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 start with the quarterbacks.
The Vikings entered training camp last July with three quarterbacks and little certainty as to which one would start the season behind center. The team two months prior had selected Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick in the draft, and inconsistent veterans Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder returned. Head coach Mike Zimmer declared that it would be a three-way camp competition, but if Ponder was actually in the race, he quickly dropped out of contention.
Cassel, who arrived in Mankato atop the depth chart, kept hold of the starting gig with a sharp camp and preseason. But after an efficient performance in Week 1 and a four-interception afternoon in Week 2, Cassel was lost for the season with a fractured foot in Week 3. The Bridgewater era began.
As is expected of rookies, Bridgewater was up and down early, the lowest point probably being the five total interceptions he threw in back-to-back losses in October. But Bridgewater showed steady improvement and threw at least one touchdown pass in his final 10 games to finish his first season as a pro with 2,919 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and an impressive 6-6 record as a starter.
Needless to say, there will be no quarterback competition this summer. The job is Bridgewater’s.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: By playing with poise in spite of a subpar supporting cast without suspended running back Adrian Peterson, Bridgewater gave hope that he could be the long-term solution at quarterback. And the fact that offensive coordinator Norv Turner plans to stick around for a couple more seasons bodes well for Bridgewater as he strives to blossom as a young passer.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: Bridgewater threw 12 interceptions in his 12 starts, including three games with multiple interceptions. To be fair, at least a couple of those interceptions ricocheted off a receiver first. But Bridgewater will be looking to cut down on the turnovers in his second season.
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. Bridgewater led the way with a plus-4.5, which ranked 15th among all NFL quarterbacks. Cassel graded as a negative-7.5 in three starts. Ponder was a negative-4.4 in one.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 64.4 — completion percentage for Bridgewater, third all-time among rookies. Only Ben Roethlisberger and Robert Griffin III completed a higher percentage as rookies.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Ponder is a goner after four seasons in Minnesota. He never lived up to his draft position, but it seems likely that another NFL team will believe it can coax better play out of him. Cassel is expected to be back as the backup despite a $4.75 million cap number in 2015.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Low. The Vikings look to be in pretty good shape with Bridgewater and Cassel, an above-average backup option. But they may look to add a third QB to replace Ponder given Turner’s stated preference of carrying three. That passer would likely profile as a developmental type, whether he is a late pick, an undrafted free agent or an inexperienced young veteran like Pat Devlin, who will be around this spring after finishing 2014 on the practice squad.
One man’s opinion on how today’s NFL action will play out …
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
Packers plus-7 ½ at Seahawks: Seahawks by 10
Why?: The Packers lost by 20 in Seattle with Aaron Rodgers’ mobility at full strength. Granted, that was back in Week 1. A lot has changed since them. But, if anything, Seattle is playing even better defensively the past seven games (56 points allowed) than it was in Week 1. Rodgers won’t be able to get away with having the bum left calf against a defense that’s much better than what he saw at home against Dallas last week.
Colts plus-6 ½ at Patriots: Patriots by 14
Why?: Bill Belichick has outcoached the Colts in recent meetings, including a 42-20 regular-season win this season, and he’ll do it again. The Colts aren’t sure what to expect. Will they see the team that bludgeoned them with the run during the regular season? Or will they see the team that ran for only 14 yards in beating the Ravens last week? Belichick and his defense also won’t allow a one-dimensional Colts offense to beat them. Colts QB Andrew Luck is good, but not good enough at this point in his career to outmaneuver Belichick at New England with the Super Bowl on the line.
Record: 3-1. Versus spread: 3-1.
Record: 1-3. Versus spread: 2-2.
Final Regular-season Record: Last week/overall: 12-4/146-90-1. Versus spread: Last week/overall: 9-6-1/125-111-1.
We’ll preface this blog post with an asterisk to acknowledge that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his hand-picked head coach, Mike Zimmer, are still in that wonderful Kumbaya happy place that all general managers and hand-picked head coaches frolic during their NFL honeymoon periods.
Sometimes, these things last. Often times, they don’t. Typically, if there’s a bonafide franchise quarterback to smooth out the rough edges, trophies are won and good times between coach and GM are extended (See: Green Bay/Mike McCarthy/Ted Thompson/Aaron Rodgers).
The Vikings went 7-9 in Year 1 under Spielman and Zimmer. No one was happy to finish third in the NFC North and miss the playoffs. But there is justifiable optimism in the Vikings’ future based on a promising rookie quarterback that Spielman procured in a draft day trade and a solid coaching staff adept at tutoring quarterbacks and improving defensive production.
