2016 NFL Preview: Vikings hope to get Adrian Peterson to a Super Bowl

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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There are probably two categories of Minnesota Vikings fans: Ones who have convinced themselves that Adrian Peterson is a superhero and will be a Hall of Fame running back forever, and the ones who worry if the rest of the Vikings will peak when Peterson is still in his prime.

We discussed Peterson and whether the Vikings could get to the Super Bowl with him in their preview a couple years ago. Back then Peterson was destined to be the NFL’s Ernie Banks and never play for a championship, at least for Minnesota. He has won one playoff game in his great career.

But then the Vikings got good in a hurry.

Minnesota made a fantastic coaching hire two years ago, grabbing former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The Vikings have done a good job in the draft, adding defensive pieces. They surprised a lot of people by winning the NFC North last season. Now the Vikings are in a peculiar spot. They have a young, rising team whose offense revolves around a 31-year-old running back.

Adrian Peterson hopes to cap a great career with a Super Bowl (AP)
Adrian Peterson hopes to cap a great career with a Super Bowl (AP)

The race is on for Peterson and the Vikings. Peterson turned 31 on March 21. He has 2,381 career rushing attempts, finishing in the top 10 of the league in that category six times in his nine seasons. Last season, at age 30, he led the NFL with 327 carries. And Peterson isn’t the type to shy away from a collision. There are a lot of miles on his legs.

Peterson also led the NFL with 1,485 rushing yards last season. He’s the second-oldest rushing rushing champion in NFL history (Curtis Martin was 31 when he led the NFL in 2004). Maybe he is a superhero.

There were, however, a few concerning signs late last season. He had 366 yards on 113 carries in Minnesota’s final six games, including playoffs, for an un-Peterson-like 3.2-yard average. That streak started after he tied a season high with 29 carries against Atlanta. It’s possible that was nothing more than a short slump that all backs go through. But now that Peterson has reached an age in which most mortal backs start slowing down, everything has to be looked at through that lens.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Minnesota made a big statement last season when it went into Lambeau Field in Week 17 and won the NFC North. The playoff heartbreak that followed against the Seattle Seahawks didn’t erase that progress. This defense, which employs Zimmer’s aggressive style, has many young, good pieces. It seems like it’s on the verge of being a championship-level defense. The offense is tougher to gauge.

When Peterson was out for most of 2014, Teddy Bridgewater had a promising rookie season. When Peterson came back, the offense funneled through him and Bridgewater became a bystander. Among regular starting quarterbacks only Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills had fewer attempts per game than Bridgewater’s 27.9. Bridgewater had just 14 touchdown passes, which seems like a stat from 1979. Bridgewater was effective when asked to throw, but it’s harder to assess him now. If the coaches fully bought into Bridgewater, wouldn’t they want him to do more and keep Peterson fresher? Or when you have a once-in-a-lifetime back like Peterson, you give it to him as often as possible until he breaks?

The biggest question the Vikings have is whether Bridgewater can be the focal point of the offense when Peterson slows down. Maybe Peterson pulls a John Riggins, runs well until he’s 35 and the Vikings don’t have to worry about that anytime soon (also worth noting: backup Jerick McKinnon has flashed before and might end up pulling a Tee Martin). But when the switch flips and Peterson can’t handle 327 carries anymore, nobody can be sure if Bridgewater can carry the offense or if he’ll always be best in a secondary role.

The hope for the Vikings is that it all comes together before they have to worry about that. The defense is very good. Peterson is still one of the best runners in the NFL. Bridgewater was good enough in his second year to lead a division champion. Maybe the Vikings can have a special season before the Peterson window closes. They’re getting close.

The Vikings knew they needed to upgrade the offensive line, so they signed guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith. Adrian Peterson had to enjoy that. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell is exactly what Bridgewater needs, a big-bodied possession receiver who is reliable on third down. None of the Vikings’ losses were that bad. Mike Wallace is the biggest name to go, but he was just a deep threat who never matched with Bridgewater, who excels at just about everything but doesn’t have a strong arm. Treadwell is a much better fit. Grade: B

If first-round pick Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes could develop into Pro Bowl-level cornerbacks, that would make eight potential Pro Bowlers on defense. Maybe nine if end Danielle Hunter builds on a strong rookie season.

On the defensive line, tackles Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd are capable of playing at a Pro Bowl level and end Everson Griffen was a Pro Bowler last year. Linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith also made the Pro Bowl. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks has the ability to get to that level, too.

Even if the corners don’t get to that level, or Floyd and Kendricks don’t either, this could still be one of the NFL’s best defenses. It’s also worth noting that nobody mentioned in this section is older than 28. As the Vikings move into their new stadium this season, they’re a team on the rise.

