Every year, NFL analysts embark on a quest to find the ultimate sleeper team – a squad ascending toward Super Bowl contention while still remaining ever-so-slightly off the radar. The prevailing sentiment this offseason was that the Minnesota Vikings were poised to be that team, coming off a season in which they surprisingly went 11-5 and wrestled the NFC North crown away from the Green Bay Packers.
At least until their franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season after sustaining a severe knee injury during a non-contact drill in practice last week.
Bridgewater’s injury – in a league devoid of quality replacements at the position – seemed like the deciding blow to any realistic Super Bowl aspirations, at least to most people on the outside. But those within the organization were not so willing to let a promising season slip away before it even got started.
When it appeared like the Vikings were content with going into the season with 36-year-old journeyman Shaun Hill under center, news broke on Saturday (Sept. 3) that the team traded a 2017 first-round draft pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford.
Draft picks are prized commodities in the NFL, and Minnesota’s willingness to part ways with quality picks for an average quarterback is definitely a gamble, but indicative of a team that believes it is in contention for the Lombardi trophy this season. But are they really Super Bowl contenders?
It doesn’t appear that way. Maybe next year.
That being said, it is easy to pinpoint why they were willing to pull the trigger on a deal for Bradford. He’s an upgrade over Hill and won’t be asked to throw the ball 35-40 times a game. Even when Bridgewater was healthy last year, the Vikings relied heavily on their running game with Adrian Peterson and a young defense.
We’ve seen teams throughout history use a similar formula to achieve NFL immortality, with the 1985 Chicago Bears, 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Buccaneers immediately springing to mind. More recently, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and 2015 Denver Broncos reached the pinnacle of the sport without gaudy production from their signal callers, as well.
But the common thread between those teams were historically great defenses. And while Minnesota’s defense is trending in the right direction – with rising stars such as linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Everson Griffen – it’s a unit that has yet to prove its dominance.
Last season, Minnesota’s defense allowed an average of 234.9 yards per game through the air and 109.3 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 13th and 17th in the league, respectively. Those numbers clearly indicate that opposing teams had success moving the ball down the field. However, they did manage to hold teams to just 18.9 points per game (fifth), which is obviously the primary goal of any defense. But the offense deserves some credit for that ranking, as it averaged a possesion time of 2:50 per drive (fifth), keeping opposing offenses off the field and limiting their chances of putting points on the board.
And speaking of the offense, the Vikings are too reliant on Peterson at times. Peterson is an all-time great at his position, but expecting a 31-year-old running back to power the offense over a 16-game season is unrealistic, even if he is part cyborg.
To their credit, they drafted wide receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round of this year’s draft as another receiving option alongside Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. The trio has potential to be good, but will they be enough to stop opponents from crowding the line of scrimmage to slow down Peterson? Doubt it.
Ultimately, the Vikings have the feel of a team that needs everything to work in their favor to make a deep run. And with a season-ending injury to their starting quarterback before the first game, things have already gotten off to a tumultuous start.
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