Vikings must solve identity crisis in training camp
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.—Ownership, coaches, players, fans and we so-called experts aren't quite sure what to make of the Minnesota Vikings as they head an hour south for their 52nd and final training camp in Mankato, Minn.
"Expectations?" said head coach Mike Zimmer. "I don't address (outside) expectations. I just talk to them about getting better every day."
By this time next year, the Vikings will have moved into their luxurious new headquarters in the Twin Cities. They announced this week that they will hold future training camps there, breaking a relationship with Minnesota State Mankato that goes back to the early years of the franchise.
So, what will happen between now and then? Will the Vikings resemble the 2015 team that went 11-5 and wrestled the NFC North away from Green Bay's stranglehold on the final week of that season? Or will they look more like the 2016 team that slumped to 8-8 as injuries mounted offensively and fatigue overtook the defense?
Well, a lot depends on health, obviously. And much depends on whether the Vikings have finally assembled a strong, durable offensive line. They invested mightily in that area, signing starting tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency and adding potential starting center Pat Elflein with a third-round draft pick. Whether Reiff and Remmers are the answer or just a pair of subpar castoffs from other teams will go a long way in determining the Vikings' chances of reaching Super Bowl LII in their home stadium in February.
Quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also are key figures with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater expected to start the season on PUP and probably miss a second straight year because of his knee injury. Last season, Bradford was acquired a week before the season and was the starter in Week 2. Meanwhile, Shurmur was elevated to offensive coordinator when Norv Turner quit after the seventh game. Together, Bradford and Shurmur worked in an offense that was devastated by injuries to the line and running back Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is gone and will return as a New Orleans Saint when the Vikings open the regular season at home on Monday Night Football. The run-first mentality also is gone as Peterson's replacements — rookie Dalvin Cook and free-agent acquisition Latavius Murray — come in with a more versatile skillset.
Defensively, the Vikings have young, All-Pro potential at all three levels. But they need the offense to step it up in order to avoid the same kind of late-season collapse that plagued a worn-out defense a year ago.
Zimmer won't come out and say it, but he expects the Vikings to return to the playoffs and actually win their first postseason game since January of 2010, when Brett Favre was their starting quarterback.
"I think these guys are very aware of a lot of the things we're trying to teach," Zimmer said during minicamp in June. "I think they're in a good place right now. Sometimes you just get here and run plays, but you're not learning how to play the game.
"We've progressed to the part now where we're trying to learn how to play games, trying to learn how to play at the end of games, how to play with the clock, without the clock, with the ball or without the ball because I think that's going to be important when we come down to starting getting into the real stuff."
Training camp goals
1 — Develop a cohesive offensive line. The Vikings made tackle their priority in free agency, and then they used a third-round draft pick on Ohio State center/guard Pat Elflein. Riley Reiff is the left tackle. Mike Remmers is the right tackle. Alex Boone, last year's prized free-agent signing, is the left guard. And Joe Berger most likely will be the right guard. The battle for center is between Nick Easton and Elflein. That needs to be decided early enough so that the offensive line — the weak link for a few years now — can grow together.
2 — Establish balance offensively. Adrian Peterson is gone. And with him goes the run-first mentality. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wants to throw the ball more. Quarterback Sam Bradford, who last year set the NFL record for passing percentage despite arriving via trade a week before the season, has had the offseason to get more comfortable with his receivers. But they have to take the next step at full speed as the offensive line and running game come together. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray are younger and more versatile than Peterson, which means they'll be able to be a factor in the passing game as well. They also should be able to add some pop to a running game that ranked last in the league as Peterson sat with injuries for all but three games.
3 — Find the nickel corner. Defensively, the Vikings have a few holes to fill from last season. They'll need a new weak-side linebacker to replace the retired Chad Greenway. They'll need to settle on a three-technique tackle now that Sharrif Floyd's career is in jeopardy after missing all but last year's opener. And there's a transition at left end, where young superstar-in-the-making Danielle Hunter most likely will take the starting job from veteran Brian Robison. But the No. 1 position to keep an eye on is at nickel corner, where the team lost Captain Munnerlyn to free agency. The team used its second-round draft pick a year ago on Munnerlyn's replacement, Mackensie Alexander. Alexander has the talent, but still needs to prove he has the discipline and willingness to be coached. If he can't handle it, soon-to-be 39-year-old Terence Newman could be the nickel back. It appears that 2014 first-round pick Trae Waynes is ready to step in as the starter at Newman's left corner position.
Projected depth chart
Starter - Sam Bradford. Backups - Teddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum, Taylor Heinicke, Wes Lunt.
Starters - Latavius Murray, FB C.J. Ham. Backups - Dalvin Cook, Jerick McKinnon, Terrell Newby, Bishop Sankey.
Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - David Morgan, Bucky Hodges, Kyle Carter, Josiah Price, Nick Truesdell.
Starters—Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen. Backups - Laquon Treadwell, Jarius Wright, Michael Floyd, Rodney Adams, Moritz Bohringer, Stacy Coley, Isaac Fruechte, Cayleb Jones, R.J. Shelton.
Starters - LT Riley Reiff, LG Alex Boone, C Nick Easton, RG Joe Berger, RT Mike Remmers. Backups - G/T Jeremiah Sirles, C Pat Elflein, G/T T.J. Clemmings, G Willie Beavers, T Aviante Collins, T Reid Fragel, T Rashod Hill, G Danny Isidora, G Zac Kerin, T Austin Shepherd, G Freddie Tagaloa.
Starters - DLE Danielle Hunter, DT Datone Jones, NT Linval Joseph, DRE Everson Griffen. Backups - DLE Brian Robison, DT Tom Johnson, NT Shamar Stephen, DT Sharrif Floyd, DE Stephen Weatherly, DE Tashawn Bower, DT Dylan Bradley, DT Jaleel Johnson, DE Caleb Kidder, DE Sam McCaskill, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DT Will Sutton.
Starters - WLB Emmanuel Lamur, MLB Eric Kendricks, SLB Anthony Barr. Backups - MLB Kentrell Brothers, WLB Edmond Robinson, OLB Ben Gedeon, OLB Elijah Lee, LB Shaan Washington, OLB Eric Wilson.
Starters - LCB Trae Waynes, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Andrew Sendejo. Backups - CB Terence Newman, CB Mackensie Alexander, S Antone Exum Jr., S Anthony Harris, S Jayron Kearse, CB Jabari Price, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Horace Richardson, CB Tre Roberson, CB Terrell Sinkfield, S Jack Tocho.
K Kai Forbath, K Marshall Koehn, P Ryan Quigley, P Taylor Symmank, LS Kevin McDermott, KOR Rodney Adams, KR Stacy Coley, PR Marcus Sherels.