The Minnesota Vikings go into the 2017 season knowing they’ve got an opportunity to get back to the top of the NFC North.
After all, they won the division in 2015, and even after losing Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to major knee injuries finished only two games behind the Green Bay Packers in 2016. They went 8-8, but that included two last-minute losses to the Detroit Lions and a two-point defeat to the Dallas Cowboys that saw them miss a game-tying 2-point attempt with 25 seconds to play. If they win two of those three games, they make the playoffs despite the injuries and take significant momentum in this season, especially over Detroit.
That said, the Vikings know they were a deeply flawed team in 2016, and general manager Rick Spielman has worked to shore up those problems. Without Peterson, Minnesota finished last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards per rush, and they were in the bottom 10 for both offensive yards and points. The defense was outstanding, carrying a struggling offense to a 5-0 start, but the Vikings won only three of their last 11 games.
The offensive help isn’t going to come from last season’s absent stars. Peterson is now in New Orleans, and while Bridgewater continues to work hard in his rehabilitation process, he still hasn’t been cleared to run, plant with his left leg or cut, much less participate in anything resembling game-speed drills. Anything he gives Minnesota this season will come as a surprise bonus, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever be the player he was before the injury.
So what needs to happen for the Vikings to pass the Packers and Lions this season? Here are five players who will be important for the present and future of the Vikings.
Sam Bradford, QB
The Vikings had to scramble to get Bradford after Bridgewater’s training-camp injury, giving up this year’s first-round draft pick in the process, and this is now his team. Last season, he was learning the system on the fly on a team without a running game and without much of an offensive line, and he still got Minnesota within a couple late collapses of making the playoffs. This year, he’ll have more protection and more balance, but he must be able to take the next step forward.
In 2016, Bradford was focused on safety first. He threw only five interceptions in 15 starts and completed 71.6 percent of his passes, but he averaged fewer than 10 yards per completion. That wasn’t his fault — he was sacked 37 times and running for his life on many other passing plays — but he needs to be able to take advantage of better teammates to provide the Vikings with a vertical passing game.
Dalvin Cook, RB
No one can help Bradford more than Minnesota’s second-round (No. 41) pick. Cook rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons at Florida State and was a first-team All-American for the Seminoles last year. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he has NFL-level quickness and outstanding field vision. Running behind an improved offensive line, he should give the Vikings a home-run threat they didn’t have a year ago.
However, Cook will have to avoid three problems that plagued his high school and college careers — fumbles, injuries and trouble with the law. He fumbled 13 times in three college seasons, he has had multiple shoulder surgeries and been in legal trouble on three different occasions. Any one of those can derail a promising NFL career.
Riley Reiff, LT
Reiff will be a huge part of the rebuilt offensive line, coming over in free agency and being slotted into the most important position up front. He’s not a spectacular player, but he turned himself into a solid left tackle in Detroit before moving to the right side last year after the emergence of Taylor Decker. He’ll be back on the left side in Minnesota and has the advantage of having played against most of the NFC North’s top defensive lineman, either in games or in the case of Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah, in dozens and dozens of practices.
Xavier Rhodes, CB
There’s no question of talent level here — Rhodes is a top-tier cornerback, and at the age of 27, he’s just hitting his prime. It was his ability to shut down No. 1 receivers that helped the Minnesota defense finish third in the league in passing yards allowed and second in net passing yards allowed per attempt. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2016 that included five interceptions, one returned 100 yards for a touchdown. He’s the one player the Vikings can’t replace on defense, so an injury could be as crippling to the season as losing Peterson was a year ago.
Anthony Barr, LB
Going into the 2016 season, Barr looked like a franchise player. He was one of the rare breed of outside linebackers who could rush the passer, stop the run and cover tight ends and running backs down the field. Last year, he didn’t do any of that, and no one is exactly sure why. Offensive coordinators certainly paid more attention to him in their blocking schemes, but that doesn’t explain how much he was pushed around by both blockers and runners.
Whether he was suffering from an undisclosed injury or some other issue, Barr can make a good defense even better if he gets back to the form he showed in 2015.