This is the first question to be answered. A coaching change seems inevitable, so the Vikings likely will undergo makeovers in systems and philosophies on both sides of the ball. Given Leslie Frazier’s background as a defensive coach, the organization could target an offensive coach, especially if the Vikings draft a quarterback in the first few rounds.
This position might be a top priority in the draft for the second time in four years. Christian Ponder, given every chance to solidify himself as a franchise quarterback, has not succeeded, but he has one year left on his guaranteed contract. Matt Cassel, who is ending the season as the starter, can opt out of his contract. Josh Freeman had one disastrous season and will hit the free-agent market. Cassel could serve as a mentor and a bridge if the Vikings draft a quarterback. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings part ways with Ponder.
3. DEFENSIVE BACKS
Cornerback Chris Cook (zero interceptions in four seasons) clearly has been a bust, but rookie Xavier Rhodes showed flashes of shutdown ability. Free safety Harrison Smith looks like a future Pro Bowl talent. But this position is a major priority this offseason. The Vikings need to find another starting cornerback, another starting safety and improved depth overall.
Chad Greenway played half the season despite a fractured wrist and has Pro Bowl on his résumé. But he’s the only definitive returning starter at that position. Erin Henderson’s move to middle linebacker did not work well. Desmond Bishop suffered a season-ending injury. Audie Cole showed some promise once he got his chance and deserves a shot next season. In short, this position is a priority either in free agency or high in the draft.
5. ADRIAN PETERSON
After nearly setting an NFL rushing record, Peterson established 2,500 yards as his goal this season. His first carry of the season was a 76-yarder, but injuries have limited his ability to function normally. Hampered by hamstring, groin and foot injuries, his numbers dropped from 6.0 yards per carry and 131 yards per game in 2012 to 4.5 and 90.4 this season. He turns 29 in March and with 2,033 career carries, one wonders if he can continue to defy age and be the league’s best running back. The Vikings can’t continue to waste the prime years of his career.
6. DEFENSIVE LINE
Defensive end Jared Allen’s contract expires and he’s likely to sign elsewhere. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams would like to return, but the team drafted rookie Sharrif Floyd in the first round to replace him. The Vikings have re-signed Brian Robison and likely will try to do the same with Everson Griffen this offseason. They also need to find a stud nose tackle and depth along the entire line.
7. OFFENSIVE LINE
Left tackle Matt Kalil was a Pro Bowl player as a rookie but regressed this season. Right tackle Phil Loadholt and center John Sullivan have lucrative contracts but endured some tough moments, too. The Vikings could look to make changes at guard. Consistency will be the key next season.
8. PLAYING OUTDOORS
The Vikings will play at the Gophers’ TCF Bank Stadium the next two seasons, meaning they will probably have three or four home cold-weather games, in addition to those they will play on the road. Does that affect how they’ll build their team for those seasons, or will it affect the willingness of free agents to come to Minnesota?
Greg Jennings has a long-term deal. Although his numbers weren’t great, he probably suffered more than anyone from the inconsistency at quarterback. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson (right) was everything he was expected to be once he assumed a larger role in the offense. Free agent Jerome Simpson had a decent season and could be re-signed, and Jarius Wright was a dependable No. 4. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was a Pro Bowl player in 2012 but suffered a broken foot this year. He appears set at that position for years to come.
When healthy, he’s still one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Peterson is ultracompetitive and always sets high goals for himself. Given the way this season unfolded, it’s safe to assume he will return as motivated as ever in 2014.
Blair Walsh continued to be among the league’s top kickers, though the Vikings need rookie punter Jeff Locke to show more consistency. Patterson was the NFL’s top kickoff return man (33.5 yards per return) and needs only 4 yards in the finale to break the team’s single-season record for kickoff return yards. Marcus Sherels ranks second in the NFL in punt return average (13.6).
4. SALARY CAP SPACE
The Vikings likely will be active in free agency. Profootballtalk.com reported that the Vikings will have around $27 million in salary cap space in 2014, fifth most among NFL teams. The cap is not set until shortly before free agency, but it is expected to be around $122 million, basically the same as 2013. The cap is adjusted per team based on how much they were under the previous season. The Vikings have around $98 million in salary commitments for 2014.
CHIP SCOGGINS and CHRIS MILLER