NFC North champs need Teddy Bridgewater to do more than hand off.
Last year’s playoff loss provides motivation
There are heartbreaking ways for a season to end. Then there is the way 2015 ended for the Minnesota Vikings: a missed 27-yard field goal attempt with 22 seconds remaining in a 10-9 NFC wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
But the Vikings returned to work this spring determined not to let that define their future or overshadow the tremendous progress they made last year, when they ended the Green Bay Packers' four-year reign atop the NFC North.
The Vikings head into 2016 thinking they will have one of the league's best defenses — Minnesota allowed the fifth-fewest points last year — and an improved offense in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's third season and that these strengths could propel them deeper into the playoffs.
Running back Adrian Peterson said there was a different feeling around the team's training facility this off-season.
While every team might spend those April weightlifting sessions and voluntary practices thinking they could make the postseason, the Vikings spent those months not just talking about the playoffs but also talking about the Super Bowl.
“It's great for people to be able to envision it and then speak those things into existence. But also put the work in,” Peterson says.
“Everything hasn't been perfect, but the one thing I like is guys right here are working hard and putting their best foot forward to improve. You know guys are not going through the motions, and you know, this early, to see that type of energy and that type of competitiveness from the guys and the young guys as well has me pretty excited.”
How attainable the Super Bowl is depends in large part on the continued development of Bridgewater and the rest of the offense.
Bridgewater was efficient and mostly effective in his second season, throwing for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions. But the offense was rarely dynamic, and that's something the team is looking to change.
Part of that evolution includes a more diverse running game, with Peterson being asked to take handoffs not just when Bridgewater is under center.
But a lot of it is on Bridgewater, who has been given a green light from coaches and teammates to be more aggressive, particularly in trying to throw downfield. He averaged 4.92 yards per completion (based on how far his passes are traveling in the air) last year, less than all but two other quarterbacks (the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford and the St. Louis Rams' Nick Foles).
“He just seems to be cutting it loose a little bit more,” coach Mike Zimmer says. “He sees it and he lets it go. He's shown some really nice deep balls. He seems like he's matured and he's more comfortable in everything that he does.” QUARTERBACK
There's no quarterback controversy here: The Vikings are Bridgewater's
team. But that doesn't mean they don't need more from their 2014 first-round pick in order to achieve a more balanced offense. That doesn't necessarily mean Bridgewater routinely needs to be throwing for more than 300 yards per game, but it will be important that he continue to improve his connection with receiver Stefon Diggs and quickly build rapport with rookie Laquon Treadwell. RUNNING BACK
After missing most of the 2014 season and then last offseason, Peterson has been a regular fixture around the team facility during this spring and summer. More time working with Bridgewater and offensive coordinator Norv Turner should help diversify the offense. “A lot of times during the springtime you look at different things and then you find out what's good and what's bad and you throw some stuff out or you add on to things that look good and you come up with some more ideas,” Peterson says. It is expected he'll be joined in the running back room by Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, Peterson's backups since 2014. WIDE RECEIVER
German Moritz Boehringer might have been one of the feel-good stories of the draft, but look for the first rounder, Treadwell, to be the rookie making the most immediate i mpact. Adding Treadwell to a group that includes Diggs and Jarius Wright will give Bridgewater a big, physical tool to help improve the downfield passing game. TIGHT END
Kyle Rudolph took a big step in 2015 when he started all 16 games for the first time since 2012, and he should generate buzz this summer as a valuable f antasy tight end and a big part of the passing game. The question is how he and Bridgewater can i mprove their connection in the red zone after Rudolph scored five touchdowns, four below his career high. OFFENSIVE LINE
This is an area in flux, with several positions up for grabs heading into training camp. The Vikings added former San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone and Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andre Smith in free agency, i ncreasing competition at t hose positions. The most intriguing name to watch in August is Phil Loadholt. The longtime starter at right tackle might have a hard time making the 53-man roster after missing 2015 with an Achilles tear. DEFENSIVE LINE
The Vikings have a solid front t hanks to defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, who combined for 15½ sacks last season. Griffen is a particularly dangerous pass rusher, with 22½ sacks over the last two seasons. But the Vikings are also stout inside, with defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph. LINEBACKER
Anthony Barr is an emerging star after making his first Pro Bowl in 2015 in his second year in the NFL. He's quickly x-clinched playoff spot; y-clinched division
SUPER BOWL 50
Denver 24, Carolina 10 proving to be one of t he league's most well-rounded linebackers, thanks to his ability to rush the passer (3½ sacks last year) as well as cover (seven passes defended in 2015). The Vikings resigned veteran weak side linebacker Chad Greenway this spring to keep their linebacking corps intact. SECONDARY
Perhaps Minnesota's biggest off-season move was locking up safety Harrison Smith to a long-term contract (five years, $51.25 million) that makes him the highestpaid safety in the NFL. The question is who will start beside him at strong safety. The Vikings also are looking for improvement from cornerback Trae Waynes, a 2015 first-round pick. SPECIAL TEAMS Kicker Blair Walsh's sea- son ended in disaster, but the Vikings don't seem concerned about his ability to move past the missed playoff kick. The Vikings have one of the NFL's most dynamic kickoff returners in Cordarrelle Patterson, so it will be interesting to see if the new touchback rule, moving them to the 25 instead of the 20-yard line, impacts his effectiveness. COACHING
Zimmer's i mprint is all over the defense, so it should be no surprise that group is rapidly improving into one of the NFL's best. He continues to surround himself with experienced coordinators, notably with former NFL head coach Turner in charge of Bridgewater and the offense's development. Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones