Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Today it's the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings made the playoffs just two years ago. So why do they look like such a lost cause now? Their problems run deeper than their Pea Shooter Trio at quarterback. Their secondary collapsed last year, and a defensive line that used disrupt opponent's game plans has grown old and ordinary.
The Vikings primed for their rebuilding program with three first-round picks last year, and Adrian Peterson gives them the best security blanket a rookie quarterback could want. Factor in the new Mike Zimmer brain trust and about $25 million in cap space, and the Vikings have the potential to get better and younger in a hurry.
Problem: Three quarterbacks in search of an arm.
Solution: Derek Carr.
No more scatter-shot scramblers! Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman had the Vikings passing game moving sideways last season. The Vikings averaged 6.7 yards per pass attempt and generated just seven pass plays of 40+ yards, a few of them of the "screen and speed skate through a snowstorm" variety. They need a quarterback with the arm to threaten safeties deep, take the lid off the defense, open some running room for Peterson and give Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson something to do more than 10 yards downfield.
Carr is not a heart-pounding prospect in the Johnny Manziel class, but he has a very good arm, solid mechanics and the background and mindset to start immediately. The Peterson/Jennings/Patterson/Kyle Rudolph skill position toolkit, plus a fairly solid offensive line, will make Carr's transition to the NFL easier. If your beef with Carr is that he is too much like his big brother, David, keep in mind the Vikings are not an expansion team with rookie offensive linemen and Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford as their top receivers. Derek won't have to cope with the shellshock and bad habits that turned his brother into an itinerant backup.
So let Ponder play out his contract as a pesky backup, send Freeman off along the Boulevard of Broken-Spirited Prospects, and let Cassel leave, since he already voided the second year of his contract. Carr provides an instant upgrade and Matt Ryan-level upside. That's great value with the eighth-overall pick, and moving up past all those quarterback-needy teams ahead of the Vikings will be almost impossible.
Problem: The secondary. Oh dear, the secondary.
Solution: Add a little experience.
The Vikings allowed 37 passing touchdowns and recorded just 12 interceptions last year, and half of those interceptions came from linebackers and linemen. The short-version diagnosis: safety Harrison Smith was great until he suffered a foot injury, rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes figured things out late in the year, and just about everyone else was overmatched or out-of-position.
Chris Cook has started 29 career games at cornerback without recording a single interception, which must be a record. Cook is young, tall and toolsy; as a free agent, he will get some "Richard Sherman wannabe" attention on the open market. Restricted free agent Marcus Sherels is a dependable slot corner and return man who is too often asked to cover No. 2 receivers. Safety Jamarca Sanford is another Vikings defensive back with the miraculous ability to start for multiple seasons without intercepting a pass. Sanford is in the final year of an affordable contract and can stick around to help with the transition to Zimmer's system. Josh Robinson and Robert Blanton were a dime corner and practice squader playing safety and slot corner last year.
Penciling in Rhodes at one cornerback position, let's invest some Vikings money in Brent Grimes, who provides an immediate veteran presence and the ability to lock down most No. 1 wide receivers. While we're spending money and adding veterans, Chris Crocker knows Zimmer's schemes as well as anyone but Zimmer and can contribute as a nickel/dime package in-the-box safety, and the 34-year old won't draw a lot of market interest. Aging defensive backs are bad investments for most rebuilding teams, but the Vikings can afford a one- or two-year veteran rental, and they can use some mentors in the secondary.
After rubbing some aloe and lanolin on the pass defense, the Vikings can pan for talent in the later rounds. General manager Rick Spielman is on record stating that he wants to acquire extra picks, possibly by trading down, and Day 3 is a great time to seek developmental safeties and cornerbacks who can be groomed slowly. Rhodes and Smith have the potential to anchor an excellent secondary in the near future. Until then, some experienced hands can steady the ship, provide on-the-job tutoring and stave off a 2013-level disaster.
Problem: An offense with no sense of direction.
Solution: Let Norv be Norv … for a year or so, anyway.
No offensive coordinator in history is better at taking a terrible offense and improving it until it's below average like Norv Turner. That's a jab at the many things Turner does wrong -- his systems are out-of-date, he's essentially been riding a 1990s Cowboys afterglow for 20 years, etc. -- but also an acknowledgement of what he does right.
Turner excels at the nuts-and-bolts development of wide receivers, teaching them the finer points of releasing off the line of scrimmage and making the little moves at the end of a route's stem to separate from a defender. His handiwork can be seen in the careers of Michael Irvin through Josh Gordon, and Patterson will be the next beneficiary. Turner also takes a methodical, detail-oriented approach to quarterback development, which will help Carr or another youngster acquire the best habits for success.
Finally, Turner's game plans may not be full of exotic new ideas, but they are generally coherent and logical. The Vikings appeared frightened to throw the ball 15 yards downfield for most of last year -- Ponder is weak-armed, but not that weak-armed -- until unprepared Josh Freeman, fresh off a plane from Tampa, got a start and inexplicably threw 53 passes. Turner will emphasize Peterson, improve Patterson and put the new quarterback in the best position to develop. Over time, all will be the better for it.
In the long term, the Vikings will also be better off swapping Turner for a more dynamic coordinator. But in 2014, Turner will restore order and provide valuable Offense 101 lessons.
Problem: The cracked, dented, wrinkled Williams Wall.
Solution: Get younger.
Remember the Williams Wall, the Vikings' run-stuffing, pass-rushing front four of the late 2000s? The remnants of it still stood last year, with Kevin Williams and Jared Allen leading a defensive line that no longer forced opponents to alter their game plans but still provided a fair amount of sacks. Williams and Allen are both free agents in their 30s, as is longtime backup Fred Evans. Allowing all three of them to leave should be a no-brainer for a team in rebuilding mode. It may be tempting to keep Allen, but a big-wallet team is likely offer him silly money, and the Vikings should not bust the budget to retain 30-something pass rushers.
Everson Griffen's situation is more complicated. He picked up 5.5 sacks as a situational pass rusher behind Allen and Brian Robison. But Griffen appeared to be on the verge of stardom in 2012, making last season a step backward. The Vikings should put a solid offer in front of Griffen, but they must be ready to say sayonara if a deep-pocketed team bets the house on the toolsy 280-pounder.
Rebuilding the Vikings' wall begins with Robison, a dependable veteran playing under an affordable contract, and Sharrif Floyd, the 23rd pick in last year's draft who flashed potential last season. This is a great draft for acquiring massive nose tackles with a little quickness and intensity in the middle rounds. Day 2 draft picks like 315-pound Will Sutton of Arizona State or 340-pound Justin Ellis of Louisiana Tech can provide hulking, active space eaters to flank Sutton and rotate with incumbent Letroy Guion.
Sacks will be hard to come by if both Allen and Griffen depart. The Vikings have enough cap space to make a run at Greg Hardy, and it would not be a crazy move: Hardy turns 26 before the season, making him a pass rusher at his peak who fits squarely in Allen's shoes. Assuming the Panthers franchise Hardy or make him a Godfather offer, Michael Bennett will be too expensive for the Seahawks to retain but reasonable enough for the Vikings' budget, and their front four will be far younger and far better than it was last season. It won't be the Williams Wall of yesteryear, but it will be affordable and competitive, and it will get the Vikings moving in the right direction.