(Editor's note: Paul is back with another preview of an NFC North team, this time the purple folks to our West.)
I think the Minnesota Vikings are the most difficult team in the NFC North to predict for 2014. I also know that the consensus is that they'll be the bottom-dwellers again and would agree that this is somewhat likely, but I think they also have a pretty high ceiling for reasons we will get to in just a moment.
First, I wanted to mention something about the NFC North in general. I think that every team in the division is likely to improve, and this may have the somewhat strange effect of not actually changing the division that much. The team likely to improve the most is the Packers simply because they get back the league's most valuable player in Aaron Rodgers and a host of other players who spent last season injured for much of the season. The Bears did not fix their entire defense but given that they basically need a complete overhaul, the defensive line is a good start and the addition of Kyle Fuller should help somewhat. The Lions and Vikings both moved on from truly terrible coaching staffs, and the Lions added Golden Tate to complement Calvin Johnson. I'll get into them in more depth in a third post, but on paper the North seems to have improved across the board.
To examine the Vikings, let's start with Mike Zimmer. I have no idea if he will be any good as a head coach, but it will be difficult to be worse than Leslie Frazier. Like Zimmer, Frazier was a former defensive coordinator and I will not pretend to be an expert on his work as a coordinator, but the Vikings' defense steadily declined during his tenure as head coach of the Vikings. This wasn't all his fault, as an aging roster is difficult for anyone to deal with, but Frazier showed no ability to make up for any of this on the offensive side of the ball. The Leslie Frazier Vikings were one of the most poorly coached teams of the last several years and if not for the constant coaching debacle over in Detroit, they probably would have faced far more ridicule.
Zimmer will be tasked with shoring up a defense in the post-Williams Wall/Jared Allen era, and that's no easy task. The good news is that it will be difficult (though not impossible) to be much worse. Pro Football Focus rated the Vikings as the 9th worst defense in football with a -70.3 grade (just ahead of the Packers) and Football Outsiders had them as the 6th worst defense by DVOA (also slightly ahead of Green Bay). I don't expect the Vikings to take any kind of big leap forward defensively, but they have shown admirable commitment to getting younger. Everson Griffen has flashed big potential and with the departure of some old vets, will have more of an opportunity to show it. You can say basically the same for Sharrif Floyd, while Anthony Barr brings some much-needed athleticism to the linebacking unit.
The Vikings were not great on run defense in 2013, but they really struggled in pass coverage. According to PFF, only the Oakland Raiders were worse at covering receivers; however, while the Raiders can point to a terrible pass rush as one of the root causes, the Vikings secondary has no such excuse. The Vikings were at least average at getting to the quarterback, ranking 16th by PFF metrics, and given the state of the rest of that defense I think that's quite an accomplishment. What the Vikings had was a complete breakdown in the secondary, and in a division with Rodgers/Nelson/Cobb/Cutler/Marshall/Jeffery/Megatron and to a lesser extent, Matthew Stafford, that is a huge problem.
They at least partially addressed this issue by bringing in the still-only-26-year-old Captain Munnerlyn, PFF's 10th best cornerback of 2013. It's a good signing in an area of need, but it's only a partial solution and the Vikings will probably continue to struggle in pass defense for at least another year as young players like Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes continue to develop. Marginal gains are possible, and they have the added benefit of playing in a division where two of the other three teams ended last season with even worse defenses. I suspect they'll be roughly the same as last year, though I might bet on a slight improvement, but let's move on to offense where the Vikings have their biggest question mark but also their biggest chance of making a huge improvement.
I write a lot about baseball, and one reason I was optimistic about the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers is that the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers trotted out a first base platoon that was, according to Wins Above Replacement, the least-valuable in all of Major League Baseball. For the majority of the year the Brewers used two light-hitting shortstops in Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez at first base. This was a terrible idea. In the offseason they signed Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to man the positions, and as of this moment they have collectively been about 6 wins better than the guys from last year. That's a lot.
In a comparison to this, let's look at the Vikings quarterbacks. The Minnesota QB situation last year wasn't great to begin with, but it was made much worse by the coaching staff's constant shuffling. No one was given any kind of leash and the Josh Freeman experiment was unfair to Ponder, Cassel, and to Freeman himself, as he was not allowed any time to prepare. They took a bad situation and made it worse.* It was the functional equivalent of the Brewers 2013 first base debacle. It sucks to have to live through something like that, but the good news is that it's easier to clean up one huge pile of garbage vs. four or five smaller piles of garbage.
*I would highly recommend the Viking chapter of the Football Outsiders Almanac written by Mike Tanier. I'm mentioning it here because I'm finding it so heavily influenced this portion of my preview that it would be downright dishonest not to give it some attribution. The statistic they mention on 2nd and short plays by the Vikings last year blew my mind. Their coaching was amazingly terrible.
The bottom line is that Cassel ranked 28th among QBs per PFF and 23rd by DVOA. Ponder was 35th and 31st, respectively. Improving should be relatively easy.
Now for a very quick thought experiment.* Mentally picture Aaron Rodgers on the current Vikings. It shouldn't be too hard for Packer fans to imagine, after all. (What, too soon?) Suddenly Cordarelle Patterson seems pretty scary. Kyle Rudolph looks like a legitimate red zone target. Greg Jennings may not be a number one anymore, but as a complement to those two...that's a bona fide passing offense. And we haven't even mentioned Adrian Peterson or that the Vikings have one of the elite run blocking lines in the NFL (remember all those Toby Gerhart runs last year too).
*No, I am NOT saying that Teddy Bridgewater is now or will ever be as good as Aaron Rodgers. If anyone in the comments accuses me of this I will personally yell at them.
What I'm trying to say is that the bones of a good offense already exist in Minnesota, the only major problem was the big black hole at quarterback.
What you think of the Vikings' offense really comes down to what you think of Teddy Bridgewater. I've talked to people who love the guy, people who hate him, people who think he might be average, and people who think he's a bad fit in a Norv Turner offense in Minnesota. With all of that said, I'll bet they start with him on day one, and that he's immediately better than what they had last year. While people like to say that rookie quarterbacks tend to struggle just because they're rookies, this is becoming less true as college offenses become more sophisticated. Often the struggles of good rookie quarterbacks (not the Ryan Leafs of the world, I'm talking the Peyton Mannings of the world) initially are a result of them being drafted by rebuilding teams. The Vikings, at least offensively, are not in rebuilding mode. Bridgewater has a great opportunity to be better than average on the Vikings, and in short order. That is, if you believe in his pro potential.
I will say this about Bridgewater. I am no scout and I've been wrong many times before, but the stock that so many put into his bad pro day when there were hundreds of hours of game tape out there for people to study just boggles the mind. Scouting is important, but a pro day is a one-time, small sample event and it's crazy that so much is made of it. It is entirely possible for an athlete to simply have a bad day just like anyone else. Bridgewater famously did not wear his throwing glove, and just looked off. Reading the reports of his performance, it seemed so out of line with his play during actual games and everything I'd read that I mentally discounted it as an outlier. By most accounts his physical tools are just fine and he was very successful in college. Early camp reports have been positive. If he shot down draft boards because of a one time event, it is entirely possible that the Vikings made out like bandits.
It's also possible the Vikings will bring Bridgewater along slowly and have Cassel start the season, but I feel that no team in the NFL has a wider potential range this season. They have a ton of questions, but they have a lot of good potential answers too. I would not be a bit surprised if they finished ahead of the Lions and hung around as a dark horse playoff contender.