The journey continues. Today the countdown bus — a slightly less glorious version of John Madden’s swag wagon — makes a stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

HOW THEY GOT HERE:

Since drafting him in 2007, the Vikings have been mere witnesses along for the ride on Adrian Peterson’s journey to Canton/an audition for Avengers. A 2009 NFC Championship bid not withstanding (when the bearded one decided to step away from a promising career in the Wrangler’s Backwoods Buddies Football league) AP has carried the Vikes through hell and high water, Brad Childress’s mustache,  an ACL/MCL tear,  and a partial collapse of their freaking stadium.

Sure he’s had help in the form of guys like Jared Allen, Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, Pat Williams, and Kevin Williams, but all other key fixtures have departed.

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Insanity. Want perspective? It took Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy — the beta and gamma to Peterson’s alpha — until their fifth and sixth years, respectively, in their careers to even come close to  AP’s usage stats. Both the aforementioned stars recorded career highs in touches last year with Charles’ 329 amounting to 32 percent of Kansas City’s offense, while McCoy’s 376 equated to 36 percent of Chip Kelly’s high-paced attack. Cute, especially when you consider AP’s yearly average is 32 percent and that McCoy’s 36 percent would only be third on AP’s career high list.

Sufficed to say, Peterson is what you’d call a grown ass man.

How AP-centered is Minnesota’s offense? Consider this: since Peterson entered the league in 2007, the Vikings have had one passer over 3,000 yards, one 1,000-yard receiver, and one player (excluding QB’s) not named Adrian with double digit TD’s. Even worse, ALLof these successful outlierscame in the team’s 2009 playoff run, with Favre passing for 4,202 yards, Sidney Rice hauling in 1,312 yards on 83 catches, and Visanthe Shiancoe grabbing 11 touchdown catches.

The picture doesn’t get much better when considering yards from scrimmage, where only Chester Taylor in 2007 (1,125 yards), and Percy Harvin in 2011 (1,312 yards) have joined AP in the 1,000+ club. That’s just not good enough.  As Peterson gets closer and closer to the age of 30, the Vikings can’t lean solely on their beastly back much longer, his claims of football immortality aside. (Easy there, All Day. You’re making Tony Stark blush.)

But what of the others? Surely the great Peterson had teammates? He sure did, especially on the other side of the line. In addition to the aforementioned sack master Jared Allen, there was the fearsome Williams duo on the interior of the d-line, tackling machine Chad Greenway, and journeyman ball hawk Antoine Winfield, forming a nucleus on defense that produced back-to-back playoff appearances in 2008 and 2009. Others that helped carry Minnesota selectively during the ‘08-‘12 stretch included the ageless Brett Favre, that sporadic Sidney Rice, and brotherly, thumping linebackers E.J.and Erin Henderson.

It’s also more than a bit generous to call Minnesota’s playoff appearances — save 2009 — “runs.” The 2008 postseason ended as quickly as it began when the Vikings fell to the Super Bowl-bound Eagles in the wildcard round. In 2012, Minnesota dug themselves a 24-3 hole that Bruce Wayne would have trouble climbing out of, dropping that wildcard match up by a score of 24-10.

Looking for answers? It’s pretty simple. Not to knock Peterson, but in four career playoff games, he has rushed for 83, 63, 122 and 99 yards respectively — an average of 91.8 yards per playoff game. The Vikings game plan, absent a hall of fame quarterback, has just been far too predictable, and to the detriment of one of the NFL’s greatest players.

The postseason is not home to mediocre defenses. If you can’t sling the rock, you need your running back to do things like this when you’re facing seven or eight defenders in the box. It’s not that Peterson has been bad, but his 93 carries for 367 yards amounts to a very human 3.95 YPC through four postseason games. His five TD’s are impressive, but given that AP is relied upon for a third of Minnesota’s offense, when he’s not running like a superhero, Minnesota can’t move the ball. (It should be noted: three of Peterson’s five career postseason scores came in the OT loss in 2009 against the New Orleans Saints.)

With advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Vikings have struggled to produce consistent success. Of those veterans named earlier, only Greenway remains, and 2013 saw the last of a troubled Erin Henderson and aged veterans Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. Roster turnover, in addition to the revolving door at QB and head coach, have produced a vacuum that even Peterson cannot help the Vikes escape.

Looking at the last five years, the Vikings have compiled a 22-10 record in two winning seasons and a 14-33 tally in three losing seasons. Twice in the past three seasons the Vikings have selected in the top ten in the NFL Draft. While a total of five first round picks in the past two seasons have stacked Minnesota’s deck with some impressive cards, time may still be needed to catch the Vikings’ young talent up to speed at the NFL level. Could the time be now?

LOCKED AND LOADED?

One could make the case that the NFC North could be the most competitive division in all the NFL. Most will namedrop the smashmouth NFC West and wouldn’t be wrong, but a division that features Aaron Rodgers, a transformer, and Chicago wide outs that dwarf most NBA backcourts is a division that provides ample opportunity for losses in the annual six match ups between each of its members.

So where’s the cause for optimism? Rick Spielman, who’s been given a hell of a leash by the Vikings higher ups, has decided that he’s sick of the sporadic fluctuation between 4th place in the North to first round playoff exits and made moves to acquire seven first round picks in the past three drafts.

Now imagine if you will a supermarket where NFL organizations could go to pick up the “groceries” to create their team. What does the ideal list look like? There’s always room for debate, especially with regard to items 3-5, but a good list would look something like this:

  1. A franchise QB
  2. A pass rush
  3. Play making receiver
  4. A quality offensive line
  5. Play making defensive backs

While navigating the NFL’s version of a super center you have to be focused, so be sure to ignore the following sights: (a) Rex Ryan salivating over the “beefsteaks” to play along their defensive line; (b) Browns GM Ray Farmer muttering to head coach Mike Pettine “We’re switching to Powerade” as the pair squint skeptically at Gatorade’s “Perform” line; (c) Jerry Jones flirting with a pretty cashier while asking  where he can purchase barbecue chips — you know, the ones with the riffles; and (d) Shahid Khan giggling hysterically every time he sees a price tag with the number 15 in.

Through it all, one must remain focused and find the items listed above. Of course it’s no secret on how to build a franchise. Most teams understand what they need to succeed. The trouble is, like Turducken on Thanksgiving, a lot of the time these items are sold out.

Let’s take a look at Minnesota’s last seven first round picks:

2012 Draft:

No. 4 pick — Matt Kalil, LT, USC. Drafted to be the franchise left tackle, appears to be on his way, despite not making the jump some thought he would following his strong rookie season.

No. 29 — Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame. Struggled with injuries in 2013, missing a total of eight games, but his rookie season proved that Smith can be a playmaker. He wracked up over 100 tackles and three picks. The safety was once a linebacker at Notre Dame where he enjoyed a fruitful career, highlighted by his 2010 campaign which saw him record seven picks.

2013 Draft:

No. 23 — Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida. Floyd had a quiet rookie season, collecting 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 16 games. Still, the 23-year-old still holds enough upside to be a rock in the middle of Mike Zimmer’s aggressive 4-3 scheme.

No. 25 — Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State. A rare blend of size and speed, Rhodes was likewise a little quiet in his rookie season, failing to register an interception. But the former Seminole broke up ten passes in just 13 games, seeing starting action in only six of those contests.

No. 29 — Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee. The word speedster should not be attached to 6-2, 200 pounds but that’s just what the emerging star brings to the table. Patterson proved to be an all-purpose game-breaker in his rookie season despite being hampered by poor quarterbacking and his own rawness. In 2013, he collected 627 yards from scrimmage (469 receiving, 158 rushing), four touchdown catches, and a staggering 1,393 kick return yards to go along with a pair of return TD’s. He is being talked about as a potential breakout player this season.

