Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Putting a Wrap on the 2014 Season

The Vikings organization has plenty of promise moving forward and Daniel House recaps an impressive first season under the Mike Zimmer regime.

Updated: December 30th, 2014 2:21pm

By: Daniel House

With a young squad and a new coaching staff, the expectation levels for this team weren't near as high when they began the 2014 season. When you pair all of this with the Chris Kluwe/Mike Priefer case and the Adrian Peterson child abuse scandal, it becomes much more difficult to be successful. The season started with Matt Cassel at quarterback and by week three, he suffered a season-ending foot injury. Vikings coaches had no other choice than to start rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

This decision proved positive and for the first time in many seasons, Minnesota can enter the off season with a stable quarterback situation. Despite all the injuries, a new system, injuries, and the loss of a franchise player, the Vikings managed to finish the season 7-9. This in itself should be considered a success and the growth that was exhibited by several of these young players leaves a high amount of promise for the future. This season provided many highlights for the future and I discussed some of the takeaways that were developed during the 2014 season.

Teddy Bridgewater can handle the job
The Vikings finally can enter the off season without any question marks at the quarterback position. Teddy Bridgewater started his first game in week four and continued to grow every week he was on the field. He is poised in the pocket and according to Pro Football Focus, his accuracy under pressure percentage finished at 75.2%, which is the highest rate in a single-season since 2008. In total, his 64.4 percent completion percentage is third in NFL history for a rookie quarterback.

By the end of the season, he was building confidence and he managed to finish 10th in deep ball accuracy. Not only did his skills develop, but his decision making improved every week. In the final four games of the season, he recognized when the defense was in man coverage and extended plays with his feet. As a whole, by the end of 2014, he seemed more comfortable as an NFL quarterback, which is something the Vikings haven't had in a rookie quarterback since the very early days of Fran Tarkenton.

Mike Zimmer knows how to get the best out of his players
Mike Zimmer entered Minnesota with raw talent that needed some grooming. He took this challenge and focused on technique, fundamentals, and decision-making as he developed these young players. Zimmer worked closely with 2013 draft picks Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, developing them into cornerstone pieces of this Vikings defense. Zimmer spent most of training camp in the secondary with Rhodes, pushing him to learn the technique and physicality he was looking for from his defensive backs.

As the year went on, he became more comfortable in both mental and physical situations. He is one of the biggest pieces of the Vikings secondary moving forward and the early coaching by Zimmer is turning him into the lockdown cornerback that was the anticipation when Rhodes was selected in the draft. Finally, Sharrif Floyd turned the corner after struggling for much of the 2013 season. He was gaining leverage and his quickness off the ball was the type of athleticism Floyd displayed at the college level. The coaching he received and the refinements he made to his body structure are all areas that positioned Floyd an integral part of the defense.

McKinnon and Asiata handle the load 
Until he suffered a back injury lifting weights, the Jerick McKinnon experiment was yielding positive results. Coming out of college, McKinnon was an extremely raw talent that saw minimal work as a feature running back. Once Adrian Peterson was injured, McKinnon was thrust into the role of being a feature ball carrier at the NFL level. He displayed his athleticism and after seeing more action, he learned to use this as an advantage. McKinnon was averaging close to six yards per carry at several moments of the season and his ability to use his body to finish runs was extremely impressive. The expectation is that his injured back will heal properly and he will be ready to handle extended duties, even if Adrian Peterson returns.

As for Matt Asiata, he became the lead back after McKinnon went down and he led the team in rushing yards. What's more, only Marshawn Lynch and DeMarco Murray scored more touchdowns in the league this season. He was targeted in the passing game frequently and just five other running backs were searched for more than Asiata this season. He did an admirable job filling in at running back and the Vikings must decide whether he will return when he hits the free agent market this off season.

Patterson needs to work this offseason
The Vikings didn't have enough playmakers on offense and Patterson's inability to get open and make plays, really hurt the Vikings during certain stretches of the season. Patterson has openly admitted he needs to work specifically on learning all of the plays that are within Norv Turner's offense. Mike Zimmer has commissioned someone to work with Cordarrelle Patterson on the field and in the classroom during the off season.

Cordarrelle has all the tools to be a playmaker, but he needs to learn how to play at the high level that is expected in the NFL. He didn't see extended action and his inability to gain separation and catch passes resulted in his demotion. Patterson has the off season to remedy all of his issues and take the steps necessary to be a top-tier wide receiver for this squad.

The offensive line was on a rocky road
The Vikings offensive line was riddled by injuries and inconsistent play during every point of the season. Brandon Fusco was placed on IR early in the season with a shoulder injury and Phil Loadholt later suffered the same injury just a few weeks later. Charlie Johnson missed several weeks of play near the end of the season and at one point, the Vikings were playing with three replacements on their offensive line. Pair all of this with the inconsistent play of Matt Kalil and the Vikings offensive line became a group of zombies.

John Sullivan even had his fair share of struggles, but he is strongly considered one of the few reliable pieces moving forward. I'm not ready to throw Matt Kalil to the dogs at this point, but the Vikings need to do everything possible to build a solid offensive line for a young quarterback to work behind.

Defensively, the Vikings are on track 
The Vikings have a solid group of players to build around for the future of their defense. As I discussed earlier, the Vikings are gaining production from Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, along with young rookie Anthony Barr. Not to mention, Harrison Smith played his best season of his short NFL career and he continues to cement himself as one of the top safeties in the league. Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson were inconsistent, but started to adjust to the role of being targeted more as Rhodes was avoided on the field. On the defensive line, Everson Griffen proved his was worth the money and was a force up front.

The Vikings will continue to add more depth at all positions on defense and will need to decide whether they can justify keeping Chad Greenway on the roster. Audie Cole and Gerald Hodges are promising prospects, but are they the perfect fit in Mike Zimmer's system? This remains to be seen, but don't be surprised if the Vikings draft depth at defensive line, safety, cornerback, and linebacker in April. Mike Zimmer has to like what he sees moving forward, but he will need to see more consistency moving forward from every player on the defensive side of the ball.

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