Minnesota Vikings 2014 Season Review: Handing the Reins to the Rookie
After a disappointing 2013 campaign that saw them finish dead last in the NFC North and with a 5-10-1 record, the Vikings' management decided it was time to shake things up.
Leslie Frazier, Bill Musgrave, and Alan Williams were all shown the door, making way for new head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and defensive coordinator George Edwards.
On draft day, the Vikings traded up and used the final pick of day one to make Teddy Bridgewater the third quarterback taken in the first round.
The change seems to have been for the better, as the Vikings finished 2014 with a 7-9 record and improved to third in their division.
Though the Vikings' offensive rankings dropped this year -- they went from 21st in our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric in 2013 to 25th in 2014 -- there is a lot to be optimistic about on that side of the ball.
The most encouraging part of the year for Vikings fans had to have been the play of Teddy Bridgewater. He didn't shatter records or blow minds, finishing 20th in the league in Passing NEP per drop back, but his numbers were excellent for a rookie quarterback. His Passing NEP of 22.77 ranks eighth among rookie quarterbacks since 2000. If he continues to develop, the Vikings may have found their franchise quarterback of the future.
Complementing Bridgewater on the offensive side of the ball this year was an excellent rushing attack.
When it was announced in Week 2 of the season that Adrian Peterson would be deactivated and subsequently suspended, ultimately leading to his not playing another snap on the year, there was concern and uncertainty about the Vikings' backfield. Running back duties were to be split between rookie Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, who had only recorded 47 carries in two seasons as a pro.
Both backs ended up finding their share of success behind a young offensive line anchored by center John Sullivan. Among backs with 50 or more carries on the season, Asiata and Mckinnon finished 20th and 22nd, respectively, in Rushing NEP per carry. As a team, the Vikings finished third in the NFL in Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry, seeing their ranking fall just one spot from 2013 even with the loss of one of the best backs in the league.
Griffen was an effective rusher off the edge and ended the season tied for ninth in the league with 12 sacks, while Smith not only lead the team in tackles with 71, but also recorded 5 interceptions, good for third in the league. These two played a big role in improving the Minnesota pass defense, which jumped from 28th in the league in 2013 to 18th in 2014.
When anyone other than Teddy Bridgewater was under center, things got ugly. While they went 6-6 in games started by Bridgewater, they went only 1-3 in the other four. Both Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder were egregiously bad this season. Cassel posted a Passing NEP of -7.02, while Ponder's -17.29 on only 50 dropbacks means every single snap he took cost the Vikings over a third of a point.
While the quarterback play outside of Bridgewater was abysmal, they also weren't afforded many favors by the receiving corps. The Vikings struggled all season to establish a true number-one receiving option, and never really managed to so.
Over the first nine games of the season, Cordarrelle Patterson was targeted an average of 6.2 times per game, and despite these opportunities, he was simply not good. Only four receivers with 50 or more targets on the year ranked lower than Patterson in terms of Reception NEP per target.
Their most effective receiver this year was veteran Greg Jennings who ranked only 25th in Reception NEP on a per target basis and 34th in total Reception NEP.
After their week 10 bye, the Vikings turned to rookie Charles Johnson as their primary wideout. While Johnson has room to grow, he didn't look to be the answer to the Vikings receiver woes completely, as he ended the year 31st in the league and third on the team in Reception NEP per target.
No matter how good their run game performed this year, it suffered from the loss of Adrian Peterson. Peterson has been one of the best backs in football over the last five years, and now his future with the team is uncertain. Peterson has a federal appeal scheduled in February, but losing a player of his caliber is not something you like to see as a fan from an on-field perspective.
Though the offensive line played an important role in the success of the Vikings rushing attack, they had serious struggles in pass protection. The 96 quarterback hits and 51 sacks they gave up are good for sixth and fifth in the league, respectively.
The area the Vikings struggled the most on either side of the ball this year was in defending the run. They finished 2014 ranked 28th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, four spots lower than they were in 2014. Mike Zimmer's defenses have traditionally defended the run well, so it's surprising to see this decline with his arrival, and it will be interesting to see if he can turn that around.
Moving into the Offseason
On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings need Teddy Bridgewater to continue his development. While 2014 was incredibly promising, he will only be the long-term answer at quarterback if he continues to progress.
Signing or drafting a wideout to add a legitimate number-one receiving threat, as well as shoring up the offensive line with more competent pass protectors will go a long way to making the Vikings offensive attack more balanced and dangerous.
On defense there is still room to improve against the pass, and Smith and Griffen both being fairly young is encouraging, but they will need to turn around their run defense if they want to make a serious push in the incredibly competitive NFC North in 2015.