Minnesota Vikings 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
The 2014 Minnesota Vikings will take aim at a climb out of the cellar in the NFC North. After placing second and securing a Wild Card berth in 2012, they found themselves a bottom-feeder in 2013 and the coaching staff was overhauled as a result.
In came head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator George Edwards among others. A number of aging veterans were shown the door along with the previous staff. A much younger squad returns to Minnesota in 2014, which bodes well for the future, especially with seven first-round picks from the last three drafts in tow.
There's also enough continuity in some position groupings to expect immediate returns in the Zimmer era. Despite a minor overhaul in terms of coaching and personnel, the Vikings should be expected to compete right away in 2014.
Let's go through the depth chart position by position, analyze the biggest difference-makers and take a look at the schedule to preview what the Minnesota Vikings have in store this season.
1. Matt Cassel
2. Teddy Bridgewater
3. Christian Ponder
No other position group will come under similar scrutiny as the season wears on in Minnesota. Incumbent Matt Cassel re-signed with the Vikings back in March under a two-year contract. The totals bear out to just over $10 million with no dead money in 2015, according to Spotrac. The structure of it set the Vikings up to identify a young quarterback for the future and have Cassel bridge the offense.
Minnesota followed up that plan by drafting Teddy Bridgewater in the first round of the draft. Bridgewater then proceeded to dazzle in the preseason, but he couldn't supplant Cassel in the end. Expectations that Bridgewater could unseat Cassel by midseason still hover over this position group though. Cassel will be expected to perform or step aside for the upstart rookie.
2. Matt Asiata
3. Jerick McKinnon
1. Jerome Felton
2. Zach Line
Each time Minnesota measures themselves up against a week's opponent in 2014, this will be a position that they have an edge. Adrian Peterson is obviously the reason. He already tops the Vikings' all-time leaders in rushing yards by a comfortable 3,297 yards and will only look to further that with another big season. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will involve Peterson in the passing game more than he has ever been involved in the past, so big numbers should follow.
Spelling Peterson is the bruising back Matt Asiata and the lightning bug Jerick McKinnon. Both should factor in for playing time and bring their own unique skills to the table. It's the rookie McKinnon who provides the most excitement and athleticism of the two.
2013 was a step back for offensive staple Jerome Felton, who earned Pro Bowl honors in 2012. Felton retains his spot as the starting fullback again in 2014. His role should see a change in a new offensive system, and he may play a lower snap count than in years prior.
The addition of Zach Line meant the Vikings kept two fullbacks, a peculiar strategy. Line's usage should differ from Felton's, so he isn't a straight replacement for the starter. How Norv Turner makes use of two fullbacks remains to be seen.
1. Cordarrelle Patterson
3. Jerome Simpson
4. Jarius Wright
5. Adam Thielen
6. Rodney Smith
Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings are the two receivers who will see the field the most from this unit. Both are in line for bumps in production in comparison to last season, especially so for Patterson.
How these two receivers' skills are utilized through play-calling will be interesting to watch develop. Patterson is a yards-after-catch specialist who also has the speed and size to win over the top. Jennings thrives in separating from coverage underneath and could feature heavily in the slot.
Jerome Simpson is not on the current 53-man roster because he has been suspended for the first three games, per the Vikings' official website. Once back, he figures to see more of the field than the final three unless one of them truly takes hold of their opportunity.
Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith could all see enough playing time in Simpson's absence to state their case for increased roles. Both Thielen and Smith earned their way onto the roster with impressive training camp and preseason play, but they must perform to stay on through the season.
1. Kyle Rudolph
2. Rhett Ellison
3. MarQueis Gray
Kyle Rudolph is the headliner of this group. He signed a five-year contract over the summer that makes him the fifth-highest paid tight end in the NFL in average salary and the fourth-highest paid Viking in 2014, according to Spotrac. The numbers indicate just how high expectations will be for Rudolph coming into his fourth season in the NFL.
Rhett Ellison is back for his third season in the purple and gold and could see his usage bumped up as the No. 2 tight end. The recently-claimed MarQueis Gray could also factor in the playing-time equation.
1. Matt Kalil
2. Mike Harris
1. Charlie Johnson
2. David Yankey
1. John Sullivan
2. Joe Berger
1. Brandon Fusco
2. Vladimir Ducasse
1. Phil Loadholt
2. Mike Harris
The whole starting unit returns intact from a year ago, and the continuity up front should help the big uglies up front.
The two tackle positions will get the most attention in 2014, as they usually do. Matt Kalil is coming off a slumping sophomore season and a shaky preseason at the left tackle position. Big things are expected from the former top-five draft selection, so monitoring his progress this season will happen under a microscope.
