The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a brutal offseason, and opposing fans seem to be licking their chops. The Minnesota Vikings are viewed by some as a darkhorse, and their fans are getting a chance to see the team develop a lot of strong young talent. Their fans seem to think this is a game they should win, and they certainly have some of the weapons to do it. We spoke with Daily Norseman about the upside to this intriguing Vikings squad. You can also view my responses to their questions here.
NN: What do you expect from Teddy Bridgewater in season 2? What weapons have been added to his arsenal? Norv Turner did some good things with Alex Smith before he departed after the 2007 season. What are fans hoping for in year two of the Norv OC era?
DN: No realistic Vikings fan expects Bridgewater to jump into the very top echelon of quarterbacks this season, but everyone is anticipating that he builds upon the promising finish he had to his rookie campaign. Teddy already looks more comfortable in the pocket and in control of the offense. He has added some muscle and his throws to the boundaries have a bit more zip. It's hard not to get excited about Bridgewater's potential, especially when you compare it to the parade of mediocrity the Vikings have endured at the position for most of the non-Favre years of the past decade.
Taking snaps with Adrian Peterson in the backfield for the first time isn't the only benefit Bridgewater will have this year. Mike Wallace should help keep secondaries honest. Charles Johnson had a breakout season in 2014 and looks poised to do even more in 2015. Kyle Rudolph is one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league when he's healthy, and right now he's healthy. Jarius Wright is an underrated slot receiver. This is easily the best receiving corps the Vikings have had in at least 6 years. Bridgewater and Norv Turner have plenty of toys to play with.
Vikings fans appreciate Turner because he does something that previous coaching regimes couldn't seem to grasp: he plays to his personnel's strengths. Last year he incorporated a lot of quick, easy reads to get Bridgewater acclimated. Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon were very different running backs platooning in Peterson's absence; Turner designed runs to accentuate each runner's strengths. I think fans expect Turner to open things up more in Bridgewater's sophomore season, which I'm sure is something Turner is eager to do himself. Unless the offensive line is a huge problem--and it very well could be--you should see a much more diverse and unpredictable offensive attack from Minnesota.
NN: DVOA rated the Vikings in the bottom third of the league, but the team was top third in points allowed. What can you tell us about the defensive additions?
DN: Mike Zimmer was brought in for his defensive prowess and it looks like the defense is heading in the right direction. First round pick Trae Waynes has had a slow start and he might not see the field much on Monday outside of special teams. The silver lining there is that Waynes doesn't need to be thrust into the lineup right away. The Vikings added the ageless Terence Newman (actually he's very aged--37 to be exact--but still effective) to start opposite Xavier Rhodes.
A defensive rookie you will probably notice more is linebacker Eric Kendricks. He won't start but will likely get plenty of snaps in the nickel package opposite his college roommate Anthony Barr. He had an amazing preseason and has shown a great knack for getting to the ball.
There are still some major questions about the defense, such as Robert Blanton winning the starting safety job next to Harrison Smith mostly by default instead of by merit. The ancient Chad Greenway is still starting at linebacker for now as well. But when you factor in the new additions combined with a deep front four that looks ready to wreak havoc this season, I would expect that DVOA rating to go in a positive direction this year.
Niners Nation: Adrian Peterson - that's certainly been a thing for y'all. Where does that stand, and what does essentially a year away from the game mean for the now 30-year old running back?
Daily Norseman: Judging from the reception that Peterson got from most fans at Training Camp in August, it's like last year never happened. He was still cheered like a hero and kids still screamed for his autograph after every practice. Judging from how he played at Training Camp in August, it's like he never missed all but one game last year. He was still the same explosive, impossibly athletic running back we've always known.
But of course not all Vikings fans are thrilled to have AP back, and Father Time still remains undefeated. Peterson got his usual preseason workload (exactly zero snaps) so Monday will mark one year and one week since we have seen him in game action. If it were anyone other than Peterson, you might expect some rust. Not so for this 30-year-old running back. I don't think fans will hold him to his usual preseason pledge of 2,500 yards, but the Vikings will need him to be very productive right away.
NN: Give us one offensive player and one defensive player floating a bit under the radar that could have a significant impact on Monday's game?
DN: I still think Charles Johnson will lead the Vikings in receiving yards this season even with the addition of Mike Wallace. Johnson has developed an incredible rapport with Bridgewater and looks very comfortable with what he's asked to do in this offense. Don't be surprised to see #12 early and often on Monday. When the Vikings need to move the sticks, Bridgewater usually looks his way first.
On defense watch out for new starting middle linebacker Gerald Hodges. He took everyone by surprise this preseason and truly earned the starting gig with his play. Like Kendricks, Hodges always seems to end up around the ball one way or another. Hodges has the potential to vastly improve a position that was largely a liability last season.
NN: I'll repeat yours, two honest predictions: the score on Monday, and your record projection for a Vikings squad that seems to be viewed by many as a bit of a darkhorse. On that note, how are Vikings fans handling the newfound attention?
DN: It's a prime time game, on grass, outdoors, on the road. The Vikings have an approximate record of 2-58 over the past decade in these kind of games. (Approximate. It might actually be worse. I'm too afraid to check.) There are a lot of new parts, the offensive line is a big concern, and the Vikings' kicker Blair Walsh has developed a severe case of the yips in the preseason. That said, if the Vikings can't beat a team coming off the worst offseason in recent memory in their first game under a new regime, who can they beat? I'll take Minnesota in a rather ugly, watch-between-your-fingers, still-working-things-out kind of game by a score of 21-17.
As for the season, the Vikings should get better in 2015 despite what looks to be a tougher schedule. Every time you hear a national pundit claim that the Vikings could be a playoff contender this season, you can almost hear every fan shouting "SHHHH DON'T JINX IT!" I believe the phrase "cautious optimism" is the most appropriate way to describe most fans heading into the new season. There are a lot of "ifs" that need to be answered before this team makes it back to the postseason. I think some of them will be addressed but not quite enough to make it into the playoffs. I'll predict a 9-7 finish with plenty of reasons to be excited about the team's future as they open their new stadium in 2016.