Minnesota Vikings: Team Needs

The Minnesota Vikings went from playoff hopefuls to potential bottom-dwellers over the course of a season. This didn’t surprise too many observers of the team, but it did highlight some of the most significant weaknesses that the Vikings were able to paper over with outlier seasons from Adrian Peterson and Antoine Winfield in 2012.

Notably, it wasn’t the offense—headed by an incompetent offensive coordinator and limited quarterback—that failed the team as often as it was the defense, generally considered to at least be an average unit.

But finishing last in points allowed, 31st in Drive Success Rate (a more sustainable and revealing statistic that counts how often a defense allows first downs and touchdowns per opportunity) brings home the bigger problems of going from first to worst in the slot and experiencing aging at key positions, like defensive end and outside linebacker.

That isn’t to say the offense doesn’t deserve its fair share of blame, too. They're relatively high scoring (12th in the league) has been moved along by a phenomenal effort on special teams and artificially boosted their production.

Again, Drive Success Rate can showcase serious issues that ignore fluky and misleading statistics like points per game and account for field position, and here the Vikings rank 19th. That’s fairly nice, but it should be significantly better with a dominant offensive line, the league’s best running back, a receiver corps headlined by Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson and a high-level tight end in Kyle Rudolph.

Nearly every offensive position is filled with players who either play at a very high level or at least are definitively better than league average.

The only two things holding that offense back so far has been the quarterback and regression from the offensive line, which improved its play significantly in the second half of the season. The defense has its fair share of holes, but at the very least they have players who can step up at key positions to replace underperformers from 2013 as they head forward.

QB: Nothing improves a team more than upgrading at their most important position. Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder have both done much better than expected, but that shouldn’t be the bar you evaluate any employee. Combined, they’ve thrown for 3066 yards, and 5.9 adjusted yards per attempt, which ranks 31st among passing offenses.

It’s honestly shocking that the offense has performed this well with those numbers while Adrian Peterson is having a pedestrian season. Without a new quarterback, the Vikings should expect further regression, not improvement.

SCB: That said, the defense has been bad. Antoine Winfield was a phenomenal player in 2012, but moving to Josh Robinson allowed one of the NFL’s best slot coverage (5.1 adjusted yards per attempt allowed in the slot, ranked fourth) to move to one of the worst (11.6 adjusted yards per attempt allowed in the slot, ranked 31st). Josh Robinson has the speed to cover the outside and does it with some degree of effectiveness, but he doesn’t have the agility or the instinct to cover a receiver without help from the sideline.

Regardless of the schematic requirements of t the new coaching staff, the ability to cover receivers in space is in short supply but high demand. Despite the position’s relative unimportance in some NFL circles, it’s clear that it’s one of the biggest holes on a worrisome defense.

NT: Here, the issues of a new coaching staff with unique defensive needs may come into play, but it may not matter whether or not a new defensive coordinator would prefer to continue the one-gap schemes the Vikings currently run or shift to a hybrid or two-gap defensive line—they currently have no functional nose tackle on their roster.

Should the Vikings stick to some form of a one-gap scheme, there exists the possibility of resigning under tackle Kevin Williams with the understanding that he play as a nose tackle an take on double teams to enable the rest of the defense, but no player on the roster has the size, strength or length to man the center of the defense as a 0-techique nose tackle.

At any rate, the nose tackle position would only see temporary relief by re-signing an aging Williams for a few more years.

A critical part of the blocking math of NFL defenses, a nose tackle can often be the fulcrum from which both the passing and running defenses operate. Having both Letroy Guion and Fred Evans on the team to fill that role has been a massive mistake as both were natural 3-technique players coming out of college.

Neither has the ability to consistently generate interior pressure, demand double teams from opposing defenses or stay rooted to their lane to redirect offensive traffic.

Of the two, Evans has been a better player who has seen inexplicably less time on the field, but make no mistake: the position is in dire need of an upgrade.

OLB/ILB: Should the Vikings move to a hybrid front or a traditional 3-4 front, their need for a second-level defender would change in essence but not in structure. The largely failed experiment at middle linebacker for Erin Henderson could see some reprieve with the introduction of talented former Penn State defender Michael Mauti, but there are no sureties with the position.

Minnesota surely will force some level of competition between Audie Cole and Michael Mauti for a middle linebacker spot, and the other should be considered a shoe-in for the strongside linebacker position, given the position’s requirements and their abilities.