Phil Loadholt takes his place as the starting right tackle for the sixth year running in Minnesota. He's been sufficient at worst over his tenure, so he's hardly a point of worry for the coaching staff and fans alike.
He may not be the headliner, but John Sullivan is the best player on the offensive line and one of the best centers in the league. This season will also be his sixth as the starter in Minnesota. His intelligence from the position is a big aid to the rest of the offensive line, and he's a big reason why Minnesota has one of the better offensive lines in the league.
Brandon Fusco will return as the starter after taking a big step forward last year. Charlie Johnson is the guard on the other side. If any of the starters is to lose their job during the season, Johnson is probably the one, but even that appears unlikely.
The Vikings round out the unit with a number of versatile guys who can factor at multiple positions in rookie David Yankey and veterans Mike Harris, Vladimir Ducasse and Joe Berger.
Left Defensive End
1. Brian Robison
2. Corey Wootton
3-Technique Defensive Tackle
1. Sharrif Floyd
2. Tom Johnson
1. Linval Joseph
2. Shamar Stephen
Right Defensive End
1. Everson Griffen
2. Scott Crichton
The defensive line is the clear strength of the Vikings defense and is the unit that has to perform for the defense to have respectable numbers in 2014.
Ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are veterans of the Purple and Gold and should be in line for big seasons in 2014. Griffen is the third-highest paid Viking on the back of a new contact and Robison is eighth via Spotrac, so expectations for the pair will be high. Griffen and Robison combining for 25 sacks or more isn't beyond possibility.
Sharrif Floyd will play a much bigger role in 2014. He's the full-time 3-technique now and his snap count will drastically increase. Floyd is one of the most important players for the Vikings defense, and his development after a disappointing rookie season will be closely watched. Tom Johnson was signed from the New Orleans Saints and will factor in sub-packages in Floyd's stead.
The nose tackle position has been majorly overhauled. Letroy Guion, Fred Evans and even Kevin Williams saw time there last season. All three have been shown the door and in comes the highly-regarded Linval Joseph. He's firmly entrenched in the starting lineup and will play a big role. His backup is seventh-round rookie Shamar Stephen.
Depth at the end positions comes in veteran Corey Wootton and rookie Scott Crichton. Both could factor in a rotation along with defensive line in 2014, with Wootton likely to see more of the snaps.
1. Anthony Barr
2. Gerald Hodges
1. Jasper Brinkley
2. Audie Cole
1. Chad Greenway
2. Brandon Watts
3. Michael Mauti
The starting lineup in the linebacker corps is another that saw an overhaul from the 2013 unit, with only a single returnee, Chad Greenway. He enters his eighth season in Minnesota, all as a starter, and is the veteran of the group.
Jasper Brinkley makes his return to Minnesota after a year away in Arizona. He appears set to start in the middle but likely comes off the field in nickel sets. He brings a physical, thumping presence in the box.
With their top-10 selection in the last draft, Minnesota selected linebacker Anthony Barr. He'll start as the strong-side linebacker in the base defense. Barr also will stay on the field in most nickel units either at linebacker next to Greenway or walked down to rush end with his hand down.
Gerald Hodges backs up Barr in his second season and could be the linebacker who sees the most snaps next to Greenway in the nickel set. Hodges, Audie Cole, Brandon Watts and Michael Mauti round out the depth in the unit and all will heavily factor in special teams units.
1. Captain Munnerlyn
2. Josh Robinson
3. Marcus Sherels
1. Xavier Rhodes
2. Jabari Price
3. Shaun Prater
1. Robert Blanton
2. Antone Exum
3. Jamarca Sanford (IR)
1. Harrison Smith
2. Andrew Sendejo
The secondary enters 2014 with the most question marks of any defensive unit. Captain Munnerlyn was the only veteran addition, though he will start on the left side and then move to the slot in nickel packages. Munnerlyn should make a huge impact.
Sophomore Xavier Rhodes will start on the right side and could progress into one of the league's best cornerbacks in 2014. He has all the physical tools to become just that. If he can leap the sophomore wall, expectations should be very high.
Harrison Smith is the anchor of the secondary from his free safety position as long as he stays healthy. His role will change in a new defensive scheme that will utilize more man-coverage concepts and walk a safety up near the line of scrimmage regularly. Expectations shouldn't change for Harrison Smith though. He's capable of great play that impacts the game regularly. Special teams ace Andrew Sendejo sits behind Smith in the depth chart.
