The new coach has settled in. Holes were filled in free agency. And a 10-player draft class has gotten mostly positive reviews. The steps the Vikings have taken these past four months appear to have the franchise heading in the right direction. Now coach Mike Zimmer must figure out how to best utilize the new players General Manager Rick Spielman has given him. There are a lot of questions about the 2014 Vikings still left to be answered. Let’s tackle a few of the biggest ones.
1WHO’S GOING TO MAN THE MIDDLE?
The Vikings added a pair of athletic linebackers over the weekend. Top pick Anthony Barr will play strongside linebacker in Mike Zimmer’s base defense, and the coach hinted that he could have a Von Miller-type role as an edge player in sub packages. Brandon Watts, a seventh-round selection, slots behind Chad Greenway and likely others at the weak-side spot.
But who lines up between Barr and Greenway? The Vikings passed on the middle linebacker position during the draft, perhaps because they are confident that one of a crowded group of linebackers will step up. In free agency, they brought back Jasper Brinkley, who lined up with the first-team defense during Zimmer’s first minicamp. The Vikings also have recent draft picks Audie Cole and Gerald Hodges, and don’t forget about Michael Mauti, who may finally be fully healthy after tearing both anterior cruciate knee ligaments in college.
Zimmer helped develop undrafted Bengals linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey into productive players. He will have to do the same with somebody out of this group — unless he plans to move Greenway into the middle, which shouldn’t be ruled out.
2HE CAN’T ACTUALLY RUN ALL DAY, CAN HE?
After letting Toby Gerhart walk in free agency, the Vikings hoped on the draft’s second day to find a young running back who could spell — and perhaps one day replace — their perennial Pro Bowler, Adrian Peterson.
They passed on a running back with their first third-round pick, and by the time they were back on the clock near the end of the round, Vikings targets Tre Mason and Terrance West were gone. Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon still was there, though — and maybe he was the one they wanted all along. McKinnon is a special athlete who was a top performer in pretty much every drill at the NFL combine, including the 40-yard dash he ran in 4.41 seconds.
The Vikings believe McKinnon can take some carries off Peterson’s plate and potentially play a vital role as a pass-catching third-down back. But he might face a steeper learning curve than other backs in this class because he was mostly a triple-option triggerman at Georgia Southern before moving to tailback his senior year.
If new running backs coach Kirby Wilson can quickly coach McKinnon up, he would be a more explosive option to back up Peterson than Matt Asiata.
3 How will the secondary shape up?
No team allowed more touchdown passes last season than the Vikings, but they waited until the sixth round to start addressing the secondary. Spielman was asked if Zimmer saw something during the minicamp that made them consider the secondary less of a priority, but he said that it was just how their draft board fell.
They ended up selecting three defensive backs. Antone Exum will start out as safety while Kendall James and Jabari Price project as cornerbacks. But it might be ambitious to expect immediate contributions from any of them. Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 first-rounder, and offseason signing Captain Munnerlyn will start.
Disappointing youngster Josh Robinson and veteran Derek Cox are two of the top contenders for the important third corner spot. Jamarca Sanford, a two-year starter at strong safety, must battle to keep his spot next to Harrison Smith.
While the secondary is unsettled with 18 defensive backs on the roster, the hope is that the addition of Barr and their expected emergence of Everson Griffen will help the front six or seven put pressure on quarterbacks and take it off this Vikings secondary.
4WHO STARTS: THE BRIDGE OR BRIDGEWATER?
The Vikings brought back Matt Cassel, who finished the 2013 season under center, to be the bridge to their next quarterback of the future, having learned from the Christian Ponder experience the dangers of pushing a young QB into the huddle before he is ready.
They say they will take their time with Teddy Bridgewater, the polished Louisville passer who threw for 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions as a junior. But Bridgewater is said to be perhaps the most pro-ready quarterback prospect of this class, especially from an intelligence standpoint, after commanding Louisville’s pro-style offense.