Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we conclude this series with special teams.
Highlighted by the big plays of rookie kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings had one of the NFL’s most explosive special-teams units in 2013. Patterson averaged a league-high 32.4 yards per kickoff return as he took a pair of kickoffs to the house. Marcus Sherels ranked second in the league on punt returns with a 15.2-yard average, and he scored on one of those, too. Kicker Blair Walsh backed up his strong rookie season with another steady season.
In 2014, Patterson and the Vikings lacked touchdowns in the return game (they did score twice on blocked punts while beating the Panthers) and Walsh was uncharacteristically inconsistent. But the Vikings were much better covering kicks and punts, which played a large part in the team actually improving in the most notable (make that the only notable) special-teams rankings around.
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News reviews all facets of special teams when compiling his annual cumulative rankings of special-teams units, and according to his calculations, the Vikings rose from 17th in the league in 2013 to tenth this past season.
Still, despite the improvements the Vikings made in some areas, the special teams were far from perfect in 2014.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: In 2013, only seven teams allowed more kickoff return yards than the Vikings. Only the Broncos allowed a higher average on kickoff returns. And the coverage teams allowed both a kickoff and a punt to be returned for touchdowns. Things were much different in 2014. Thanks in large part to Walsh’s booming leg on kickoffs, the Vikings allowed just 579 yards on kickoff returns — which was roughly half as many as in 2013. While punter Jeff Locke’s punts sometimes left more to be desired, the Vikings only allowed 6.5 yards on punt returns. That is significant improvement from the coverage teams.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: Walsh was one of the NFL’s most accurate kickers in his first two seasons, missing just seven total field-goal attempts over that span. This past season, though, Walsh missed nine and his 74.3 accuracy percentage was dead last among qualifying kickers. Four of Walsh’s misses were from beyond 50 yards. But five came within 50 yards and three were within 40, which is alarming. Can Walsh bounce back in 2015?
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Despite his struggles trying to kick the ball between the uprights, Walsh, due to his touchback total, led the way with a plus-8.2. Adam Thielen was a plus-7.8. Everson Griffen, Jabari Price, Audie Cole and Patterson were also in the green. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler had the lowest grade at negative-18.5 (a grade I don’t quite understand). Locke was a negative-10.7. And Shaun Prater, Matt Kalil, Sherels, Antone Exum and Gerald Hodges were also in the red.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 38.7 — net punting average for Locke, 21st among NFL punters.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Loeffler is a free agent. It wouldn’t cost much to bring him back, but the Vikings must decide whether they want to stick with him for another season or go young there. Joe Berger, Matt Asiata, Jerome Felton and Corey Wootton are free agents who had roles on special teams, but none of them were core special-teamers.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Moderate. There is constant turnover on the special-teams unit — that’s how it goes in the NFL — but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and the Vikings groomed a bunch of rookies and young players to help out in that phase this past season. Their return games could use a boost, but that won’t require anything drastic. And then there are the specialists. They may replace Loeffler. And while Locke, who struggled in the first half of the season but was better down the stretch, is still under contract, the Vikings should consider bringing in someone, whether it is a veteran or an undrafted free agent, to push him during offseason workouts and training camp. Then let the best man win.
In his last days as a “rookie,” Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was making his rounds up and down the Super Bowl’s Radio Row when he paused long enough to consider what it would be like if the Vikings were to play in this game for the first time since Jan. 9, 1977.
“I can envision it,” Bridgewater said. “That’s the plan. This right here is what you play for. Not 7-9. No one is satisfied with a 7-9 season. The ultimate goal is to be on this stage and be here.”
This is the second time Bridgewater has been to the Super Bowl to partake in the festivities.
“I went to New York last year for some reason,” he said. “I get very excited when I look about about our chances of playing in this game one day. You play for these moments and to have memories like this with your teammates.”
Bridgewater is in town mainly because he’s one of five finalists for the Pepsi Rookie of the Year Award, which is selected by a fan vote. The vote won’t be announced until about 9:15 local time (8:15 central), but there is speculation that Bridgewater has won the award because of a post on NFL.com that contained a headline saying Bridgewater won the award.
Pepsi representatives on Radio Row this morning said the winner hasn’t been announced, revealed or confirmed by anyone. Teddy was cool with that when he talked about being a finalist along with Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill and Bills receiver Sammy Watkins.
“It would be a huge honor,” said Bridgewater, who fell from the projected No. 1 overall draft position to No. 32 a year ago. “Especially when you look back last year at this time and all the scrutiny that I was under. It also speaks volumes about the support I have from the fans because they make all of this happen.
“I know it’s a special group of talent that was up for the award. I’m just thankful that I have the fan base that I have to even be considered for this award. They’re the reason I’m here.”
Bridgewater threw for 2,919 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 64.4 percent of his passes, third highest by a rookie in NFL history.
Beckham caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns. Evans had 68 catches for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hill ran for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns. And Watkins had 65 catches for 982 yards and six touchdowns.
Bridgewater also talked about his offseason plans when it comes to furthering his development and the progress of the team’s offense as well.
