clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Vikings trying to put bad injury luck behind them in 2017

The Vikings have a young, talented squad, but bad luck and injuries have kept them from fulfilling their potential so far.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Wm. Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports

The past two years have been a major roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. After going 11-5 and winning the NFC North in 2015, expectations were high heading into head coach Mike Zimmer’s third season, with a top-tier defense and promising young offense led by Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings were set up to finally give the Green Bay Packers a serious challenge in the division every year.

Things took a turn for the worse in training camp, when Bridgewater blew out his knee in gruesome fashion. His 2016 season ended before it began, and there’s real doubt that Bridgewater will come back in 2017. Suddenly, the Vikings didn’t have a starting QB on the roster (Shaun Hill wasn’t a serious option), so GM Rick Spielman pulled a desperate trade out of his hat, sending the team’s 2017 first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford.

It was a major gamble that looked like it might actually pay off when the Vikings started off 5-0. Unfortunately, the offense’s flaws were quickly exposed and that elite defense couldn’t carry the load forever. Minnesota petered out with a 3-8 record down the stretch, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.

Now the team is moving forward without Adrian Peterson, who went to New Orleans after getting his option declined. It’s a new era of Vikings football, but what will that era actually look like?

Sam Bradford is boring but competently guiding the ship

For a guy who had to learn a brand new playbook two weeks before the regular season, Bradford could’ve been a lot worse last year. He wasn’t particularly great, but Bradford did his part to avoid mistakes, throwing 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions (though he did lose five fumbles). He even set the single-season record with a 71.6 completion percentage, which will be a weird trivia answer in 10 years.

The good news is that Bradford is getting a full offseason with the team, working in OTAs and training camp instead of having to cram the playbook like he did last year.

While Bradford is nobody’s idea of a true franchise quarterback, he can at least keep the offense moving and stayed healthy last season. Injuries have dogged Bradford for most of his career — he played a full 16 games just twice in seven years and missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL.

Aside from sitting out Week 1 while learning the offense, Bradford played every game he was slated to start. The Vikings will need him to stay on the field again this season, especially if Bridgewater isn’t ready, because the backup options are Case Keenum and Taylor Heinicke. That’s hardly reassuring to fans and coaches in case Bradford gets hurt again.

At age 29, Bradford isn’t going to learn any new tricks. He’s the same checkdown machine he’s always been, not making the team worse but not really putting it on his shoulders, either. To stay comfortable in his element, Bradford needs a good running game and consistent pass protection. Those were problems, to say the least, for the Vikings last season.

Vikings attempted to upgrade anemic offense

Peterson’s Vikings career ended with a whimper, as knee injuries limited him to just three games last season. That left it up to Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata to carry the running game, with little success. Minnesota finished dead last in the league with 75.3 rushing yards per game, averaging a pitiful 3.2 yards per attempt.

A big reason for that was the offensive line, which was a straight-up disaster. Minnesota gave up 38 sacks, 10th-most in the league, and Bradford was under constant pressure thanks to the turnstiles on the line of scrimmage. The line allowed 104 quarterback hits, seventh-most in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked this as the fourth-worst line in football, and it was painfully obvious that changes were needed.

Minnesota made those changes in the offseason, signing Riley Reiff to replace Matt Kalil at left tackle, bringing in right tackle Mike Remmers, and drafting center Pat Elflein in the third round. The line was plagued by injuries last year, when the Vikings were forced to use eight different starting combinations. If the new faces stay healthy — injures haven’t dogged them so far in their careers — they should be able to build some continuity together.

They also added some much-needed firepower at running back. Latavius Murray joined the team during free agency and the Vikings drafted Florida State’s Dalvin Cook in the second round. Cook is an explosive and versatile weapon out of the backfield, while Murray is capable of grinding out yards and moving the chains. Those two should be a massive upgrade over the McKinnon/Asiata duo.