In that role, Chad Greenway has performed abysmally as the strongside linebacker. Not only has he been an obscenely poor linebacker in coverage—his high tackle totals are marred by the fact that nearly 60% of them came after he allowed a reception in coverage, which speaks more to his coverage ability than his interceptions. He also has one of the highest rate of missed tackles in the league, ranking 29th among 4-3 outside linebackers in missed tackles per tackle attempt.

Those missed tackles numbers don’t even begin to speak to his inability to properly take on tackling angles (a seemingly new problem this year), and is a big part of the reason the Vikings rank 25th in "second-level yards" given up and contribute to a running defense that is far worse than the averages suggest.

His nominal backup, Larry Dean, is no better. It should be considered a team need unless the Vikings are willing to play the odds and gamble that both Audie Cole and Michael Mauti can compete there.

This may all be moot if the Vikings employ a traditional 3-4 and install Erin Henderson as the weakside ILB, a position he would be suited for, but at the moment it’s not certain. As 4-3 outside linebackers, the cycle of Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell on the weakside has proven disappointing (but not lost) while Gerald Hodges still remains an unknown.

It could very well be that all of the players that were primary substitutes to begin the year are solid or great linebackers to start next year. But those are long odds, even if at least one of them can fill in and perform.

OG: There’s not a good chance that Charlie Johnson remains a starter as a Viking because his play has been suboptimal—often the only weak spot on a surprisingly phenomenal offensive line.

This year, that offensive line has performed below snuff, but each player aside from Charlie Johnson has shown stretches where they each could have been called elite at their position.

Often NFL teams do better by completing or improving a strength instead of shoring up a weakness, and if that’s the path the Vikings want to take, then an offensive guard is the way to go.

There may be a lot of uncertainty about the offensive coordinator (and offensive line coach) coming into a new season, but there’s little doubt that an intelligent coach would prioritize a ball control offense centered on a running game.

That doesn’t necessarily mean eschewing what is turning out to be an efficient strategy (passing over running), but it does mean creating an offense to enable what the Vikings can already do best: run the football.

In that regard, improving the offensive left guard position could be one of the single-greatest changes the Vikings could make because most run-blocking schemes are only as strong as their weakest link. Should they improve their left guard to become better than league average, it would be difficult to stop the Vikings in any high-leverage situation.

Center John Sullivan has had multiple years as an elite center (perhaps the best), while right guard Brandon Fusco has clearly been the best-performing player on the offensive line in 2013. Phil Loadholt is having a quietly great year as a right tackle, and Matt Kalil had shown flashes of stardom before having to rebuild his body as a result of an offseason pneumonia diagnosis.

With Joe Berger likely leaving and without knowing how good Jeff Baca can be (Brandon Fusco was a late-round pick that developed into a solid starter), the Vikings might as well invest in a guard simply so they have good backup options on the interior, even if Baca does work out as a starter.

They don’t need to turn Charlie Johnson into Evan Mathis in order to have the greatest running game in the NFL again. They just need a person who will consistently do his job.

OCB: The Vikings have been adequate on the outside as pass defenders, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t massive room for improvement. For the time being, Xavier Rhodes should be counted on as a starter (and likely a reliable one at that), but the underperformance and impending free agency of Chris Cook should force Minnesota to consider the other starting spot.

Naturally, Josh Robinson is a possibility. Despite his low PFF coverage grade, he’s been significantly better on the outside than in the slot and could fill in there. Fans could be excused for not being confident with that prospect, however, and the Vikings should do their best to fill that spot, especially if it turns out neither Robinson nor Rhodes can perform there (both distinct possibilities given how little we can really know about them).

The Vikings should probably re-sign Chris Cook as quality depth (he would outperform most backup outside corners), but there’s no guarantee he stays in Minnesota. At any rate, the Vikings well know the importance of building depth in the secondary. They’ve played 14 different corners with at least 100 snaps in the last four years.

DE/OLB: There’s probably a good chance the Vikings can resign Everson Griffen to pair alongside Brian Robison, and there’s not much concern about positional fit if they switch to a different scheme. Both Griffen and Robison have experience dropping into coverage (although not well) and are athletic freaks at their position—well within the top five percent of edge rushers athletically.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll have depth. As Jared Allen likely leaves, the Vikings are left with only Justin Trattou, which isn’t really an exciting proposition, especially if the Vikings do decide that a scheme switch is in order.

Not only should the Vikings want to future starters at the position in order to build depth, they’ll want to find ways to avoid the cap problems Jared Allen created by having reliable starters waiting in the wings for both replacement value and negotiating leverage.

