Where Do the Vikings Head From Here
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

[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.]

Football, more than any other sport, is an unpredictable game. A loose ball, a tipped pass, a broken tackle; the slightest shift in momentum or circumstance can flip competition on its head. Franchises prepare for the random nature of the game, but often fall victim to factors they can’t control.

Such was the case for the Minnesota Vikings in 2016. From Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury to the merry-go-round at offensive line, the team struggled to bounce back in the face of adversity. Players on the defensive side of the ball underperformed, turmoil forced a turnover on the coaching staff, and Mike Zimmer’s eye blurred Minnesota’s season outlook.

Combined, the weekly distractions and diversions were too much for the Vikings to overcome. They stalled to an 8-8 finish after starting the season 5-0; missing the playoffs just one year removed from winning the NFC North. Like any team in the NFL, the Vikings had one end-goal in mind: the Super Bowl. But dreaming of a Lombardi Trophy and winning the actual game are two different things.

Earning a Super Bowl berth requires a vision: a defined set of objectives, goals, and cornerstone characteristics that define a franchise. Improving on a disappointing 8-8 record will necessitate a hard look in the mirror for Spielman, Zimmer, and the rest of the 53-man roster. We’re here to serve as the “mirror, mirror on the wall” and provide what we believe to be a clear vision for the Minnesota Vikings’ future.

“Create a compelling vision, one that takes people to a new place, and then translate that vision into a reality.” — Warren Benni

We’re writing this plan as a follow-up to our 2016 series, with the hope of improving upon last year’s edition and learning more about our favorite franchise. To know a team is more than understanding who is on the field and the sidelines; we want to discover every weakness, every strength, and how precisely the Vikings aim to address these aspects.

We’re also changing things up. This year’s edition will feature three parts: Team Vision, Roster Construction and Needs, and NFL Draft Strategy.

Some will agree, others will disagree, but we hope all readers enjoy this venture into all things Minnesota Vikings football.

Vision

The Vikings are a young group built around a core of up-and-coming stars. Their athleticism spans the roster and gives the team an identity in all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams.

Veterans remain critical stepping stones at key positions—cornerback, running back—but will soon make way for the next wave of talent. The NFL Draft remains the foundation of roster construction, and keeping homegrown players in-house is a top priority for the front office.

Offensively, the Vikings operate a West-Coast system, relying on a quarterback to deliver the ball quickly to dynamic, versatile athletes. Skill players must have the ability to make plays after the catch, and on defense, speed is also a necessity.

Mike Zimmer’s scheme relies on an aggressive front seven to pressure opposing quarterbacks, freeing up the secondary to rotate coverages and play to its collective strengths.

Roster Strategy

The Minnesota Vikings are a team built through the draft

Teams with continuous success in the NFL have something in common: they excel at building their rosters through the draft. Success is possible for teams that aren’t good at building through the draft, however, that success is not typically sustainable. And, after their brief crescendo atop the NFL ranks, they fall back to the dregs of the NFL wondering, “What just happened?”

Despite their woes at certain position groups, the Vikings are currently one of the finest teams in the NFL at building through the draft. In fact, Fox Sports recently went as far as ranking Minnesota the best team in the draft over the last five years.

This current roster construction reflects this opinion. Right now, about 66 percent of the players under contract were selected by the Vikings in the NFL Draft. Only 20 percent came to Minnesota through free agency, with the remaining 14 percent coming from a combination of trades and undrafted free agents, who, to an extent, could be considered “drafted” players themselves.

The above tally does not include players who are set to become free agents this year. If you include those players, the percentage of players added through free agency jumps to 29%. However, the number of stop-gap players added through free agency last season inflates this number significantly.

The Minnesota Vikings are a predominantly young roster led by a core group of experienced veterans

Having a young roster is important because it further increases the chances of a franchise having sustained success. A team whose primary pieces are in the twilight of their careers usually signals a team headed for a rebuild. Young talent allows organizations to stay relevant and consistently competitive.

In recent years, the Vikings have built and maintained a relatively young roster. However, the average age of the 53-man group skyrocketed last season after Spielman signed veteran free agents in the face of an injury crisis. According to Philly Voice,  which has tracked the average age of NFL teams for a few years, the Vikings were the 31st youngest team in 2016. The figure above is in extreme contrast to the four prior years, where the Vikings averaged about seventh.

Currently, of players under contract with the Vikings for the 2017 season, the average age is 25.88. If every other team remained the same from 2016, this would move the Vikings 31st ranking to 12th.

The Minnesota Vikings focus on internal development and take care of young, up-and-coming players

Developing internal talent allows a team to concentrate on the draft and the pieces already on the roster. Doing so prevents front offices from overspending in free agency and trading with other franchises to get the talent they need. This strategy improves team chemistry by keeping the same group of players together for a longer period, which in turn signals to younger players that hard work and success result in a reward.