2014 Draft:

No. 9 — Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA. Barr provides a tremendous burst off the edge, despite standing at a towering 6-5, 255 pounds. The former running back has spent just two years rushing the quarterback at UCLA, so he’s still got a ways to go learning the nuances of the position. But with his freaky athleticism and the size to be nigh unblockable, you can see why the Vikings weren’t in too much of a hurry to keep Jared Allen in the building.

No. 32 — Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Teddy Bridgewater has the opportunity to make pro-days obsolete. Now even if he ends up wearing the gold jacket in Canton one day, reporters and scouts will still fawn over groundbreaking events like Johnny Manziel dawning on shoulder pads for a pro day. It’s a head scratcher as to why Teddy Bridgewater struggled with his own pro-day, but the fact that it contributed in any way to his fall to the 32nd spot in the 2014 draft is an utter travesty. Through two preseason games, Teddy Football has looked markedly better than Johnny Football, granted the former has seen more snaps against backup competition.

Forget preseason numbers and college stats. Those can only be taken so far. Bridgewater is the better passer. I’m not a scout, but it’s no secret Bridgewater is further along as a pocket passer than Manziel. That’s not to say Johnny can’t be good, but when you consider that Bridgewater can make plays on the move as well as in the pocket with the latter being his strength, then you can understand the root of my cynicism towards the pairs respective draft days.

Manziel is not who Teddy needs to worry about, however. Matt Cassel is currently slated ahead of Bridgewater on the Minnesota depth chart. The well-traveled veteran has looked sharp in the preseason, sharp enough to hold off the promising Bridgewater. But let’s be honest here, save for a repeat of Adrian Peterson’s 2012 season, are you confident that Matt Cassel can take a team to the playoffs? These are not the 2008 New England Patriots — and let’s not forget, the Matt Cassel/Randy Moss/Wes Welker connection failed to make the playoffs in the 2009 postseason. If nothing else, Cassel provides an excellent transition to the future in Bridgewater, where Teddy won’t be overly pressured to be “the guy” before he’s absolutely ready.

So let’s pause here and review our shopping list:

1. Franchise QB. 

Is Teddy the guy? He’s too skinny right? He played mediocre opponents! His pro day was damming! No one’s ever overcome a bad pro day! Just take this scrub.

All joking aside, Drew Brees, as well as Nick Foles and Cam Newton, certainly don’t appear to be going anywhere either. But just because others have overcome similar critiques doesn’t mean that Bridgewater will. You’ll also have to take Teddy’s early preseason success with a healthy dose of salt, given the fact that he embarrassed the Cardinals third and fourth stringers. All that said, writing off a man who has had the success Bridgewater has had against college opponents  in and outside the Big East would be a mistake. The jury’s still out, but be ready for the Rise of Teddy.

2. Pass Rush.

In Mike Zimmer’s time calling the shots for the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense, he was at his most successful when he had depth along his four-man front. Cincy stocked their defensive line with the likes of Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Margus Hunt.

It was for that reason that many believed the Vikings should have taken Geno Atkins 2.0 aka Aaron Donald with the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft. Instead they  selected the uber-athletic Barr. Barr certainly has the sizzle. Turn on any of his YouTube highlights and you’ll see a speed demon inside a hulk’s body, but highlights are highlights. There are areas of Barr’s game that need to improve. As previously noted, he’s still very green at playing defense, let alone linebacker, and needs to play up to the power his frame suggests. He’ll have a tough time ripping around NFL offensive linemen with his burst alone when those linemen can use his size against him to negate any leverage he may have enjoyed more often in the NCAA. The Spielman/Zimmer dream is that Barr can fill a similar role that Von Miller did for the Broncos after being drafted back in 2011. Barr is not as far along as Miller was, but the raw explosiveness off the edge should help compensate for the loss of Jared Allen.

Elsewhere, the Vikings believe in Everson Griffen as made evident by the 5-year, $42.5 million contract he was given back in March. The 26-year-old has started just one game in his NFL career, but the former fourth rounder has flashed in rotational work , compiling 17.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He’ll need to take the next step to make him worth the ludicrous $20 million guaranteed he was promised in the new deal.