Wednesday, Spielman was asked to evaluate Zimmer’s first season. He gushed.
“I thought he did a great job,” Spielman said. “We sit there and I sit there with him on Monday, ask what he was thinking here and those things. I think even he is going to grow next year because this was his first opportunity to be a head coach and there’s no question about his leadership and the respect he has from those guys in the locker room.
“He’s as honest as it gets. He’ll tell you, if he screws up: ‘What do you want me to do? I screwed up.’ I think that helps make us such a good team, because we’re both similar. He talked a little bit during training camp, I put together all these game management things and we went through them. But it’s just like players, they learn by going through those live situations and you have to make those split-second decisions.
“He may have admitted he’d have done some things differently and he’ll continue to grow in that phase. But overall, I thought it was very good for a first-year head coach. Very good.”
The entire football side of the Vikings’ organization spent three days evaluating the roster last week. Spielman said he could see improvement in the working relationship between the coaches and scouting department because of their one year of experience together.
“Just heading into the second year now there’s such a clearer understanding about the direction we need to go as far as what specifically each position trait is required to be effective in this scheme,” Spielman said. “I don’t think 7-9 anyone here is satisfied with that record. We’re excited about the progress, but 7-9, no one is satisfied. I know our expecations are very high between myself and coach Zimmer, where we should be, and we’ll continue to work together to get to that point.”
Spielman was asked if there was anything unexpected with Zimmer.
“No, he’s really a good guy,” Spielman said. “It’s everything I hoped for and envisioned when we went through the process. I think the biggest thing is he probably, out of any new coach, had to deal with more adversity than anyone. How he handled that adversity, to me, he should be highly recognized for it. Because it was never, no matter what hit us, injuries or what else, there was never an excuse. ‘All right, it’s our job as coaches to figure it out.’ And we got positive results out of that.”
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has made multiple first round picks over the last three drafts, wheeling and dealing his way to a second – even third – selection near the end of the first round. With that, the organization will have some decisions to make on whether it wants to exercise fifth-year options for seven players in the next three offseasons.
We’ll table the discussions regarding wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the next two offseasons, though your heads are already spinning on who should receive a fifth-year option from this group.
This year, it starts with the 2012 class with first round left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith entering their fourth, and currently final, year of their rookie contracts. The window to exercise the fifth-year option or extend first round picks from the 2012 class opened on Dec. 29 and closes on May 3.
The top ten picks have their salaries decided by the average of the top ten highest salaries for players at the same position during the previous year, which would be the same amount as transition tags. Kalil, picked fourth overall in 2012, would have his salary determined in this manner.
The average salary of the third through 25th highest salaries at the same position determines how much picks 11-32 will receive in their fifth-year options. Smith, picked 29th overall, would fall under this category.
“That’ll be interesting, because now we’re getting into these next three years; We have seven of them that we’re going to have situations that we’re going to have to deal with,” Spielman said. “This year, it’ll be Kalil and Harrison Smith. If you exercise those options, you definitely have them under contract for that fifth year. We just have to talk through internally, and we’ve already had some initial discussions on some teams you look at, they exercise that option, but then they try to work out a long-term extension for those guys.”
Smith would be a no-brainer to exercise and possibly even incorporate the option into a long-term extension during the offseason. He’s a top five player at his position and will be one of the key pieces for this Vikings defense under head coach Mike Zimmer.
Kalil showed improvement at the end of the season, but the Vikings will be tasked with the decision of whether they want to retain Kalil’s rights for what will likely be a hefty price. The transition tag last year for offensive linemen was $10.039 million. Kalil will have the second highest cap hit among Vikings offensive linemen next season at $6.29 million with a $3.08 million base salary.
The Vikings can exercise the fifth-year option to Kalil, but it wouldn’t be guaranteed until the first day of the 2016 league year. The only exception would be if Kalil suffers a serious injury next season, which is possible for an offensive lineman in a season when right guard Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt were placed on injured reserve, the fifth-year option would be fully guaranteed. It’s noteworthy that Kalil had minor knee surgery last offseason that led to his slow start.
What’s clear is the Vikings will exercise a fifth-year option for the first time after declining to offer one last year to quarterback Christian Ponder, who will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The 2011 draft class was the first to go through the process when the NFL implemented the fifth-year option in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. It’s still a fairly new process but one the Vikings will likely be faced with every offseason considering Spielman’s draft tendencies.
The Vikings signed versatile cornerback Jalil Carter to a reserve/future contract.
Carter spent the past three seasons with Toronto of the Canadian Football League. He is 6-2 and 205 pounds, and played college football at Akron, where he was a safety and receiver. He signed with St. Louis as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
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