Wide receiver is something of a question mark, though. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen emerged as capable starters, but 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell flopped as a rookie, catching just one pass all season. Perhaps Treadwell will be more productive in 2017 (a broken leg from college may explain last year’s struggles), but he’ll need to show tangible progress to earn a steady role in the offense. To his credit, he appears to be making a serious effort at improving in his second offseason.

“Guys were saying last year that your first year is you swimming and trying to figure it all out,” Treadwell said. “Then your second year it slows down, and each year after that, it slows down even more.

“It’s slowed down a lot,” Treadwell added. “I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable but I’m more in tune with what’s going on and how to play and how to get open in the league.”

The Vikings did sign Michael Floyd, who showed promise with the Arizona Cardinals before a DUI arrest derailed his career. But they also have to replace Cordarrelle Patterson, a 2013 first-round pick. Patterson was one of the team’s secret weapons and signed with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. He never developed into a complete receiver, but he was lethal as a returner, and the team will miss his ability to tilt field position on special teams.

Defense remains Minnesota’s calling card

If there’s one area where the Vikings don’t have glaring weaknesses, it’s on the defensive side of the ball. This unit was a well-oiled machine for most of 2016, ranking third in yards allowed per game and sixth in points allowed. They racked up 41 sacks, fifth-most in the league, and had the ninth-best defensive DVOA.

The Vikings’ defense is loaded with game-changing playmakers like Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes. Hunter was third in the league in sacks last year with 12.5, while Rhodes led the team with five interceptions and solidified himself as one of the league’s best shutdown cornerbacks.

Linval Joseph is a steady force in the middle of the defensive line, putting up four sacks and three forced fumbles at the nose tackle position. Brian Robison is getting up there in years (he turned 34 in April) but had 7.5 sacks last season and can still go at his age. Anthony Barr had something of a down year, but Minnesota picked up his fifth-year option and he has the raw talent to bounce back. They also signed former Packers end Datone Jones to add some depth along the line.

From front to back, this is one of the deepest defensive units in the league.

The defense hasn’t been unaffected by injuries, though. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd played in one game last year and has yet to return to the field due to nerve damage, though he’s optimistic it’ll happen.

“I feel like progress is being made,” Floyd said during OTAs in May. “It’s just taking its sweet old time.”

Almost all the important players are back for 2017, with the exception of longtime veteran Chad Greenway, who retired in the offseason. The Vikings’ ability to control the scoreboard on defense and make consistent stops is one of the biggest reasons why the team went .500 despite a stagnant offense.

What does the future hold at QB?

There is some hope that Bridgewater can play this season. He threw passes in OTAs and his rehab is going well, according to Zimmer.

“You know like sometimes when you see a guy every day you don’t notice the progress that he’s made,” Zimmer said. “I’m gone for two weeks, and obviously he’s not on the tape. I come back yesterday, and I say ‘Well, Teddy is moving better, quite a bit better in my opinion’.”

Zimmer noted that Bridgewater “has a long way to go” and will not be able to join his team on the practice field until he gets the OK to take that next step from his doctors.

The Vikings can’t count on Bridgewater being ready for Week 1, so they’re still committed to Bradford, at least for the short term. Bradford’s contract also expires after the season. Sooner or later, the Vikings need to see if Bridgewater can continue his career, or else they’ll have to search for a franchise QB yet again.

Overall, the Vikings are rich with individual talent — they did go 8-8 even with all of last year’s problems, and made the right offseason moves to address their biggest flaws. Zimmer is a good coach who built a strong, tough culture. The new U.S. Bank Stadium has created an infectious fan atmosphere with the “Skol” chant catching on. This is an easy team to root for, and the Vikings will be fun to watch more often than not.

The foundation is in place for an annual contender, but the Vikings are still missing some pieces, and perhaps more importantly, need to stay healthy. If they don’t find clarity at the game’s most important position in the near future, they risk squandering their considerable potential.