I had a dream over the Labor Day weekend about Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. It was strange, since I have never dreamt of him before. But it makes some sense as some sort of work anxiety dream. Especially with the season set to begin in a few days. Without venturing into deep dream analysis, I could say that Zimmer was waiting for me to join an activity. Of course, it was one that he was involved in. Yet I felt nothing but a sensation of dread about not wanting to displease him.
That feeling has to be somewhat akin to what many of the Vikings players sense under Zimmer’s tutelage. That is, with the possible exception of former Vikings starting left guard Alex Boone. Or, arguably the most surprising cut from the team’s roster trimming on Sept. 2. Boone was brought in as an expensive free agent upgrade for the Vikings’ woebegone offensive line in 2016, and when he learned recently that he would not be starting this season and reportedly refused to take a pay cut along with that demotion, the Vikings cut him. It appears Boone did not please Zimmer.
The fact remains, however, that the Vikings o-line (which likely gave Zimmer nightmares) is once again the key. The line includes five new starters, too. There’s free agent tackle acquisitions Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. There’s former center Nick Easton moving to left guard to replace Boone. The Vikings also took rookie center Pat Elflein (a third-round pick) as well. And, don’t forget about veteran (and former center) Joe Berger at right guard.
The numerous injuries to this unit derailed a 5-0 start for the Vikings last season. Simply, the team’s success will go as far as this new unit takes them this season. That could be to the promised land in their home stadium.
The Vikings offense continues to be led by Sam Bradford, the replacement for quarterback for Teddy Bridgewater, who went down with a devastating knee injury eight days before the start of the 2016 season. (Bridgewater has been placed on the injured reserve/physically unable to perform list to start this one). Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage last year. That’s saying something in lieu of the porous offensive line he played behind. (Actually, it says that a lot of his completions were of mid-range length. And more often than not, check downs).
But this season he should, in theory at this point, have better protection.
To further bolster the offense and perhaps give Bradford a better opportunity to do his thing (throw passes to his favorite wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as well as tight end Kyle Rudolph), the Vikings cast away former running back Adrian Peterson (who became a team nightmare in recent years), acquired Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray in free agency and drafted former FSU running back Dalvin Cook in the second round of the draft. Both are purportedly better pass-catchers out of the backfield and pass protectors in it than AP.
Only time will tell if they can replace Peterson’s production on the ground.
Speaking of Peterson, he returns to Minnesota for Monday Night Football on opening weekend. This time as a backup running back for the New Orleans Saints. Peterson shopped his wares around the league during the offseason, getting very few offers. Now he will be running with extra motivation when he returns to U.S. Bank Stadium in his first game of 2017—a dream matchup for the future Hall of Famer, whose final years in Minnesota were up and down to say the least.
“In my mind, we’re starting and ending the season in Minnesota,” Peterson told the Star Tribune. “Of course, I want to stick it to them. I want to stick it to everyone we play. But going back to Minnesota, playing the Vikings? Yeah, I want to stick it to them.”
The players who will have the biggest say against Peterson having his best game ever at U.S. Bank Stadium (he played in only two games there last season) make up the Vikings defense, which was third-best in yards allowed and sixth-best in points allowed last season.
This year, they are projected to be a top-five unit behind the improvements of adding defensive end Danielle Hunter to the starting lineup—he had the most team sacks last year as a backup with 12.5—a rookie replacement for Chad Greenway at weakside linebacker in former Michigan Wolverine Ben Gedeon and the potential ascension of third-year corner Trae Waynes to match with his counterpart, shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings also boast one of the best safeties in the league in Harrison Smith, a stalwart defensive middle in linebacker Eric Kendricks and the hope of a return to form for strongside linebacker Anthony Barr after a down year in 2016. These players, along with run-stopper Linval Joseph are hoping (on opening night) to put a hit on Peterson—something they weren’t allowed to do in all their years of practice together.
AP and the Saints aside, the Vikings have a formidable challenge in trying to unseat the Green Bay Packers as “Kings of the North”. The NFC North, that is. The Vikings owned that title two seasons ago (the first team to take it from the Packers since 2011), and then followed it up with a 5-0 start in 2016 until their long, ugly descent into mediocrity and an 8-8 finish.
The fall included numerous injuries (11 different combinations started a game on the offensive last year), the quitting of OC Norv Turner in mid-season, the injury to Zimmer’s right eye (which has required eight surgeries to date) and the miscommunication, mishandling or mutiny (depending on whose version you believe) between Zimmer and his defensive backs that resulted in Zimmer reconsidering how he dealt with some personnel issues last year.
Suffice it say the Vikings, who were ascending at the start of 2016, suffered a nightmarish season that shook the foundations of the team.
Before the fall, the Vikings, with Bridgewater still under center, were trending on a two-year plan to potentially become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The 5-0 start appeared to affirm that. But since then, that dream scenario has become ever distant and fuzzy. The nightmare of 2016 is behind them. But the only way for it not to rear its ugly head is with another nice start this season, However, that’s dependent upon the gelling of an offensive line that has now lost one of its veteran leaders just days before the season.
Regardless, Zimmer and the Vikings set sail into battle of a potential dream season. That begins on opening night with the slaying of an old beast that used to fly through opposing defenses from their own backfield. Where is the Night King when you need him?
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