[In part one of this three-part series, Austin Belisle and Brett Anderson team up to put together an in-depth offseason plan for the Minnesota Vikings.]
Blair Walsh lined up to kick a 27-yard field goal, a routine chip shot that would’ve won the Minnesota Vikings their first playoff game in nearly seven years. But the ball didn’t sail through the uprights; it veered left, and just like that, the team’s promising 2015 season was over. Visions of Mike Zimmer hoisting the Lombardi Trophy faded from memory as an exasperated fan base watched in disbelief. “How could he miss that kick?”
Lost in the heartbreak was the fact that the Vikings didn’t just exceed expectations in 2015 — they shattered them. Minnesota entered the year as a darkhorse playoff contender, a young team that flashed promise in 2014 and would only get better with the return of Adrian Peterson. They did, winning 11 games and snatching the NFC North title from the Green Bay Packers for the first time since 2009. With a mix of young talent and veteran leadership, the Vikings emerged as one of the league’s surprise teams last year.
Their success started in the offseason, where general manager Rick Spielman assembled one of the NFL’s deepest, most talented rosters. Rookies like Eric Kendricks and Stefon Diggs became immediate contributors, while second-year free agent acquisitions like Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph elevated their respective games to new levels. In order to take the next step in 2016, the franchise will need to continue its steadfast approach in free agency and the annual NFL Draft.
But in order to do that, it’s critical the team establishes a clear vision. Every organization’s ultimate goal is the same — to claim a Super Bowl victory. Some, like the Vikings, may be closer than others like the Cleveland Browns or Tennessee Titans. Regardless, each begins a new season with a 0-0 record. It’s the path they take that separates them.
“Vision always comes first. Always. If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.” -Michael Hyatt
Minnesota’s path begins on this virtual platform, where we’ll be guiding the Vikings’ ship with a clear vision for the future. In this three-part series, we’ll assess the state of the current team, create a free agency strategy, and fill roster holes through the NFL Draft, all while sitting at Rick Spielman’s desk. These posts aren’t our prediction of what Spielman will do this offseason; rather, it’s what we would do if we were in his shoes, right now, in 2016. This is the VT Offseason Plan, and we’re ready to bring the Vikings their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
The Vikings are a young team with a key group of veteran leaders built for multiple Super Bowl runs and long-term success. The roster is constructed through the draft, with an emphasis on developing internal talent. Offensively, the west-coast scheme is centered around Teddy Bridgewater in a system that operates primarily from the shotgun and features dynamic, versatile athletes who can make plays after the catch. On defense, everything runs through athletically gifted players who can quickly pressure opposing quarterbacks and play physical, press coverage against the league’s biggest, best wide receivers.
The Vikings are one of the best teams at building through the draft. Currently, about 60 percent of the roster (including the ten players on injured reserve) was drafted by the Vikings. Only 27 percent was added through free agency, with the remaining 13 percent coming from a combination of trades and undrafted free agents, who, to an extent, could be considered “drafted” players themselves.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 72.5 percent of the team’s Approximate Value (AV) in 2014 came from players who began their career in Minnesota. AV is Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen’s attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year. At the time of the ranking, the Vikings finished with the 7th-most “homegrown” production in the league, putting them in a class with teams like the Green Bay Packers.
The Minnesota Vikings are a predominantly young roster led by a core group of experienced veterans.
A recent study by the Philly Voice named the Vikings the 7th-youngest team in 2015, and they have consistently been in the top third of the league since the website began ranking teams in 2012. The average age of players on the current depth chart is 26.12 years old.
The Minnesota Vikings focus on internal development and take care of their young, up-and-coming players.
The Minnesota Vikings prefer players of high moral character who add to locker room chemistry. Players that have a violent history or documented issues with coaches and teammates are not desired.
Despite seemingly cleaning up the locker room the past few years, the Minnesota Vikings still have more player arrests in the last five years than any other team in the NFL. (Note: An “arrest” does not necessarily constitute a “conviction.”)
An offense built around Teddy Bridgewater, not Adrian Peterson.
Though he is certainly an all-time great Vikings player and one of the best running backs in NFL history, Adrian Peterson is not the future of the Minnesota Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater’s success should be the Vikings’ focus, as he was drafted to be the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Too often, the offense catered to Adrian Peterson in 2015, which consistently put the team in long down and distances and, overall, made the unit incredibly predictable. The Vikings need to open up the offensive playbook, limit Peterson’s touches, and let Bridgewater loose.
A west-coast scheme that operates primarily from the shotgun, with a passing game built around short drops and quick releases.
The Vikings offense was “under center” 56 percent of the time in 2015. Bridgewater was much more efficient from the shotgun, throwing 10 touchdowns and completing 66.27 percent of his passes compared to four touchdowns and a 63.7 completion percentage from under center.
An offensive line that can protect the quarterback without additional help from tight ends and running backs.
Pro Football Focus determined that no other quarterback in 2015 was pressured more than Bridgewater. The second-year quarterback was under pressure on close to half of his dropbacks (46.7 percent).
A true No. 1 wide receiver who has the size, speed, and physicality to make contested catches downfield and in the red zone.
Supplemental wide receivers that are quick, explosive route runners with exceptional hands and the ability to pick up yards after the catch.
The Vikings recognize Stefon Diggs is the embodiment of what’s desired in a “supplemental” wide receiver.
Tights ends who are dynamic threats in the passing game, with less of an emphasis placed on inline blocking. They should be able to attack the middle of the field through an array of routes and crossing patterns to take advantage of one-on-one matchups with safeties and linebackers.
