Super Bowl 50 is in the books and now the 2015 season is officially in the rear view mirror. That means it's time to look ahead to what's in store for 2016.
After an 11-5 season and NFC North championship in 2015, the Vikings figure to be a team on a lot of people's watch lists this offseason. To get you primed for what's ahead as GM Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer continue building a talented roster, we've come up with 10 questions about the Vikings that may (or may not) be looked at this offseason.
1. Who will be the favorite in the NFC North?
The Vikings claimed NFC North supremacy in 2015, defeating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 to put an exclamation point on their effort to do so. But will the 2015 season alone be enough to convince everyone that the road to the NFC North goes through Minnesota in 2016? Or will everyone still point to the Packers when projecting which team will be on top in 2016? Are the Vikings now the hunted? Or are they still the hunters? All of that will unfold as the offseason progresses.
2. How does the offense get more explosive in the passing game?
The Vikings offense did a lot of good things in 2015. They were fourth in rushing, had the fourth-fewest turnovers, had the fewest drives without a 1st down/TD and had the fewest penalties. One area where the team can improve, though, is in explosive plays. The Vikings ranked 18th in yards per pass attempt (7.15) and 31st in both passing plays of 10+ yards (131) and passing TDs (14). Granted, the Vikings also ranked last in passing attempts (454), so it's unfair to expect the passing production to match that of other teams when Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass so few times. Improving the passing attack is a responsibility that will fall at the feet of many, from Bridgewater to the pass catchers to the offensive line. But don't be surprised if improving pass protection, to allow more big plays to develop, is a storyline surrounding the Vikings in the 2016 offseason.
3. Will the Vikings splash in free agency?
The Vikings tend to be prudent in free agency, choosing instead to rely on the draft as the primary way to supply the roster with talent. But Spielman, his staff and the coaching staff have been shrewd in free agency of late, with CBs Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman along with DTs Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph among important pieces who've been added. With the Vikings coming off an 11-5 season but losing in the Wild Card round, perhaps a significant free agent signing can help the team get over the top in the NFC.
4. Who will be re-signed?
An important part of free agency is re-signing your own players. The Vikings have 14 players scheduled to become free agents on March 9, a list that includes regular contributors such as TE Rhett Ellison, LB Chad Greenway, OL Mike Harris, CB Terence Newman and S Andrew Sendejo. With the roster limit expanded to 90 players in the offseason, teams typically prefer to re-sign as many players as they can, and it wouldn't surprise to see the Vikings stick to that philosophy with this year's group.
5. Who will the Vikings draft?
The 2015 draft class produced significant contributions, and now Spielman and his staff are poised for an encore in 2016. The Vikings hold the No. 23 pick in the first round this year, plus one pick in each of rounds 2-6 and two selections in the seventh round. Speculation will run rampant between now and the 2016 NFL Draft (April 28-30), and that includes our latest scan of mock drafts across the internet – Mock Madness 2.0.
6. Will there be any restructures?
As circumstances such as player performance and team cap space change, it's common for teams and players to restructure contracts to preserve a union while also giving the team cap flexibility.
7. Who is up for a breakout season in 2016?
The Vikings roster is chock-full of first- and second-year players who appear poised for breakout seasons in 2016. DE Danielle Hunter was steady as a rookie and finished the season ranked second among all NFL rookies with 6.0 sacks; he also had 10 tackles for loss. Increased playing time for Hunter could lead to an even splashier sophomore season. First-round pick Trae Waynes wasn't asked to play a lot on defense as a rookie, but he did lead the Vikings in special teams tackles and may be in line for more playing time (and production) on defense in 2016. On offense, perhaps RB Jerick McKinnon could continue to see more touches as Adrian Peterson's complement, and it'll be interesting to see how TE MyCole Pruitt progresses in his second offseason under offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
8. What will a full offseason of training do for Anthony Barr?
In two seasons, Anthony Barr has quickly become one of the more dynamic defenders in the NFL.* *What's even more impressive is he's done it despite being limited during both of his offseasons. UCLA's late graduation date delayed Barr's start to the offseason program as a rookie, and then an injury held him back last offseason. This year, Barr will attack his offseason training and the Vikings offseason program fully healthy and ready to build upon what has been an impressive first two seasons.
9. When and against whom will the Vikings open their new stadium?
The Vikings will open U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016. All eyes will be on the schedule release this spring to see in what week and against whom the Vikings will open their new venue. The Vikings have been on the road for seven of the last eight season openers, but don't be surprised if it's a Week 2 or Week 3 prime time game against a division rival (Green Bay?) or a high-profile non-division opponent (Dallas?)
10. Which players stand to benefit the most from the new stadium?
Those who rely on accuracy and/or those who possess elite speed figure to benefit the most from moving into U.S. Bank Stadium. Bridgewater has started four games in a dome, and in those games he's a 72.1% passer with a per-attempt average of 8.14 and a passer rating of 96.7 – all of which are above his career averages. K Blair Walsh has made 87.3% (55 of 63) of his kicks indoors since 2012 and he'll benefit from the controlled environment inside U.S. Bank Stadium. As for speedsters who could benefit from the fast tract, the Vikings have plenty. LB Anthony Barr, Hunter and Waynes figure to benefit on defense, while McKinnon's potential breakout season could be enhanced and defenders will surely not enjoy trying to track down Stefon Diggs on the fast surface.