When numbers aren't really data, there is a need for caution. So let's start with a caveat when it comes to a recent offering about the NFL from ESPN.com.
Three men deemed experts were asked to assign point values — 1-100 — to five different categories as they pertain to each of the league's 32 teams over the next three years. The categories — roster (aside from quarterback), quarterback, draft, front office and coaching — were weighted and then a final team "score" was declared.
Just so we're clear, then: This wasn't scientific. It was just a way to neatly organize opinions using a standard set of subjective numbers.
So it's not hard data; the results, however, are still intriguing because they provide a window into how those who think about the NFL for a living view the Vikings relative to the rest of the league. Remember, this is about the shape the teams are in over the next three seasons. As such, here were some takeaways:
•Add up the numbers, and it's clear ESPN's experts see the Vikings as being in a position to contend. They finished eighth out of the 32 teams, with an overall score of 77.1. The highest marks went to coach Mike Zimmer and the overall roster construction (excluding QB), which shouldn't be much of a surprise. Those were the strengths of the team a year ago when the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North.
•That said, this is also a good reminder that the Vikings are hardly alone when it comes to NFC teams with the ability to contend. Four teams in their conference — the Seahawks (No. 1), Panthers (No. 3), Packers (No. 5) and Cardinals (No. 6) — are deemed to be in better shape over the next three years than the Vikings. So if the consensus is that the Vikings are contenders, the consensus is also that it won't be easy.
•The category in which ESPN's experts are clearly most skeptical of the Vikings is quarterback. They scored a 78 or higher in coaching, non-QB roster, draft and front office, but their overall score was brought down because of a 65 at quarterback.
Only nine NFL teams were given a lower grade at QB, while Arizona and Kansas City were tied with the Vikings. That's in line with how I recently ranked the 32 NFL quarterback situations. But that's also troubling considering the Vikings have a young QB in Teddy Bridgewater who theoretically should be improving while others are declining during the next three years.
Each of the top five overall teams had QBs at 86 or better. The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, scored a 96 — easily the best of any of the 32 teams. Again, these are only the opinions of NFL writers. But taken in context, they are another indication of how much of a "prove-it" year this is for Bridgewater — if not within the Vikings' organization itself, then certainly when it comes to external perceptions.
To continue their progression this year, it would seem, the Vikings must not only see improvement from their own quarterback but defeat teams perceived to have much greater strength at the position — including the chief rival in their own division, which has the QB deemed the best of them all.