A back that not only runs effectively and efficiently from the shotgun, but has the ability make plays catching the football.
Since 2014, Adrian Peterson has averaged 1.53 yards rushing on 40 attempts from the shotgun. Those 40 attempts only account for 12 percent of Peterson’s carries in that time span. Peterson’s inability to run from any formation where the quarterback is not under center creates a number of problems for the Vikings offense and is inherently at odds with the vision for this team.
Players considered athletically gifted for their position.
Players like Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter are superb athletes whose athletic abilities earned them high marks at the NFL Scouting Combine. Both placed in the 90th percentile in various measurables for their respective positions.
Since Zimmer joined the Vikings, they have limited the number of total missed tackles. In 2014, the defense ranked 7th in the league with only 0.097 missed tackles per snap. Though we weren’t able to locate figures for the 2015 season, it is likely those numbers improved.
Players in the front seven who are adept blitzers and run defenders.
A defensive line that can quickly pressure quarterbacks with a four-man rush and force early throwaways.
Consistent pressure on the quarterback allows Zimmer to get creative in coverage and with his blitz packages. Safeties like Harrison Smith can rotate into the box and zone blitz, while cornerbacks on the outside can play man-to-man coverage knowing they have help at the line of scrimmage.
Linebackers who are athletic enough to blitz, cover running backs and crossers, and fill gaps against the run.
Lengthy, physical cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage against the league’s bigger wide receivers.
Safeties versatile enough to play both free and strong safety. They must be able to cover the deep half and blitz in running or passing situations.
A punter who can flip field position and pin opponents deep in their own territory
Despite having incredibly low punt return yards (thanks to an otherwise exceptional special teams unit), Jeff Locke is 32nd in the league for average punt yards, 30th for net punting average, and 22nd in the league for punts within the 20-yard line.
A place kicker who regularly turns kickoffs into touchbacks and is consistent on field goals within 50 yards.
A kick returner who can consistently get past the 20-yard line while also having the explosiveness to score a touchdown on any return.
A smart, reliable punt returner who averages at least five yards per attempt.
A special teams unit that, overall, succeeds because of the youth and depth of the roster.
A coaching staff that maximizes its collective experience to get the most out of the roster by focusing on its players’ strengths and minimizing weaknesses.
Now that we understand where the team needs to go in order to be successful, we need to determine how they’ll get there. That begins with a complete breakdown of the current roster, where we’ll grade each position on everything from age to depth and vision fit. Those grades will be calculated, and we’ll use them to determine how we’ll approach free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft.
State of the Team
To properly analyze each position and determine where the current roster falls short (or excels), we broke down each position into the following five categories and graded them on a scale from 1 to 5. (With 5 being the highest grade possible.)
The ages of all current players on the Vikings roster were averaged by position to get a preliminary understanding of their standing. However, we gave higher scores to position groups with younger impact players. That way, we avoided penalizing a position group with two or three veteran players who hardly contributed or played.
We then broke each position into “starters” and “depth players,” to further pinpoint issues or strengths across the roster. A higher score indicates a position with quality starters, while a lower score indicates a position with a glaring need for improvement atop the depth chart.
Having depth at each position is also important in determining where resources should be allocated in offseason decisions. If a position is top-heavy and earns high “starter quality” marks, it may still need to be addressed if there is little depth. Positions with capable backups, like tight end, earned higher marks than a position like offensive tackle.
Players may produce statistically, but at the detriment of the team in the scope of our vision. Adrian Peterson is the first example, as noted by his struggles running from the shotgun and catching the football out of the backfield. Thus, running backs earned a lower “vision fit” score, while defensive tackle earned a perfect mark because of Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd’s fit in Zimmer’s defense.
#1 | Guard
A position defined by its lack of depth and the advanced age of its current starters. Keeping Bridgewater upright is the top priority in Minnesota, and that starts by shoring up what was a position of weakness in 2015.
#2 | Punter
Despite fielding one of the league’s top-ranked punting units, the Vikings scraped by in 2015 with below-average play from their punter. Seeing as field position led to much of the the team’s success last season, adding a punter in the draft or through free agency who can consistently pin opponents deep is a must moving forward.
#3 | Wide Receiver
The Vikings are one receiver away from having a solid corps of pass-catchers. The relative youth and speed at the position is a plus, but Bridgewater and the offense need a player who can not only stretch the field, but make contested catches down the field or in the red zone.
#4 | Safety
Harrison Smith is the future at free safety, but strong safety remains a hole for the Vikings. The young talent is there, but players have failed to prove they fit the system when given the opportunity to start.
The Next Phase
Football games are played every Sunday from September to February, but teams win championships in the fervor that is an NFL offseason. It’s then that a front office can reflect on seasons passed, assess roster strengths and weakness, and strategize a plan for future success.
We’ve started the process by establishing a vision for the Vikings; a blueprint that will enable them to build on their growth from 2015 and take the next step to becoming Super Bowl champions. We’ve developed this in-depth framework that can be referenced when forced with tough decisions in future iterations of our offseason plan.
With a clear understanding of who the Vikings are and the players that make up the depth chart, we can take another step by analyzing the upcoming free agent market. How much can we spend to shore up holes on the roster? Who currently on the team is worth holding on to? Which players are the most sensible fits, both vision and salary cap-wise? These are questions we will attempt to answer in our next post, Part Two of the VT Offseason Plan.