This is, after all, how they avoided overpaying Ray Edwards.

Beyond that, there’s no guarantee that Everson Griffen can fully move into a starting role and produce at a high level, despite his fantastic play as a backup in the last two years (ranking 12th in pass rusher productivity in 2013 and 21st in 2012, aided by eight sacks).

Sometimes situational pass rushers like Aldon Smith and Bruce Irvin can transitional well into a starting role. At other times, teams end up with players like Shea McClellin and find themselves in a serious hole.

RB: Finding a new running back isn’t about replacing Adrian Peterson, who is aging, but about finding someone to fit into Toby Gerhart’s role after he leaves in free agency. There’s not a good chance he re-signs with the Vikings, though a glutted free agent market for running backs could make it easy, and he’ll look for a starting role sooner rather than later.

A late-season hamstring injury probably makes that extremely difficult for him, but rumors that he would have been traded to the Colts as a potential starter before the Trent Richardson deal went down does give us some level of context for how the league could evaluate him (although this could be skewed, because the synergistic value of being able to work with his former college quarterback and offensive coordinator is pretty high).

Gerhart honestly does have the talent to start in the NFL, but even if he doesn’t there’s not a great chance he stays in Minnesota.

The Vikings cannot run Adrian Peterson into the ground and might want to find ways to gather enough talent to potentially replace him. That means grabbing a running back, probably in the late rounds of the draft, that can pass protect and work third down situations in order to give Adrian Peterson rest.

Finding a well-rounded back like that may be difficult, but the decreased positional importance (and therefore increase late-round value) of running backs makes it an easier task than many other positions. There is even the possibility that practice squad running back Bradley Randle could fill in, or that former SMU fullback Zach Line (currently on IR) could compete.

TE: Minnesota potentially has a top-tier tight end in Kyle Rudolph, and they’ve been blessed with the surprising resurgence of John Carlson in his absence, but a team like the Vikings could well benefit from another versatile player on the roster, given how unlikely it is that Chase Ford blooms into a reliable backup and in the wake of the news that Carlson is contemplating retirement.

If the Vikings find themselves short a tight end next year due to injury or other concern, they’ll probably be able to find ways to manufacture replacement production from the array of backup offensive linemen, wide receivers and fullbacks they’ll have on the roster, but the key to many offensive concepts now revolves around creating personnel confusion or individual mismatches that only a tight end can bring.

Another tight end won’t be worth a high investment, but it’s certainly worth looking into.

SS: Many in Minnesota and across the country think that finding another safety to pair with Harrison Smith is a big priority, particularly given that the Vikings have given up 6.7 adjusted net passing yards per attempt, ranking 30th in the league.

It’s not a position of strength, which means that it’s certainly a position worth upgrading, but neither is it the biggest priority of the Vikings.

Jamarca Sanford is an underrated safety who plays at an average level in coverage and an above-average level as a run defender, with a particular aptitude for forcing fumbles. Often left alone in single-high coverage in the last few weeks of the season, he’s done a surprising job coordinating a defense whose rotations at cornerback, linebacker and even safety have been dizzying.

In Harrison Smith’s absence, the Sanford has gave up 0.2 yards per snap in coverage, a rate among the best in the league. In addition, he only gave up 4.3 adjusted yards per attmpt, which is just below Harrison Smith's mark of 3.7 and ranks 18th in the league. Moreover, Andrew Sendejo has been a shockingly good player in his limited time and could very well compete for a starting position come next year.

He’s been instinctive in coverage and should have two interceptions despite only 26 targets in coverage (an unrelated penalty called one back against Baltimore). Moreover, these interceptions don’t paper over other problems in coverage like they do for Chad Greenway.

Sendejo is a hard hitter and could replicate some of Harrison Smith’s thumpers both in coverage and as run stoppers, but has a lot of room to improve figuring out the right tackling angles and fully committing to force or spill responsibilities inside the box.

Nevertheless, either of them could be the future at safety for the Vikings and it wouldn’t be a big problem.

But once again, there’s value in improving upon a strength at the risk of leaving a weakness alone, and this would be an excellent place for the Vikings to create an identity. Moreover, the Vikings need depth at safety because of Smith’s (and Sendejo’s) style of play—hitting with abandon and playing through the whistle.

This could either mean more injuries at safety or another potential suspension (which is unlikely) and could force the Vikings to replace a safety at a moment’s notice.

Adding depth here would be good, as both Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton look like they could be liabilities in that role.

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