THE SLEEPER'S SLEEPER
Adrian Peterson has provided, by necessity, a disproportionate amount of the Vikings' offensive firepower for much of his career, and especially in recent years, when he played with mediocre quarterbacks such as Tarvaris Jackson, Christian Ponder, Joe Webb and Matt Cassel. The last occasion on which the All-Pro running back lined up behind a healthy and above-average quarterback—40-year-old Brett Favre in 2009—the Vikings had the NFL's second-best offense.
Last year, though, while Peterson missed 15 games following an ugly child abuse incident that resulted in his taking a plea deal on criminal charges, something unexpected happened: Minnesota's offense began to thrive without him.
O.K., thrive probably is too strong a word. After all, three opposing defenses held this team to single digits in 2015, and the Vikings scored 19 points or fewer in nine of their games. But late in the year rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed signs of blossoming under offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Over the season's final five weeks (which included three Minnesota wins), Bridgewater completed 72.1% of his passes and averaged 246 yards passing per game. If he could do that while handing off to Matt Asiata and Ben Tate, who are better suited to backup roles, how much more productive will Bridgewater be in his second season, with Peterson in the backfield commanding the defense's attention?
When Turner had both Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson in his offense in San Diego, from 2007 to '09, their attack ranked fifth, second and fourth in points scored. Bridgewater has much to prove before he can ascend to Rivers's class, but he is at a similar point in his career now as Rivers was then—'07 marked Rivers's second season as a starter (though his fourth in the NFL overall). Bridgewater, a '14 first-round pick, also possesses many of the same qualities as Rivers: quick footwork, decisiveness built on presnap awareness, and enough arm to throw to all spots on the field.
This season Bridgewater will have at his disposal the speedy Mike Wallace, a bust at his price in Miami but still the type of field-stretching receiver that Turner covets. Wallace and 2014 surprise Charles Johnson likely will line up outside, with either Jarius Wright or persistent tease Cordarrelle Patterson in the slot.
Should the Minnesota offense falter, odds are that its line will be to blame. The Vikings coughed up 51 sacks last season, 37 of which came during Bridgewater's dozen starts. Left tackle Matt Kalil was at the heart of those struggles—he was flagged for 12 penalties and allowed 12 sacks. If Kalil struggles again, the Vikings could look to move on from the fourth pick of the 2012 draft.
Left tackle is only one potential hole on the offensive line. Veteran right tackle Phil Loadholt tore his Achilles in the preseason, and fourth-round rookie T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh) may be his replacement. Projected starting left guard Brandon Fusco is coming back from a torn pectoral. And the right guard spot is up for grabs, with ex-Charger Michael Harris among the contenders.
While Turner carries the reputation of a quarterback guru, his system relies on establishing a downhill running attack (see: Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith). Last year Minnesota's run game finished in the top half of the league despite Peterson's contributing just 75 yards in his one game. Asiata led the way with 570 yards, which is 400 yards fewer than Peterson gained in his least-productive year, 2011, when he played only 12 games. In every season other than that injury-shortened one and last year, Peterson rushed for at least 1,266 yards. Even a 30-year-old Peterson, however rusty, should jolt the rushing attack into a higher gear.
Minnesota's defense is strong enough to support the offense as it goes through growing pains. The Vikings' D took massive steps forward in year one under coach Mike Zimmer, ranking 11th in points allowed after being the NFL's worst in that category the season before. Minnesota also spent its top three draft picks this year on defensive players, including taking cornerback Trae Waynes (Michigan State) in the first round.
Expectations are that Zimmer will have his defense operating at a high level. History—and the return of Peterson—suggests Turner could follow suit with the offense.
SI'S PREDICTION: 10--6
ANDY BENOIT ON THE VIKINGS' POTENTIAL ON D
In year two under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have a chance to be one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. Zimmer runs a 4--3 attack-oriented system and is at the cutting edge of the double-A-gap inside blitzes that are so popular around the league. With a veteran in Chad Greenway and a potential superstar in versatile second-year man Anthony Barr (above), Zimmer has the linebackers to make his scheme really dangerous. Minnesota also has an athletic defensive line, which Zimmer smartly deploys in the pass rush with a variety of stunts and twists. If 2013 first-round defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd stays healthy, he'll have a breakout year. Everson Griffen already had his breakout and remains an every-down force. Pressure-oriented schemes are often only as good as a defense's talent on the back end, and that's why the Vikings used their first-round pick on Trae Waynes, the consensus best pure cover corner in the draft. The hope is that he'll soon start opposite Xavier Rhodes, a '13 first-rounder who, with his size (6'1", 218 pounds) and physicality, is on the cusp of being an elite boundary corner. Factor in flexible, intelligent fourth-year safety Harrison Smith, and you have a defense good enough to carry a team into January.
RB Adrian Peterson
BRACE HEMMELGARN/USA TODAY SPORTS