2014 season is one of hope.
It's not often that an NFL team can finish under .500 and miss the playoffs and have that be the predominant feeling, but such is the case with the Vikings, who just completed their first season under head coach Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer might be the No. 1 reason for that hope. A no-nonsense football guy through and through, Zimmer has won over Minnesota fans and players with his fiery demeanor and straight-shooting style. Zimmer's handprints are all over a defense that improved from 31st in the league last year to 14th in 2014.
If Zimmer isn't the No. 1 reason for hope, then quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is. Bridgewater just finished off a rookie season that saw him improve dramatically over the course of the season.
Over his last five games, Bridgewater completed 72.1 percent of his passes, a mark that would have led the league over the course of the season. As it was, Bridgewater finished 11th overall with a 64.4 percent mark.
It wasn't the numbers that have people excited about Bridgewater, though. It's as simple as the eyeball test. When you watch Bridgewater play, you see a kid who gets it. He plays with a poise and confidence that's rare for any NFL quarterback, much less one who was just a 22-year old rookie.
Perhaps the biggest reason that most first-round quarterbacks flop when they have to play early on is that most of the time they end up on awful teams. Unless your name is Andrew Luck, it's pretty hard to jump right on to an awful team and turn everything around.
So when assessing Bridgewater's first season, perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that he had success with a pretty pitiful supporting cast.
Adrian Peterson, the Vikings' best player and face of the franchise, only played one game. The two biggest blue chips on the offense heading into 2014 were left tackle Matt Kalil and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Both were first-round draft picks who were entering their third and second seasons, respectively.
Both tanked in 2014.
When the finger pointing starts when assigning blame on bad football teams, the first three are usually aimed at the general manager, the head coach and the quarterback.
Nobody is pointing any fingers at Zimmer or Bridgewater. The jury remains out on general manager Rick Spielman. Taking Christian Ponder with the 12th overall choice in 2011 was a horrific mistake. If Kalil and Patterson don't halt their career nosedives in 2015, Spielman will have blown three first-round picks in a four-year span.
And it's those three pieces that Bridgewater basically played without in 2014 who are the main priority this offseason. If the Vikings play 2015 with Peterson in the backfield, a healthy and resurgent Kalil at left tackle and a Patterson who plays up to his potential, they're a playoff team.
Oh if it was only that plain and simple. Here are some steps the Vikings can take to make sure they aren't on the outside looking in when it's playoff time next season.
Make Sure Adrian Peterson Returns
Zimmer said on Tuesday that he wants Peterson back with the Vikings next season, as reported by Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune.
Our hands our partly tied with the NFL and the timeframe that they give us. But also it’s partly up to Adrian and make sure he’s doing what he has to do in order to get back reinstated off the suspension. So those are all factors that we have to factor in, but we would love to know ASAP just so that we can start going because a guy like him your football team and your offense can be different [if] you have him and you don’t have him. It’s how you want to build the team around him, at least in my opinion anyway.
Things get a little tricky when you consider Peterson's current contract. He's due to make $12.75 million next season and count $15.4 million against the cap.
There's not a running back on the planet who's worth that money, especially one who hasn't played football for what will amount to 20 months come next season. But that doesn't mean you don't want him back. How best to help out a second-year quarterback? Giving him the best back in football is a great place to start.
Minnesota will have to be pretty agile in dealing with Peterson this offseason to get him back. He has to feel wanted, but he has to also understand that he's going to have to take a pay cut.
The Vikings become exponentially better with Peterson in their lineup. Play action once again becomes a weapon. No one feared a Minnesota running attack that was manned by Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon looks like a nice piece and a great spot-duty guy, but he's probably not a feature back. Asiata certainly isn't.
Get Matt Kalil's Mind and Body Right
Matt Kalil took a ton of heat during the 2014 season, much of it justified. He had a bad season, there's no two ways around it. There is still plenty of hope moving forward, though. Kalil played much better down the stretch, and, as written by Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, he hopes that his knee issues and poor play are now in the past.
Kalil gave up 12 sacks on the season, according to Pro Football Focus (via Goessling), but only one in the last six games.
There probably wouldn't be much hope for Kalil were it not for his very impressive rookie season. This is a young player who was universally loved by scouts coming out of college and who was the fourth overall pick in 2012. After a stellar rookie season, it seemed the sky was the limit.