The quietly underrated Brian Robison will also be asked to continue to supply his steady pass-rushing presence, one that’s seen him register at least eight sacks in the previous three seasons. On the interior, the addition of run-stuffing Linval Joseph will be a nice pairing with the young Sharrif Floyd. Depth additions of third round pick Scott Crichton and free agent Corey Wooton on the ends provide pieces for Zimmer to rotate as he pleases, something he did a lot of with a deep group in Cincy.

In summation, there are some nice pieces in place, and some unknown. The youth leaves the arrow pointing up for the group, and if Barr pans out, the front seven could be a solid unit.

3. Play making receivers.

Cordarrelle Patterson is the only guy among the Vikings wide receivers that keeps you up at night, but could Greg Jennings resurface as a gamebreaker with defenses focusing on Patterson and a potential upgrade at QB? He managed 804 yards receiving on 68 catches last season, and if he can get a consistent starter throwing him the ball, there’s a chance you could see a 2011 Steve Smith-esque resurgence when Smith awoke for 1,394 yards following back to back seasons of sub-1,000 yard ball. The quarterback? No.1 overall pick, Cam Newton. Now Bridgewater and Newton are different players, but consider the fact that Smith was 32 whereas Jennings will be 31 in the third week of this upcoming season. Again, two totally different players and rates of decline, and Jennings is two years removed from missing half the 2012 season with a groin injury, but it shows a comeback for a 30+ year old receiver is not unprecedented.

Kyle Rudolph has some significant upside, especially as a red zone target. Many scrambled to add the 6-6, 260-pound Rudolph following his nine touchdowns in 2012, but the 24-year old regressed back to a paltry three touchdown performance thanks in large part to a broken foot that caused him to miss half the season. But after Teddy Bridgewater, no one stands to gain more from the installation of Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator than Rudolph.

Since 2007, tight ends on a Turner roster have scored no less than seven TD’s and recorded no less than 538 yards. Now it’s worth noting that for the first six seasons of that stretch, future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates was Turner’s starter at tight end, but in 2013, as the offensive coordinator of the Browns, Norv found a way to get Jordan Cameron the ball 80 times for 917 yards and seven TDs, despite having the likes of Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, and Jason Campbell under center. If nothing else, Rudolph can expect to be a focal point in the Vikings passing attack in 2014.

Jerome Simpson, who has been suspended for the first three games of the coming season, figures to be a solid No. 3 option in Turner’s offense, while speedster Jarius Wright looks to have a good hold on the fourth spot. A battle for No. 5 on the depth chart appears to be coming down to two 2013 undrafted products: local kid, Adam Thielen of Minnesota State Mankato, and former Seminole and height-speed freak, Rodney Smith.  Predictably, the Vikings have kept both on the roster for the first three weeks of the season , the duration of Jerome Simpson’s suspension. It’s conceivable that only one will stay on following Simpsons’ reinstatement. 

4. Offensive Line

The fuss over Matt Kalil and the status of his development moving into year three is whether he’ll make the leap to franchise left tackle. After a strong rookie season, the USC-grad didn’t progress as many expected, struggling at times with pass protection last year. Further stagnation would throw a wrench in Minnesota’s plans for the development of their young offense. Phil Loadholt, sits across the line at the road-grating right tackle spot. The interior features a solid yet unspectacular  trio of Charles Johnson, John Sullivan, and Brandon Fusco from left to right, whose jobs once again will be to clear lanes for AP, with added emphasis to protect the quarterback in Norv Turner’s pass-heavy scheme. There’s some interesting depth in the unit as well with former mean mauler and Stanford Cardinal,  2014 5th round pick David Yankey and former Jets second round pick Vlad Ducasse. Yankey has looked liked one of the best interior lineman in the country at times during his collegiate career but does not possess elite athleticism or consistency, which  may explain why he was available to the Vikings in the fifth round of this year’s draft. His grit and versatility to play tackle in a pinch make him a quality reserve with upside. Ducasse never reached his potential in New York but has a nice blend of experience and age (he’s just 26) to believe he’s not necessarily peaked yet. Austin Wentworth and Antonio Richardson are a pair of undrafted tackles with upside, but the former will start his first season on the practice squad while the latter was placed on IR and will miss the entire 2014 season. Both  have experience on the blindside in college.

