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Team Previews: Minnesota Vikings

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

THE SKINNY
After beginning last year 5-0, the Vikings collapsed in the second half amid a league-worst rushing attack to finish 8-8, a record that also raised questions about a once dominant defense. With Adrian Peterson out the door, there's a need to create a fresh identity and search for playmakers on offense.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

UPGRADING THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Minnesota's weak link the past two seasons has been a poor offensive line. The Vikings tried to address the problem in 2016 by signing multiple free agents and investing the most money in the NFL along the O-line, but injuries to several starters and reserves made the unit one of the worst. Among the hobbled, No. 1 left tackle Matt Kalil played just two games before suffering a season-ending hip injury, and the offense was down to its fourth-string option at the position by Week 17. One of the side effects was the league's lowest mark in yards per carry. Furthermore, the Vikings finished 23rd in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency, despite a focus on Sam Bradford getting rid of the ball quickly (he averaged a league-low 9.8 yards per completion). In an effort to improve the group this offseason, the front office again spent heavily, which may produce new starters at four spots. Riley Reiff, who has started 69 of 77 appearances over the last five seasons for the Lions, inked a five-year, $58.8 million contract. With left tackle settled, the Vikings also picked up Mike Remmers to fill the other tackle post. On the inside, 2017 third-round pick Pat Elflein is a candidate to push Joe Berger from center to right guard. In all, the team certainly is hopeful that the group will have better fortune this season.

FILLING Adrian Peterson'S SHOES
The focus of the offense for 10 years and the franchise's all-time leading rusher, Adrian Peterson wasn't retained after an injury-plagued season in which he compiled a paltry 1.9 yards per carry. Once seen as the heir to the ground game, Jerick McKinnon fared slightly better than Peterson, but averaging 3.4 YPC wasn't enough, as he was bypassed in the team's offseason plans for the backfield. As evidence, free agency yielded Latavius Murray, while Dalvin Cook was selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Previously with the Raiders, Murray delivered modest results the past two campaigns, posting 4.0 YPC, and boasts the pass-blocking and receiving skills to find regular reps. However, shortly after he signed in March, he required surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle. The development may have opened the door for Cook's addition. An explosive runner at Florida State, he accumulated 4,464 yards at 6.5 YPC and 46 touchdowns in 38 career contests. Unfortunately for Cook, the tape reveals a penchant for turnovers, as he fumbled 13 times in three collegiate seasons, and his Combine results weren't exactly pristine. Considering Peterson's perch is currently unclaimed, coach Mike Zimmer revealed after the draft that Cook, Murray and McKinnon will battle for the starting RB role during training camp.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MINNESOTA'S DOMINATING DEFENSE?
After making the playoffs in 2015 largely on a defense ranked fifth in points allowed, the Vikings stepped it up during a 5-0 start to the season, when the outfit gave up only 240 yards per game. As the year continued, though, the defense became susceptible to big plays, surrendering 351 yards weekly across the final six games. Regardless, Minnesota's final tallies (third in yards and sixth in points yielded) bear out similarly to the previous season. Entering the fall, the defense will be counting on a rebound from several players, especially Anthony Barr, whose two sacks, one forced fumble and no interceptions last year reveal a less disruptive force. The Vikings' interior rush is also a concern due to Sharrif Floyd's health. If he struggles to recover from nerve damage stemming from September knee surgery, rookie defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson may be pressed into duty early and often. No matter, the strength of the defense remains its secondary and pass rush. The former was second in net yards per pass attempt in 2016, during which Xavier Rhodes conceded a league-best 39.2 quarterback rating and grabbed five picks. In the sack department, the Vikings wound up fifth in the NFL, powered by Danielle Hunter (12.5) and Everson Griffen (eight). If they can right the ship, the Vikings are poised to restore their elite standing.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Sam Bradford
Minnesota's offense enters a new era with the departure of Adrian Peterson and no timetable for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's return from a devastating left knee injury. The Vikings will depend on Bradford to direct an offense that could be more pass-oriented in Pat Shurmur's first full season as offensive coordinator.

BAROMETER

RISING: Adam Thielen
Thielen didn't start until Week 5 last season, but the former undrafted free agent quickly became one of Sam Bradford's favorites in the passing game, pacing the team in both receiving yards and yards per catch.

FALLING: Jerick McKinnon
McKinnon took over as the top running back when Adrian Peterson was hurt in Week 2 but was unable to stake a legitimate claim to the job long term. Now, McKinnon is third on the depth chart after high-profile pickups.

SLEEPER: Dalvin Cook
In desperate need of a dynamic offensive playmaker, the Vikings will give Cook, the rookie, a chance to emerge as the No. 1 RB. His pass-catching chops could help him stay on the field on first, second and third down.

KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING RUNNING BACK
Minnesota signed Latavius Murray to a three-year, $15 million contract in free agency and then traded up to select Dalvin Cook in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Jerick McKinnon, last year's starter after Adrian Peterson was hurt, also remains in the mix. Coach Mike Zimmer said there will be an open competition for carries this summer. However, after missing the offseason program due to March ankle surgery, Murray has been placed on the PUP list in advance of training camp, hurting his chances to land the top job. While a committee approach is possible, it's also conceivable that Cook could emerge as a three-down back early in the season if he shines in the preseason.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Latavius Murray – RB (from Raiders)
In the RB mix after two productive, but uninspiring, seasons in Oakland.

Dalvin Cook – RB (Rd. 2, No. 41 – Florida State)
Prolific college running back will contend for an every-down gig.

Michael Floyd – WR (from Patriots)
Large role possible, but first he’ll serve a four-game suspension for a DUI arrest.

Riley Reiff – OT (from Lions)
Likely starter at left tackle takes over for Matt Kalil.

Mike Remmers – OT (from Panthers)
Another O-line addition brought in to turn around the unit.

Pat Elflein – C (Rd. 3, No. 70 – Ohio State)
Versatile lineman is a candidate to start at center immediately.

KEY LOSSES:
Adrian Peterson – RB (to Saints)
Leading rusher in franchise history is gone after 10 campaigns.

Cordarrelle Patterson – WR (to Raiders)
Dynamic kick returner never really lived up to expectations otherwise.

THE INJURY FRONT
Latavius Murray, RB – Murray underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle shortly after signing a three-year contract with the Vikings in March. While he'll begin training camp on the PUP list, once healthy, he'll battle Dalvin Cook and Jerick McKinnon for the starting running back job. He'll need to achieve full health to become the primary ball carrier.

Sharrif Floyd, DT – Floyd, who appeared in one game last season after going under the knife in mid-September to clean up his knee, still isn't healthy and will start camp on the non-football injury list. If he can return, he'll add a needed run-stuffer to Minnesota's defensive line. Minnesota signed defensive tackle Datone Jones in free agency to boost depth if Floyd can't get healthy.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB – Bridgewater still has a long way to go before returning from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered in training camp last summer, but the Vikings have been encouraged with his progress after he was cleared to throw passes to teammates and participate in individual drills during OTAs. Still, it's not clear if he can serve as the No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback at any point in the 2017 season, or if he'll even be in the team's plans in 2018.