The Vikings already do a commendable job of holding on to the young talent that originated in Minnesota. For example, the Vikings made Harrison Smith one of the three highest-paid safeties in the NFL last season. This trend should continue when Xavier Rhodes receives a big, new contract as indicated by Rick Spielman in a recent press conference.

However, it’s also important for a team to know when to part ways with strong players, even if they’re cornerstones of the franchise. Feelings and loyalty cannot get in the way when a player no longer offers the upside requisite of the huge contract their name should demand.

The Minnesota Vikings prefer players of high moral character who add to locker room chemistry. Players with a violent history or documented issues with coaches and teammates are not a fit

Value can indeed be found in players who have had run-ins with the law or documented character issues. However, in our vision for the Vikings, the team will not reward players who have a documented history of violence or an unfortunate history with previous coaches.

The Vikings have had major issues with this subject in the past and, at a couple of points in history, were one of the most arrested teams in the NFL. Lately, though, the Vikings have rectified the problem and rarely have to deal with these off-the-field issues. Over the past three years, only one player (Isame Faciane) has been arrested.

The Offense

An offense that accentuates its players’ strengths and puts them in the best positions to succeed

Under Pat Shurmur, the Vikings are still trying to discover their offensive identity. With playmakers like Cordarrelle Patterson and Jerick McKinnon still on the roster, there’s room for interpretation, especially when trying to find a place for their talents. Patterson has the unique ability to line up at receiver or as a change-of-pace back, where he’s proven to be an effective ball carrier. McKinnon is also a bit of a Swiss Army Knife, as he’s been a capable pass catcher when given the opportunity to run routes from the slot or out of the backfield.

Forcing such players into defined roles would limit the explosive ability of Minnesota’s offense. To make the most of the team’s many diverse talents, Pat Shurmur must build an offense that accentuates their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses.

A West-Coast scheme that operates primarily from the shotgun, with a passing game built around short drops and quick releases.

In 2016, the Vikings offense produced from the shotgun 85 percent of the time. Until the offensive line proves capable of creating any extended protection, the shotgun remains the best option for the quarterback. This quick-hitting attack also gives Sam Bradford—or any other signal caller—the chance to hit receivers in stride and create run-after-the-catch opportunities.

An offensive line that can protect the quarterback without additional help from tight ends and running backs.

Limiting running backs and tight ends to pass protection limits their ability to create positive plays for the offense. An offensive line that can’t protect, such as the Vikings’ in 2016, hurts both the running and passing attack. Last season, Pro Football Focus ranked the unit—which gave up 38 sacks—29th in the NFL.

A true No. 1 wide receiver who has the size, speed, and physicality to make contested catches downfield and in the red zone. 

Laquon Treadwell, selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, was supposed to be this player. His one-catch performance last season was discouraging, but he can still fill the role, either this season or next. Even if he does become a “bust,” the Vikings must find a true No. 1 wide receiver to add to the equation. Doing so would give the offense a weapon they’ve been missing since Sidney Rice in 2009.

Supplemental wide receivers who are quick, explosive route runners with exceptional hands and the ability to pick up yards after the catch

Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Patterson currently occupy this space and can line up anywhere in Minnesota’s offense—in the slot, outside, or any of the other designated receiver positions. Both Diggs and Thielen came within yards of reaching the 1,000-yard mark last season, even with Bradford avoiding many deep shots down the field. They showed a proclivity for taking six-yard passes and turning them into critical chunk gains.

Tight ends who are active 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

Improving the offensive line will allow Kyle Rudolph to take an even greater step forward as a do-it-all tight end. He set career-high marks in receptions and yards last season, but those numbers could be even more impressive in an offense that allows more time for the quarterback to throw.

A back that not only runs effectively and efficiently from the shotgun but can make plays catching the football

McKinnon averaged 3.7 yards out of the shotgun and hauled in a total of 43 passes in 2016. He’s a serviceable change-of-pace back, but there is a multitude of free agent and college backs who better fit Minnesota’s overall needs. Adrian Peterson no longer meshes with the vision for the future of the Vikings at running back.

The Defense

Players considered athletically gifted for their positions

The Vikings currently have four force players on the roster in Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly, and Everson GriffenEric Kendricks is a middle linebacker with the ability to play sideline-to-sideline and cover almost any route. Trae Waynes ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine and could start at right cornerback in 2017.

Sound tackling

After one of the most consistent tackling seasons in 2015, the Vikings took a step back last year. They appeared to miss more tackles, and though we couldn’t find a statistic to prove the point, the “eye in the sky doesn’t lie.” For all of his athleticism, Anthony Barr was the most obvious culprit of poor tackling. Regardless, sound tackling must be the hallmark of Minnesota’s uber-athletic defense.

Players in the front seven who are adept blitzers and run defenders 

Blitzing and defending the run go hand in hand. A team cannot become aggressive if it cannot stop the run. Opposing offenses can exploit an over-pursuant team with quick draws and tosses out of the backfield. The front seven must be stout on early downs to allow Zimmer’s blitzing creativity to shine.

