Our offseason blueprint for the Minnesota Vikings
For other fanbases, this roller coaster playoff season may get them on a football-detox for a while. However, I have a feeling that Minnesota fans are ready and raring to go to try to win the title again next season.
Here are my two cents about how they may be able to do that, but be sure to comment with your own opinion below — particularly about that dicy/fascinating QB question.
Step one: go with experience at OC
The biggest hole on this Vikings team may be on the coaching staff. OC Pat Shurmur has been a godsend for them, and earned himself a second chance at a head coaching job in New York. As a result, Mike Zimmer and company will have to replace him with a competent coordinator who can keep the team performing at this high level.
To do that, I’d recommend that Zimmer continue to follow his philosophy so far of hiring experienced coordinators to oversee the offense (which isn’t his specialty). Both Shurmur and Norv Turner before him had extensive resumes, including multiple stints as an OC and even runs as head coaches before. Having that steady shepherd allows Zimmer to focus on his defense, trusting that the unit is in good hands.
Oddly, most of the rumored OC candidates do NOT have experience at coordinator before: Houston QB coach Sean Ryan, New Orleans TE coach Dan Campbell, etc. To me, they represent too big of a risk for a team with Super Bowl aspirations for 2018.
The coordinator candidate they’ve interviewed who has the most experience by far is fired Seattle OC Darrell Bevell. Seahawks fans had grown to resent and second-guess Bevell, but that’s true for 90% of the fanbases in the league who grumble about their team’s playcalling. Bevell’s more than qualified for this post. He’s an affable coach who’s worked with both vets like Brett Favre and rookie starters like Russell Wilson. In fact, despite only being 48 years old, he already has 10 years of coordinator experience under his belt (including a stint with these Vikings.) His Seahawks run soured by the end, but he was limited by a bad offensive line and a QB with a distinct style of play; I don’t think we really saw “Bevell’s offense” in those last two years. If he can return to a more balanced formula, Bevell would be a fine and prudent hire for the Vikings.
The only exception to this “experience” mandate may be current QB coach Kevin Stefanski. He doesn’t have coordinator experience, but he has “experience” with this staff and this roster. He’s a rising coach who may be worth the risk in the promotion. If the team selects him, I’d try to hire an experienced hand to be an offensive assistant: Colts OC Rob Chudzinski and former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey come to mind. Both would be able to contribute and back up a young coordinator in the same way a good veteran QB helps develop a rookie.
The best of both worlds — experience and youth — would be Philadelphia QB coach John DeFilippo. I thought DeFilippo had a 50:50 shot to land a head coaching job, and at least a 90% chance of earning an OC promotion. Perhaps the Super Bowl run is simply delaying the inevitable here; but if he’s still available, he’d jump to the top of the list.
Step two: continue to send troops to the trenches
Last year, Minnesota GM Rick Spielman aggressively attacked the biggest weakness of the team: a stagnant running game. In 2016, the Vikings ran for a grand total of 1205 yards, averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.
In response to that, Spielman added tackle Riley Reiff in free agency and then drafted RB Dalvin Cook and C Pat Elflein to boot. The plan worked to a large extent. Cook averaged 4.8 yards per carry before his injury, and the other runners held their own afterwards.
That said, this running game is NOT completely “fixed” yet. Aside from Elflein, the interior of the line still looks iffy, leading to a mediocre team average of 3.9 yards per carry. Adding another guard in the draft or free agency would help to continue to improve this unit.
And while it’s strange to say for a defense that’s arguably the best in the entire NFL, but the defensive line can’t be ignored either. As a whole, the Vikings defense was awesome in every statistical category save one: their 37 sacks ranked mid-pack (#17). There’s room for improvement there.
Those reinforcements may be necessary anyway. DT Shariff Floyd may never come back, and fellow DTs Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen are both free agents. They’re not rock stars, but they’re competent and solid rotational players. Rookie DT Jaleel Johnson should be able to step up and serve a role, but retaining either Johnson or Stephen would be a smart move as well to keep their rotation fresh.
Furthermore, extra rotational help may be helpful at defensive end as well. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are studs (combining for 20 sacks), but backup Brian Robison is 34 now and perhaps on his last legs.
