Surmising the Starters: The 2017 Minnesota Vikings
They’re in every front office; sprawling white boards checkered with placards and magnets. On these tags are player names, positions, and a smattering of notes, all meant to make sense of the jumble inside a general manager’s mind.
The job of an NFL franchise’s personnel department is no easy task; outside of scouting the future, they must develop the players within, slotting each into the correct position and role. Everyday tasks appear black-and-white, but most decisions made behind closed doors come amidst the gray.
Outside of a pure talent evaluation, there are the issues of locker room chemistry, salaries, tenure, and above all else, market value. The pressure to start a high-profile rookie, for example, may force the more talented, less exciting veteran out of a long-occupied place on the field.
Fortunately, not all front offices function this way. The Minnesota Vikings—specifically, general manager Rick Spielman—operate in a more judicious manner. Rookies don’t automatically see the field in their first year, veterans are rarely released out of the blue, and the 22 available positions in the starting lineup are never “on lock.”
Rather than bending to the will of the fanbase or a star’s demands, the Vikings approach the whiteboard pragmatically, making decisions that not only benefit the team but the players at the top of the depth chart. Still, there are actions some may disagree with, like sitting a healthy Laquon Treadwell or letting Captain Munnerlyn in free agency.
As the Vikings lurch toward a critical 2017 juncture, Spielman will likely need to make a few of these questionable judgments. Relegate Teddy Bridgewater to the bench the entire season? Start Michael Floyd over Treadwell? Roll with Andrew Sendejo next to Harrison Smith at strong safety?
Beyond the top of the depth chart, there’s the issue of backups and the ever-important swing players. But today, that’s the least of my concerns. I want to predict who will start for the Vikings in some personnel groupings, including:
- Two-WR sets
- Three-WR sets
- Base defense
- Nickel defense
Today, I’m standing in front of the board and doing some shuffling of my own. These are the players I want to see at the beginning of every game, not necessarily who I think will end up there. Here. We. Go.
Note: The offensive line will not change in the next two examples. Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff are the logical choices at right and left tackle, while Alex Boone remains the team’s best option at left guard. My selection of Pat Elflein at center is more a testament to Joe Berger’s versatility than Elflein’s readiness over a player like Nick Easton.
Drafting Elflein in the third round was probably Rick Spielman’s best decision this April, as it created a “good” problem to have along the offensive line. Berger is entering what is supposed to be his final season, and a return to his position of comfort, right guard, makes sense for both parties. While Elflein has experience at every interior spot, it makes the most sense to groom him now as the franchise’s center of the future.
Others like Easton, Jeremiah Sirles, T.J. Clemmings, and Willie Beavers are nothing more than depth players for 2017.
I’ve written extensively on the Sam Bradford-Teddy Bridgewater “rivalry,” and in each of those pieces, I made it clear Bradford is the only option at quarterback for the Vikings. Behind him, Cook has the benefit of stealing reps from Latavius Murray, who continues his recovery from offseason ankle surgery.
Like Elflein, Cook is a centerpiece for Minnesota to build around in the coming years. He should see the field as early and often as possible, even if that means taking the majority of snaps as the team’s feature back. Murray will most certainly have a role—likely in the red zone and short-yardage situations—but this is Cook’s spot to lose.
C.J. Ham is the only fullback on the roster, making his placement more of an obligation than a conscious decision on my part. If the Vikings were to roll with two tight ends over two backs, I’d have slotted David Morgan into the picture, as he’s currently second on the depth chart behind Kyle Rudolph.
At receiver, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are currently the Vikings’ best players. While Laquon Treadwell’s made strides this offseason, he’s not supplanting a player in Thielen who just signed a long-term contract with the team. Diggs has the potential to line up anywhere for the Vikings and, if he remains healthy, should lead the team in most statistical categories.
Michael Floyd is seemingly missing from the equation, but I’m not so sure he sticks with the team through training camp or the early part of the season. That, and I’d rather the Vikings keep Treadwell’s momentum going by inserting him into the lineup as much as possible. As for Jerick McKinnon, I see him in a gadget-type role, lining up all over the field and returning kicks on special teams.
Here’s where things get fun.
As I mentioned above, Treadwell should see the field more often this year than he did in 2016. Having a player like Stefon Diggs, who can naturally step into the slot, opens things up for offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Diggs thrived in the slot last season and could feasibly see more playing time there if the Vikings continue their quickfire approach with Bradford at quarterback. The picture above isn’t set in stone, though; Thielen can also play in the slot, and Rudolph often splits wide as a pseudo-receiver.
If I had my druthers, this would be the starting lineup when the Vikings open the 2017 season against the New Orleans Saints. With Shurmur calling the plays and Bradford operating out of the shotgun, it’s reasonable to assume Minnesota continues playing with more and more three-receiver groupings.
Note: The names highlighted are the ones who deserve recognition or commentary. Mike Zimmer’s defense is already one of the best in the league, and many of the players who started last year deserve to remain on the field without question.
Andrew Sendejo is far down the list of fans’ favorite players, but that shouldn’t take away from the consistency and comfort he brings to Minnesota’s defense. Outside of Sendejo, depth at the position is questionable, with a raw-yet-tantalizing group of safeties waiting in the wings. If anyone can challenge Sendejo, it’s Jayron Kearse, but Sendejo is by far the safest option heading into the season.
Chad Greenway’s replacement is anyone’s guess, and mine would be Edmond Robinson. He’s a player we covered even before the Vikings drafted him in 2015 and one who saw plenty of run with the first-team this spring. The Vikings run a majority of their defensive snaps out of the Nickel, making Robinson’s role less critical to Minnesota’s success than say, Mackensie Alexander.
At left cornerback, now is the time for Trae Waynes to claim his place next to Xavier Rhodes. Terence Newman returns for yet another season in purple and gold, but I see him filling more of the Greenway role; mentoring and providing a safety net if necessary. Waynes showed improvement in 2016 and should have his clearest shot yet at proving his first-round talents.
In the middle of the defense, I struggled to choose between Tom Johnson and Datone Jones. While Johnson has the experience under Zimmer, Jones is the free agent signing with the most to prove. He bounced around Green Bay’s defense and didn’t find a natural fit at defensive end. As a member of the Vikings, he’ll have a shot as the three-technique.
Jaleel Johnson nearly cracked the lineup next to Linval Joseph, but I don’t know enough about him to make a determination. If anything, training camp will provide the key to unlock that door. And at defensive end, Danielle Hunter claims his place as Minnesota’s most disruptive defensive end, supplanting veteran Brian Robison on the left side of the line.
Nickel Defense (Third Down Defense)
There’s a reason Brian Robison restructured his contract to remain with the Vikings through 2018 — he can still make valuable contributions for Zimmer. I don’t see that in a starting role, but Robison often lined up inside on third downs/in the Nickel, making this “Nascar” package an intriguing option for the Vikings on passing downs.
Of note, the only change is replacing Robinson with Mackensie Alexander, who has taken strides this offseason as Captain Munnerlyn’s soon-to-be replacement.
Have at it; what would you change? What do you like? Dislike? Comment below!