EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings used the 2017 offseason to upgrade their 28th-ranked offense, rebuild their head coach’s long-term health and restore the overall confidence of a franchise that started last season 5-0 before finishing 3-8 en route to missing the playoffs for the second time in three years of the Mike Zimmer era.
Now what? Do the Vikings return to being the team that went 16-6 with an NFC North title from the start of the 2015 season until Week 5 of last season? Or do they continue on the slide that caught up to them as their injured reserve list grew to include quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Adrian Peterson and both starting offensive tackles before the Week 6 bye arrived?
Zimmer, who had his own durability issues, missing a game as he dealt with repeated eye surgeries to fix a detached retina, thinks he knows which way the tide will turn when the team transitions from this week’s minicamp to training camp in late July. And that direction, he said, has everything to do with the confidence he sees and senses in his players.
“This team still thinks they’re 5-0, not the 3-8 team that everybody is always talking about,” Zimmer said. “And that’s good to see. They haven’t changed. They’re not listening to people who say they’re terrible. They practice like they’re the 5-0 team. Their mentality is still up there.”
Attitude does and will matter. But the roster also needed a heavy influx of strong bodies, particularly on offense, where the Vikings said bye to the 32-year-old Peterson, the face of the franchise since 2007. So general manager Rick Spielman used both free agency and the top of his draft class to focus on a running game that ranked a distant last in rushing yards per game (75.3) and per carry (3.17) a year ago.
In free agency, Spielman added running back Latavius Murray and tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. In the draft, he used his top two picks to take Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the second round and Ohio State center Pat Elflein in the third round.
Murray and Cook are versatile backs who will share the load out of the backfield. Elflein could start at center as early as Week 1. And, even more importantly, Reiff and Remmers are being counted on to restore ability and durability at left and right tackle, respectively.
“I like those guys’ attitude,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “At the end of the day, they’re guys that are going to fight, claw, scratch, and do whatever they’ve got to do.”
How those two do could dictate how the Vikings do. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and quarterback Sam Bradford have had an entire offseason to finally get caught up and install a new offense, but if the line performs like it did last year — when 12 different players were needed, including five left tackles — nothing else matters. And, let’s face it, Reiff and Remmers have a lot to prove considering they were young and no longer wanted in Detroit and Carolina, respectively.
At quarterback, Bradford returns as the undisputed starter while Bridgewater starts the season on PUP. Case Keenum was brought in to be the backup as Bridgewater continues to rehab a devastating left knee injury that could cause him to miss a second straight full season.
When the Vikings reconvene in Mankato for training camp, several positions will be up for grabs. Center (Elflein vs. Nick Easton), the third receiver (Laquon Treadwell vs. Michael Floyd), kicker (Marshall Koehn vs. Kai Forbath), punter (Taylor Symmank vs. Ryan Quigley), kick returner (rookies Rodney Adams vs. Stacy Coley), starting running back (Murray vs. Cook), weakside linebacker (Edmond Robinson vs. Emmanuel Lamur) and defensive tackle (Datone Jones vs. Tom Johnson) are the most notable.
Nickel corner also is a position to watch with Mackensie Alexander trying to prove he can replace the departed Captain Munnerlyn. If he can’t, the Vikings have a decent Plan B: moving savvy and soon-to-be 39-year-old Terence Newman inside and starting 2014 first-round draft pick Trae Waynes at left corner.
The Vikings, of course, are also keeping an eye on Zimmer’s right eye. He has had eight surgeries since last November and the team is concerned. So concerned that it forced him to take two weeks off during OTAs this spring. So concerned that they drove him to his ranch in Kentucky so that he wouldn’t be tempted to buck doctor’s orders and head back into work.
Zimmer said he is more optimistic than ever that his eye issues will be put behind him by the start of this season. But the ever-defiant 61-year-old also made sure to point out that he’ll continue coaching, “with one eye or two.”
Zimmer also heads into training camp with optimism for his players. And his players appear to be in a solid frame of mind as they talk about learning from an injury-marred season that saw them lose four games by six or fewer points and reach Week 5 as the league’s last unbeaten team.
“We had four or five ballgames that if we could have gotten to fall the other way, we are looking at 12 to 13 wins and a first-round bye, so that is how close this league is,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph. “One of the things coach Zimmer constantly does through practice and one of his big sayings is, ‘You have got to learn how to play the game.’ We can go out and run plays and that is great, but if you do not know how those plays fit into situations, one play here and there could cost us a game, and it did last year.
“So we can’t just put last year to bed. We have to learn from it. We put in a lot of work and have a higher comfort level heading into training camp.”
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs. At 6-foot, 191 pounds, he is not the prototypical No. 1 receiver. But neither is Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. No, Diggs isn’t Brown. But he is a good third-year receiver who can become a very good player if he can avoid the nagging leg and groin injuries that slowed him last season. A year ago, Diggs was a vital part of an offense that was flying by the seat of its pants. The offensive line was devastated by injuries. Quarterback Sam Bradford was forced into the starting lineup two weeks after his trade. Coordinator Norv Turner quit after seven games. And Adrian Peterson, the face of the franchise, went down in Week 2 and played only three games all year. So Diggs became the guy that new coordinator Pat Shurmur and Bradford turned to. They used Diggs and the short passing game to essentially replace the running game. That’s how Diggs became the first Viking to catch 13 balls against the Lions one week and 13 more the next week against Washington. But those nagging injuries sloDDiggs — he had nine catches in the final three games — and prevented him from surpassing 1,000 yards. This offseason, Diggs looks stronger and sounds determined to take great care of his body. He and Bradford clearly have taken advantage of a full offseason together. If theupgraded offensive line and running game can give Bradford time to throw deep, look for Diggs to make an impact down the field this
season. He is an excellent route runner with strong instincts and an ability to read coverages. He has made several nice catches deep down the field in OTAs and minicamp. One of them came during the first day of minicamp, when he sneaked past Xavier Rhodes, the team’s shut-down Pro Bowl corner.
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