I’m not suggesting that the Vikings need to go out of their way to acquire a stud d-linemen, but adding another one in the draft shouldn’t be ruled out. In fact, this D may be downright scary if they draft a DT in the first round like Da’Ron Payne (Alabama) or Mo Hurst (Michigan).
Step three: avoid the most desirable QB option
I’ve saved this for the end, but the Vikings’ QB dilemma is clearly the most crucial and interesting decision of their offseason. They have three in-house options — Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater — who have all had some degree of success, and all happen to have their contracts expire at the same time.
There are arguments to be made for all three — and arguments to be made against them. In fact, I struggle with ranking them myself.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that there’s a huge difference between them at all. Keenum had an awesome year, but it’s an outlier in terms of the rest of his career in the NFL. He completed 67.6% of his passes after never cracking 62% before. His QBR (like that stat or not) jolted to 71.3 after never cracking 50.0 before. In terms of the “eye test,” there’s a concern that the shorter Keenum struggles with pressure in his face, backpedaling and occasionally throwing ducks into traffic off his back foot.
And while the Vikings had a better record this year, their QB play wasn’t grossly better. 2017 Keenum resembles 2016 Sam Bradford in many ways:
2017 Keenum: 3547 yards, 22 TDs, 7 int, 98.3 QB rating, 67.6% completion, 7.37 YPA
2016 Bradford: 3877 yards, 20 TDs, 5 int, 99.3 QB rating, 71.6% completion, 7.02 YPA
Keenum has a narrow edge there, but he also had a better supporting cast (mostly through a better line and better running game.) If you could guarantee me that Sam Bradford would be 100% healthy, I don’t see a big difference here at all.
Meanwhile, there’s an argument to make that Teddy Bridgewater offers the most upside of the three. He had an OK start to his career, displaying a signature short-to-mid range accuracy that translated into a 64.7% completion percentage in his first two seasons. He needed to get more aggressive and attack the field, but perhaps he’d have more opportunity to do that now with receivers like Diggs and Adam Thielen. Given that he’s only 25 years (4 years younger than the others), he theoretically has the most room to grow from here.
If you told me that all these quarterbacks would be 100% healthy for the next five years, I may vote Bradford > Bridgewater > Keenum. But obviously, you can’t do that and discount injuries. Durability issues are serious with Bridgewater, and severe with Bradford. Factoring those in, I’d value them as the opposite: Keenum > Bridgewater > Bradford. That said, I’m still not convinced that there’s a HUGE difference between the three.
So when I say “avoid the most desirable option,” I don’t mean from the Vikings’ perspective; I mean from the REST of the league’s perspective.
The NFL is funny when it comes to QBs: if you’re considered the 25th best QB in the world, you may get a $15 million salary. If you’re the considered the 35th best, you may get $5 million. (Last season, Case Keenum came even cheaper than that.) Of the Vikings’ three players, Case Keenum has the hottest stock; he may be able to parlay his success into that $10-15 million level and a guaranteed starting job for 2018 (and perhaps sizeable guaranteed money in 2019 as well.) So while I may value Keenum slightly more than the other Vikings QB, I don’t know if that difference justifies a price tag that may be twice as high. If he’s going to overpriced, the Vikings don’t need to bend over backwards to retain him.
My gut tells me that Teddy Bridgewater may end up being the Vikings’ best value play. If the team can sign him to a reasonable deal as the presumptive “starter,” they can still afford to back him up with a proven and experienced vet who can step in and get wins. They can trade for a high-level backup like Vikings-beater Nick Foles (still under contract for 1 year), sign someone like A.J. McCarron, or even bring back Sam Bradford if those durability concerns deflate his value enough. The urgency for a backup QB behind Bridgewater depends on his rehab and his health (physical and mental) behind the scenes, which the team should know much better than I would. If they feel like Bridgewater may never regain his form, then re-signing Keenum (and drafting a young QB to develop) may be the only real move they can make.
The bottom line
Regardless of what they do at OC and QB, the Vikings should be in good shape for 2018.
And they’re going to have to be. The rest of the NFC North is improving already by coaching decisions alone. Matt Nagy is one of the most exciting head coaching hires — Matt Patricia is very well respected — and Mike Pettine should jolt the Packers’ defense. This could be a slugfest next season. If the Vikings nail their roster decisions as well as they did last year, they should be right back in the playoff mix, but it won’t be as easy this time around.