Injuries and inconsistency have plagued him since.
Kalil needs to have a great offseason and come to training camp ready to be the dominant player the Vikings hoped he could be. Goessling quotes him as saying he is ready to do as much:
As far as what everyone else says, it’s not something I haven’t said to myself. I know what I have to do. If anything, everyone coming down on me this year it’s made me mentally tough, I’ve never had to face adversity like that. I’ll go into next year physically stronger than I’ve ever been and with all the adversity I’ve had to face, I’ll be mentally tough as well.
That's exactly what you want to hear, and while that's obviously what you'd expect someone in his spot to say, Kalil has flashed enough talent in three years to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Turn Cordarrelle Patterson into a Wide Receiver
Devin Hester is perhaps the best return man in the history of the NFL, but he never did figure out how to become a dominant wide receiver.
The Vikings simply have to change the career trajectory for Patterson. There is just too much raw ability there for him not to become an upper-echelon player.
A chiseled 6'2", 220 pounds with blazing speed, good hands and running ability that's bestowed on very few people, Patterson had nearly every trait you could ask for if you were building a receiver from scratch.
His rookie season came with a slew of electrifying plays where Patterson looked like a high school star on a field with eighth graders. What Patterson didn't do a lot of that season, though, was make downfield catches. There were very few 12-yard outs, or 15-yard post patterns that were turned into big gains. His route tree seemed to consist of quick-hitters and bubble screens.
In his second season, the quick-hitters and bubble screens vanished and his route tree, or lack thereof, found him riding the bench for most of the second half of the season.
This simply has to change moving forward.
Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press reports that Zimmer has said that the Vikings will assign someone to help guide Patterson this offseason.
What's seemingly stunted Patterson's growth has been an apparent lack of football IQ. Patterson hasn't had any attitude problems or off-the-field issues to speak of, he just hasn't figured out how to get himself open.
This seems eminently fixable for a player who can run and cut like Patterson can. He has all the athletic ability in the world, he just has to be committed to turning himself into a football player.
Imagine how much better the Vikings would be with those three players on track and in the lineup in 2015.
That's not to say that that's all that needs to happen though. The Vikings still need help on the offensive line and at wide receiver.
Greg Jennings was signed to a big-money deal in the summer of 2013, and he's not lived up to his contract. Jennings caught 59 passes for 742 yards and six touchdowns this season. Not terrible numbers, but far from what you'd like out of your supposed No. 1 wideout. His yardage total ranked 58th in the league.
The Vikings have the 11th overall choice in the draft, and they'll have plenty of good options to choose from at that point.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller has Minnesota selecting an offensive linemen with its first pick. Shoring up the line would be completely sensible, as would taking one of the two elite wide receiver prospects, should either of them be available.
Obviously the Vikings' draft needs will change depending on how they approach free agency. If recent history means anything, the last four players taken with the 11th pick are offensive tackles Taylor Lewan and D.J. Fluker, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and a defensive end by the name of J.J. Watt.
On the defensive side of the ball, while much improved, Minnesota still needs to improve to become a legitimate contender.
Audie Cole, LB: +7.8
Breakdown: Chad Greenway has been a fantastic servant to the Minnesota Vikings, but Audie Cole’s performance in this game suggested that maybe it is time to move on. Cole was all over the field, making tackles in the run game, pass game, breaking up passes and even intercepting one that was nullified because of a defensive offside flag.
Signature Stat: Cole’s grade in this game is a better figure than Greenway has ever achieved. The last game Greenway has even had in that ballpark was in Week 11 of the 2008 season.
As well as Minnesota's defense played this season, it wouldn't be surprising if several new starters appeared in 2015. Greenway, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, defensive end Brian Robison, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Robert Blanton are all players who didn't do enough to have any job security.
Free agency and the draft season loom. But for the Vikings it's the three key in-house guys who can make the 2015 version of the team look that much better.
Whatever you might get in free agency or the draft will be great, but they won't be the best back in football, a possible franchise left tackle or a wideout with the physical gifts that Patterson has.
If all three of those players are in Minnesota's 2015 training camp and ready to go, anything short of the playoffs would be a disaster.