Gabriel's NFC North Outlook: Minnesota Vikings
By Greg Gabriel--
(CBS) With free agency, the draft and OTAs behind us, this is the first in a series previewing the Chicago Bears' rivals in the NFC North for the 2015 NFL season with training camp sitting just more than a month away. Like always, the division is strong with the Packers sitting as the favorite to win the division title.
The team I felt did a remarkable job during the offseason is the Minnesota Vikings, who did a good job of improving depth throughout the roster and look to be strong at all positions. With quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entering his second season and looking to improve on his rookie season, the Vikings just may be one of the surprise teams in the NFL in 2015.
Let's break them down.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner did a remarkable job with Bridgewater during his rookie year. He kept the plan simple and let Bridgewater play within himself. As Bridgewater improved, Turner added to the offense. While this seems elementary, it worked, as Bridgewater developed confidence in his game and is ready to go even further in 2015.
In my opinion, it was a textbook example of how to develop a young quarterback. Bridgewater has the tools to be a very good player, and as he gains confidence, he will improve by the game.
Behind Bridgewater, the Vikings have veteran Shaun Hill. While Hill is 35, he can still move around well enough to run the offense if Bridgewater goes down. Hill has thrown for 8,000-plus yards and 49 touchdowns during his career.
The player who will help Bridgewater the most is Adrian Peterson, who only played in one game in 2014 before being suspended by the Vikings and later the NFL following charges of child abuse in a case that he later entered into a plea bargain in. Football-wise, the year off may be a blessing in disguise, as the 30-year-old Peterson has fresh legs going into the season. Peterson is a true game-breaker but also a physical type ,and he should be in to form. A strong running game will make Bridgewater that much more effective.
With Peterson missing most of 2014, the Vikings developed some depth at the position. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata give the Vikings better running back depth than most other teams in the league. That will allow the Vikings to give Peterson a breather, which could make him even more effective.
The wide receiver corps will look a little different in 2015. Gone is leading receiver Greg Jennings, who's now with the Miami Dolphins. Last season was supposed to be a breakout year for Cordarrelle Patterson, but he struggled to understand Turner's offense and had only 33 receptions. It's hoped that he comes on this year and being that it's his second year in the system, he should.
The Vikings brought in Mike Wallace, the former Dolphin, to give them a true deep threat. Wallace was a disappointment in Miami, but that may have been because they wanted him to be a No. 1 receiver. That's not his game, and he will be much better in a role as a two or a three.
Charles Johnson started to come on last year and finished the year with 31 catches and a 15.3-yard average. Coming out of Grand Valley State in 2013, Johnson was raw but talented. He just needed time to develop, and 2015 could be a big year for him.
Jarius Wright can be an effective third receiver. He had 42 receptions a year ago and with his speed and athleticism can work well from the slot. In the draft this year, the Vikings stole Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round. Diggs has outstanding talent to go along with good size and speed. While I see him as more of an inside type, he has the skill set to also line up outside also. He will also help the Vikings as a returner.
Kyle Rudolph can be one of the better tight ends in the league -- he just has to stay healthy. Rudolph is one of the few "complete" tight ends in that he can line up as a "Y" and block as well as be a quality receiver.
Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford provide more than competent depth at the position. The Vikings also added rookie MyCole Pruitt from Southern Illinois. Pruitt's more of a "move" type player and has the speed and overall athleticism to be effective.
How the offensive line depth chart looks now and how it looks opening day could be quite different. Left tackle Matt Kalil isn't in danger of losing his job, but he needs to show improvement. He struggled at times last year, especially in pass protection.
The left guard looks to be Brandon Fusco, who started on the right side a year ago. The reason Fusco is getting work on the left side is that rookie T.J. Clemmings has been used at right guard. A few weeks before the draft, it looked like Clemmings was a solid late first-round or early second-round pick. Then an old foot injury was discovered at the NFL Combine, and that scared teams off. It enabled the Vikings to steal Clemmings in the fourth round.
The right tackle is Phil Loadholt, a seven-year veteran who takes some occasional heat but is also a consistent run and pass blocker. The Vikings center is reliable John Sullivan, who's one of the more underrated players at his position in the NFL.
Depth on the offensive line is provided by 11-year vet Joe Berger, who can play both guard and center. Rookie Austin Shepherd should also provide quality depth, as he may also be a two-position swing man (tackle and guard). David Yankey, a fifth-round pick a year ago, will round out the offensive line roster.
The Vikings defense lost only one player from their starting 11 in 2014, and that was Mike linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who signed with Dallas. The defensive line, which showed improvement a year ago, should get even better, being this is their second year in coach Mike Zimmer's system.
The starting defensive ends should be Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, who between them had 16.5 sacks a year ago. Robison is being held out of OTAs but should be ready for training camp with a pectoral injury. Taking his place is second-year man Scott Crichton, a third-round pick a year ago who didn't do much as a rookie. Crichton was a quality player at Oregon State and should come on in his second year.
The fourth defensive end will be rookie Danielle Hunter from LSU. Hunter has rare traits but just hasn't put it all together yet. He's only 20, so his best football should be in front of him.
The starting tackles will be Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd. Big expectations surround Floyd, who's entering his third year. He might be able to do for the Vikings defense what Geno Atkins does for the Bengals. Zimmer knows a little about Atkins and sees a similarity. The depth at defensive tackle is provided by Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen.
The Vikings had to find a replacement for Brinkley at the middle linebacker position. They feel they found the man in 2015 second-round pick Eric Kendricks from UCLA. Kendricks is a bit undersized, but he has outstanding instincts and is athletic. His backup should be former Eagle Casey Matthews.
At Will linebacker is another highly instinctive guy in Chad Greenway, who at 32 isn't slowing down and finished last year with 93 tackles. The Sam linebacker is 2014 top draft choice, Anthony Barr, who should show vast improvement this year and has the talent to be a dominant pass rusher.
Minnesota has four solid players at the corner position. The group is led by 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes, who keeps getting better with experience. During the offseason they signed former Bengal and Cowboy Terence Newman. At 36, Newman's best football is behind him, but he gives the Vikings invaluable experience at the position.
This year's top draft pick for Minnesota was Michigan State corner Trae Waynes, who specializes in press coverage. While he may not be ready to be the starter on opening day, it won't be long before he locks down the position opposite of Rhodes.
The fourth corner is Captain Munnerlyn, who came over from Carolina a year ago and played well. The quartet gives the Vikings great depth at the position.
At safety, Minnesota has one of the best in the NFL in Harrison Smith. Opposite of Smith, there's still a battle for the starting job. Right now, it's holdover starter Robert Blanton with the inside track for the spot, but he has to fight off challenges from Taylor Mays, Andrew Sendejo and Antone Exum. Training camp and preseason games will sort it all out.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who is an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.
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