The Minnesota Vikings are a relatively young team, buoyed by first and second-year players at multiple positions on both sides of the ball. From Teddy Bridgewater to Eric Kendricks, the roster is stacked with up-and-coming contributors who should remain in purple and gold for years to come. Minnesota’s success hinges on their long-term future with the team, but they’re not the only cogs in the winning machine.
Veterans like Adrian Peterson, Terence Newman, and Phil Loadholt are just as, if not more important to the Vikings’ short-term outlook than the team’s young stars. Chad Greenway, set to play his last season with the Vikings in 2016, recently commented on Mike Zimmer’s unbiased, win-first approach coaching.
“He’s just in your face, and you always know where you stand – good or bad,” Greenway said, per Lindsey Young. “Whether you’re 32 years old or 22 years old, he’s going to have you playing your best football every week. He’s going to continue to get you better no matter where you’re at in your career.”
To Zimmer, age is nothing but a number. Newman led the team with three interceptions last season, Peterson won his third rushing title, and Joe Berger was arguably Minnesota’s best offensive lineman. Father Time hasn’t caught up to many of the Vikings’ veterans yet, and they’ll look to stay ahead of the curve in 2016.
Which veteran — any player over 30 years old — is most important to Minnesota’s winning chances this season?
Terence Newman (37)
Newman was a solid contributor last season, defying the odds to start all 16 games for the Vikings in 2015. He finished the year with three interceptions, hauling in two against the Oakland Raiders and one a couple weeks later against the Atlanta Falcons. Though he did show his age at times — most notably against the Denver Broncos — Newman gave Mike Zimmer everything he wanted at the position and provided a stable presence opposite Xavier Rhodes. He’ll return this year on a one-year, $3 million deal, signaling his value on the field and in the defensive backs room.
This season, though, fans may see more of 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes. The second-year cornerback saw his playing time increase as the year wore on, with his best outing coming in Minnesota’s most important game of the year — the NFC Wild Card matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. He intercepted Russell Wilson and broke up a long pass down the field, preventing chunk plays that helped keep the Vikings in the game. With a full offseason of Zimmer’s coaching, Waynes should have a chance to see even more starting time this season.
Joe Berger (33)
In light of John Sullivan‘s season-ending back injury, swing offensive lineman Joe Berger went on to have his best season as a pro, starting all 16 games at center for the Vikings. Pro Football Focus named Berger its highest-ranking center during the regular season, awarding the veteran a 26.8 overall grade for his play in the middle of Minnesota’s offensive line.
Berger’s status in 2016 depends solely on Sullivan‘s health. If Sullivan makes a full recovery from the back surgery that ended his 2015 season, Berger may find himself on the bench. However, Berger has a history with new offensive line coach Tony Sparano, as the two were together in Dallas (2007) and Miami (2009 and 2010) before reuniting as Vikings. That relationship could throw Berger into the mix at center or right guard, positions where he has extensive playing experience.
Chad Greenway (33)
Chad Greenway is back, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be back on the field in 2016. At the NFL’s annual owners meeting last month, Zimmer told reporters that he thinks Greenway will have a “similar role” to the one he played in 2015. Greenway saw the field on just 59 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and that number may dwindle even more in 2016. With Emmanuel Lamur signed and anxious to start, Greenway faces tough competition at his long-time position. And with Zimmer’s affinity for the Nickel defense, the Vikings are using a third linebacker less and less. Locker room leadership may be an overrated cliché, but that really may be Greenway’s greatest contribution to the Vikings at this point of his career.
Brian Robison (32)
Robison was a surprise in 2015, playing more defensive snaps — 898 to 863 — than Pro-Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen. Age was certainly a question last season, but those questions feel unfounded as 2016 approaches. As Robison told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, he wants to play “two more years” and fulfill the remaining time on his current contract. Spielman, who made the ultimate decision to retain Robison, was impressed with his play at left defensive end.
“Brian played, we thought, very well for us,” Spielman said. “I think he still has a lot of play in him. … He still is not only a valuable football player for us, but extremely valuable from a leadership standpoint.”
Like Greenway, Robison brings the leadership factor to the locker room. He’ll serve as the mentor to Danielle Hunter, the rookie sensation who had one more sack than Robison despite playing 500 fewer snaps. Hunter appears to be the eventual replacement at the position, and Robison is the type of player who will “pass the torch” willingly when the time comes.
Michael Griffin (31)
A “street free agent,” Griffin joins the Vikings after a disappointing year with the Tennessee Titans. Though his numbers as a Titan are impressive — 25 interceptions over nine years — he’s a player in decline who didn’t earn another contract to remain in safety-needy Tennessee. He joins the Vikings on a one-year, $2.5 million deal and should enter an open competition for the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith.
Andrew Sendejo, the incumbent starter at the position, will also face challengers in Antone Exum and Anthony Harris. Right now, it’s Sendejo’s position to lose, as he’s guaranteed to make almost $4 million in 2016.
Adrian Peterson (31)
The Vikings rode Peterson’s legs to their first NFC North title since 2009, and common sense would lead many to believe they’ll follow a similar path this season. However, the hirings of Pat Shurmur and Tony Sparano signal a change in thinking from Zimmer.
“I just felt they’re two knowledgeable guys that can help us,” he told Brian Murphy. “I’ve been impressed with both Tony and Pat. Their input will be just like it is everywhere else. They’ll have a lot of input. Norv’s been really good about listening and talking.”
If Norv is listening, the Vikings will begin to shift the offense from Peterson’s legs to Teddy Bridgewater’s arm. Every move Spielman’s made this offseason, from shoring up the offensive line to releasing Mike Wallace, indicates the franchise’s investment in Bridgewater as the quarterback of the future. Peterson will still play an important role, especially if he’s working to adapt his game to the shotgun, but don’t expect him to touch the ball as often in 2016.
John Sullivan (30) and Phil Loadholt (30)
Minnesota’s offensive line was a train wreck without Sullivan and Loadholt last season, and both players remain question marks for the Vikings given their severe injuries and age. Reports indicate that Sullivan is on-track with his recovery, and Loadholt revealed earlier this year that he’s already begun running as part of his rehabilitation from a torn achilles.
Recovery aside, Loadholt won’t necessarily step right back into the starting lineup. Although T.J. Clemmings struggled as his replacement last year, the Vikings have found other ways to shore up the position. Enter Andre Smith, a free agent signing from the Cincinnati Bengals who has the chance to supplant Loadholt when training camp begins. As for Sullivan, Berger staked his claim to the position with a strong showing in 2015, and the Vikings would be hard-pressed to rush Sullivan back onto the field.