“I’m just going to study all of my mistakes and also the good plays that I made as well,” he said. “I’m working out in Florida. And we’re going to try and get something going here in the near future where all of the receivers, the tight ends and me get together for some workouts.”
Asked if that would take place down in Florida, Bridgewater smiled.
“It’s a secret,” he said. “It may be florida. It may be California, Texas, maybe Minnesota. It’s a secret.”
Bridgewater didn’t offer a Super Bowl pick, but he did comment on the two quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.
“Not only two great quarterbacks, but two great competitors,” Bridgewater said. “Two guys who just have that will to get it done and win football games.”
As his time on Radio Row inside the Phoenix Convention Center was winding down, he was asked if he enjoys that experience and is looking forward to walking the “red carpet” at the Phoenix Art Institute for tonight’s awards ceremony.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s fun getting my brand out there and walking the red carpets and smiling for the camera. But I’d rather be playing in the big game than partaking in the event.”
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we break down the defensive line.
One of the first acts of business of the Mike Zimmer era was overhauling the defensive line. The Vikings let defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive end Jared Allen walk in free agency, they added nose tackle Linval Joseph in free agency and they re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen to a big contract.
When the season started, the Vikings had three new starters on the defensive line and five of the eight players in their rotation were in their first season in Minnesota. The defensive line would turn out to be the deepest and arguably the most valuable position group on the roster.
In his first season as a starter, Griffen finished ninth in the NFL with a dozen sacks while also defending the run well. Second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd took a giant leap forward under Zimmer with 4.5 sacks and five other tackles for a loss. Journeyman defensive tackle Tom Johnson surprised with 6.5 sacks as a reserve. And the Vikings finished ninth in the NFL with 41 total.
But it wasn’t all roses along the defensive line. Joseph was merely average, and veteran end Brian Robison had a down season. The pass rush disappeared at times when individuals freelanced and the Vikings as a team struggled to stop the run, finishing 2014 ranked 25th in run defense.
Still, the defensive line was a strength and with a little tweaking it should continue to be in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: While injuries limited Floyd to 14 games and 568 total defensive snaps, he made a major impact whenever he was on the field and unhampered by injury. Floyd finished with 30 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied for 13th in the NFL. And he often stormed into the backfield to blow up running plays. Floyd had big shoes to fill in replacing Williams, a six-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings, but Floyd came through, showing the kind of ability that made the team so excited he fell into their laps during the 2013 draft.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: Robison has been an underrated player for years (I remember that when I covered the Ravens in 2013, they were just as concerned about him as Allen). But his 4.5 sacks were his lowest in his four years as a starter and he wasn’t particularly stout against the run. Now, Zimmer was quick to point out after the season that Robison was asked to do some things differently this season, and his dirty work might not have shown up on the score sheet. But Robison turns 32 in April, and if his play doesn’t pick up in 2015, it could be his last season with the Vikings.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Floyd, the league’s fifth-best defensive tackle according to PFF, led the group with a plus-22.0 grade. Griffen was a plus-16.8. Johnson was a plus-5.2 for his work as a sub pass rusher. And Joseph was a plus-1.3. Corey Wootton, a reserve defensive end, had the lowest grade at negative-14.8. Robison was a negative-12.2. And rookie nose tackle Shamar Stephen graded out as a negative-8.0, though it’s worth noting that the coaching staff was pleased with how Stephen played while shuffling between both tackle spots.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 64 — total pressures for Griffen, tied for fifth among 4-3 defensive ends.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Johnson and Wootton are both free agents. The Vikings will likely let Wootton, who disappointed with just one sack, walk. But bringing back Johnson would make a lot of sense for both parties if they can find financial common ground. Johnson has said he wants a two-year contract, and one would think the Vikings can make that happen for the valuable backup. And Johnson should remember that he had more sacks this season playing for Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson than he had in his entire career before coming to Minnesota. As for potential cuts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vikings approached Robison about reducing his $5.45 million cap number. But it would be a surprise if he did not return for 2015.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Low. The Vikings have much more pressing needs than their defensive line, which should remain mostly intact for the upcoming season. If they cannot re-sign Johnson, that would leave a void, though I’m sure Zimmer and the coaching staff feel they could coax that kind of production out of someone else. The team could look to improve the depth at defensive end. Scott Crichton, picked as a potential replacement for Robison down the road, hardly saw the field as a rookie, though it’s too early to count him out. And Crichton isn’t exactly a speed rusher, and the Vikings would like to have another one of those to back up Griffen.
You’re Darrell Bevell and you’re an offensive coordinator, a job that’s more X’s and O’s than managing personalities within the grand framework of your football team.
Your head coach in Seattle is Pete Carroll, and his job often is more about managing personalities within the grand framework of the team than it is X’s and O’s. Carroll comes to you when you’re 3-2 and being written off as a defending Super Bowl champion. He tells you the best way to get better is to unload one of the league’s most athletically gifted and versatile O’s.
