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Five Critical Questions Facing the Minnesota Vikings

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Also, check out the five critical questions facing the Arizona CardinalsCincinnati BengalsSan Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.

The Vikings came on strong as last season progressed, posting a winning record over the final 10 weeks (5-4). With the development of Teddy Bridgewater and some upgraded personnel (especially on offense), Minnesota is a chic pick to make a playoff push.

What do the Vikings have to accomplish to get back into the tournament? It starts with positive answers to the following five questions.

1. Will Bridgewater take the next step? 

The Vikings will go as far as Bridgewater leads them. The Louisville product finished his rookie season on a hot steak; over the final five games, Bridgewater ranked in the top-two in quarterback ranking (103.0), yards per attempt (8.8) and completion percentage (72.1). In that same span, he also ranked in the top-10 in passing touchdowns (eight) and passing yards (1,231).

The hope is that Bridgewater can carry that momentum into his second season. He now has a full season’s worth of experience with Norv Turner, a renowned quarterback teacher, and is light years ahead of where he was at this time last season.

Turner is effusive in his praise of Bridgewater. The former head coach of the Redskins, Raiders and Chargers made headlines earlier this offseason when recalling Bridgewater’s Pro Day, when the quarterback struggled during a drill that required him to throw over raised brooms simulating oncoming pass rushers.

“Someone should take those brooms and shove them up someone’s backside,” Turner told ESPN.com.

That distasteful imagine aside, there are some pretty tasty aspects to Bridgewater’s game, including his accuracy, touch and awareness in the pocket. If he can lean on those tools and develop a few others — such as an increased willingness to take some shots down the field — this Minnesota offense could be special.

2. Will Adrian Peterson return to “All Day” form? 

Perhaps nothing will help Bridgewater take the next step more than the return of Peterson. Turner’s offense is predicated on a lot of play-action and deep drops, so having a running game that defenses must respect is critical.

Defenses will respect Peterson (at least what he does on the field). He is the most physical, determined runner of our generation and a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball. Those both inside and outside the Vikings organization believe Peterson will have a monster year as he looks to silence the critics who spent the last 10 months dragging his name through the mud.

That’s a scary thought for defenders charged with tackling No. 28. Even scarier, Turner plans to use Peterson more as a receiver out of the backfield, which will result in more touches in space.

“With Coach [Norv] Turner’s offense, there’s so much that he throws out there,” Peterson said. “So I’ll be more involved in the pass game, being out wide and presenting myself for a check-down.”

3. Can Cordarrelle Patterson get back on track?

When the Vikings hope for Bridewater to take the next step, what they’re really hoping is that he doesn’t “pull a Patterson.” The 2013 first-round pick from Tennessee took a step back last season, finishing with just 33 catches for 384 yards and one touchdown.

Especially troubling is the fact that Minnesota’s offense didn’t take off until the team benched Patterson in favor of Charles Johnson, who came over from Cleveland’s practice squad and moved into the starting lineup for the final six games. During those six games, Bridgewater threw 10 touchdowns against just six interceptions and completed 68.9 percent of his passes.

If the Vikings are to revive Patterson’s career, they need to find a way to get his big-play ability onto the field without sapping the offense of its rhythm and efficiency. If Patterson can improve his route running, he will have a chance to join Johnson and Mike Wallace in three-receiver sets. If not, he may fall out of the rotation altogether in favor of Jarius Wright.

“Cordarrelle is doing a good job in this offseason,” head coach Mike Zimmer said back in May. “He has been in better shape and he is doing a better job of running routes, of competing each and every down. I look forward to him coming on and I’m a big fan of his. We’re just trying to get him to realize all the little intricacies you have to do offensively in the NFL in order to be a great player.”

4. Will the offensive line hold up? 

Matt Kalil was a disaster last season, giving up 13.75 sacks and getting called for 10 penalties. He blamed much of those struggles on his chronic knee pain, which forced him to undergo surgery earlier this offseason. The hope is that he will remain healthy and bounce back, but he has a lot to prove.

There is movement elsewhere on the offensive line. The team’s top guard from last season, Brandon Fusco, is moving from the right side to the left. Into his old spot steps rookie fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings, a tackle at Pittsburgh who the Vikings plan to start on the interior.

The hope is that Kalil benefits from playing next to the more productive Fusco, while Clemmings gains by remaining on his familiar right side of the line. However, if Kalil fails to improve drastically, Clemmings may ultimately move to left tackle. That would force Fusco back to right guard and open up a competition at left guard between recent draftees David Yankey, Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd.

That much movement is not good for a unit that relies heavily on chemistry. The key is for Minnesota’s projected starting five to step up and stop that ferris wheel before it starts spinning.

5. Who will start next to Harrison Smith?

There are a lot of options for this opening, which means there is no one truly deserving of the position.

Robert Blanton won the starting job by default last summer and started the first 13 games. He was eventually replaced by Andrew Sendejo, although it is clear both players are better suited for reserve roles.

Minnesota added two safeties this offseason — veteran Taylor Mays and undrafted rookie Anthony Harris — although both of them appear more likely to carve out roles in various sub packages than to win a starting position outright.

So, who then? Keep an eye on Antone Exum, a 2014 sixth-round pick who spent his rookie season making the switch from cornerback to safety. The Vikings love to use converted cornerbacks at safety because of Zimmer’s tendency to ask his safeties to cover slot receivers.

“We’re very excited also about the progress [Exum] has made,” GM Rick Spielman told the Star Tribube. “Also with Blanton and Sendejo, I think we know what those guys are. But you know Exum is someone were definitely going to be keeping a close eye on and see how well he comes along from last year, but [he’s a] very talented athlete.”

If Exum steps up and claims the starting job, all the better for Minnesota’s defense. If not, this may turn into a “safety by committee” situation.

What do you expect from the Vikings? Discuss with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.