On Thursday, USA Today's For the Win website ran its list of the 32 best coaches in the NFL, and sitting at No. 4 was the Vikings' Mike Zimmer.

"Zimmer is the most creative defensive play-caller in the league," wrote Steven Ruiz. "And more importantly, he knows how to develop young talent. Case in point: It took him only two years to turn Anthony Barr, who was seen as a raw prospect who would take some time to develop, into an All-Pro-caliber player. The Vikings defense is going to be very good for a very long time."

It's easy to see why many observers believe Zimmer was one of the best NFL coaching hires in recent years.

He took over the Vikings after a dismal 5-10-1 season in 2013. Then in 2014 he lost Adrian Peterson after the first game of the year and brought in a rookie quarterback to start after four games. The fact that the team finished 7-9 showed its promise and the ability of Zimmer to adapt to anything.

Then last season, Zimmer lost two starting offensive linemen before the season even began in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Peterson was coming off his suspension and the team was widely picked to finish last in the NFC North.

All Zimmer did was take the Vikings to an 11-5 record, their best since 2009, and an NFC North crown.

Developing competition

As NFL organized team activities began last week, Zimmer said, "I think this will probably be our most competitive year," and it's clear that he and General Manager Rick Spielman wanted to bring in competition at multiple positions to improve on last season.

The most important position was at offensive line, where the Vikings have 15 players competing for most likely nine roster spots.

Two of the most intriguing players are Sullivan and Loadholt, coming off injury.

"Sullivan has actually looked really good," Zimmer said. "He has worked real hard in the weight room this offseason and he has kind of changed his body composition and he's moving real well. Get the pads on in training camp and we'll let him fight it out.

"Loadholt is doing well. He has been making it through everything. Everything is new for him and basically getting back into it from missing two years. He is doing good."

Two of the major free-agent signings by the Vikings were offensive linemen in 49ers guard Alex Boone and Bengals tackle Andre Smith. Zimmer said he has been impressed by them so far.

"Boone is kind of what was advertised," Zimmer said. "He's a guy that has a lot of fun, a guy that's a leader, very talkative out there, moves well, works real hard. Smith has done a nice job of coming in and showing us what kind of athlete he is for starting 74 games. I'm hopeful that position is much improved."

When it comes to offensive line competition, though, Zimmer also pointed to a couple of young players that he thinks have a chance to play.

"Carter Bykowski who is from Eden Prairie has done a nice job," he said. "Jeremiah Sirles, a guy we got from San Diego last year, has done a good job. It will be a good battle."

New batch of rookies

Zimmer was asked how the new crop of rookies look.

"So far it looks good," he said. "[Cornerback] Mackensie Alexander has looked good. [David] Morgan has caught the ball, the tight end. [Receiver Laquon] Treadwell has come out and shows explosion and good hands. Willie Beavers has looked good at guard. So far, so good, but they have a long ways to go."

Besides first-round pick Treadwell, Zimmer noted defensive backs Jayron Kearse and Alexander have stood out as well. "I was kind of impressed with both," he said.

One of the surprise picks for the Vikings was German wide receiver Moritz Bohringer in the sixth round.

"Actually he is pretty good," Zimmer said. "He runs good routes, he catches the ball well, he has big stride length, good size, and he learns well."

Zimmer wouldn't speculate if he would make the team or not.

"It's awful early for that, but I think he's going to be a lot of fun to watch in training camp and a lot of fun to watch in the preseason games," he said.

As always, the Vikings are looking at a number of rookie free agents, too.

"Tre Roberson from Illinois State has never played defensive back, he was a quarterback, and we moved him over to defensive back and he has actually done a nice job," Zimmer said. "He shows good movement skills. He's a long way away but we ended up signing him with the free-agent workouts. So we have a few guys we're taking a look at."

One player trying to hook on after two seasons in Canada is former Gophers standout Troy Stoudermire.

"Stoudemire was a defensive back, I had him there in Cincinnati [in 2013], but he has done really well at wide receiver," Zimmer said. "He catches the ball good, runs good routes. So all those Gopher guys have done good. Marcus Sherels, Isaac Fruechte has done a nice job and looks faster and improved. They've all done well."

Yes, this is a big year for the Vikings as they look to improve upon a division championship with a deeper run in the playoffs in Zimmer's third year.


• Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on if this year is feeling different from past seasons: "It does, and you know even more than just the words that are coming out, because it's great for people to be able to envision it and then speak those things into existence, but also put the work in. Everything hasn't been perfect, but the one thing I like is guys right here are working hard and they're putting their best foot forward to improve."

• One of the biggest surprises so far in Vikings offseason workouts has been tight end David Morgan, who came from Texas-San Antonio, a program that only began play in 2011. Morgan, a sixth-round pick, could be a surprise when the 53-man roster is announced. He is big at 6-4 and 265 pounds and has caught everything thrown at him.

• Charlie Dowdle was a Division III All-America tight end for St. Thomas and now is trying to make it in the NFL after being invited to Chicago Bears rookie minicamp. A native of Glenview, Ill., the 6-4, 238-pound Dowdle caught 40 passes for 842 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015.

• Construction of the new Gophers athletics facilities are on schedule, and if you walk down 15th Avenue SE you can see immense progress on the new football practice facility. The word is that the University of Minnesota has raised money beyond the $80 million available when Beth Goetz was named interim athletic director. Meanwhile, it will take a good selling job by new AD Mark Coyle to keep Goetz on the staff, because she has several offers and most of them are more attractive than the position she held when Norwood Teague was fired last year.

• Former Gophers men's basketball forward Trevor Mbakwe and his wife and child have made their home in Tel Aviv, where he is playing for Maccabi in Israel. The team has advanced to the Israeli League semifinals and Mbakwe is averaging 8.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 22.0 minutes per game.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com