Bevell, the former Vikings offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, said he learned a lot from Carroll this year when he pulled the trigger that dumped Percy Harvin, the immensely talented, hard-working and oftentimes unmanageably volatile receiver/kick returner, for the Jets’ fourth-round draft pick this year. The Vikings, who drafted Harvin in the first round in 2009, ran into the same problem, although a disagreement on money was a factor as well when they unloaded Harvin to Seattle before the 2013 season.
“Pete has been in it a long time, done it a long time,” Bevell said Wednesday at the Seahawks Super Bowl hotel. “He’s made a lot of hard decisions along the way. That was one that ended up being a huge decision, but in the long run, you could tell it was good for the Seahawks.”
Seattle lost its first game without Harvin, dropping to 3-3, before going 11-1 to reach Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday.
“It’s a difficult deal because you have a player who is so talented on the field and can do so many things,” Bevell said. “Your mind is just going with all the positive things that he can do on the football field. Immediately, that’s where your mind goes. It’s like, ‘OK, if we’re going to miss that big chunk, now what are we going to do and how are we going to adjust?’”
Bevell will be a head coach at some point. He’ll remember the Harvin situation and how Carroll handled it.
“Hopefully, you don’t have to do decisions like that, but now and again they do come up,” Bevell said. “It was good to be here to watch the whys and what-fors of that decision and what it came down to. And then, ultimately, being able to pull the trigger on that.”
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, let’s take a glance at the linebackers.
We knew first-year head coach Mike Zimmer would be looking for a different style of linebacker than the Vikings had in their Cover Two days under former coach Leslie Frazier. That belief was confirmed on the first night of the draft when the Vikings selected Anthony Barr, a disruptive pass rusher from UCLA, with their first pick of the draft.
The selection of Barr surprised some because a number of draft analysts had pegged him as a better fit for a 3-4 defense. But it didn’t take long for Barr to make the Vikings look good for their selection. The rookie made a number of big plays in the first half of the season, none bigger than his walk-off touchdown in the overtime win over the Buccaneers.
The Vikings started a pair of veterans in Chad Greenway and Jasper Brinkley alongside Barr. Greenway, though, battled a few injuries — including painful broken ribs, which snapped his lengthy Ironman streak — and Father Time. Brinkley was serviceable in a run-stopping role.
Injuries to Barr and Greenway created opportunities for Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole. Both showed flashes of starting potential as reserves, but the team might again have to add talent at linebacker this offseason.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Barr was garnering NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year hype when a knee injury ended his season prematurely. While his tackling left more to be desired, Barr was a playmaker all over the field, including in coverage, which was a pleasant surprise to those outside the organization. Barr looked like a future star while filled the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three recoveries in 12 games. And while there are no guarantees, one can expect Barr to be better in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings are entering another offseason with a need at middle linebacker. Brinkley was serviceable in 2014 while playing at the league minimum, but the Vikings, not trusting him to cover, had to remove him from the field when they used their nickel package. He ended up playing just 42.5 percent of the snaps despite being a starter. The Vikings would like to have a three-down middle linebacker, giving them the flexibility to stay in their base defense more if those chose. Those guys are tough to find.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Barr led the way with a plus-9.3 grade. Cole, thanks to strong performances in Week 16 and 17, was right behind him at plus-8.7. Hodges was a plus-8.4. And Brinkley was a plus-2.5 (he was a plus-7.7 against the run). On the flip side, Greenway was a negative-15.9, the worst grade among all Vikings defenders.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 33 — defensive stops for Barr, most on the team according to PFF.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: One of the toughest decisions the Vikings must make, at least from an emotional standpoint, is whether to keep Greenway. The 32-year-old is scheduled to have a cap hit of $8.8 million in 2015, which is simply too high for his production. Greenway, who took a $1 million pay cut to remain with the team in 2014, has said he wants to finish his career with the Vikings and is willing to take another pay cut to stick around, though he does have limits for how much salary he is willing to sacrifice. Brinkley is an unrestricted free agent who could also be gone, but at the very least he could bring value as a backup.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Moderate. Led by Barr, the Vikings have some talented youngsters at the position. It’s unclear if Hodges and Cole can be full-time starters, but they certainly have earned opportunities to compete for a starting job in the offseason. Rookie outside linebacker Brandon Watts is also an intriguing prospect. But, as I wrote above, the Vikings lack a true every-down middle linebacker (yes, Cole has played some middle linebacker, but that might not be his best position in the pros). The Vikings will look to find a middle linebacker who can both defend the run and cover. That would take care of two problems: upgrading over Brinkley and finding a way to keep Greenway out of the nickel package — should he return in 2015.
|New England||2/1/15 5:30 PM|
|LA Clippers||7:00 PM|
|Golden State||8:00 PM|
|St. Louis||6:00 PM|
|Oregon State||9:00 PM|
|Kent State||9:00 PM|
|Canisius||44||2nd Half 15:13|
|Coll of Charleston||6:00 PM|
|(19) Princeton||6:00 PM|
|(9) Florida State||6:00 PM|
|Wichita State||7:00 PM|
|Missouri State||7:05 PM|
|(11) Arizona State||8:00 PM|