A defensive line that can quickly pressure quarterbacks with a four-man rush

Although Zimmer’s known for his blitz packages, his down linemen can create pressure on their own. Griffen, Hunter, and Brian Robison give Zimmer a trio of pass rushers who can create mismatches anywhere on the line of scrimmage. Linval Joseph is a wrecking ball with the surprising elusiveness to pressure the quarterback from over the center.

Linebackers who are athletic enough to blitz, cover running backs and crossers, and fill gaps against the run

Harking back to the point on speed and athleticism, Barr and Kendricks represent two of the league’s more versatile linebackers. Both can line up in the A-gap and still get to their “marker” or zone at the snap of the football.

Lengthy, physical cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage and take away another team’s top receivers

Xavier Rhodes is the blueprint of a Zimmer cornerback—long, powerful, and disciplined. He routinely eliminated top receivers in 2016 and is expected to sign a contract extension shortly. Waynes isn’t nearly as physical, but his speed, ball skills, and height make him a worthy partner in the secondary.

Special Teams

A punter who can flip field position and pin opponents deep in their territory

The field position battle is an important one. If a team can consistently pin opponents deep in their territory, the likelihood of scoring drops significantly. Jeff Locke, who struggled in previous years, was one of the Vikings’ best special teams performers in 2016. Though his average punt distance was near the bottom of the league, Locke was sixth best in punts behind the 20-yard line and net yards.

A place kicker who regularly turns kickoffs into touchbacks and is consistent on field goals within 50 yards

With the recent changes to kickoffs, a majority of NFL kickers have the leg to force the ball out of the end zone and create touchbacks. However, finding a reliable field goal kicker within 50-yards is much more challenging.

In 2016, the Vikings finally kicked Blair Walsh to the curb, who, despite showing tremendous promise, struggled mightily with consistency and could not be depended on for extra points, let alone field goals over 40 yards.

Though Kai Forbath was solid in his replacement role, it seems unlikely that he is the Vikings kicker of the future. Not only was he just above 75% on extra points, but he also doesn’t appear to have the leg strength necessary for long field goals and consistent touchbacks on kickoffs.

A kick returner who can consistently get past the 20-yard line while also having the explosiveness to score a touchdown on any return

Cordarrelle Patterson is everything we are looking for in a kick returner. Year after year, he leads the NFL in most kickoff return categories. In 2016, he led the league by a large margin in average kickoff return yards despite teams actively trying to limit him.

Patterson is a free agent this offseason, and the Vikings will have to decide whether or not they want to bring him back. Though his skill set as a receiver is average at best, the Vikings will have to ask themselves if they’re willing to spend a little more to retain the best kick returner in the league.

A smart, reliable punt returner who averages at least five yards per attempt

Vikings fans got an up-close look at just how valuable a reliable punt returner is when Marcus Sherels missed playing time with an injury. In Week 13 against the Dallas Cowboys last season—one of the games Sherels was sidelined—Adam Thielen muffed a return in a critical situation in the 4th quarter that ultimately ended up costing the Vikings the game.

Throughout his tenure with the Vikings, Sherels has been one of the best and most consistent punt returners in the league. In 2016, he was second to only Tyreek Hill in average yards per return and tied for first with most punt return touchdowns (2).

A special teams unit that, overall, succeeds because of the youth and depth of the roster

A young, deep roster is critical to the success of the special teams units. As young players get acclimated to the NFL and earn their starting roles, it’s crucial they contribute on special teams. If a roster is top heavy, special teams can suffer because typically more talented players are not also playing on special teams; the inherent risk involved with two people running into each other at peak velocity presents a losing outcome.

Because the Vikings have been so successful at building through the draft and have an abundance of young talent, they’ve managed to remain one of the best special teams units in the league. Key contributors like Kentrell Brothers and first round picks Trae Waynes and Laquon Treadwell put their athleticism to use and contribute while they develop into full-time starters.

Coaching

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

One of the most important aspects of coaching is making sure you put your best players in a position to succeed. For example, if your offensive line is not able to pass protect, it is not in the best interest of your players to put them in situations where they are required to pass protect for extended periods of time.

Midway through the 2016 season, the Vikings realized this and decided offensive coordinator Norv Turner was not putting his players in the best position to succeed. Turner was notorious for forcing his scheme onto players regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately,  Turner’s tendency of trying to force a square peg into a round hole left him without a job.

While the jury is still out on new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, it was easy to see relatively early that he understood what his offensive players were good at and how to use them better. The Vikings saw improvements in most offensive metrics after Shurmur took over including total yards per game, total points per game and an upward trend in Bradford’s performance.

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 past, 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 2016 and take the next step to becoming Super Bowl champions. We’ve developed this in-depth framework for reference when forced with tough decisions in future iterations of our offseason plan.

In the next edition of the offseason plan, we’ll dive deep into the roster, establish the strength of each position, and identify where the Vikings must focus their free agent and NFL Draft efforts.