The Vikings arrive in Mankato on Saturday with heightened expectations and plenty of preseason hype after coach Mike Zimmer guided his young team to a 7-9 record in 2014.
Before heading to training camp, Zimmer talked about how things are different in his second season, what he will be looking for at key positions and why he thinks it is way too early for his Vikings to be thinking about the p-word.
Q: How do you feel about where your program stands heading into this year’s camp compared to how it did a year ago, your first camp as an NFL head coach?
Zimmer: We’re further ahead than where we were. Guys are playing faster. They understand the systems better. And I think we have a better understanding of the players and what they can do. But we still have a long way to go.
Q: When you look back at last season now, what stands out to you?
Zimmer: There were ebbs and flows throughout the season. At the beginning of the season, we looked like a good football team. We went down to St. Louis [and won]. Then we hit a low in the middle of the year. Then as [quarterback] Teddy [Bridgewater] started playing better, I think we all started playing better. We had some tough games, not finishing in Buffalo and not finishing in Miami, not finishing against Detroit and Green Bay. And then there were some good things. The way we played at the end of the year started to get back to where we were looking like a decent football team.
Q: The team wasn’t active in free agency, opting to build through the draft. You said at the combine that you preferred that approach.
Zimmer: When you get involved in free agency, you’re paying players an awful lot of money, No. 1. And you don’t really know. It could be the system that helped them. You don’t know their personality, their work ethic, how they are in the locker room with chemistry. You try to find these things out, but you don’t really know. At least with young players, if you do make a mistake, it’s a lot cheaper. And all the work that the scouts and everybody does, getting a chance to interview the players at the combine and see them in person moving around, I just think it’s the more proven way to go.
Q: Adrian Peterson rejoined the team and was rewarded with a new contract this week. What was the thought process behind giving him more guaranteed money?
Zimmer: We just thought it was beneficial for both sides that we got this done. He’s proved that he’s an integral part of this organization and in the state of Minnesota. He also went through some hard times, as did we. It was a good gesture on both sides to get it done.
Q: Adrian is back. Kyle Rudolph is healthy. The team traded for Mike Wallace. Teddy Bridgewater is a year older. I know you’re a defensive guy at heart, but can you get a little excited thinking about the possibilities on the other side of the ball?
Zimmer: The possibilities are there and those are the things that excite you, that you have some players with some talent and ability. But then we have to go out there and do it and prove it. If I was trying to defend us, there would be a number of weapons that you would have to take care of, and I think that’s always good. The more weapons that people have a hard time taking away from you, it opens up more things for you. It’s almost pick your poison.
Q: The key there could be the offensive line. The team didn’t make drastic changes and waited to address it later in the draft. Why will that group, which returns four starters, be better?
Zimmer: We got a better handle as coaches on them, the way things were going at the end of the year, even with the guys that we had in there. I thought Teddy got the ball out quicker as he matured. I think having Adrian will help them be better. They have another year in this system, just like everybody else. Sometimes it is as much of a factor as anything, feeling more comfortable with the terminology, the calls and being around the same guys, that continuity.
Q: Another position that was not prioritized is safety. Robert Blanton, who lost his job to Andrew Sendejo late last season, was with the first team in minicamp. What do these other guys need to do to unseat him, assuming he can be unseated?
Zimmer: I don’t really know if he lost his job or if we just felt at that time that it was better [to play Sendejo] because Sendejo was playing well after [Blanton] got hurt. That’s where all these things pan out in training camp and the preseason games. I think that’s one of the reasons why I like having the fifth preseason game to kind of sort out some of these things and give some of the younger safeties like [Antone] Exum a chance to show what they can do against other teams..
Q: Do you think rookie cornerback Trae Waynes can play a meaningful role early in the season?
Zimmer: I don’t know. He’s talented enough to and he’s a good enough athlete and all those things. But that will be determined as we go out and compete against other players. He is going to be a very good player in this league. And how fast he goes, the good thing is he’s not forced into action because we have some other people who can play. You can never have too many good corners because things happen and there are a lot of good receivers to cover. We’ll get him in there at the right time, when he’s ready and we’re ready. And I don’t know when that will be. It’s kind of like Bridgewater last year. We knew he was going to be a pretty good player. But it just wasn’t the right time to do it at the beginning of the season.
Q: There are so many young playmakers on defense. Xavier Rhodes. Sharrif Floyd. Anthony Barr. Harrison Smith. Maybe Waynes and Eric Kendricks this season, too. But how do you get them all to come together and learn to play as one?
Zimmer: That’s our job, to get them to understand where everybody is supposed to be and what their job is, what their role is. We need to get them to see what they can do better and how they can do it by understanding everybody’s role. When they’re doing something right, somebody else is making a play. And then when somebody else is doing something right, it allows them to make the play. I don’t think I’ve ever really had problems with young players understanding things. I think we’ll be fine.
Q: The defense is a big reason why the Vikings have been a popular preseason pick to make the playoffs. Can those heightened expectations be a good thing for your team, or are you worried you will have to help them tune out the noise?
Zimmer: Honestly, I don’t think it really matters if people are saying good things or saying bad things. It’s all about going out on the field and beating the man in front of you, being the best on that particular Sunday. Expectations are what they are. If we don’t play good, I’m sure I’ll be a bad coach. If we play good, I’ll be a good coach. We just try to go out and work as hard as we can and get better. The one thing that I like about this team is that in OTAs and minicamp they busted their rear ends and they continue to do so. Every year there are teams that people say will be great and they’re not good. Or they say that they will be bad and they’re really good. That’s why we play the game and that’s why we keep score.
Q: What will it take to make those premature playoff predictions look smart?
Zimmer: We haven’t even made it to training camp yet, so I’m not going to talk much about the playoffs, that’s for sure. We’ve got so much more work to do before we even start thinking about those things. We haven’t played a preseason game. We don’t know who’s going to be healthy, who’s not going to be healthy. We don’t even know what the team is going to look like yet. I don’t know. I’m not going to be all hung up on those things. Obviously we hope we have a great year. It’s good for the fans to get excited. All this stuff, how we play as a team on Sundays, that’s what it will come down to.