By default, it appears Robert Blanton will flank Smith at the safety position. Blanton has been in and out of the team with injuries since his arrival from Notre Dame, but he could have a long stay at strong safety if he can grab hold of the position. He might be pushed by rookie Antone Exum, who provides value at safety or slot cornerback.
Josh Robinson should get another opportunity to impress in 2014, this time back on the outside. His struggles in the slot a season ago were well-known. Marcus Sherels could also factor for playing time if injuries hit. Jabari Price and Shaun Prater fill out the depth at the cornerback position but shouldn't factor in for much playing time.
1. Blair Walsh
1. Jeff Locke
1. Cullen Loeffler
1. Marcus Sherels
2. Jarius Wright
1. Cordarrelle Patterson
2. Marcus Sherels
Every name that features in the Vikings special teams unit should look familiar. All are returnees from one of the league's best units in 2013.
Blair Walsh has become one of the best kickers in the league, hitting 35 of 38 field-goal attempts a year ago. A shaky preseason may be a cause for concern.
Jeff Locke was a disappointment in his rookie season as his punt team only finished 18th in the NFL in average net punt at 39.2 yards. Expectations should be higher as Locke plays his second season under special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
Marcus Sherels is the incumbent punt returner and is one of the league's best at what he does. He finished third in 2013 in yards per punt return with 15.2. Not putting the ball on the ground and springing a couple long returns should be the expectation again.
The Vikings don't seem fully committed to Cordarrelle Patterson as the kick returner, but they probably should be. He led the league in 2013 in yards per kick return and returned two for touchdowns. He has game-breaking ability that can be harnessed as a returner.
These three players stand out as ones whose performances will have a close correlation with the Vikings' results from a season and game-to-game standpoint. If these players perform well, it changes the dynamic of what the Vikings can be more than most players are able. If they don't play well, big problems could ensue.
After playing only 39.6 percent of defensive snaps a season ago, per Pro Fooball Focus (subscription required), Floyd is in line for a big bump in playing time.
He will also play at a lighter weight in 2014, which should make him a quicker and more powerful defensive tackle. Floyd impressed throughout the preseason with improved quickness and technique, so development is taking place.
Mike Zimmer developed Geno Atkins into the league's best 3-technique tackle in Cincinnati and could produce similar results with Floyd, though Floyd's playing style and size are different. He'll have the same role in Zimmer's defense and will be tasked with consistently producing disruption through the middle of opposing offensive lines.
Sheer snap counts are a big reason why Munnerlyn is an important player defensively. While he flips between outside alignments and the slot as defensive packages change, it's tough to see Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards bringing him off the field very often.
Creating turnovers is the hallmark of Munnerlyn's skills. Minnesota's defense was near the bottom of the league in 2013 in takeaways per game and defensive interception percentage, per TeamRankings.com. The turnover differential is a decent predictor of outcomes, so the Vikings defense can improve itself quickly by creating turnovers. Part of the reason Captain Munnerlyn was brought to Minnesota was to do just that.
Impactful performance from Kyle Rudolph is the quickest way for the Vikings offense to take a step forward in 2014. The performance of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson also appear to be more known quantities than Kyle Rudolph at this point in terms of production.
Under Norv Turner, a big jump is expected. Through players like Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron, Turner has historically produced tight ends with big numbers. Kyle Rudolph could be next in 2014.
The complication in this prediction is that Rudolph has never had more than 500 yards receiving in a single season. He could realistically make a jump to 700 or 800 yards in 2014 or could hover around the 400 or 500 mark. Where he ends up in terms of receptions, yards and especially touchdowns, as one of the Vikings few true red-zone threats, will make a difference in the efficiency of Minnesota's passing game.
Strength of Schedule
21st based on 2013 win-loss records, according to ESPN.
Four Most Imposing Games
1. At Chicago Bears
2. At Green Bay Packers
3. At New Orleans Saints
4. vs. New England Patriots
Annual games in Chicago and Green Bay always prove difficult for Minnesota. The Vikings have only won once in their last 13 trips to Chicago and once in their last nine to Green Bay. They also return to New Orleans and the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since 2010. Vikings fans are still trying to forget the last time New England visited the Twin Cities, and the opposition is no weaker this time around.
Four Least Imposing Games
1. vs. Washington Redskins
2. vs. New York Jets
3. vs. Detroit Lions
4. At Buffalo Bills
Minnesota put on one of their best performances in 2013 when Washington visited town, so they'll be happy to see them on the schedule again. Both the Jets and Bills have question marks at the quarterback position, so Mike Zimmer and the defensive coaching staff will have fun with their game plan those weeks. Detroit has only won once in their last 16 trips to Minnesota in a game that is always chalked up as a win coming into the season.