STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After a surprise playoff appearance in 2012 fueled by the production of running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings took a step back last season amid instability at quarterback and struggles in the secondary. Coach Leslie Frazier was fired at the end of the season and replaced by Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer takes over a club that has undergone major changes on defense and seeks to upgrade the quarterback position with a combination of Matt Cassel and first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater.
The Vikings hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator to improve an offense that was tied for 14th in points per game but struggled with passing efficiency (21st in yards per attempt) despite defenses focusing on the run. The Vikings were able to overcome a woeful passing attack in 2012 thanks to Peterson's epic season, but a mere All Pro effort last year put more pressure on the team's quarterback. Christian Ponder didn't respond and was benched after losses in his first three starts. The team proceeded to turn to Cassel, followed by Josh Freeman and then Ponder again. Drafting Bridgewater could stabilize the position, but it's not clear if he will start right away.
Meanwhile, all five starters on the offensive line return and the receiving corps should improve. The speedy Cordarrelle Patterson scored six touchdowns over his last five games and Turner plans to get the ball into the playmaker's hands plenty this season. Greg Jennings' stats took a sizable drop from his days in Green Bay but it may have been more a function of the decline in quarterback play. Jerome Simpson returns but he'll likely have a minimal role despite success on deep balls. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was limited to just eight games after suffering a fractured foot but remains a talent Turner could emphasize. Even though he caught just 10 passes in his college career, the Vikings believe third-round draft pick Jerick McKinnon can have a third-down role. He'll battle Matt Asiata for the team's backup running back job.
Minnesota's decline last season was largely due to defense, where the unit fell from adequate (14th in points allowed) to awful (32nd in points allowed). Zimmer, who was Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, will bring in a new scheme and personnel. The Vikings retooled their defensive line, signing run-stuffer Linval Joseph, while Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were let go. The Vikings will still employ a 4-3 scheme, but Zimmer plans to get much more creative in rushing the quarterback and using his linebackers to blitz. That strategy can be seen in Minnesota's first-round selection of speedy linebacker Anthony Barr, who will be moved around to utilize his pass rushing skills. The secondary was a problem area last season, and the Vikings hope that the signing of Captain Munnerlyn and return of Harrison Smith from injury can do wonders.
Captain Munnerlyn – CB, Panthers
A much-needed talent boost for the league's worst defensive backfield.
Linval Joseph – DT, Giants
Provides a needed run-stuffing element with the departure of Kevin Williams.
Anthony Barr – LB, UCLA (Round 1, 9th Overall)
The speedy pass rusher could key the team's new defensive scheme.
Teddy Bridgewater – QB, Louisville (Round 1, 32nd Overall)
The rookie will compete with Matt Cassel to start in Week 1.
Jerick McKinnon – RB, Georgia Southern (Round 3, 96th Overall)
He'll compete for a third-down role and could be Adrian Peterson's backup.
Jared Allen – DE, Bears
His departure creates a big hole in what was already a declining pass rush.
Kevin Williams – DT, Seahawks
The departure of the 11-year veteran prompted a revamp of the defensive line.
Toby Gerhart – RB, Jaguars
The Vikings will audition a new understudy for Adrian Peterson.
WHO STARTS AT QUARTERBACK?
After starting four quarterbacks since the end of the 2012 regular season, the Vikings hope that selecting Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick will be the long-term solution. He has a great combination of poise, arm strength, accuracy (71 percent completion percentage and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions at Louisville) and touch as a passer, and has enough athleticism to escape the pass rush. If not for a bad showing at his pro day, he may have been taken at the top of May's draft. His production on the field, especially on third down where the Vikings struggled last year, could make him a fantasy sleeper. However, with the re-signing of Matt Cassel, it's not clear if the rookie will start right away. Cassel bounced back from a disappointing 2012 season with the Chiefs to post decent numbers (11 TD, 9 INT, 81.6 QB rating) and went 3-3 as a starter for Minnesota. Christian Ponder, who began last season as the starter, remains only nominally in the mix.
WILL NORV TURNER EQUAL FANTASY GOLD?
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has frequently been a fantasy football player's best friend, as the list of top performing skill players under his watch as either head coach or offensive coordinator (Emmitt Smith, Philip Rivers and Josh Gordon to name just a few) should get anyone fired up about Minnesota's prospects. Turner's offenses typically focus on the run game with an emphasis on a pass-catching tight end and a deep threat receiver. His offenses also feature frequent passes to the running backs, and Turner has already said he'd like to get Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game. Peterson's fantasy value may get a boost as a result. Kyle Rudolph is another player who could benefit, as Turner's last two tight ends, Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron, finished in the top seven in fantasy points at the position in six of the last seven seasons. Turner also has a strong track record of developing young quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers), which bodes well for Bridgewater's prospects.
CAN THE SECONDARY IMPROVE?
The secondary was Minnesota's Achilles' heel last year, as the team started two of the league's worst 15 cornerbacks in Chris Cook and Josh Robinson, per Pro Football Focus. Since then, Captain Munnerlyn signed a three-year contract to start opposite Xavier Rhodes, who showed promise with his coverage skills as a rookie. Meanwhile, Cook was let go and Robinson will likely have a reduced role. At free safety, Harrison Smith made the Pro Bowl as a rookie but missed eight games last season with a turf toe injury. His return to health will boost the secondary. Jamarca Sanford returns at strong safety, where he's viewed as average in pass coverage.
Rising: Cordarrelle Patterson produced last season when given more opportunities and the new coaching staff has plans to make him a big part of the offense.
Declining: Patterson's emergence and Jerome Simpson's frequent drops may limit his role in the offense.
Sleeper: Kyle Rudolph was on pace for career-highs in receptions and receiving yards last season before a foot injury, plus Norv Turner's offenses typically emphasize throws to the tight end.
Supersleeper: A small school player with eye-popping combine stats, Jerick McKinnon could be Turner's next Darren Sproles.
Chad Greenway - LB
He'll shift to weak-side linebacker but also move around in the new defensive scheme.
Harrison Smith - S
Averaged more tackles and sacks per game than his rookie Pro Bowl season but missed eight games due to a foot injury.
Brian Robison/Everson Griffen - DE
Pressure will be on the duo to replace the pass rush Jared Allen provided.
RotoWire Rank: 28