5. Play making defensive backs

Harrison Smith, former linebacker and safety for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish showed his versatility in his 2012 rookie season, flashing physical presence with over 100 tackles and his playmaking talent with three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. His  2013 was cut in half with injuries, but in eight games he was still able to collect 58 tackles and two picks. That pace would have seen him finish with 116 tackles and four picks. He’ll be relied upon to be the secondary’s catalyst again in 2014 with a considerable amount of youth surrounding him. Captain Munnerlyn is coming off a career season with Carolina, one in which he recorded two interceptions, 3.5 sacks, and  12 passes defended. Without the same dominant front seven ahead of him, Munnerlyn may struggle to reproduce those numbers, especially if the Vikings plan on sending the 5-8 corner out of his ideal nickel position and out to the perimeter. Xavier Rhodes will move into a full-time starter role and look to build upon a relatively quiet rookie season. Josh Robinson and  Jabari Price will rotate to the outside on passing downs to allow Munnerlyn to move back inside. Robert Blanton was given a bit of a surprising vote of confidence over veterans Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman who were both released in Minnesota’s final round of cuts. Blanton, a 2012 fifth round pick out of Notre Dame with just three career starts and time at both corner and safety will start opposite fellow Notre Dame teammate Harrison Smith.

CONCLUSION:

So master chef Mike Zimmer has picked out some promising ingredients for what figures to be a pretty tasty dish. If this preseason is any indication, the Vikings may be on the ascent in much shorter order than most anticipate. A 4-0 record doesn’t always mean much at this stage, but the manner of acquiring it certainly does. The Vikings held all but one preseason opponent to 12 points or less, averaging themselves a little over 22 points a game. All totaled, they outscored opponents 89-49. This is without Adrian Peterson taking a single snap. Throughout the the NFL’s annual meat grinder, the Vikings have emerged with a clean bill of health, strong quarterback play from an incumbent and a rookie, and a high intensity defense.

It won’t be an easy road through the ferocious NFC North, but let’s not forget the rest of the division is not without their flaws. The Bears seem to lose Jay Cutler every year for a stretch, and their once-vaunted defense resembled more closely the Cubs playoff chances of the past 100+ Years. The Lions have issues with their QB’s on-field decision-making, their shaky defensive backfield, and the fact that offensive mastermind and QB-starved (2013 excluded) Ken Whisenhunt spurned a chance to jump aboard the Stafford-Megatron train in favor of the Jake Locker experience in Tennessee. Poking holes in the Packers roster is a frivolous pursuit, but keep in mind they are one collarbone’s throw away from a .500 season.

One thing is for sure; the Vikes will have to better on the road this season; a year ago, Minnesota was held without a win, going 0-7-1* away from home (*their London victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers was considered a home game despite being at a neutral site). They’ll be tested in short order, as five of their eight road games come in the first eight contests of the season. If the Vikings are able to split their six division game, manageable wins can be found on their schedule in Rams, Falcons, Bills, Buccaneers, Redskins, Jets and Dolphins. That leaves ten wins very much on the table.

 

VERDICT: 10-6, 2nd place in the NFC North, Fringe Playoff Team

Call me crazy but it’s happened before. Chicago seems to have a habit of inopportune injuries, and I’m not sold on their defense yet. Detroit has a nasty habit of shooting themselves in the foot, and their defense-outside the front four-is not all that intimidating. Maybe not all the ingredients are ripe just yet, but don’t sleep on Chef Zimmer and what looks to be the best hot dish Minnesota has tasted in a long, long, time.

 

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Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog and a senior broadcast and mass communications major at SUNY Oswego. He has previously worked for SB Nation, WFAN and the NYCBL.