Why the Vikings are on the rise

After a 7-9 finish last year, the Minnesota Vikings are a trendy pick to make the playoffs in 2015 — and for good reason. Although the young talent on the defense may represent the biggest reason for the Vikings’ ascension, much of the optimism centers on returning star, RB Adrian Peterson, and the new offensive face of the franchise, QB Teddy Bridgewater. The excitement over Bridgewater is understandable, considering the Vikings went 31-48-1 from 2010-14 when the team’s major problem was a void at quarterback. Now they have their best young passer since Daunte Culpepper. (Brett Favre starred in his first season in Minnesota in 2009, but at 40 years old, he was not a long-term answer at the position.) Bridgewater enters his second season after going 6-6 in his 12 starts as a rookie. Most encouraging is how his play improved as the season wore on. During four of his last five games, he posted a QB rating of 90.2 or better. He threw eight touchdowns and five interceptions during that stretch while completing at least 68 percent of his passes in each game. He put up those promising numbers despite being without one of the best running backs in NFL history. Peterson played in just one game in 2014 after being placed on an exempt list due to child abuse charges. Look for Peterson, who rushed for 1,266 and 2,097 yards in the two previous seasons, to play with added motivation in 2015. The last time he had a chip on his shoulder — after coming back from an ACL injury — he finished with an MVP season. Though he’s a physical marvel, Peterson has turned 30, the age when most running backs begin showing slippage. But the Vikings finally have a player who can spell Peterson in Jerick McKinnon, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie last season. They are not the only offensive playmakers who will help out the 22-year-old Bridgewater. He now has a deep threat after the Vikings traded a fifth-round pick for wide receiver Mike Wallace. Even though the speedster didn’t live up to the expectations of his lofty contract with the Miami Dolphins, he still had 862 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and a change of scenery could provide a career boost. His receiving mate, the versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, showed great promise as a rushing/receiving/special teams threat while scoring nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2013, though his play regressed last season. To resuscitate Wallace’s career and advance Patterson’s, the Vikings have the right man in offensive coordinator Norv Turner, an excellent playcaller and QB guru. Unlike most well-regarded offensive coordinators, Turner emphasizes the running game over the passing game, though he mixes in the deep ball, a result of his Air Coryell roots. With Turner in charge of the offense, it allows second-year head coach Mike Zimmer to devote his time to his specialty — the defense, a 4-3 unit that features press coverage in the secondary. The D — with players like Jared Allen, the Williams Wall, Antoine Winfield and co. — used to be the hallmark of Minnesota’s success, but as that group grew old, the Vikings fell apart. The Vikings have just one defensive starter from their last NFC Championship Game appearance — Chad Greenway, the linebacker who has started 123 games. Minnesota has remade their defense alongside Greenway with a slew of young defensive stars, which it acquired through the draft. One reason the Vikings felt comfortable parting with Allen before the 2014 season was the emergence of their other pass rushers. Everson Griffen and veteran Brian Robison combined for 32 sacks the last two years, though a pectoral injury could limit the latter during training camp. Aside from Greenway and Robison, it’s a young corps. Before a knee injury ended his 2014 season, linebacker Anthony Barr was in contention for Rookie of the Year voting. A multi-talented player, he had 55 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and a touchdown through 12 weeks last year. Projected as a 2015 first-round pick, Eric Kendricks slipped to the Vikings in the second round (45th overall). The best middle linebacker of the draft has special instincts and intelligence while also possessing great lateral agility and a 38-inch vertical leap. With the 11th overall pick, the Vikings selected cornerback Trae Waynes, a perfect fit for Zimmer’s man-press scheme. The 6-1, 183-pounder has the blend of size and speed to handle NFC North receivers. His 4.23 speed at the NFL Combine was the fastest among all defensive backs, and he also had the fastest 20-yard split (2.40 seconds) among all participants. What was once a source of weakness — the defensive backfield — may soon become a strength for the Vikings. They can pair Waynes with ballhawking safety Harrison Smith, who has three touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his three-year career, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013. Beyond the young talent aboard, the future looks bright in Minnesota. The Vikings’ new stadium, Minnesota Stadium, will open in 2016. And in 2018, it will host the Super Bowl. Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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