It’s hard to win in the modern NFL with an old-school offense. The Carolina Panthers run one, but they have Cam Newton. The Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl without a good passing game, but they had a defense that will go down as one of the best in NFL history. Maybe the Vikings can get to that Broncos level on defense, or Bridgewater will take a step forward in his third season. But the passing game is a concern, especially if the run game becomes average.

Let’s not typecast Teddy Bridgewater as a game manager yet. That was his role last season, but he can be more than that. We saw flashes of it late in his rookie season. Bridgewater played OK in a limited role last year, and it’s not like he was throwing to Ben Roethlisberger’s receiving corps. Bridgewater understands the position, it seems, and does many things well. He’s just more of an unknown after a quiet 2014.

It’s easy to go with Adrian Peterson, and he’s the best answer. But just to change things up, how about left tackle Matt Kalil? Kalil rebounded in 2015, but still wasn’t great. He’s not only protecting the blind side of a young quarterback, but also anchoring the line in a run-first offense. The former first-round pick is playing on his fifth-year option and can be a free agent next offseason. He needs to give the Vikings a good reason to invest in him for the long term.

Cosell: “Teddy Bridgewater is a smart, smart quarterback. He just lacks a certain physical throwing skill set, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a successful player. It’s not likely to change because of the way he throws it. It’s one thing if someone throws it absolutely perfectly and you think with weights and everything their arm can get stronger. The way he throws it means it’s not likely to change. If you think of a waiter holding a tray in a restaurant, he sort of throws it from that angle. He’s not an over-the-top thrower, even a three-quarters thrower … just the very nature of how you throw that, it’s very hard to drive your arm from that position. Therefore, the ball doesn’t jump out of his hand with velocity. He’s not that kind of thrower.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the NFC North and the rest of the division.]

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “These are exciting times for Minnesota sports fans. The Wolves are an emerging NBA force with young stars and a super-genius coach, the Vikings are the defending champs of the NFC North, and the Twins are … um … well, anyway, the Vikes were really good last year. Adrian Peterson remains the centerpiece of this team’s offense after claiming another rushing title at age 30. But if Minnesota is going to make leap into the upper-tier of fantasy (and reality) squads, then Teddy Bridgewater will need to reach a new level, and his coaches have to trust him to put the ball in the air more than 447 times. No team attempted fewer passes than the Vikings last season. Rookie Laquon Treadwell is a potential star at receiver, but he didn’t exactly land in an ideal spot.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Remember all those defensive names from before? They didn’t really pay off that big in 2015. The Vikings were 15th in yards per pass allowed and 21st in yards per rush allowed. They were the 14th-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. Minnesota was 15th in passer rating allowed. They were 13th in total yards allowed, though they were fifth in points allowed. You’d expect better numbers across the board from a defense with so much talent. But it’s also a reminder that this is a young defense and there’s a lot of room for improvement.

WHO IS THE MOST VALUABLE VIKINGS DEFENDER?

There are a few acceptable answers. Everson Griffen has turned into a fantastic pass rusher. Linval Joseph is the rare nose tackle who is good against the run and pass. Anthony Barr can basically do everything from his outside linebacker position, and that gives the Vikings a lot of flexibility on defense.

I’ll go with Harrison Smith though. Safeties like Smith who can offer very good run support and also excel in coverage are very valuable. Most teams are looking for safeties like Smith. The Vikings were smart enough to hold onto him too, signing him to a five-year extension worth $51.25 million this offseason.

I could see this defense putting it all together and playing at a Seattle Seahawks/Broncos level. All the pieces are there, and Mike Zimmer is a smart defensive coach. The Vikings won the NFC North last year and can do it again. And what if Teddy Bridgewater comes alive in Year 3, Adrian Peterson leads the NFL in rushing again and the defense takes the huge leap? That’s a lot to ask, but if it all happens then the Vikings could win the NFC. They don’t feel that far off, given all the defensive talent.

If anything causes the Vikings to slip from last year’s 11 wins, it would be the offense. The receivers are still unproven, and you’d have to say Teddy Bridgewater is too. Nobody in Minnesota wants to think about it but Adrian Peterson is gong to slow down some day. Not many 31-year-old backs have turned in great seasons. If the offense struggles, the Vikings could fall out of the playoff race fast.

I went back and forth on whether to put Minnesota ahead of Green Bay in these rankings. They beat the Packers last season and are a young team with the arrow pointed up. Ultimately I went with the Packers because I trust Aaron Rodgers more than Teddy Bridgewater. But I like this Vikings defense a lot and believe we’ll wake up one day and they’ll be at that Seahawks/Broncos level. They won’t win the NFC North again but they’ll make the playoffs. Bridgewater and the passing game hold the key to whether they can be more than just a wild-card team.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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